To understand the evolution of the Texas Hill Country wine region over the past two decades, there may be no better place to start than a chat with Bénédicte Rhyne, winemaker at Kuhlman Cellars in Stonewall. The Provence native has worked everywhere from Bordeaux to Marlborough, New Zealand, so perhaps it’s best to call her an outsider’s insider. Her perspective is global and pragmatic, but her belief in the potential of the Hill Country region is quintessentially Texan.
She moved to Texas in 2002 and, nearly 20 years later, Rhyne can assess the current Texas wine scene as few others can. During that time, she established her successful Wine Country Consulting business, worked as the winemaker at Ste Genevieve Winery, and joined Kuhlman Cellars as winemaker and partner alongside farm and vineyard managers Chris and Jennifer Cobb in 2012.
Rhyne’s journey to Texas was lengthy. After earning her master’s in enology at the Université de Bourgogne in 1987, Rhyne worked harvests in Bordeaux and New Zealand, pivoted to wine sales in the United Kingdom, and then spent a decade in winery production and management in Sonoma. Rhyne’s move from the U.K. to California proved a critical one: She joined high-profile Sonoma winery Ravenswood in 1991, where she helped the business expand from a 50,000-case winery to 500,000 cases in 10 years.
When the winery sold to beverage corporation Constellation in 2001, she found herself at a career crossroads. As one of the few fortunate employees with some stock options, she knew the new owners would drastically change the winery’s direction. A young mother of two at the time, Rhyne and her husband both worked demanding management positions. After some discussion, the pair decided their next phase would include more family and parenting time, necessitating some big changes.
In deciding what to do next, an unlikely destination emerged: Central Texas. “We had this sense that we needed to move out of California,” she says. Her husband thought of Texas as the “big state where people were drinking a lot of wine” — as owner of a wine-logistics warehouse in Napa, he sent trucks to the state every week. A friend in the Bandera area mentioned that some grapes were planted in the Hill Country and invited them to visit. The family ended up driving around Texas in a minivan. They were surprised by what they found in Fredericksburg: “It reminded me a bit of my native Provence,” Rhyne says. “Certainly the terroir, the climate. Wow, surely they can grow grapes here. They needed more professional help, though, and I knew I could do it.”
In 2002, the Hill Country winemaking scene was both small and sleepy, with few wineries and largely inexperienced workers. Rhyne resigned from her position at Ravenswood after her stock cash-out, which gave her the courage to make the unconventional move. “I started sending letters to Texas wineries asking if they needed a consultant,” she says. “I believe when you’re supposed to go in a direction, everything falls into place, and that’s exactly what happened.” The couple sold their California home, her husband sold his warehouse business, and they used the proceeds to buy property in Fredericksburg, where they still reside today. After a little outreach to Texas wineries, Rhyne began working with Mesa Vineyards and Ste Genevieve Winery, where she made wine for over 15 years.
Rhyne now sees a Texas industry bursting with both growth and a greatly evolved professionalism. “Growers planted a wide variety of grapes, learned how to manage crops and yields, and are getting better at managing the climate here in Texas, which can be pretty rough,” she says.
She also notes that more young winemakers and grape growers are choosing to work in Texas, and she’s seeing more and more examples of Texas wines with true terroir, meaning they show the character of the state’s soil, climate, and topography. She confesses that her early hunch has proven true. “Everybody thought the real place to grow grapes was the High Plains,” she says, as conventional wisdom in Texas wine circles dictated this due to better diurnal shift (temperature variation) and fewer frost issues. “But now we’re discovering, which I’ve always kind of known in my heart, that the Hill Country has some very particular gems of terroir as well.”
At Kuhlman, her team has been cautious and specific about researching and planting the correct grape varietals appropriate to the soil and climate in her estate vineyard. “We’re now reaping the benefits of having done that research properly,” she says.
When asked if she now has favorite Texas grapes, Rhyne demurs: “Actually, I don’t. Texas is such a huge state. I’ve had fantastic tempranillo, and fantastic sauvignon blanc, and sangiovese, and roussanne from different terroirs in Texas. But we’re still in pioneer mode, even though it sounds like we’re not. We’re learning what varietals are going to be best for particular terroir.” Rhyne also believes Hill Country vineyards still have some tricks up their sleeves. “I know some want to make the flagship tempranillo or mourvedre or maybe viognier, but I disagree. There’s gonna be more surprises, and more varieties we haven’t even tried yet that will do fantastic here,” she says.
The resistance to picking a signature grape on which to hang her metaphorical hat is evident in Rhyne’s winemaking. Kuhlman’s wines are mostly blended from multiple grape varietals, and not always in traditional combinations. “It’s my style,” she notes, pointing to her southern French roots, whereas in Texas, “We’re a young region, and my philosophy is to make the best wine. In a perfect world when all the stars align, you may find a [single-varietal] gem that can stand on its own, and that does happen. It’s getting more common with our roussanne and mourvedre.” She adds that, in most cases, blending provides a greater balance of fruits, acids, and tannins, and that pragmatism guides her decisions. “I don’t want to be restricted by ideology,” Rhyne says. “We respect and nurture the grapes, but we want to use the art of blending to make the best wine we can with the tools we have.” Successfully balancing alcohol, fruit, acidity, and tannins is the goal of the process, and a familiar challenge to winemakers.
One major and overdue development for the Texas wine industry was a new law requiring greater accuracy in wine labeling in 2021: All wines with a county, American Viticultural Area, or vineyard designation will now be required to contain 100 percent Texas grapes, a major change from past practices. Rhyne feels this development is welcome: “We should always be transparent on our sources. Sometimes I might add something, but we’re going to put that on the label.”
Wines that use the generic Texas term on their packaging can continue to use 25 percent grapes grown outside the state, something that makes sense to Rhyne because of both commercial concerns and grape scarcity. “I wouldn’t use it,” she says, “but there are some businesses here in Texas that are doing very well that need it.”
In July, Rhyne was preparing for the realities of a small harvest in 2021 after a year filled with extreme weather. There were multiple factors: “We lost a lot of grapes in the High Plains. There was a massive April hailstorm that decimated a bunch of vineyards,” she explains. “It’s probably at least a 60 percent loss.” Rhyne predicts the shortage will prove challenging for all Texas wineries. “We are all kind of searching and hoping. I know we’re not the only ones in the same boat,” she says.
This shortage follows a lean harvest in 2020 due to High Plains freezes, which Rhyne describes as “kind of a blessing.” With tasting rooms and restaurants closed due to COVID-19, the smaller crop made storage and inventory issues less of a challenge: “Obviously, sales were in decline. So it all kind of worked out in the end.”
As Kuhlman Cellars and Rhyne look toward the future, the winery and winemaker see many things to look forward to. The brand’s Block One mourvedre (planted on the estate) will finally be released as a standalone wine. (It was previously used in blends only while the vines matured.) Rhyne is enthusiastic about this development. “We were finally able to ferment it by itself,” she says. “It’s planted on limestone, which I would be excited to see more vineyards do.” She also thinks the industry will see greatly increased plantings in the Hill Country: “That’s what I’m really excited to watch in the next couple of years. We’ll definitely keep growing, and hopefully [we’ll] make a little mark of quality for our wine industry here in the Hill Country.”