After a long career as a public school teacher, most folks would relish the chance to retire in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Not John and Dabs Hollimon. Rather than kick back and watch the sunset, these high energy retirees decided to plant some grapes and start a vineyard. Thus was 1851 Vineyards born. A few weeks ago Cassie and I had the chance to visit with John, Dabs, and one of their daughters, Jeska, at the vineyard and taste some of their wines. They have a compelling story built on a family-run business that is putting out some fantastic wines made from Texas grapes and beyond.
The property that 1851 Vineyards is located on was originally owned by Cal Hilmer Guenther, a German immigrant in the 1800s. The land was deeded to Guenther in the year 1851, and this is where the vineyard takes its name. Guenther started a small business on the property, but after weathering a few floods and droughts, he sold the land and moved to San Antonio. Guenther went on to start Pioneer Flour and found great success. After passing through several owners, Dabs’ parents purchased the land in the 1960s and passed the property on to their daughter. Since retirement, Dabs and John have moved to the vineyard full time and live in one of the historic structures on the property.
John and Dabs planted their first few hundred vines five years ago and have been going strong ever since. They are now up to several thousand vines including Tannat, Petit Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Albariño, and Chardonnay. The winemaker at 1851, John Rivenburgh, was one of the co-founders of Bending Branch Winery and has a lot of experience making wine in the Texas Hill Country. Through John’s efforts, many more Texans have been enjoying the magic of the Tannat grape. A lesser known variety, Tannat is originally from Southern France and is now widely grown in South America. John and 1851 use a fascinating piece of technology to help look at the growth of the grapes and resulting wine. Called an Eno Foss, the small countertop machine can provide scientific measurements of things like the sugar (known as Brix in wine lingo) or the pH in almost real time!
When they started their business, the Hollimons knew they wanted it to be a family business. The 74 acres of land that make up the winery can only be viable for growing purposes if they are kept together. To make sure that happened, Dabs and John took time to gather their family together and make sure everyone was in agreement. They were, and now the entire family – all four children, their spouses, and even some grandchildren – helps to run the operations of the vineyard. This family atmosphere also extends to the visitors of 1851. Families of all kinds are welcomed to the property for tastings and events. The vineyard is kid-friendly, whether your kids have two legs or four legs and a tail (they love dogs).
When we asked about some of the challenges the Holliman family has faced in their new business, they point out that they are actually running three businesses in one. First is the business of growing grapes, second is the business of making wine, and third is the business of running the tasting room that opened last November. Despite the seemingly overwhelming volume of work, the Hollimons have succeeded in creating an inviting atmosphere on their beautiful property and in their comfortable and homey tasting room.
While visiting, Cassie and I got a chance to experience the wines of 1851 first-hand. Two of my favorites from the list were the Texas High Plains Rouge and the St. Jorge Alicante Bouschet. The Rouge is made from Malbec grapes in a lighter, Beaujolais style. That means this wine is very light and refreshing. When you taste it, you get the flavors of summer berries with a light body and zesty acidity. The Alicante Bouschet (that’s the grape used in the wine) is a unique wine. Alicante is often used as a blending grape and is native to Southern France. Wine makers usually use the grape to balance a wine that has several other grapes included. This wine, however, is a single varietal version.. We gave the wine a moment to rest after being poured and were richly rewarded for our patience. Starting with aromas of chocolate and fresh earth, the flavors open up on the tongue with rich red fruits (think plums and strawberry jam) and a lingering soft finish.
If you’re planning a trip to the Texas Wine Country soon, I would highly recommend paying the folks at 1851 a visit. Be sure to take a look at their fabulous website: www.1851vineyards.com. Reservations are recommended but not required.