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Lone Star Winemaking: Interview with Nic Compton of Bell Springs

Bell Spring winemaker Nic Compton

In our previous interview with Bell Springs Winery owner Nate Pruitt, he talked of his love for his home wine region of Paso Robles, and the need to bring talent and infrastructure to Texas wine. It should come as no surprise he went back to Paso Robles to find a full-time winemaker.

Nic Compton has made wine on three continents for names big and small. He brings a traditional, but pragmatic viewpoint well-suited to a rising wine region. The biggest mistake people can make about an up-and-coming wine region is confusing the similarities it has with other wine regions as being a reason to merely duplicate that region. Compton and Bell Springs use other regions as a roadmap, but with a few Texas-sized detours. We sat down with him to discuss his wine journey, his winemaking philosophy, and the future of Bell Springs and Texas wine. As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.

Tell us how you got into wine and your journey to Bell Springs.

My parents were wine drinkers, and some of our vacations as kids were centered around camping around the Central Coast of California. Sometimes we went to Sonoma or Mendocino County, and our parents would go wine tasting once or twice during the week. Seeing that, and the wineries where I grew up, made me aware of wine. Of course, when you are young, you don’t think you are going to be working at winery, but just being around them gave me the awareness. Going into a cellar, seeing what was there, and smelling the smells of a winery, I always enjoyed that.

When I started college, I wanted to do something hands on, but I didn’t know it was winemaking. I thought instead about various subjects like forestry or fisheries. I was accepted to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and they make you pick your major before you start. I ended up picking enology and I was wondering if I made the right choice, but once I made my first batch of wine freshman year, I knew I had made the right choice. I still think that was the best wine I have ever had in my life, though if I had it now, I would probably think it is pretty bad (laughs). But tasting it back then and knowing I made it and going through that process was just amazing.

Cal Poly's motto is "learn by doing" and part of the curriculum was an internship, which I did at J. Lohr. It’s a huge winery, over a million cases a year, mainly reds, and the wines are great. It isn’t a little boutique winery, I was just thrown into it, and it was a trial by fire. The amount of work was extraordinary, and twelve-plus hour days were common. But it instilled in me the hard work you need to do to keep a winery going. Seeing that big production side was so important.

I then worked the 2011 harvest in Austria at a small family winery around an hour north of Vienna. The winery was located in a little village in a valley in the mountains. The family had been making wine for over 200 years, but they were doing it in the modern way. Austrian wines are just amazing, some of my favorites, and it was great to learn winemaking on a smaller scale and the family tradition.

Bell's 2020 vintage in barrel.

After that, I went to New Zealand and worked for Oyster Bay, which is another huge winery mainly known for their Sauvignon Blanc. A place like that, you are only dealing with one main thing all harvest, and I wanted to work with their Pinot Noir, so I did that for a season.

I came back in 2013, and while I had experience and worked for some big names, I felt like it was time for the next step. I went back to Paso Robles, and worked for Eberle Winery. I worked there for five years, left as assistant winemaker, and then came here.

What was the wine that made you realize “this is it?”

Sine Qua Non Syrah out of Ventura County, California. I do this to make wine everyone can enjoy, and the price of that wine is certainly not that, but it is a great wine.

Tell us about a mentor or someone who helped you out a great deal in the industry.

The winemaker at Eberle Winery, by the name of Chris Eberle (no relation to the winery owner Gary Eberle). I learned a lot from him, stuff you just don’t have time to learn in college. He was an excellent teacher, and taught me a lot about what to worry about and what not to worry about.

Having worked in all these wine regions, is there a grape or style that you would love to magically transport back to Texas?

Austrian Gruner Veltliner. That was the wine that gave me the most joy to drink on a regular basis. For a red, Zinfandel from Paso Robles. Zinfandel is a difficult wine to make, almost like a Pinot Noir, with its thin skins. It also ripens unevenly. I would love to do a more understated Zin here, but it doesn’t grow well in Texas.

Here in Texas, we are really starting to make great wines from a lot of the great grapes of the world. I have a Sauvignon Blanc in a tank now we got from West Texas, and while we can’t do the New Zealand style, we can do a California style. But Gruner and Zinfandel, those two wines, they are unique.

What is your winemaking philosophy?

I like to do as much as I can early in the life of the wine, even before it becomes wine. Treating it early if it needs it is key. You don’t want to adjust things a year after it ferments. But then I want to let it ride for a while. I am not a non-interventionist by any means, but I only want to do what I need to do when I have to. If the wine isn’t presenting any issues, letting it ride will often sort it out.

Grapes in the Lubbock vineyard.

I came from Paso Robles, which is another hot climate, and you do have your fair share of issues there. But coming here, and I don’t want this to sound in any way gloating or naïve, I didn’t think it would be this easy to make good wine in Texas. I thought I was going to have mold issues and influence from the Gulf, but that is not a problem. You do have to deal with the variability of the harvests. 2019 was dictated by heat and then cold, and in 2020 because of the cold we had a very small harvest. We ended up in 2020 with half the volume of wines compared to the previous year but the color was much darker. It is challenging but fun to be dealing with something this different every year, which you really don’t see in California. But the fruit is really strong.

What is your oaking philosophy?

I want it to be seamless. You do not want oak to stick out. I try and keep all the whites stainless or neutral barreled. For the reds, I use Hungarian, French, and American, and a few are Hungarian heads and American body. Texas reds are usually not as full-bodied as some other reds, so balance is key, and you don’t want to overoak, so I use a lot of neutral barrels. That has the added advantage of requiring less oaking and keeping our costs down.

This is the first time I have really been able to use Hungarian oak. Hungarian oak is used a lot in Spain for Tempranillo, which is a very popular red here. You have to have a Tempranillo in Texas. I am not sure how that started, but it is the unwritten rule it seems. So, I gave it a shot, and it is amazing. It is very aggressive at first, but over a few years, it mellows out. Hungarian oak isn’t as subtle and nuanced as French oak but it gives you a great balance between the structure driven and sweeter oak tones you get from American Oak and the more toasty, bready notes you get from the French oak. It also really seems to firm up the mid-palate, and isn’t as aggressive in the finish as an American oak.

I am open to trying new things, and I get the freedom here to do that. There is talk of great barrels coming out of Romania, and I would love to try those soon. The advantage of being in Texas is there is no established style of anything. You get to experiment and maybe you will be the one setting the new standard.

What is a big misconception of Texas wine?

That we are all just a bunch of cowboy winemakers who don’t know what we are doing. We have a lot of talented winemakers here who know exactly what we’re doing, and we are gathering more and more talent to get better and better. We just need to really figure out what grapes work best for us and get them into the best sites.

Our grapes come from Lubbock, and that is a six-hour drive. This isn’t Paso, where I could literally walk outside into the vineyards. You have to really rely on other folks here, and that creates a lot more trust than you will find on the West Coast.

You make an Alicante Bouschet, a grape that has undergone quite a revival lately. What do you enjoy about it?

First off, the color is amazing. Color can be a struggle with grapes in Texas. Whenever you have a wine that is lacking in color, a little bit of that to the blend will boost it right up. It is one of the few grapes that is a tienturier, meaning it has red flesh as well as red and very thick skins. It reminds me of Petite Sirah, but it has this racy gaminess to it. The first time I smelled one I immediately thought of aged tequila. The one I made in 2020 was more muted, but even at less than full ripeness it shows really well. They also age extremely well, and I think as more people plant it, it is going to be a real star in Texas.

If people outside of Texas know anything about Texas wine, it is often just that they grow Tempranillo. It seems to take up all the airtime these days. Are there any sleeper varietals we should know about that you think will become a flagship varietal?

Viognier is pretty well known by the people here, but maybe not so much by people out of state. Chenin Blanc is another grape that has a tremendous amount of potential. We make both of them, and are actually going to do a blend of them this year.

Montepulciano is another one that is just so consistent for us. Last year, when the production was cut in half, it just made an inky viscous wine that is going to age so well. It is one of the last ones we harvest, so there a danger of a late freeze, but it also blooms later as well, so we are typically safe from spring frosts.

I just don’t see Texas Cabernet Sauvignon becoming a thing, but Merlot does very well here as well. Problem is, it’s not really a “sexy varietal” so selling it becomes a challenge.

Looking at your wine list, it just seems very deliberate. Every varietal seems to be chosen with such care. How do you do that?

Some of that is experience. Paso Robles has some of the same climate. Dry, hot days, cool nights. So, I know what is going to do well. But just talking to people and tasting the wines here you draw opinions.

This year, I am going to give Cabernet Sauvignon a try. It has been a long time since we have done that, if ever. It will cost us more per ton than out of state fruit, but if you want to be 100% Texas fruit, you have to do these things.

Is a fortified wine in the cards?

I would love to do a Port-style. Once we carve out more space, we will likely see where that can fit in.

What personal advice would you give your younger self knowing what you know now.

Bell grapes after destemming.

Stick with it and be patient. Unless you are born into it, it takes a while and a lot of hard work in this industry to get to where you are happy.

Do you see yourself opening a winery one day?

Maybe one day. It would be a small one, and I haven’t really thought about the greater details, but perhaps. It just wasn’t possible in California, and one of the reasons I came here was the potential of having my own brand is much greater. But as for right now, Nate gives me a tremendous amount of freedom to make what I want to make, and it is the best of both worlds.

What do you drink when you go home at night?

Depends on the day. We have a lot of great distilleries around here, and sometimes it is whiskey. Bell Springs makes beer as well, and sometimes I will have one of those. With dinner a glass of wine.