Originally published October 1, 2008.
Don't let the indie music coming over the speakers at the Spicewood Vineyards tasting fool you. Ronald Yates is as serious about wine as he is about music.
The 29-year-old who co-owns High Wire Music in Austin bought the winery last year from Ed and Madeleine Manigold, who first planted grapes there in 1992. With the help of the equally energetic winemaker Jeff Ivy, Yates plans to do with winemaking what he has been doing with music for the past five years - bring something new to people and introduce new people to it.
Yates grew up not far from the Spicewood area in Horseshoe Bay and graduated from the University of Texas in 2001. During law school at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Yates helped start High Wire Music. Yates finished law school, but he knew he didn't want to be an attorney. Instead, he devoted himself to music
marketing, management and distribution with High Wire. Most of the company's bands are in Los Angeles and New York, but two of the biggest names it lends a hand to - Daniel Johnston, the brilliant but troubled singer-songwriter profiled in a 2005 documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," and Grupo Fantasma - have deep roots in Austin.
Yates has his own roots in Hill Country winemaking. His parents are cousins of Susan and Ed Auler, the couple credited with bringing winemaking to Central Texas decades ago when they started Fall Creek Vineyards, which is where Yates grew up picking grapes.
Yates' relationship with wine deepened when he spent four summers in Spain while he was in college. "That's when I really started paying attention," he says, but it was more than just learning about tempranillo and rioja. He recalls sitting around with one of the families he lived with and feeling for the first time the community and camaraderie that food and wine create.
"I thought about wine as a drink that was snooty," he says. "I didn't understand it. I didn't get the flavors and the nuances. I thought it was above me."
Back in the U.S., he took trips to California's Napa and Sonoma valleys and read wine books. Susan Auler said she'd buy him grapes if he would grow them.
Yates had been talking about starting a winery with a friend for three or four years when, one day in early July 2007, he was driving in the Hill Country en route to get more advice from Susan Auler and noticed a for-sale sign. It was for Spicewood Vineyards. He stopped to check it out, talked with the Manigolds and had some wine. The next day, he brought his parents and grandfather to look at the 32-acre property, which includes a tasting room building, the winery and a house where the Manigolds live.
As a member of a long line of Texas ranchers, Yates understands the importance of land and knew he wanted some of his own. Yates, whose great-great grandfather was Ira Yates, a West Texas landowner and oilman whose descendants sold much of the land that is now the Circle C development in Southwest Austin, won't say how much he paid for Spicewood Vineyards.
He says he fired himself from the music company. "The plan was to plant vines and see what happened," he says. "Wait to see if there was a job to go back to." By buying an already established winery, he didn't have to start from the ground up.
But Yates still co-owns the music business and stays abreast of what's going on there. He commutes to the vineyard from his downtown Austin condo every day.
Since Yates took over, he and Ivy have pulled out grapevines including riesling, zinfandel, cabernet franc and alicante and planted more sauvignon blanc, sauvignon musqué, mourvedre, tennet, ruby cabernet and syrah. Ivy says he knows well the latter varieties after spending 10 years in Mendocino and Sonoma counties in California. "Everyone has their own situation and biases," says Ivy, 41, who worked at the Dry Comal Creek winery in New Braunfels for 18 months before joining Yates at Spicewood. "Each site and soil are different. At some point, though, you have to take the leap and go on your own."
The Manigolds helped get Yates and Ivy ready for their first harvest at Spicewood. They answered questions about what worked and what didn't in the 15 years they worked the land. (The Manigolds' first batch of wine came out in 1995, and by 1997 they had 17 acres planted with grapes and eventually produced between 3,000 and 4,000 cases of wine a year.)
Madeleine Manigold says that any doubts she had about handing over the winery to a relative novice went away quickly. "Once you talk to him, you knew that he was committed and was willing to do whatever it took," she says.
As Yates and Ivy sat outside the tasting room a few weeks ago, enjoying the first taste of a fall morning, the Manigolds drove by in a truck. They will always be part of the vineyard, but it was a retirement project for them, Yates says.
The Manigolds are happy to watch someone else do the work. "We love living out there, and now we get to sit and watch the grapes grow," Madeleine Manigold says.
From their front porch, they also get to see the improvements Yates is making, including renovating the barrel rooms, planting new grape varieties and building an events center.
Ivy and Yates, who met just over a year ago, are ready to cut the apron strings. "The Manigolds have been as incredible as they can be," Yates says. "We've done 80 to 90 percent on our own anyway, but it's been a year. We don't need to use them as a crutch anymore."
"We're just delighted with the work that Ron and his family are doing," Madeleine Manigold says. "They are Hill Country people who are committed to keeping the winery going with the same name and as an estate winery. It's the legacy we left to them."
Yates' cousin Brad Dixon, an Iraq war veteran a few years younger than Yates, manages the vineyards, tending the often finicky grape vines, which makes seven employees total, including two seasonal workers. But often it's Yates pouring for visitors in the tasting room. His dog Elway - named for longtime Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway - greets guests at the door. An elegant piano on a stage and hip tunes from his iPod hint at Yates' love of music, but wine is what he's focused on now. No girlfriend, no long afternoons listening to up-and-coming bands. The winery is on his mind night and day, which means he and Ivy spend a lot of time planning, tweaking and tasting.
"Ron is always interested in what I'm doing," Ivy says. "And besides, I've got 15 years' experience on him," he jokes.
They will bottle the first 2008 wine, a sauvignon blanc, in November or December. In the spring, they'll bottle chardonnay and semillon. Reds won't be ready until the end of summer. "We want everything bottled before next year's harvest," Ivy says.
Ivy and Yates walk between stainless steel drums and wood barrels in the recently renovated cellar barrel room of the main winery building, drawing samples out of the containers to make sure the wine is developing as it should. The red concrete floors, stone walls and nice lighting are begging for barrel tasting tours, one of the many things on Yates' to-do list.
Both Yates and Ivy want more acres and more varieties. "As a winemaker, I want to try small lots of lots of things," Ivy says. They have 16 varieties now and hope to have up to 25 soon. With Yates' love of Spain, it's no surprise that they are planting Spanish varieties, which do well in Texas' hot, dry climate.
But Ivy knows that Texas weather means that next year's harvest is anybody's guess. "There are polar extremes from one vintage to the next," he says.
"This has been a good year for us to start," Yates says. "It's been a very manageable harvest." By manageable he means small, but that's OK, he says. It gives them time to get their bearings and focus on the direction they want the winery to go.
Ivy, clad in a Nirvana T-shirt, and Yates, with his shoulder-length hair and boyish grin, know they aren't necessarily what people expect when they visit a Hill Country winery. They want to provide that experience - the sweeping vistas, the sweet rosés, the afternoon tastings - but they want to take it to another level. "We want to shift the paradigm," Yates says.
Ivy says they won't ever get out of cabernet or chardonnay grapes what wineries in cooler climates do. He says he wants to get away from relying on those varietals by trying new grapes, new blends.
Yates says he thinks Austinites are open to that. He says the rapid growth and demographic changes going on in Austin aren't necessarily being felt in the Hill Country wine world. "I think Austinites are willing to try new stuff," Yates says.
Only about 35 percent of the capital improvements on the facilities and buildings at Spicewood are done yet, Yates says. The big tasting room, which attracts up to 200 visitors on a weekend day, will be a site for weddings, live music and other events Yates wants to host. "I definitely want to involve the music side of what I do more," he says.
But as he found out in Spain, it's not just the music or the beautiful countryside or even how many types of wine he offers. It's about the experience. "We want to be known for good wines and a comfortable atmosphere," Yates says. "We want to avoid pretentiousness and make everyone feel welcome."
Tasting room hours: Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
1419 Burnet County Road 409 (off Texas 71 just west of the Spicewood community)