Rae Wilson may have been the first person to make Texas wine cool. With bright blond hair and her signature style, she combines the magnetic personality of a rock star with a healthy dose of Midwestern nice, not to mention utter viticulture prowess. When Wilson talks about wine, she lights up like a kid talking about their favorite dinosaur, and this infectious, unrestrained excitement over the intricacies of flavor profiles and terroir quickly made her a star in the restaurant industry. So when she made her winemaking debut with Dandy Rosé, its now-signature aqua-green label stood out on — and flew off of — shelves in 2016.
On any given day, Wilson can be found in front of her laptop, working on a marketing project, hiring employees at her Texas AVA tasting room, driving out to vineyards to check on her fruit, meeting with wine buyers all over the state, and, of course, making wine at her production facility in Fredericksburg. “If there is some idea of true happiness in the world, it would be endless curiosity about everything around you. And to me, that’s a career in wine,” Wilson says. “You’re never finished learning. There’s always another foot of soil to explore or a new season to experience.”
Wilson’s name was everywhere in the wine industry even before the release of Dandy Rosé. She started with a consulting business where she sought out unique wines to place on restaurant menus around Texas. That company, Wine for the People, morphed into her wine portfolio that houses her two labels: Dandy Rosé, which produces Dandy Rosé and Dandy Bubbles, and La Valentía, which focuses on smaller-production boutique wines. She shares a third label, the Grower Project, with fellow Texas winemaker Andrew Sides of Lost Draw Cellars. Most recently, Wilson opened the Texas AVA tasting room off Fitzhugh Road to showcase Texas wines with another winemaker, Randy Hester of C.L. Butaud.
Wilson’s start in the wine world began like so many other Austin success stories: She was in a band. Born in St. Louis to an artistic family that didn’t keep alcohol in the house, Wilson played instruments from a young age and couldn’t imagine a career outside of the music industry — though in practice, she says, that really meant she worked in restaurants and bars.
In 2005, she followed a friend (who eventually became her business partner) to Austin, but at the time she found the city a little too small, and the food and wine scene uninspiring. Then a cellar tour during a visit to Napa changed her life. “Pretty much immediately, I was like, ‘This is where I need to be. I need to learn winemaking,’” recalls Wilson. Six months later, she landed a harvest-season internship at Artesa Vineyards & Winery in the Northern California wine country.
Wilson was the only woman on a male, Spanish-speaking crew. She called her friend back in Austin often, complaining about the long days of hard manual labor, from sorting fruit to pumping and stirring large tanks of fermenting juice. But despite the rigors of wine production, Wilson continued her wine education with another internship in Portugal, shadowing a winemaker who used traditional production methods. “Any place that has a tradition of making wine for about 4,000 years, it’s just gonna be a different experience learning the approach, the techniques, and the culture around [winemaking]. As a person who studied wine, that was where my heart was,” she says.
After Portugal, Wilson returned to Austin and searched for winemaking positions in California and Europe, to no avail. Instead, she found a niche working as a consultant to small restaurants that couldn’t afford to hire a sommelier but still wanted to offer interesting wine selections. She decided to call her business Wine for the People — she wanted to break elitist ideas and barriers around wine and create a community. She was eager to use the winemaking skills she had learned at her internships, but she wasn’t sure where to start.
Then, in 2011, she discovered that there were actual winemakers in Texas.
Wilson was blown away by her first visit to a Texas winemaker. While her expectations were low, she and a reluctant friend made the trip out to the Texas wine country, starting with William Chris Vineyards. “Each one we tasted, we’d look at each other and kind of mouth, ‘Wow!’” she recalls. The quality of the wines convinced Wilson to stay in the state, where she felt there was a great opportunity in a young region.
Inspired by her forays into Texas tasting rooms, Wilson began to toy with the idea of producing her own wine. She felt Texas rosés were often too sweet, in contrast to the dry French rosés she favored. Wilson found that Texas could produce wines that strike a nice balance between the super-ripe styles of West Coast wines and the fruit tones of Old World styles, with interesting tertiary notes of minerals and herbs. And thus, Dandy Rosé was born.
“Your job as a winemaker is to show the expression of that season in that place in the wine,” she says. “To me, there’s a sense of responsibility there. We can’t just stand in a place and say, ‘I like this style of wine, so I’m going to make it.’ You really have to do the opposite, which is looking at the ground and saying, ‘Okay, what does this place make?’”
This desire to create a sense of place leads Wilson to use 100 percent Texas grapes in all her wines. Besides using reference points gleaned from her wine studies, she works with farmers to see which grape varieties she doesn’t have to, as she puts it, “wrangle into submission” to get fruit. That said, growing can still be unpredictable — the first grapes Wilson planted herself succumbed to disease and had to be replanted, and they have yet to bear fruit.
“You have to think generationally,” Wilson explains. “We have one chance every year, hoping that what was planted in the ground is the right thing.”
That also means encouraging a new generation of Texas winemakers. Winemaking requires an immense amount of upfront capital. Costs include everything from fruit to bottles and labels to time at a custom crush facility (basically a crush that rents itself out to smaller labels). “We need to broaden the accessibility [of winemaking],” Wilson says. She hopes the industry will offer apprenticeship programs and scholarships to help young producers get started and, hopefully, bring even greater recognition to the Texas wine world.
Wilson encourages those interested in wine to get to know its producer. This is one reason she loves working in the tasting room rather than simply shipping out bottles. She’s been able to connect directly with people to share the story of her wines — and, of course, her magnetism and excitement mean people want to listen. “We don’t always think of wine as food, but it very much is,” she says. “The more you know about your food, the more you understand the quality and the production methods that went into it. You’re gonna see small, conscientious producers making wine to show an expression of a sense of place. These are wines that we’re proud to put in our glasses.”
Wilson’s background in Old World and New World winemaking lends credibility to her wholehearted devotion to Texas wines. Despite her initial skepticism, she has proven to be a central figure in building the young industry. And how could she not be? Her wines, with their distinctly Texas tastes, kick ass. As Wilson continues to stretch her skills, she will continue to tell the story of the state through wine — and it’s hard to imagine anyone better to tell it.