In Recess

A Good Pour

A Lubbock attorney and her family produce award-winning wine in Texas’ own “Napa Valley”

Interview By Eric Quitugua

Photo of Elizabeth Hill Holding a glass of wine
Elizabeth Hill co-owns Burklee Hill Vineyards near Lubbock, where she, along with her husband, Chace, oversees production of wine from grape to glass and uses her skills as a lawyer to navigate permits and compliance matters.

 

Every March, growing season for winemakers in Levelland begins. The grapes used to make the wine—harvested the previous August and September—are crushed and pressed; then the transformation of grape to a malbec or tempranillo begins as juice is removed from the fermented fruit and stored away for aging. For white wines, it can take six to nine months before everything is ready for bottling, and for red wines, around a year, according to Elizabeth Hill, wine law attorney and co-owner of Burklee Hill Vineyards in Levelland. Since meeting her husband, Chace, whose family had already been ingrained in the area’s industry, Hill fell in love with making wine. “There is something so rewarding about seeing it from grape to glass,” she told the Texas Bar Journal.

Why wine?
There’s something incredible about wine. It has ancient origins and after all, it is the subject of biblical miracles. It even has health benefits. As a grower, it’s really special to grow the fruit, nurture the fruit, and refine the fruit into a glass. As a wine drinker, it’s a delight to taste the dimension and complexity of the grape in a glass. As I often say, wine not?

What equipment do you need to make wine?
There are many pieces of equipment needed, beginning with a crusher, de-stemmer, and press to remove the juice from the grapes. Then, wine goes into either tanks or barrels, typically. But we have actually used clay pots in aging of our GSM (a blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre). There are many innovative techniques in aging being used, and oak barrels are not the only way to age wine.

What are the conditions like for growing grapes in the Levelland area?
The Texas High Plains, where Levelland is located, is just west of Lubbock. We have hot days and relatively cool nights, which allow the grapes to ripen during the day and cool off to rest at night. Even the wind here is helpful by moving water away from the grapes when the clusters are ripening. One of the greatest threats to wine grapes late in the season is mildew due to late rains and humidity. Luckily, our dry climate helps to prevent those problems and we are able to grow robust clusters. We once had a viticulturist visit from Napa Valley who said that our growing region might present better conditions than Napa because we do occasionally get some rain.

How do you know if a sample you made is ready for the public? What doesn’t make the cut?
It is a process of tasting with several people, including our winemaker, to determine what is ready to bottle and what should age longer. Sometimes, it’s a tough call, but so far, we’ve been really pleased with the bottled wines. One myth that we enjoy breaking is the belief that an older wine is always a better wine. In 2017, our malbec won Best of Class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest competition of American wines. Our malbec was first selected as one of the eight double gold winners. Then it was tasted again to determine that it was the Best of Class of the eight top wines. Our malbec was the youngest and least expensive of all of the top eight wines.

You practice wine and vineyard law. What does that entail?
I assist wineries with regulatory matters, including permitting and compliance. It’s a highly regulated industry and consequently, presents challenges to wineries, especially new wineries. Additionally, both vineyard and winery law present issues in contracts and labor. I’ve also handled several spray drift cases where vineyards were hit with harmful herbicides.

What are some recurring things you’ve had to navigate in these types of cases?
Contractual issues repeatedly come up. Unfortunately, this industry often uses verbal contracts or contracts that were not drafted by an attorney. Vague contractual provisions become an issue when a grape crop is different in quality than expected due to weather or a variety of other factors. Wineries and vineyards can end up in a dispute due to ill or undefined terms.

Any pro tips on wine etiquette?
A few easy tips to remember: Grip the glass by the stem. The purpose is to avoid interference in the temperature of the wine. When tasting wines, start with dry whites, then transition to dry reds, and finish with sweet wines. My biggest tip is to give Texas wines a try if you haven’t already.

Here are some hypothetical scenarios and I’ll ask which of your wines goes great with them: A) You’ve come home to a quiet evening and it’s just you, a porch, and a good book; B) You’re a plus-one at a wedding of peo-ple you don’t know but they are playing ’90s R&B; and C) You’re at a wedding and hear “Rains of Castamere” playing (or you just watched the eighth season of Game of Thrones).

A) Any porch this time of year calls for a great rosé. Our dry rosé is crisp and fruity and perfect to enjoy on a porch with a good book.

B) Whoa. This setting definitely calls for something bold. Our cabernet sauvignon is full bodied and fruit forward with notes of blackberry and peppercorn.

C) Well, after the eighth season, I felt a significant lack of satisfaction. Nothing satisfies better than our FM 303, named for the farm road where the vineyard sits. It’s a blend of malbec and merlot, balancing the fruit-forward notes of malbec with the savory flavors of merlot.

Tyrion Lannister spoke of one day having his own vineyard, where he’ll make a wine called Imp’s Delight. What do you think that is? And if you could make your own wine for Tyrion, what would it be?
Our GSM reminds me of an ancient European wine. It’s rich and earthy, and every sip seems like it should be taken from a jeweled goblet. I think Tyrion would approve. TBJ

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