This is one of an occasional series detailing Texas wineries. The complete list is here.
Llano executive winemaker Greg Bruni’s candor is especially refreshing. “We have not yet made the best wine we are going to make,” he says.
How often does one hear a Napa winemaker say that?
And no jokes, please, about the quality of Texas wine. Is Llano, the oldest and second-biggest Texas winery, with more than 100,000 cases a year, as good as a Bordeaux first growth? Nope, but neither are most of the wineries in Napa. Llano consistently produces quality wine, just like any other 100,000-case California winery.
Llano’s production and quality are huge steps for the Texas wine industry. It means consumers can walk into just about any grocery store in the state and get an acceptable bottle of $10 Texas wine. This goes a long way toward establishing Texas’ credibility as a wine region. You can have as many AVAs and wine festivals as you want, but neither means much if people don’t want to drink the state’s wine. Think about what Chateau Ste. Michelle has done for Washington state’s reputation, and you’ll know what I mean.
It also presents challenges. Llano is a full-line winery, which means it makes wine at every price. This is similar to what Toad Hollow and Bogle do in California, and it’s much more difficult than making wine at one or two price points. There are wineries in Texas that make expensive wine and wineries that make cheap wine, but Llano does both, from its $40 Viviano to its $7 chenin blanc.
Llano makes its job even more difficult by using only Texas grapes for almost all of its wine. Mark Hyman, who runs Llano, laughs every time I ask him about this, as if it’s no trouble at all. But it is a big deal. There just aren’t that many quality grapes in Texas, so availability is always a concern.
Most importantly, Llano offers value at those prices. Its expensive wines taste like they should cost that much, and its cheap wines don’t taste cheap. This is not as easy to do as it sounds.
In fact, the Lano wines that impress me the most aren’t the high-end ones. Truth be told, it’s not difficult to make a good bottle of $40 wine, as long as the grapes are good enough. The real challenge is to make an $8 or $12 or $15 bottle of wine that offers more than it costs – what’s called overdelivering in the business.
And two Llano wines in particular overdeliver: The $9 sauvignon blanc and the $14 chardonnay. We’re not supposed to be able to make quality sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Texas, because it’s too hot. And most Texas wineries, thankfully, have stopped trying. But Llano somehow does. The wines taste like they’re supposed to taste, and you can’t ask for anything more that. Taste them blind against similarly-priced California wines, and you won’t be able to tell they’re from Texas.
Has Llano been able to come up with a wine like Toad Hollow’s rose or Bogle’s petite sirah, signature products that will earn it a national reputation? I don’t think so. But, as Bruni, says, the best is yet to come.