It took a while, but the passionate and enthusiastic Sheila Adams knew it when she saw it: three acres of land in Spring Branch set squarely in the heart of the Hill Country. She and her husband Donald “D” Adams had been looking for the right place to start a winery together since she’d retired from the military after 24 years of service. They’d been touring plots of land since 2017 and studied so much about wine that it almost felt like she was only learning how much more there was to read up on. Walking onto the green, lush, and picturesque three acres changed things a bit.
This land was the future home of Adams’s winery, and she didn’t let the logistics of actually opening one daunt her (after all, she’d already gotten her doctorate in an unrelated field; she wasn’t too intimidated by a bit more homework). She was drawn to the idea of starting a winery. She knew Texas was home to more than 400 wineries, but just a handful were Black-owned. That’s what pushed her to keep going and that’s how she’d gotten here, buying the land that would become Kai-Simone Winery, away from bustling Austin city limits.
Four years later, Adams still thinks that the Texas wine industry could stand to be diversified. She wants BIPOC people to see it as a viable career. “I would encourage anyone to do their research and look at it as an option,” she says, “because in this field, we can use some more diversity, not just Black people, but just across the board in what diversity comes with, that is going to come with creativity.” To Adams’s point, including a variety of voices from marginalized groups aids in pushing the wine industry forward as a whole. And, through Kai-Simone, Adams isn’t done pushing.
Adams enlisted in the Army initially for the education benefits, but stayed on because she valued helping soldiers and families. She received her doctorate in 2002 from the University of Texas at Austin, with a concentration on social work research. For nearly two and a half decades, she’d woken up each morning and known what the day would entail. She knew her direction. But after taking her terminal leave in October 2016, she had a blank slate. Some people would have frozen, but Adams didn’t skip a beat, immediately exploring how to launch a business without really knowing what kind. Adams says that fill-in-the-blank question was a significant part of why she found her transition from soldier to civilian seamless, because the answer was so obvious. “I kept coming back to the wine business,” she says, noting that there aren’t a lot of immediately visible Black wine professionals. Although there are more than 8,000 wineries in the United States, about one-tenth of one percent of the winemakers and brand owners are Black, per Phil Long, the president of the Association of African American Vintners and owner of California winery Longevity Wines.
In January 2017, Adams began visiting more than 40 wineries across the country from Michigan to Virginia to her home state of Texas, researching the industry while scouting land, and sipping lots of wine along the way. She settled on Spring Branch because the area didn’t have any Black-owned wineries nearby and because it was located between San Antonio and Austin, what she describes as the “gateway to the Hill Country.” Kai-Simone Winery opened in fall 2019.
Adams is quick to admit how little she knew about working in the wine industry, but she didn’t let that stop her. “It’s not prudent to go off on your own about something you don’t know a lot about when you have to spend a lot of money,” she says. “You want to make sure you do your due diligence.” Her drive and cautious approach led her to seek knowledge from every place she could. “I’m not an expert, but I’m smart enough to go after and get experts to help me,” she says. Adams has taken many classes and workshops at wineries and universities, and read up on the business. “The more that I know, the more that I feel like I need to learn.”
Adams didn’t let a lack of diversity in the wine industry deter her from connecting with wine professionals across the country. She wanted to find people who would be willing to share their expertise and experiences as well as consult on her business. “They were transparent and were willing to be open and tell me about the business and their experience and what worked or what didn’t work,” she says. “The more I did it, the more refined my questions got.”
That list of experts included award-winning winemaking veteran and consultant Tom Payette; Adams describes him as “very instrumental” in helping her facilitate the inner workings of the winery. Together, they ensured that her building — especially the cellar — would be exactly what she needed to manage holding, blending, and other winemaking processes.
As a newer winery, Kai-Simone uses both Texas and California grapes. “They are plentiful, the process of procurement is easier, the grapes are more cost-effective, and they are premium grapes,” Adams says of the California fruit. When it comes to Texan grapes, “in my experience,” she says, “it’s hard to get grapes in Texas from a vineyard as a small winery.”
Being able to physically work with the grapes is important to Adams. “I am a novice winemaker who wants to craft my own wines,” she says, making use of her cellar equipment. She reached out to a couple of Texas vineyards to see if she could get grapes, but they referred her to wineries that custom crush or sell wine in bulk. Now she purchases directly from fellow Hill Country spot Georgetown Winery, located 90 miles away.
Over the past year, Kai-Simone Winery made eight wines, blended two, and is currently aging three reds in barrels. Adams plans to carry 10 to 12 wines every year, with a goal of producing four to eight wines at the same pace. “My focus is on quality, not quantity ... I want to ensure that the wines we produce are award-winning quality,” she says.
Kai-Simone’s current lineup includes a sauvignon blanc, viognier, and chardonnay with integrated oak that reveals more crisp green apple notes and fruit-forward complexity. The Pink Sky rosé has proved so popular that it has sold out five times since its debut in 2019.
Adams has a fondness for Texas reds: “I try very aggressively to get Texas red juice,” she says. The merlot, sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and petite sirah are all Texas terroirs. But the Red Melange is a blend of 50 percent California grapes and 50 percent Texas grapes, half malbec and half cabernet sauvignon.
Then there’s the Cherise Blossom, a sparkling fruit wine (similar to prosecco) made with blackberries and red cherries. Kai-Simone’s last offering is the rich and bold port named Cocoberry Kiss. This proprietary blend was added to the lineup for its second year, created with Georgetown Winery. The premium red wine base is aged three to five years before being infused with dark chocolate and strawberries. It’s released in February around Valentine’s Day, and usually sells out by June.
During the pandemic, wineries across Texas were forced to temporarily close their tasting rooms, and Kai-Simone was no exception. “I’m still impacted, honestly,” says Adams. She and her husband initially gave themselves a five-year deadline “to get this business off the ground.” Then, when COVID-19 hit, the couple had to tap into their personal funds to buoy the winery. That move, and their optimistic outlook, kept the business afloat. “We didn’t want to be negative because that’s going to drive negative vibes,” she says. “We were trying to stay positive and look at it from the perspective that we’re not the only ones affected. We have some resources and this [pandemic] is not going to last forever.”
The tasting room returned in June 2020 when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the state. That’s also when Adams submitted an application and was approved to reopen as a restaurant with food service, as many alcohol-serving establishments did, allowing them to remain open during the sudden bar shutter a month later. Although the winery always sold cheese trays and other small bites, they had to expand the menu at the time to provide more food options and further solidify their standing as a restaurant. Luckily, the winery already had an on-site prep kitchen and a small food truck.
As if contending with the pandemic wasn’t enough of a hurdle, there was the massive freeze that hit the entire state in February 2021. “We’re trying to get a feel for how this is going to impact the grape yield for this year, because people may be very parsimonious with how they distribute or sell their grapes because they’ve got a vineyard and winery, they may want to keep it for themselves,” Adams says.
Referring to a mantra of the couple’s, Adams says, “I feel like I have to crawl before I walk.” The winery is only open during weekend daytime hours in an effort to slowly introduce the brand to the public. This way, they “can take time to learn the business,” Adams says, “because I feel like I don’t want the quality to be compromised.” Currently, they do not have plans to expand the tasting room hours.
During its off-hours, the winery still hosts public and private events in the sprawling space, including concerts, movie screenings, yoga, wine and chocolate tastings, painting sessions, and specialty markets with vendors and music. Adams is also determined to continue to build the winery’s three wine clubs, which have more than 100 members collectively.
Passion for hosting events was an extra catalyst in Adams’s decision to become part of the wine industry. “You see people at their best because they just want to get out and have a good time,” she says. She not only welcomes everyone to visit her tasting room, but believes there’s a seat at the table for anyone with ideas about wine.
Adams strives to encourage even more Texans to get involved with the local wine industry. Often, people tell her they’ve always wanted to get into the business, she says. She doesn’t hesitate to encourage them. “It’s wild to think about how many wineries there are in California. Texans feel like they still have a long way to go. There’s opportunity here, and I feel like no one should feel like they’re being ousted. There’s a market.”