When a couple of Emmer & Rye staff members visited William Chris Vineyards’ picturesque winery in the Texas Hill Country to select the wine that is now available exclusively at the Rainey Street restaurant, no one expected what they’d end up choosing.
William Chris has become known for red wines made from rustic, full-bodied grapes like mourvèdre and tannat, as well as lighter, fresher varietals like cinsault and sangiovese. In fact, the local producer is the second largest producer of mourvèdre in the U.S. But none of them is the wine that Emmer & Rye general manager Alicia Schmidt and assistant general manager Anna Shaw picked as the winner at a barrel tasting.
Ultimately, after sampling more than 30 aging wines straight from their barrels, the managers went with William Chris’ 2017 Touriga Nacional. Available in bottles and by the glass at Emmer & Rye now, it’s the venerated restaurant’s latest collaboration with a craft-level alcoholic beverage producer.
In 2018, Emmer & Rye teamed up with Shacksbury Cider to release a canned foraged cider that was also sold only at the eatery. Schmidt has now had a prominent hand in both offerings.
"I liked the touriga because as you can smell, it has a very herbaceous and spicy quality that I think makes it stand out against other bold red varietals," she says. "It combines some of what I like from (the Iberian grape) mencia’s aromatics — herbaceous, spicy, incense-y, herbal craziness — but sort of with the body and weight and texture of a bolder red wine."
She became friends with William Chris’ director of education, D Thompson, a couple of years ago when he’d had dinner at Emmer & Rye. The seed to collaborate with the winery on a one-off wine was planted in January last year when she and her boyfriend visited Thompson at William Chris on a mini-vacation to Fredericksburg.
As the wine buyer for Emmer & Rye, Schmidt is well aware that Texas wines don’t always get their due on restaurant wine lists. This project, she says, gives a particularly lauded Hill Country winery the spotlight for a few months, allowing customers who may have never had Texas wine the opportunity to try it by the glass — and then maybe order the whole bottle.
Most Texas wines don’t tend to be served by the glass because of their cost or quantity, and Thompson thinks the 2017 Touriga Nacional will help to educate potential new consumers about Texas wine at large.
"We’ve all been there, right?" Thompson says. "’Oh, I’ve never heard of that grape’ or ’I’ve never had wine from that region. Can you pour me a little splash?’ And if it’s by the glass, it’s easier to do. I just think that really opens the door for Texas wine in general but this one for sure."
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In addition to choosing Emmer & Rye’s collaboration wine, Schmidt and Shaw were also part of the bottling process. Normally, William Chris uses an automated bottling system, but they and a couple other Emmer & Rye employees did it all by hand, hand-corking each bottle in the 21 cases and physically placing on the labels. (All the crooked ones are probably Schmidt’s doing, she jokes.)
Being temporarily part of the winemaking process gave Schmidt, a sommelier, a whole new appreciation for what goes into the creation of some of her favorite varietals.
"It was eye-opening to experience what it was like to take a wine from a barrel to bottling and see how it developed in that time," she says. "And also to feel one-one-thousandth of the anxiety that an actual winemaker feels — ’OK, I hope it’s still good, oh, it’s still good, OK, next step, yes, we did it!’ — it gave me a lot of empathy for what it’s like to have your entire livelihood depend on this precious liquid."
Touriga nacional is not only an uncommon wine for William Chris to work with, but the bold, full-bodied grape from Portugal is also typically blended with other varietals. It’s often used to make port wine. Featuring it as a single-varietal wine the way that Emmer & Rye decided to do is an unusual move, but Thompson says the Texas winery has embraced it.
"I was secretly really excited (when they chose it) because even though it’s not part of our mainstream production, it’s something that I think has a really bright future here in Texas," he says.