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A Visit with the Vintner

Written by , published July 3, 2013

For the August 2013 print issue of Texas Highways, I wrote about a Madeira tasting, held at Austin’s Red Room speakeasy, which featured the wines of Haak Vineyards in Galveston County. Haak is the only Texas winery that makes Madeira—a richly flavored fortified wine that is usually produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira.

Madeira was first made in the late 1700s by happy accident. Ships loaded with port embarked on the six-month voyage to the Americas, where the wine was exposed to heat and oxygen—normally wine’s arch rivals. But when buyers tasted it, they liked it and sought to duplicate the process, and hence the birth of a new spirit.

Co-founder Raymond Haak, who operates Haak Vineyards with his wife, Gladys, chatted freely about anniversary surprises, the challenges of winemaking, and life’s circuitous pathways.

“My wife, Gladys and I were celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary in 1969. We were living here in Santa Fe, Texas, and she came home from a local nursery with some grape vines. I put them in the flowerbed and didn’t think anything more about it. Spring came, they budded out, and started making a few grape clusters. I thought it might be fun to make some homemade wine. So I went out and started reading. I knew nothing about growing and tasting wine, but I like a challenge. The next year, I put in a little vineyard, maybe 30 vines.

That year, I learned that what you really want to do is pinch them back the first few years—let them spend their energy on root development. Then in a few years, you can try making some homemade wine.

The next year I thought, if 30 vines is fun, 300 vines would be more fun. I plowed up half an acre and planted. Back then, I was trying different varieties. I tried cabernet sauvignon, petite syrah, merlot, champenel. I was told they wouldn’t do well on the Gulf Coast, because we have Pierce’s Disease down here. I was stubborn and thought, ‘How would they know? They haven’t tried growing in Santa Fe.’ In a few years, though, all my vines died. The experts were right.

A few years later, I discovered a hybrid grape called blanc du bois. It was developed at the University of Florida and is resistant to Pierce’s Disease. This grape has been tremendous for us. I’ve been growing it since the mid-80s now; I was one of the first in Texas. I make seven different wines from blanc du bois. One is a port and another is a Madeira.

I am the first and the only producer in Texas to make Madeira. I produced my first one in 2006, but I didn’t have a label approved. I was told by the feds that if I didn’t have a label approved for port, Madeira, or sherry within the next two days, I couldn’t call it Madeira. I could make the same wine, but I couldn’t call it Madeira.  So I really squeezed in under the wire. I was grandfathered in.

How did I arrive at making Madeira? It’s a complicated story. I had gone to a wine symposium in Tow, hosted by Ed and Susan Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards. One of the guest speakers was D.C. Flynt, a Master of Wine who lived in Louisiana. We were all told to bring samples of our wine, and that D.C. would taste them. I brought a black Spanish port, and D.C noted that it reminded him of Madeira. Had I ever thought of making Madeira?

 Madeira tasting at Austin's Red Room speakeasy, photo Lori Moffatt

I started doing research …  how and why it was made. Then my wife and I embarked on the laborious and torturous chore of going to the islands of Madeira in Portugal to taste it. In Portugal, they make Madeira in heated cellars called estufas, the Portuguese (and Spanish) word for oven. That’s how I do it, too. My cellar heats up to about 105-110 degrees. It simulates the six-month journey to the Americas in a hull of a ship. It caramelizes the sugars, oxidizes the wine, and makes the wine practically indestructible.

You can taste our Madeira on tours of the vineyard. We’re open seven days a week, and we have tours and tastings daily. We take visitors out by the vineyards, where we grow grapes on three acres. (We buy the majority of our grapes from other growers in the state.) And we go to the cellar, where we have ten stainless-steel tanks, and we show visitors the destemmer-crusher and bladder presses, too. Then we end up at the tasting room, where, for $10 you can taste 4-5 of our wines. The tours themselves are free.”

See www.haakwine.com.

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