In 1973, recently married and stepping into their careers, Susan and Ed Auler took a life-changing trip to France in search of cattle for their sprawling ranch in rural Tow, Texas. The couple, who married shortly after graduating from the University of Texas, had planned to take the trip to research new cattle for Ed’s ranch, where he worked in addition to his law practice. However, Susan suggested they take time to visit major wine regions as well. Unsurprisingly, during this combined research trip and honeymoon, the Aulers found themselves spending less time looking at ruminants and more time enjoying France’s acclaimed wine regions. “That’s what hooked us,” says Susan. They realized that each French region had its own identity, from the wines to the paired food. This, they believed, was something that could — and should — be replicated in Texas.
Sure, some of the earliest grapes in the state were brought in by Franciscan missionaries around El Paso in the 1600s. But Prohibition effectively turned the lights out on the industry in the Lone Star State. Yet, today wine in Texas feels more abundant than ever before. That’s in large part thanks to Susan and Ed Auler, the couple and co-founders behind longtime winery Fall Creek Vineyards, who had an ambitious vision to put Texas wine back on the map in the 1970s, jumpstarting the Hill Country wine industry and proving that Texas wine is worthy of investment.
When they came back from that fateful trip to France, wine became the Aulers’ new passion, supplanting cattle ranching. In 1975, they planted their first vines. As they continued the practice, they began visiting France every year to meet with different winemakers and vineyards, learning more about the techniques. They also drew on the expertise of several of the era’s pioneering enologists — folks like Cornelius Ough, H.P. Olmo at the University of California, Davis, and Vincent Petrucci at California State University, Fresno. The Aulers were introduced to the late André Tchelistcheff, who, after he tasted their first cabernet (only their third leaf) and was pleasantly surprised, offered to consult with them in the mid-’80s. “Everybody’s door has been open over the decades,” Susan says. “I’ve just marveled at how helpful they’ve been around the world.”
Concurrently, as Fall Creek Vineyards was getting its start in the 1980s, Southwestern cuisine, centered on dishes with twists like using local peppers and herbs, was taking hold in Texas. Its founding fathers were three Texan chefs who were garnering national attention: Dallas’s Stephen Pyles, Houston’s Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie, and Dean Fearing, who was at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas at the time. Keeping in line with the local sourcing ethos, those chefs became interested in Fall Creek’s wines. Pyles and his financial partner visited the vineyard and told Susan that they wanted to use Fall Creek’s wines for festivals and dinners across the country. “‘We’ve got to take Texas wine with Texas food,’” she recounts them saying. “That was our entree to a little early sense of national exposure.”
Eventually, the Aulers got the opportunity to go to Los Angeles, serving wines at Wolfgang Puck’s annual fundraiser for Meals on Wheels, where diners balked at the concept of Texas wines. “So many people came up to us and said, ‘Texas wine? You can’t grow grapes in Texas,’” Susan says. In these moments, she began asking herself, “Why don’t we turn the spotlight on Texas and have our own festival here?” Fall Creek had been bringing wines and food to Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia already; she reasoned that they should bring everyone to Austin. That’s when they launched the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival in April 1986 — which ran for 26 years until it transitioned into the Austin Food & Wine Festival in 2012.
There was another ulterior motive behind launching the festival: to establish the Hill Country as an appellation and American Viticultural Area. Ed had already started processing the paperwork to create the Texas Hill Country AVA, but he couldn’t prove that it existed geographically. Fortunately, he was a private pilot for 29 years, which meant he understood the area’s geography, geology, wind, and weather patterns, and could show that the Hill Country was different from the surrounding region. Ed mapped the region, differentiating it from others, and made the case that it should become a known viticultural region.
“We were very bullish on the Hill Country as a growing region, because it was an ocean floor much like Europe,” Susan says. “We’ve got limestone and we’ve got sandy loam soil. We’ve got hills, lakes, and rivers, and just a plethora of different sites — a great variety of terroir just for the picking and the choosing. We felt like we rivaled some of the great regions in the world.”
The festival grew in popularity, garnering local and national attention; equipped with a collection of front-pages and articles singing its praises, Ed attached the clips to his application for the federal AVA permit. He submitted the paperwork to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1989. The Aulers received official validation in 1991 when the Texas Hill Country became an AVA, a recognized viticultural region.
The Aulers knew the true growing potential of the Hill Country soil. However, they had no idea the impact they would have on the industry, locally or internationally.
In 2018, a professor from the University of Texas at Austin reached out to Susan, who had graduated from the College of Natural Sciences, to gauge the Aulers’ interest in participating in viticulture research that would establish the region as a hub of wine education in the South, not unlike at UC Davis.
By participating in research looking at Texas terroir through the UT Wine Initiative, the Aulers have been able to glean useful information about cultivation in the sometimes-harsh Texas wine region. “The grapes do well because of their inherent ability with heat shock genes,” Susan says. It’s the Aulers’ hope that the initiative transitions into a permanent department. “That’s going to be another very important asset ... that will help propel Texas wines to the national and international stage,” Susan says.
Forty-five years later, the couple and the winery are continuing to prove the significance of Texas wine on the international stage. “This is not something that we did just overnight,” Susan says. “I have always wanted to grow a Texas tradition, wine-growing in the Hill Country.”