I will never forget my first encounter with Sandstone Cellars Winery. It was at the Big Red hosted by Charlie Palmer’s at The Joule in early November. A Burl Ives body-double handed me a taste of 2009 Sandstone Cellars Winery, #7, Mason County, TX and I was simply floored by the quality of the winemaking. In one fell swoop I had been treated to a winery with ambition, and a grape variety that I was unaware could excel in Texas. The Burl Ives surrogate turned out to be Don Pullum, winemaker at Sandstone. The hitherto unproven grape was an old favorite, Touriga Nacional, one of the core grapes of classic Port from Portugal’s Douro Valley. It turned out Burt had also been watching the WWE. You never smack an opponent once, You stun him and then come back with the follow-up. Don’s follow-up was the 2006 Sandstone Cellars, Port. #4, Mason County , TX. It is a ringer for a ruby port from the Douro Valley in Portugal. With such quality on show, I had to investigate.
Mason, TX (population 2,134) is a quaint small county town (the county is Mason County) built around a town square with a healthy quotient of hunting shops where they can process your deer and taxidermists can prepare it for display. The nearest Walmart is in San Angelo, a fifteen year drive away. You won’t, you could not, miss Sandstone Cellars Winery and adjacent Tasting Room hugging a corner of US 87 on the way in from Fredericksburg. The tasting room is a Victorian house that would fit comfortably inside the family room of many a North Dallas McMansion. It is known as the Lucia Holmes House, on account of it being the ‘Sunday House’ of local landowner Lucia Holmes in the 1870s, and it is the second oldest building in Mason. Winemaking is on a similarly diminutive scale as well. The total production area is only 300 square feet, limiting output to around 600 cases of wine per year. The winery does not currently own any vineyards but sources grapes from growers in nearby Streeter.
Sandstone Cellars was bonded in 2004 after a 2003 Texas constitutional amendment effectively allowed the sale of wine from a winery in a dry county. Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio, owners of award-winning Mason restaurant Santos Taqueria teamed up with neighbor Don Pullum who grew grapes (he planted his first ones, Primitivo, in 1998) and made wine. Haupert, like most taqueria owners, has a Masters in Music Performance from Yale University. Pullum is a self-trained wine maker but he acquired the ideal pre-medgrape education via a degree in English and American Literature from Harvard. He spent several years in the business world culminating in Venture Capital before he quit to pursue his dream of making wine full time (his first effort had been at age 20). That started a process of experimentation that continues to this day.
Mason County is on the western edge of the Hill Country, just before the area becomes West Texas. It is at 1600 feet elevation, which makes for lower humidity (about 25%) and consequent cooler nights than most Hill County vineyards. Don had worked with warm climate red wine grapes and that is reflected in the Sandstone product lineup: Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Syrah, Tempranillo, Primitivo, Nebbiolo, and Touriga Nacional are the grapes that are blended to make the current batch of wines. Previous vintages have also had Garnache (Grenache), Sangiovese and Barbera. These may return in the future. Such is the recent popularity of Mason County fruit that Sandstone is being outbid for some varieties by larger Texas wineries.
The soil in Mason County is different from many other parts of the Hill Country as well. It is called Hickory Sand, an iron-infused quartzite sand, and it also contains some granite. This amounts to well-drained soil that is pH neutral or slightly acidic. Grape vines take nutrients most easily in slightly acidic soils and, Pullum believes, give out bigger bouquets. Soil in Gillespie County to the south, by contrast, is richer in limestone and higher in pH. The soil composition resembles several Old World viticultural areas but perhaps most closely Bandol, the tiny enclave on the French Mediterranean coast near Marseilles. Based on soil alone, one would expect Mourvèdre, the major grape of Bandol, to do well. The Mourvèdre used in the Sandstone wines is the Beaucastel clone, a successful clone cultivated by the winery of the same name in Châteauneuf du Pape, France. The biggest viticultural problem in Mason County is frost. Critters can also be a problem. Racoons wait until the grapes are sweet – then eat them. Birds eat them anytime. Deer feed on young vine growth in the spring (they enjoy the tender shoots). Feral hogs are just all around badly behaved, digging in the vineyards and uprooting vines.
Sandstone’s first vintage was a blend of 80% Syrah and small amounts of Grenache and Mourvèdre from 3 year old vines. As the partners racked their brains for a name for what they foresaw as a line of red blends produced from 2004 on out they found all the names they wanted were taken! In frustration, Manny suggested they just number the wines in the order that they were released. That is the reason all Sandstone wines have a number (in roman numerals, to boot) rather than a name. I wonder how the winemaker’s notes will describe the character of the LXIX when it eventually appears?
The Sandstone team sat me down in the Lucia Holmes House at the bar that Lucia would doubtless not have approved of, and offered a tasting of current and library offerings. All the bottles had been opened 12 hours previously, about four ounces of wine removed, and re-corked to allow breathing.
We started with a Texas two-sip: A comparison between Sandstone’s Mourvèdre-based blend with a respected Mourvèdre-based blend from the only French region dominated by the grape. The wines are only one vintage apart. It is a compelling statement of one’s confidence in one’s product when one is willing to comparison shop it to brazenly against the competition. How did the Sandstone do?
2006 Sandstone Cellars III, Mason County, TX. Mourvèdre (52%), Primitivo (21%), Grenache (16%), Touriga (10%), Tempranillo (1%). A library wine. Open nose of oranges and cinnamon. In the mouth the tannins are harder than those in the Bandol. There is more of a black fruit quality and stoniness in the taste. I noticed a slight hotness to the finish.
2005 Domaine La Suffrene, Bandol. Mourvèdre (55%), Grenache (20%), Cinsault (15%). Carignan (10%). Classic Mourvèdre nose of red fruit with hints of oak. More open than I expected. This wine is already showing signs of age. Not as chewy in the mouth as it likely once was and the fruit lays back rather than springing out. For a French wine this is a very lush example due to the soft tannins.
2009 Sandstone Cellars VII, Mason County, TX. Touriga Nacional (100%). A departure from Sandstone’s normal practice of blending. This pure Touriga Nacional (the label says Touriga, in conformance with TTB grape naming regulations) is the wine that blew me away at The Big Red mentioned above. Massive nose. Hints of port (unsurprisingly – since Touriga is the backbone of that wine). Complex flavors (raspberries. Blackberries and a jammy quality). Great mouth feel. Long finish. I had this again the next day with Cooper’s barbecued brisket. Simply stellar.
2009 Sandstone Cellars IX, Mason County, TX. Tempranillo (75%), Touriga Nacional (25%). Half matured in new American oak for 2½ months, half in stainless steel. Pullum considers that too much oak reduces the complexity and fruitiness of Mason County fruit. Despite the 25% Touriga, the Tempranillo is nonetheless the dominant partner in this blend. Nose is Tempranillo red fruit. The Sandstone team say that immediately after opening, the Touriga dominates. Don removes the cork, pours off about four ounces and then replaces the cork for 12 hours before drinking. This maximizes the Tempranillo presence. Liquorice in the mouth. Tempranillo fruit and hints of oak. A big success. Postcript note: I opened a second bottle later and can confirm that this wine is a lot less Tempranillo like (and a lot less interesting) immediately after uncorking. Let it breathe as described before drinking.
Another Texas two-sip. Sandstone put their currently available Syrah blend up against a respectable Syrah from the Rhone.
2008 Saint Cosme, St. Joseph, France. A respected northern Rhone wine that is likely 100% Syrah. Tight nose. Raspberry jam, black pepper. Expansive fruit in the mouth, peppery flavors continue, tart blackberry finish. A very typical quality northern Rhone wine.
2009 Sandstone Cellars X, Mason County, TX. Syrah (80%), Touriga (15%), Nebbiolo (5%). Much bigger in the mouth than the Saint Cosme. A rare example of a Texas red wine that is lush in character (soft tannins, expansive, forward fruit) like a California cousin. A complex, multifaceted rhone-style Syrah.
Finally, we crammed into the postage stamp of a winery for a barrel tasting. A 2010 blend of Syrah (75%), Mourvèdre (20%) and Viognier (5%). This was still going through malolactic fermentation. The nose had forward, concentrated fruit and bacon (a common component of the nose in Syrah wines). This wine has enormous promise although I never cease to marvel at the ability of winemakers to discern the final character of a wine so early in its development.
As an aside, notice the design on the Sandstone label? That is Kindred Spirits by Hill Country artist, Bill Worrell.
Sandstone is now starting to be recognized and to win awards. Recently, their wines were paired with the food of Monica Pope of t’afia Restaurant at the Outstanding in the Field dinner in Brenham. Pope purchased the last seven cases of the 2006 Sandstone III to accompany her dish at the meal. The world’s best-known wine critic, Robert Parker, listed Sandstone as one of the six best wineries in Texas in the 7th edition of his Wine Buyer’s Guide.
With such small production, Sandstone’s wine is sold directly through the web site. Alternatively, they have just been put on the list at Fearing’s and The Pyramid Restaurant and Bar by sommeliers Paul Botamer and Hunter Hammett, CSW who are the ‘smart money’ on this one.