One of the latest options for expanding ones enjoyment of wine is to partake of the services of what is know as custom wineries. These are businesses that, to varying degrees, offer their customers professional guidance, materials and the facilities to make and bottle their very own wine. Depending on the winery in question, a selection of whole grapes or must (grape juice), crusher/de-stemmers, yeasts, fermenting containers, various oak chips or barrels, ageing facilities, bottling apparatus and custom labeling options are offered to the nascent winemaker, along with all the expertise necessary for them to walk away with, in due time, a wine they can truly call their own.
Customers’ motives vary. Some realize that going through the actual process of making wine themselves is a great way to gain a better understanding of just what it is that they’re enjoying when sipping on their favorite Bordeaux or California Cab. Some enlist a group of friends to make a communal barrel of wine as a good excuse to enjoy some time together. Others use it to add a fun, personalized memento for guests at special events like a wedding or anniversary, or to commemorate a birth. Corporate customers may find that a unique bottle of wine with their company logo as the label is more appreciated by their clients than another dozen golf balls. And there are probably some customers of these wineries that are sure that they can make a wine the equal of any in the world, much in the same way that some karaoke devotees can’t understand why they haven’t been nominated for a Grammy, yet.
One custom winery option in Houston is Vintners Own. This single location, independently owned winery is the creation of Silvano Payne, whose work as a publisher in the satellite communications industry frequently brought him to Houston from his home in Sonoma, California. Payne has been growing grapes on his property in Sonoma County for over 10 years. He liked the idea of using them for a custom winery in northern California, but thought that market was already saturated. His familiarity with Houston, along with the knowledge that Texas is second only to California in wine consumption, helped him to decide to open his winery here, in the Heights. All of the fruit used in Vintners Own flagship Custom Barrel Program is handpicked in Sonoma and Napa, and then shipped as whole grape clusters into his Houston winery in refrigerated trucks immediately after harvest, in late September to early November. Last year they received 42 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Barbera, Malbec, Primativo and Zinfandel grapes, about 10% of which came from Silvano’s own vineyard.
Prior to this delivery, customers meet with the winemaker, Simon Payne (Silvano’s son) who has worked and trained under Squire Fridell, owner and winemaker at GlenLyon Winery in Glenn Ellen. At these meetings, the customers have the opportunity to talk to Simon about just what style of wine they’d like to make. Varietals, amount and type of oak, fruit character, alcohol and acid levels, malo-lactic fermentation, tannin level and character, and any other attributes that are important to them are discussed, with Simon explaining just what steps should be taken to approach the desired results. They are encouraged to bring in examples of wines they aspire to emulate. It’s an interesting, informative, entertaining and honest conversation. Honest, in that no claims about recreating a client’s ’61 Latour are made or implied.
When a client’s grapes arrive at the winery, they are invited to help sort through the fruit and assist with the crush. Fermentation, punch downs, pressing, barrel ageing, racking, blending, filtering, tasting, bottling and labeling – some or all of which may occur, depending on the particular wine in question – are the other activities each customer has the opportunity to participate in, to whatever degree they would like. There are many options for packaging including bottle shape and color, custom corks, custom labels, wax seals and even etched bottles. Some of the packaging is quite attractive.
I tasted several wines at Vintners Own, and each of them was well made and well balanced, with crisp acidity, lively fruit, not too much alcohol or oak and, in some cases, real varietal character.
Each customer has the option of producing (and then owning) either one full barrel of wine, which translates into 24-25 12-bottle cases, or half a barrel. Many customers choose to go in on a barrel as a group. The price per bottle ranges from $23-40, depending on just what went into it. From crush to bottling, white wines will take from between 6-8 months, and red wines, from 12-18. The facility is also available for private events, wine tastings, corporate team building, etc.
Another custom winery in Houston is Water 2 Wine in the West University area. This winery is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Al and Vickie King, along with their partners, Sandra and Juan Mangini. Al has had an interesting career, first as an attorney, and then as a Cordon Bleu trained professional chef, including a stint at Boulevard Bistro. In addition to running Water 2 Wine, Al teaches in the culinary program at The Art Institute of Houston. Water 2 Wine is a franchise, with six locations in Texas, plus others in Denver, Fresno and Minneapolis. Al and Vickie attended a three-month training program at the original location in Austin with the company founder before opening their own location in Houston.
At Water 2 Wine, customers can choose which wine they will make from a list of over 70 different wines, made from 100 different musts (grape juices), from 13 different countries. All of these wines are available to taste. These selections are grouped into seven categories, which vary in price and characteristics. The Island Mist Series wines are sweet and fruity, with choices such as Peach Apricot Chardonnay and Black Raspberry Merlot. The International Series uses musts from a specific country and includes wine choices like Italian Barolo and Australian Chardonnay. With the Crush & En Premier Series, grape skins, stems and seeds are added to the must during the fermentation process. Wine options from this series include Italian Amarone and South African Shiraz. The Specialty Wines Series includes selections such as Ice Wine, Orange Chocolate Port and Ruby Port. If none of the standard alternatives tickles a customer’s fancy, custom blends are an option.
Once the customer chooses the wine they’d like to make, they work side by side with the staff to combine their must with a selection of yeasts, oak chips, grape skins and other ingredients, depending on the specific wine they are making. At this point the fermentation begins. In 45-60 days their batch of approximately 29 bottles will be ready for bottling. Customers are able to check in on the progress of their wine as much or as little as they desire; the staff will ensure that the wine will be well tended every step of the way. Many clients make a wine tasting party out of the bottling process. A wide variety of stock or custom labels and foils are available, with many appealing options. The per bottle price from a 29 bottle batch varies from $9.50-$17.50.
Several of the Water 2 Wine selections have won awards, including a Double Gold and Class Champion going to their Rattlesnake Cab/Shiraz, and a Silver for their Italian Amarone Speciale at the 2010 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition. They make a total of about 10,000 bottles a year. Of that, approximately 70% is made by the winery to go into inventory to be sold by the glass or bottle, and 30% is made by the batch, by customers for their own use.
The wines I tasted at Water 2 Wine were crisp and straightforward, with simple fruit and, in some cases, generous alcohol levels.
In addition to selling wine by the glass, bottle or batch, Water 2 Wine is available for private parties and offers daily wine tastings, wine flights with cheese plates, a variety of special events and multi-tiered wine club memberships.