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A Texas winemaker in Spain: Russell Smith's Mediterranean journey

A Texas winemaker in Spain: Russell Smith's Mediterranean journey

austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
Russell Smith's vineyards in El Masroig, Spain Courtesy of Matt McGinnis
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
Sumpta's wines Courtesy of Matt McGinnis
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
Sumpta Mateo Courtesy of Matt McGinnis
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
Matt McGinnis and Russell Smith Courtesy of Matt McGinnis
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain
austin photo set: news_sept_2012_matt_texas wine in spain

When I was a kid I used to make tiny worlds in a shoe box. I guess dioramas were a popular thing for Midwestern kids to make in the 1970s. I would populate my model worlds with paper mache hills covered with green colored saw dust grass, aluminum foil streams, popsicle stick trees and plastic dinosaurs.

The landscapes always resembled my real world, but the creatures and activities were always exotic. It was my first foray into traveling to far off foreign lands, even if it was only in my imagination. The desire to experience places that were somewhat similar, yet completely unfamiliar was in me at an early age.

That wanderlust is deep in lots of people. Russell Smith, the former winemaker at Becker Vineyards is one of those people.  

I met Smith in July at a public pool in the tiny village of El Molar in the Montsants wine region located in eastern Spain, about two hours south of Barcelona. He was leaning back in his deck chair, a glass of Estrella Damm draft cerveza lazily tucked into his hand, a rumpled fisherman’s hat shading his eyes from the mid-day sun.

He was flanked by his partner, Susan Halseth, who traveled with him from Austin. Smith had the ease of a man on vacation, but this was no vacation. He was there to work. The pool was a short walk from his recently purchased old-vine Cariñena (also known as Carignan) vineyards.

Smith and Halseth had only been in Spain for about a week, and he was reveling in the beauty of the region and relaxed way of life. “This is a dream. I’m as happy as I can be,” he said. “It’s in the top 10 percent of best climates for grape growing and I love the little villages and the people. Everyone is so nice here.”

His dream has been long in the making. Smith first visited Spain right after college in the 1970s and absolutely fell in love with the country. The dream stayed alive and evolved with each stage in his career in the wine industry. He interned at a winery in Germany, worked at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Flora Springs in Napa Valley, made wine at a small Texas winery and had a successful 13 year run as the winemaker at Becker Vineyards.

In that role, he increased the production from 11,000 cases to more than 85,000 cases. With his skills honed through years of practice, it was time to try his hand at doing the familiar in a far off foreign land.

There is no doubt Smith has extensive winemaking experience, but the odds are against him. What in the hell does a Texan know about Spain? Translating his work with grapes grown in the High Plains of Texas to a completely different world in Spain won’t be as easy to translate as recreating his world in a diorama shoe box.

The soil is calcareous clay as powdery as flour, and holds water much better than the sandy loam of Texas. His new vineyards lie at about 1,000 feet in elevation, 20 miles inland from the Mediterranean. The land gently slopes down to the Ebro River that snakes its way to the sea. The Mediterranean climate is more temperate than the continental climate of Texas.

Helping Smith translate his Texan drawl and wine know-how to Catalan language and Spanish winemaking is where Sumpta Mateos comes in. She is his muchachas-guías. Mateos, a professor of enology at Rovira i Virgili University in the province of Tarragona, is serving as his vineyard management and winemaking consultant in Spain as Smith embarks on a new adventure in life.

We walked the rows of 40 and 60-year-old gnarled Cariñena vines jutting out of the cake-mix dirt, like Texas cedar fence posts topped with tufts of green leaves and green grapes. As we walked, Mateos explained, “Grape-growing knowledge has been passed down for generations in this rural community. Some of that information is good and some of it is useless fiction.”

That’s where her degree in enology (the science and study of all aspects of wine and winemaking) and viticulture (the study of the cultivation of grapes) comes in handy. It’s not enough to know that the cool evenings mean that the grapes will mature with good acidity. You have to know exactly when to pick those grapes to get around 24 to 25 Brix and 3.5 to 4 pH to make the best quality wine. That know-how is the mezclarse of science and insight passed down for generations.   

Smith intends to produce about 760 cases of red and white wine with the grapes grown in his vineyards and sourced from neighboring vineyards this year and next. The plan is to sell the wine primarily in the U.S. and possibly some in Germany in 2014.

Fast forward to September: Smith is still in good spirits in the midst of harvest. “Everything here is going as well or better than I had hoped.” He harvested a one hectare vineyard of 14 year-old, pristine, organic Garnatxa (aka Grenache) in a neighboring village on Labor Day. He is harvesting his own Cariñena this week. I guess a Texan can make it as a wine grape grower in Spain.

He and Halseth also enjoy the daily life as much as they expected. “I´ve spent a fair amount of time in Spain over the years. The lifestyle here in rural Cataluña suits us perfectly. All the folks in El Masroig have been friendly and welcoming in spite of our rudimentary castellano. Our greatest frustration is the language, since many people here prefer to speak Catalan. As soon as the grapes are in, I plan to really bear down on my language skills.”

While it appears that Spain and Smith are getting along well, we will have to wait a couple of years to judge whether his winemaking skills have fared as well in the new environment. I sampled three of Mateo's wines, giving me an idea of the quality of wine that she and Smith may produce.

The Don Ferranti Tinto, a blend of Tempranillo, Garnatxa and Cariñena; Don Ferranti White, a blend of white Garnatxa and Macabeo and Don Ferranti Oaked, white Garnatxa aged in French oak barrels, were all approachable and enjoyable wines. If Smith’s yet-to-be-named wines are as easy-drinking and food-friendly, he should sell out the small lots immediately.   

Sometimes after being in a place that is unfamiliar, we long for home. He says, “We really miss our friends and family but try to stay connected through Skype and email. Also, speaking of home, I could really dig a plate of Polvos’ enchiladas right now.”

He and Halseth will return to Austin temporarily in November before heading back to Spain for another growing season, harvest and bottling of his Spanish wine. I expect in his second season, there will be fewer things unfamiliar for this Texan winemaker in Spain.