Shaded grapes and underground cellars: How some Hill Country wineries are adjusting to heat, extreme drought

Augusta Vin and Slate Theory wineries working to keep win grape production amid extreme weather conditions

Winemaking is a major economic driver in the Texas Hill Country, but many of those businesses are having to adjust to the early summer heatwave and severe drought conditions.

FREDERICKSBURG, Texas – Winemaking is a major economic driver in the Texas Hill Country, but many of those businesses are having to adjust to the early summer heatwave and severe drought conditions.

According to the USDA’s 2020 Wine Grape Varieties report, the Hill Country region produces the second-largest amount of wine grapes in Texas, behind the High Plains and Panhandle region.

Brian Menconi, General Manager at Augusta Vin Winery, said they are countering the heat by leaving more “canopy” on the vines.

“We’re making sure that our grape clusters are shaded, that none are really directly exposed to sunlight,” said Menconi. “We’re relying a bit more on reflective light, so any other light that’s bouncing off the ground and then coming back on the berries from there.”

But Menconi said another issue has been the drought and ensuring vines get enough water. Gillespie County is currently under the most intense level of drought.

“Another path to success, I think, for us, this year is going to be keeping that water on. As soon as you start restricting water, the grape vines really become overly stressed,” said Menconi. “They’re focusing all their energy on ripening in those clusters. Eventually, they come to the point where they just have to survive. It stops everything, and then they go back into dormancy.”

Menconi said Augusta Vin has two wells dug 400 feet down to pull water from the soil. He said any future water restrictions would likely affect business.

“We’re trying to make sure that the water goes deep into the soil, encouraging those grapevines to continue growing down,” said Menconi. “If the water restrictions do get tight, it definitely presents some challenges. So to counter that, we would have to pull back significantly from the growth that you’re seeing out here.”

Nearly 25 miles from Augusta Vin is Slate Theory, a winery that opened months ago. Co-owner Chase Jones said his younger vines are most vulnerable during extreme weather and severe drought.

“We have a bunch of two- and three-year-olds, so we’re having to water a bunch,” said Jones. “I’m having to try to push a bunch of water, put some nitrogen out to try to get the growth so I can get fruit next year.”

Slate Theory’s owners wanted to beat the heat and triple-digit temperatures by constructing an underground wine cellar, the first of its kind in Texas. It serves as a barrel and tasting room as well.

“It’s definitely a draw. It’s a 10,000-square-foot cellar under the ground. We keep it 61 degrees or so to keep it nice and neutral down there for the wine,” said Jones.

Jones and Menconi say time will tell how the heat and current drought will affect overall taste and prices.

“We’re going to find out pretty soon whether or not those grapes are actually getting more ripe. The numbers are good. We might see an increase in price because of what we’ve had to put out and all the energy we’ve had to put into this vineyard just because of the drought,” said Jones.

“I would definitely look for more concentration in 2022 for those that are able to keep that water on and let it ripen all the way to the end,” said Menconi.

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About the Authors:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.