Emerging wineries aim to put Davis Mountains on the map as Texas’ premiere grape growing region

Lasya Dulla harvests grapes at Blue Mountain Trail Vineyard for the Chateau Wright wine label in Fort Davis. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY— Maura and Dan Sharp knew they made the right decision to purchase the old vineyard at Blue Mountain when they first tasted a bottle of red wine produced years earlier on the land. The wine, made by Mamie “Nell” Weisbach, was nearly impossible to come by since wine had not been produced on the property since the early 2000s, but Weisbach’s son had a small stash of bottles in his garage he’d sent the Sharps, not thinking they intended to drink it. 

“The wines were phenomenal. They still had freshness and acidity, they definitely were an aged wine,” said Maura. “Everything was all integrated, like the fruit and the acidity, all of these earthy flavors. Like a stew that cooks on the stove all day, it all becomes one better than the sum of its parts.” 

In its heyday, Blue Mountain Winery had a cult following, and now the Sharps understood why. 

“I can’t explain to you the relief I felt when I tasted the wine. Because we basically bet the farm on this,” Dan laughs. 

The Sharps, having done their research on grape growing in Texas, were on the hunt for a property in the Davis Mountains region in 2018 when their broker casually mentioned the old Blue Mountain Vineyard was for sale. Not yet on the market, they went by to check out the 1,000 acre spread — where the old vineyard languished long dead, its twisted vines no longer bearing fruit — and decided to put an offer on the land. 

They cashed out their 401ks, wrote up a business plan and presented their best offer to the descendants of Weisbach. It was accepted. From there, they set out to live full time on the property and start cultivating a world-class vineyard. They are in good company; the area seems to be experiencing a renaissance as of late, said Maura, and is gaining a wider reputation as a bonafide grape-growing region. 

“We know of other people looking to grow grapes out here, or who are getting started in the early phases of their projects. I’m proud of what we do, but I’m proud of the whole region. I think we have a ton of potential to continue to grow this industry out here. It feels, even though people have been doing it out here for a long time commercially, it feels like a bit of a resurgence lately and there’s a lot of energy around it,” said Maura. 

Winemaking on the Sharp’s property dates back to the ‘70s when a woman named Gretchen Glasscock researched extensively and discovered the Davis Mountains, with its nutrient rich, volcanic soil and cool summers, would be the ideal place to grow grapes in Texas. 

The Davis Mountains became a designated American Viticultural Area (AVA), one of eight grape-growing regions in Texas, officially in 1998. Three vineyards now nest in the southern foothills of the Davis Mountains. The area receives cooler temperatures and more rainfall than the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert, and elevations range from 4,500 to 8,300 feet above sea level. The AVA label symbolizes the quality, reputation and distinguishing features of grapes grown within the region. In order for a specific AVA to be mentioned on the label, 85% of the wine must be from grapes grown in the region. This distinction allows wine makers to designate the AVA on their bottle — like Sonoma, Willamette Valley and Napa Valley. Maura said despite the AVA distinction, all wines from the Davis Mountains will taste differently, a quality in wine referred to as “terroir.”

The pair chose to plant their vineyard at the foothills of Blue Mountain, a different site than the previous vineyard. Their vines, exclusively cabernet sauvignon, extend 2.5 acres with the intent to eventually occupy 10 acres.  

“One of the most important things in grape growing, and why I think Davis Mountains AVA has so much potential for really exceptional world class wine, is because we do have that big shift in temperature between day and night,” said Maura. “The cool temperatures at night are the recovery for the vines. They’re working really hard all day growing, putting their energy into fruit when it’s a fruit bearing season, and going through their growth cycle. At night they need to chill out and recover.”

The Sharps, with the exception of their vineyard weather station, have kept operations manual and low tech in an effort to spend as much time as possible with the vines. They pull pests from vines by hand, do not use herbicides, and cultivate native plants. Unlike some wines which are chemically manipulated, the Sharps aim to produce a truly minimal intervention wine. As the popular saying in winemaking goes, “the best fertilizer for a vineyard is the grape grower’s footsteps.” 

Conservation is top of mind for the Sharps — they intend to plant only 1% of their land and leave the rest for the native wildlife. They’ve partnered with Borderlands Research Institute to study the Montezuma quail on their property, and have been working with a Sul Ross range management student in the vineyard. They hope to continue to share their space with students to help educate them on conservation and sustainable agriculture. In keeping with the belief that all labor on a vineyard is skilled labor, the couple intends to hire full-time employees eventually to help run the business.

September and October were busy months at The Vineyard at Blue Mountain. Although their grapes will not be ready for a real commercial harvest for at least another year, the duo chose to do an experimental harvest. They also installed hail netting to help protect vines from severe weather and hungry birds. The couple, in addition to their roles on the ranch, both work day jobs as lawyers. 

“This was a hard season. We were tired a lot. Just to get out of bed on a weekend, when you really want to have a weekend, but you can’t because the vines need attention. That motivates you, because you need to go do that thing, because it’s going to show up in the wine one day when you finally make it in the winery,” said Maura. 

They have plans to renovate the preexisting winery on their property, which will have a separate name from the vineyard and involve their winemaking partner Ben Calais of Calais Winery and French Connection Wine, both located in Hye, Texas. They will operate a “true estate winery,” meaning they will not sell their grapes or buy from other vendors, and will offer private tastings. Their first release will likely not be until 2023; Maura jokes that by the time her 17-year-old niece graduates from college, she’ll have a bottle to celebrate. In order to give back to the community, they hope to partner with other grape growers to produce a Big Bend region charity wine. 

One of the Sharp’s neighbors in the Davis Mountains AVA is Chateau Wright, which operates Jack Rabbit Winery and Blue Mountain Trail Vineyard, established in 2012. Adam White, co-owner, agreed interest in the locale has recently gained momentum.

“I think a lot of people are getting excited about it. You can see there’s several new vineyards going in. It’s been really a beautiful thing for me to see, because I really want a lot more going on in the area. It’s never going to be Napa Valley or anything like that, but it could be the area where most noteworthy wines in Texas are produced or at least where the grapes are farmed,” said White. 

Tempranillo, grenache and cabernet sauvignon grape varieties fill the rows of the 16-acre vineyard. Elsewhere on the property lies a winery, a tasting patio that doubles as a crush pad for grapes, accommodations for visiting laborers and a food truck. Due to the tight labor market locally, Chateau Wright frequently hosts paid workers from websites like WWOOF and Workaway who stay on the property and work the harvests. 

White said he most identifies with regenerative farming practices and the area has allowed for them to run an almost all-organic program. Chateau Wright purchases Malbec grapes from local grape grower Bobby Roberts and sells the lion’s share of their cabernet sauvignon grapes to Calais, the Sharps’ winemaking partner and Hye vineyard operator. They bottle and sell a range of wine from rosés to rieslings. They try to keep their wine accessible and fair priced, said White. 

“We’re not big fans of the idea that an average person can’t afford to buy a bottle and enjoy it,” said White. 

Wine is made on site at the winery, which recently opened to the public at the start of the pandemic and is now solely hosting outdoor tastings. They see repeat local visitors and hope to keep a casual, fun environment, said White. 

“We’re pretty laid back in how we do our tastings,” said White. “We’re not trying to be fancy, we just want to offer you a good glass of wine and have you enjoy it without any stress.” 

Just up the road from Chateau Wright, and next to the Sharps, another burgeoning vineyard is putting down roots in the Davis Mountains AVA. Ricky Taylor, who runs Alta Marfa with wife Katie Jablonski, purchased 30 acres in 2016 and began experimenting with grape growing techniques and varieties. Taylor did not have a formal background in winemaking nor grape growing, but wanted to utilize his can-do spirit to start a venture that would allow him to work for himself and spend more time outdoors. During the pandemic, Taylor quit his office job in Houston and moved to the area full-time with Jablonski to focus on making Alta Marfa a reality. 

After a few failed attempts to establish a winery in the region, Taylor finally secured a space in Marfa he plans to open to the public by the end of 2021. They are still in the process of defining the winery space, but it will likely be open by appointment for tastings, with potential to grow to include events and food. 

At their vineyard in the Davis Mountains, Taylor has three acres of vines planted, including many Portuguese red varieties. Alta Marfa’s vineyard will develop for another two to six years before Taylor will use grapes produced there to make wine.

Despite Texas’ climate variation and abundance of vineyards, Taylor said he was uninspired by wines being made in the state and sought to create a wine-focused, small production enterprise. From visiting Texas wineries, he noticed most were primarily focused on hospitality rather than the wine itself, and many wines being produced were geared toward a predictable American palette. Taylor wanted to make a low alcohol, acid-driven, refreshing wine anyone could appreciate.

“I wanted to make wine that is just delicious whether or not you know about wine,” said Taylor.

Taylor started building an audience via Instagram and the Alta Marfa blog — an honest, amusing diary of their vineyard-planting journey through the years, rich with photographs of wildlife and portraits of baby vines. In addition to the compelling backdrop of Blue Mountain, audiences found it refreshing to see a person making wine versus faceless corporations, he said. 

“Part of the story is me, part of the story is this place. The story is a window, it’s like reality TV. It’s feeling like you’re participating in a weird way,” Taylor said. “Wine has the physical wine that you drink, and it has the story that goes along with it. And you enjoy both of those things.”

Each year Alta Marfa gradually scales up their wine-making efforts. In 2019 they started small by producing 10 cases of wine and selling the product in Austin, Houston and Marfa. In 2020, using grapes they purchased from Noisy Water Vineyards in New Mexico, Taylor produced 250 cases. Most recently, their 2021 batch amounted to 1,500 cases, which will soon move to the new winery space in Marfa. Taylor has been shipping orders all over the country, and will continue to do so while operating a local tasting room. 

Hesitant to prescribe labels to the wine Alta Marfa makes, Taylor said one of his goals for the future is to produce wine with no herbicides or pesticide residue. Designations like “organic” and “natural” come pretty close to what Taylor is trying to achieve, and he hopes to work with others to push the industry forward to more natural processes and products.

Taylor has not disrupted the land by tilling, and preserves native grasses and plants for biodiversity. Unlike the other vineyards which have chosen to trellis their vines, Taylor opted to grow his vines on metal T posts which go into the ground with relative ease and withstand harsh weather. 

“What works in California, or in Oregon, or in France, a lot of things apply here, but a lot of things do not. In order to do it at a very high level, whoever you are, you’re just gonna have to trial and error, because sometimes you have to do what makes sense here. And that’s going to be just a little different than anywhere else,” said Taylor. 

Because their land in the Davis Mountains is located near residential homes, the couple decided to build a spot for visitors in Marfa, and hopes new developments will also be mindful of their neighbors. Taylor anticipates many more vineyards will populate the Davis Mountains soon, but sees the growth as an opportunity for collaboration. 

“It’s better for all of us if there’s more people, one, because of spreading the word, but also just because it’s nice to have neighbors who are in the same boat as you and you can help each other and share,” Taylor said. “Ten years from now, there’s going to be more than 10 vineyards here. I would bet on it.”