- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

MASON, Texas (AP) - Dan and Jeanie McLaughlin first set foot on a Hill Country vineyard here in early 2012 to learn if they really want to grow grapes.

Through two growing seasons while leasing Robert Clay Vineyards, which includes 15 acres of grapevines on a 51-acre property, they have dealt with pests, freezes, hail, diseased vines and an underperforming harvest.

Despite those hardships, the McLaughlins have fallen in love with the land and now are negotiating to buy it, determined not only to grow grapes but also to start making wine.

“I started from Day 1 knowing that I was going to lose money,” Dan McLaughlin told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1Dyvkc0). “It didn’t take me long to figure out I wouldn’t make money on this size acreage. I’ve got to go (bigger), or I have to open a winery.”

The vineyard has been plagued by problems, but there have been glimpses of hope.

The first harvest was smaller than the McLaughlins had expected. That’s how they discovered bot cankor, a fungus that gets into frozen, cracked vines and reduces grape yield.

They cut back the vines to stumps to try to eradicate the fungus, but that drastic step forfeited the 2013 harvest.

The 2014 harvest in August, however, yielded enough grapes that they could sell 21 tons to Hill Country wineries and still keep 1 ton to experiment with as they begin the process of making wine.

The couple decided to pursue Dan’s childhood fantasy about being a farmer when the long hours he spent working his IT job started taking a toll on his health.

Now, he works two full-time jobs - one in the vineyard, and another as an IT consultant to pay the bills.

Jeanie McLaughlin also is a personal trainer and fitness boot camp instructor, and she works part-time at a floral shop in addition to working in the vineyard.

The vineyard’s sellers, Paul and Nancy Buist, started the operation in 1999, planting chardonnay, merlot and touriga nacional, as well as an experimental area with other varietals.

“When we planted the vineyard, our whole idea was to put in quality grapes, not quantity,” Nancy Buist said.

They admire what the McLaughlins have done to restore the vineyard, but it’s bittersweet for the Buists to think what it could have been if he had not been diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s kind of hard to look at how pretty it is and realize it was that pretty once,” Nancy Buist said as she choked up.

For anyone who’s had a fleeting thought of owning a vineyard, the Buists’ and McLaughlins’ heartbreaks and triumphs illustrate the cyclical nature of agriculture, which requires long hours and hard work in the face of unforeseen obstacles from Mother Nature.

Even with the quality fruit they harvested this year, Dan discovered that many of the vines are diseased despite the cutback last season.

Still, they are committed to growing grapes, and the McLaughlins believe Robert Clay Vineyards is the ideal spot because of its soil and elevation.

McLaughlin’s original plan for the vineyard included 5-, 10- and 15-year goals of learning how to grow grapes, learning how to make wine and opening a winery, respectively.

That plan rapidly accelerated this year when he saw the quality of the fruit and decided to keep 1 ton of the red grapes to experiment with in a facility built quickly during the August harvest.

“I’m just starting to feel out how I’m going to make the wine for next year,” he said. “We’re envisioning taking a slower approach to winemaking, continuing to grow, keep fruit for ourselves, put it in (barrels) to store and age it.”

“I would be able to open my doors with aged wine; a lot of wineries don’t get that opportunity,” he said.

Within 24 hours of harvesting the first red grapes, they converted a small storage room at their house, insulated it and installed a window air-conditioner, three 300-liter tanks, a 30-gallon tank and a new water heater.

“They did all that in one day, so that was Monday,” Jeanie McLaughlin said during the August harvest. “Then, Tuesday, they harvested 1 ton of grapes, brought it home, destemmed it, crushed it and put it in this tank.

Then, the next day they did another ton, and the next day they did another ton.”

She and son Blake, 14, became overnight assistant winemakers.

“Now, I’ve turned into No. 1 taste-tester,” she said.

They are making wine from merlot and syrah, and a blend of touriga nacional and barbera.

While the frenzy of harvest continued, the fermenting grapes needed to be stirred, or punched down, every four hours. After watching his dad check on the grapes one night, Blake supervised his mom the next night.

Jeanie McLaughlin had to stand on a ladder to reach the top of the tanks, which are taller than she is.

Holding a long punch-down tool, she used her muscles from her job in physical fitness to give her leverage to push through the dense nearly 2-foot-thick caps of crushed grape skins that had formed at the tops of the tanks.

Punch-downs basically mix the juice, increasing skin-to-juice contact to extract maximum color and flavor in wine.

“This is why I’ve been working out so much. I’ve got to get this done,” she joked.

When buds broke in March, the McLaughlins raced to finish training the vines. For the first time, they experienced what it was like to have to thin, or drop fruit, to give the vines energy to focus on growing high-quality grapes.

By June, there were full grape clusters beginning to change colors as they went through veraison, or ripening. That signaled it was time to put up the new bird netting to protect the vines from becoming snacks.

Harvest tested them to their limits in August, when the family and a team of volunteers worked for nearly 72 hours straight during the hottest days of the year.

After one night in which they’d worked nearly 24 hours straight, it wasn’t hard to imagine they’d all be passed out in the vineyard the next morning. Instead, at daybreak they were rousing from a quick three-hour nap.

William Hillyer, 20, arrived just in time for harvest. The secondary English education major and aspiring winemaker took a 36-hour bus ride from Indiana to Mason.

“I was sitting in one of my classes, and I realized that I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing anymore, and I was researching how to make wine and vineyards far more than I was doing any of my English homework,” he said.

Much like Dan McLaughlin, Hillyer looked into viticulture schools and programs, but decided to get real-life experience before dedicating more than two years to school.

“What better way to know if you want to do it or not than actually come to a vineyard and get your hands dirty?” he said.

Two days into harvest, and he had already decided he would like winemaking better than vineyard work.

Row after row, the team fought to remove bird netting and clear leaves around the clusters ahead of another team that came through and cut grape clusters from the vine, dropping them in 5-gallon buckets.

As the buckets filled, vineyard assistant Lex Fleming would pick them up and dump them into large bins.

Blake had a knack for closely estimating the weight of the grapes in each picking bin. He accurately guessed one 500-pound bin; on another, he was only off by 20 pounds.

In all, they harvested 22 tons from the chardonnay, merlot, touriga nacional and experimental vineyards, a total that brought in $53,000.

Grapes were purchased by Compass Rose Cellars, Kuhlman Cellars, Pedernales Cellars, Pilot Knob and Sandstone Cellars.

Blake was a little sad to see the grapes leave, but he’s started helping with winemaking, although he doesn’t enjoy it as much as working in the vineyard.

“The winemaking is too much math,” he said.

After an optimistic harvest, Dan McLaughlin noticed in September that several vines looked deficient. Frustrated, he took a chainsaw and chopped down some of them, which revealed the familiar pie-shaped fungus spots caused by bot cankor - one of the reasons the family had cut back the vines in February 2013.

All the vines in the vineyard are sick, but they still are producing fruit.

There was no harvest last year, and the McLaughlins had a dismal first harvest in 2012 after they began managing the vineyard. The sick vines were not producing to their potential. By cutting them nearly to the ground, the McLaughlins had hoped to eliminate most of the diseased areas of the plants, but it remains in most of the vines.

“Things have changed. They took a turn for the worst,” Dan McLaughlin said during a distraught phone call from the vineyard.

He made the discovery just as he was making an offer on the property. Of the 15 acres planted by the Buists, McLaughlin estimates only 6.6 acres are now in production based on measurements he took. The other acres were eaten by raccoons, pulled out because the vines were sick or abandoned for being in an area prone to freezing.

“I foresee as soon as we get this deal worked out with the Buists that I’m going to order vines to replace what’s damaged,” he said.

Over the next several years, they will have to replace the sick vines in phases. It’s more economical to do it over time, and they could continue to harvest grapes, albeit a reduced number.

“Those old vines are still producing really good fruit. Everybody was happy with it, so I’m going to try to get as much out of it as I can before they all tank,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a lot cheaper than starting over from scratch.”

They’re gathering T posts, rebar and drip lines from the lowest part of the merlot vineyard that they abandoned because it freezes. They can reuse the materials in new plantings that likely would include tannat, tempranillo and viognier or roussanne.

The McLaughlins have learned that every day is a new day and things can rapidly change in this business.

“I think it was worth it,” Dan McLaughlin said.

He sees it as an alternative to formal wine education.

“If I hadn’t done it this route, I would have spent four times the amount and then found out you couldn’t make any money,” he said.

Nothing fazes Jeanie McLaughlin anymore. She just rolls with whatever comes their way.

“I just pray a lot,” she said, “and whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen.”


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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