By: Nan McCreary
Deep in the heart of Texas, located in the piney woods and rolling hills surrounding Plantersville, is a small boutique winery that offers visitors not just an opportunity to taste quality Texas wines in a picturesque setting but also to experience the wines of the ancients, be it Mavrud from Bulgaria or Limiona from Greece.
“It’s fascinating to me that these are the grapes enjoyed thousands and thousands of years ago by ancient ancestors like Spartacus, Aristotle, Homer and Alexander the Great,” winery founder Jerry Bernhardt told The Grapevine Magazine. “I’m always sniffing out indigenous wines that are experiencing a revival today and adding them to our selection.”
Bernhardt’s “selection” includes 33 varieties of traditional wines sourced primarily from grapes and juice throughout Texas, as well as the seven ancient grapes in its Antiquity Wine Curation. The Texas wines fulfill Bernhardt Winery’s mission “to provide our customers with quality wines and a fun tasting experience in a warm environment,” while the Antiquity series takes the love of wine to an entirely new level. That mission is “to find indigenous varieties as close to the genetic original and grown in the same terroir as in ancient times. We hope to recreate a shared communal experience of our ancestors such as love, passion, family and celebration through the tasting of these age-old wine.” Based on the number of visitors to the winery and wine sales and awards, Jerry Bernhardt and his team have surpassed expectations in both missions.
Bernhardt opened his namesake winery in 2005 as, he laughed, “a retirement project gone wrong.” He had always wanted to know more about wine, he said, so as a former engineer and builder, he understood that the best way to learn was to “just go do it or build it.” And so he did. He and his wife began making home-made wine, and he spent two years interning with the pioneering winemakers in nearby Fredericksburg, the Texas Hill Country home to over 50 vineyards and wineries today. One of his mentors was the French-born Bénédicte Rhyne, winemaker at Kuhlman Cellars in Stonewall and international wine consultant. He and Rhyne still maintain a partnership today.
When Bernhardt opened his doors, he offered four wines, all with grapes or juice sourced from Texas vineyards: A red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon), a white wine (Blanc du Bois), a Rosé (made from red and white grapes) and a Port, a barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon fortified with brandy and aged for a year in a proprietary barrel. The first year’s production was 900 gallons, or around 370 cases. Today, Bernhardt produces 15,000 gallons annually, or over 6,100 cases.
As he’s grown, Bernhardt has not strayed from his commitment to produce quality wines. In his quest for excellence and diversity, he diligently oversees and harvests Blanc Du Bois and a few rows of Black Spanish from 1.5 acres on his 20-acre property, and sources the rest from reliable, tried-and-true vineyards. He and his winemaker, his nephew Jonathan Schrock, select grapes and juice carefully, always based on quality. “What we produce depends on the year,” Schrock explained. “In Texas, we have good years and bad years. If the quality is there, we may source 100 percent from an area. But if it isn’t, we will go elsewhere. It all depends on the quality, and whether we can get it here safely without oxidation or other flaws.”
While the wines Bernhardt produces in Texas require careful oversight, the bottles shipped from Bulgaria and Greece come from trusted winemakers who have benefited from financial support, training and promotional opportunities provided by their local government. Since visiting the Plantersville winery in 2017, the Bulgarians have developed a solid relationship with Bernhardt, and are eager for Americans to experience the quality of wines coming from these ancient regions. As importers, Bernhardt Winery simply promotes and sells the wine. “They are so good,” he said, “they fly off the shelves. We sell out of everything we import.”
Currently, Bernhardt imports 30,000 bottles of wine annually in his Antiquity collection. The Bulgarian wines include: Mavrud, regarded as the one of the most highly esteemed wines in Bulgaria, with evidence of production 7,000 years ago, and possibly an ancient clone of clone of Mourvedre; Sauvignon Blanc, with origins believed to go back 1,000 years; Chardonnay, originally propagated on the Danube River plains by the Romans on their march to France; Rosé Inanna, regarded as the Queen of Heaven and the most popular goddess in all of Mesopotamia, and planted on the same Mesopotamian soil dating back to this ancient time; Cabernet Franc, native to the Loire Valley in France, and an up-and-coming grape that thrives in Bulgaria’s moderate climate; Sangiovese, more ancient than early Rome; and Syrah, an ancient grape with historical records dating back to 20 AD. The one grape from Greece in the Antiquity collection is Limniona, written about by Homer and Aristotle, and currently enjoying a revival in its home region of Thessaly, and increasing popular in Greece and abroad. Each bottle shares the story of the wine on the label.
While Jerry Bernhardt is a big fan of the wines of Bulgaria — known for its diverse microclimates and soils favorable for quality wine production — importing these wines (and the Limniona) fulfills his passion for educating people about wine, plus he sees it as a wise business decision. “I learned very
quickly that diversification is important,” he told The Grapevine Magazine. “With fires and freezes, and other variables, if you only have one source, you’re in trouble. Also, importing these wines gives us another level of top quality products to represent without having to invest millions to increase our capacity. We’re very comfortable where we are.”
Comfortable, yes, but Bernhardt’s not ready to rest on his laurels. He and winemaker Schrock are both self-described “creative” people and continue to push the envelope in search of new products, be they ancient grape varieties or different expressions of Texas fruit. “When we make blends, we may sit down and pull samples from 20 barrels,” Bernhardt said. “We sniff and taste until we find the flavor profile we want. We don’t blend based on what the wine’s going to taste like three or five years from now; My philosophy is to make wines that are designed to drink now.” So far, results of these “experiments” have proved to be very successful. Schrock invented a wine called Black Zinnish, a blend of Black Spanish mixed with Texas Zinfandel, which has been extremely popular. He also came up with Bayou Blend, a unique mix of Texas grapes, bottled in April this year and nearly sold out by July. Yet another best-seller is Cabernet Sauvignon Nouveau, a unique expression of the grape Cabernet Sauvignon that features new fruit without any aging. “We want people to simply taste the fruit itself,” Schrock said.
As Bernhardt moves into the future, customers can expect to taste new blends, particularly those that express differences in oak aging. “We’re using next-generation barrels (made with an oxygen permeable polymer shell) that can be used and reused, with oak coming from very high quality staves,” Schrock explained. “The staves are a ‘recipe,’ depending on the type of oak and the amount of toast we want. We get exposure from all four sides — not just one — and the staves are cut thinner to provide greater surface area for faster extraction.” As Texas grapes become more popular and availability increases, Schrock will have more and more opportunities to express his creativity. “My favorite part of winemaking is the oak aging,” he said. “Playing with the staves gives me such freedom. I can choose staves to open up tannins or structure or I can use blends of new and old oak, for example. I can really experiment and take the wines to the next level. It’s a lot of work, but less work than moving wine from barrel to barrel.”
Whether customers want to sample the best of Texas wines or imagine they’re sharing an ancient wine with Aristotle, Jerry Bernhardt promises guests a fun experience. The Tuscan-Style winery is a blend of old-world charm and modern luxury surrounded by 20 acres of rolling hills and 200-year-old pecan trees. It’s a perfect setting for enjoying a picnic, or any of the musical events the winery hosts on the weekends. “To sum it up, what’s important to us is to give people quality wine and a fun experience in a warm environment. You can find it all here, from local Texas wines to wines from across the world that are tied to our ancestors. For us, it’s all about a human connection. The quality of our shared experiences nudges us emotionally, and that’s what we want to provide. We want to share a story…and share a relationship.”
For more information on Bernhardt Winery, visit www.bernhardtwinery.com