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Raising the bar

At Pedernales Cellars, a drive to make Texas wine without compromise

Ed Crowell

Originally published October 7, 2009.

STONEWALL - An unmarked white semi truck turns off U.S. 290 and pulls to the top of a scenic, oak-studded hill. It's a hot Saturday morning in August, and the truck's delicate cargo is eagerly awaited by a half-dozen people.

Forklifts stand by. It's the first "crush" day of the season and the truck has brought 10 tons of grapes hand-picked the day before in Deming, N.M, 100 miles northwest of El Paso. Clinging to green stems, the tight clusters of glistening tempranillo grapes taste sweet, and the sugar content is rising hour by hour.

David Kuhlken is pleased. The grapes he will transform into wine arrived properly plump, unbroken and still cool from the harvest in half-ton plastic bins. He paws through the clusters and dispenses with a hitchhiking spider before tasting a few of the small purple orbs and noting how much sweeter these are than common table grapes. "My kids love to eat them this way, too," he says as he offers a taste.

The forklifts begin carrying Pedernales Cellars' raw material to a stainless steel crushing machine wheeled out of the winery's human-created cave. The 4,000-square-foot room, cooled by geothermal wells, holds fermenting tanks and oak barrels aging the previous season's varietals and blends.

As the crusher's auger begins turning and removing the cluster stems, Kuhlken notices a needed adjustment. Wrenches come out, and he and a couple of workers wrestle with the equipment. Winemaking is about equal parts mechanical devices, fermenting chemistry and, of course, the agriculture prowess required to select and grow grapes.

The Kuhlken family's winery is a newbie in the area. The tasting room opened in December, after Kuhlken spent three years learning to make wine. But already Pedernales Cellars is at the top of its game, producing wines poised to win many fans and competition medals. With practice at nearby Texas Hills Vineyard and luring respected veteran Jim Brown from Becker Vineyards as general manager, the Kuhlkens quickly put nose to glass.

Not that they were strangers to grapes. David Kuhlken's father, Larry Kuhlken, has been growing them since 1994 at his ranch north of Fredericksburg and selling to area wineries.

Fredrik Osterberg, David Kuhlken's brother-in-law and business manager for the winery, says Pedernales Cellars adopted a clear mission: Spend the money necessary to make excellent wines, even if that required higher price tags than generally found on Texas wines. "Everything we do is focused on higher-quality wines. It's how we designed the production building for very stable temperatures, why we bought a basket press, which costs five times as much as the bladder press most everyone else uses." The basket press allows fine tuning so seeds do not break open and release too much tannin into the wine.

"When we opened the tasting room, a prominent figure in the Texas wine industry came up to me and said, " Nobody is going to pay $49 for a bottle of wine from Texas. It's not going to happen.

"Year to date that wine, our Family Reserve, is our No. 1 seller. Every time I see him I remind him of what he told me."

David Kuhlken notes that small-batch production, with hand-picked grapes and oak-barrel aging for all the reds, has helped set Pedernales Cellars apart. This boutique approach works, he says, because "Texas winery visitors are sufficiently critical now and know what they're looking for."

Nine wines are sold at the winery. A few restaurants in Austin and Fredericksburg carry some of the wines on their lists, and the Kuhlkens hope to soon place bottles in specialty store outlets. But don't expect to see the wines in H-E-B. Production this year will be about 3,500 cases (Becker, by comparison, bottles more than 70,000 cases).

Pedernales Cellars' standouts include:

* A crisp viognier ($16) showcasing floral notes.

* An earthy tempranillo ($29).

* The exquisite Family Reserve ($49), a deeply flavored red blend with tempranillo dominance that is the pride of the Kuhlkens.

An Austin restaurant familiar with the label is Mizu Prime Steak and Sushi, near Lakeway. Brian Phillips, the general manager and sommelier who previously was wine director at the Driskill Grill, says he first came across Pedernales Cellars wine in a blind tasting at the Driskill. "I really liked the style of the tempranillo."

Mizu carries about 100 wines, with the only Texas offerings being the Pedernales Cellars tempranillo and a white from Inwood Estates in North Texas. "I like to find something surprising for customers, and this tempranillo is soft compared to some other Texas tempranillos that are jammy and syrupy." He says the wine "pairs nicely with our steaks, which come with a veal reduction sauce that gives them a little gamey, earthy flavor. The tempranillo picks up those qualities."

All in the family

The Kuhlkens' introduction to the wine business happened in the early 1990s when Larry Kuhlken retired in Dallas after a long career with IBM and decided to buy a ranch, where he'd raise some cattle. He bought acreage just north of Fredericksburg and settled in.

Around then he was encouraged by friends who own a vineyard in Washington state to consider growing grapes. "If you're going to look for a second life, do it," the friends told Larry Kuhlken and his wife, Jeanine . "There's a lot going on in Texas."

Kuhlken planted five acres and, after several years of vine development, began selling the grapes. David Kuhlken and his sister Julie helped out in the fields and learned about the ups and inevitable downs of maintaining vines through finicky winters, summers and everything in between. Today the vineyard totals 17 acres of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and garnacha used in Pedernales Cellars' wines, supplemented with grapes from other growers.

The expensive venture of actually making and selling wine wasn't in the plans for the family until David Kuhlken decided during the 2000 tech bust to try something other than software development. He enrolled in an MBA program at the University of Texas and aimed at starting his own business. Eventually the idea of producing wine from the family vineyard took hold, and he signed up for a viticulture extension program from the University of California-Davis.

David Kuhlken, 37, persuaded his brother-in-law Fredrik Osterberg , 34, to join him in the wine business in 2005. At the time Osterberg, a native of Sweden, was living in London and working in the banking industry.

The two hired a consultant for the startup and tapped the wisdom of Gary Gilstrap, who has bottled at his Texas Hills Vineyard near Johnson City for 10 years. Gilstrap had provided similar help and rented use of his winemaking equipment for Alamosa and Flat Creek Estate vineyards when those two operations began.

Pedernales Cellars "has done everything right," says Gilstrap. "I'm impressed with some of their wines." He said the Family Reserve is "excellent," but he also sees a need for lower-priced wines. "These kids always have to learn where the price points are."

One of the first lessons from Gilstrap, who has a pharmacy and chemistry background, was about the importance of maintaining clean equipment and working space. "Everything has to be kept really clean or bacteria is going to jump in there and eat your lunch. "

The Kuhlkens bought hilltop property on the popular wineries corridor between Austin and Fredericksburg for their winery. It offered views of grazing cattle and wildflowers and was next to the well-known Rose Hill Manor bed-and-breakfast and restaurant. They rebuilt a house already on the site for a tasting room and dug into the hillside behind it to create an underground production room.

It all made dad Larry very happy. "It was a big surprise to us when David and Fredrik said they wanted to build a winery. You always hope (a family business) could come together."

Working the winery

On this summer Saturday, a reunion of family and friends takes place amid the grape crush and the usual tasting room activities. Larry Kuhlken's 70th birthday has brought them together, and a barbecue rig arrives to start smoking meat for the night's reunion cookout. With wine, of course.

As David Kuhlken oversees unloading of the grapes and the beginning of the crush, he explains how the juice is moved from the crusher to fermenting tanks and tested repeatedly. Then the wine, still containing skins and seeds, is pressed before it goes into barrels. The three- to four-week process will be repeated several times with other grape batches from August to October.

The timing of it all depends on when the grapes reach their peak for harvesting. And pesky weather variables determine that.

David says this summer's many 100-plus days did not hurt area crops, nor did the drought. The tougher challenge for the new winery came with late-winter freezes, which killed young buds on the vine or reduced the size of harvests.

Inside the tasting room, a bride-to-be and her girlfriends arrive in full party mode with a limo waiting outside for their next winery stop. They enjoy the early attention of the pouring staff before other visitors come to belly up to the bar.

Photos of the vineyard and of Kuhlken and Osterberg family members hang on the walls of the spacious and sleek tasting room, courtesy of David Kuhlken's wife Heather, a professional photographer. Both families live in Austin, and David Kuhlken and Osterberg commute daily to the winery.

The Pedernales Cellars label is distinctively elegant, designed by Osterberg's wife, Julie. She has taught aesthetics, and it shows in the label's gold embossing and the tiny copper-colored lone star with a single grape leaf. No bluebonnets or longhorns here.

As the Kuhlken clan poses for reunion photos in the cellar amid stacks of wine barrels, the pride in Larry Kuhlken's face is evident. He eyes his gathered grandchildren and smiles at the notion that the next generation of Pedernales Cellars winemakers is among them.

Pedernales Cellars

Where: 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall. 830-644-2037, pedernalescellars.com .

Tasting room hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m to 6 p.m Friday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday