Texas Focus: Q&A with Nate Pruitt of Bell Springs Winery
Stop us if you’ve heard this before. Guy makes a name for himself in tech and decides to open a winery.
Yeah, we’ve heard it plenty too, and quite frankly, the results haven’t always been good. That’s why our conversation with Nate Pruitt, owner of Bell Springs Winery, in Dripping Springs, Texas (a half-hour outside Austin) was so refreshing.
Raised in the then-emerging wine country of Paso Robles, Pruitt never forgot home, and in our chat, it was evident he is trying to bring a little Paso Robles to Texas. He took the lessons he learned from making wine and beer at home and opened Bell Springs to the public in 2010. In the decade since, a slow and steady growth strategy has allowed him to make a name for Bell Springs, open a sister brewery in 2018, and turn an old house in downtown Dripping Springs into The Sidecar Tasting Room.
This is the first of three stories we will feature about Bell Springs. We will publish our conversation with their winemaker, Nic Compton, next week, as well as review a few of their wines.
As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us how you got into wine and your journey to opening Bell Springs.
I am a Central Coast kid, born in San Luis Obispo, California. I worked at an Italian restaurant bottling olive oil and distributing it to thirteen wineries in Paso Robles, which were pretty much all the wineries they had back in the early 90s, as opposed to the hundred plus there now. I didn’t grow up in a wine family or in a real wine background, but I was around it.
I then lived in San Francisco for around six years, and would often visit Napa. Technology and software was my main job then. I then starting making wine and beer as a hobby, around 100 gallons a year. Then I made the move to Texas to run a software company, and started going with my then-girlfriend, now wife, to some of the Texas Hill Country wineries. There weren’t a lot of them, and, quite frankly, they weren’t that good at the time. This is 2005-2007 range. It got me thinking if I were to do something else, something on the wine side, now would be the time. We started the winery in Dripping Springs, right outside of Austin, in 2008. I made the wine for a few years and we opened a small tasting room in 2010. It was very organic, I didn’t go to school for it or anything, but here I am.
Tell me more about the wine scene in Texas when you first came here in 2005-2007.
There just weren’t a lot of wineries here, especially in the Hill Country. There were a handful of the big boys around the Fredericksburg area. Then you had this small pocket, more vineyards than wineries, five hours away in the Lubbock area. By the way, most of the fruit for Texas wineries now comes from the Lubbock area.
You would go into the wineries, and you would typically find one or two wines on a list of eight to ten were palatable. But it wasn’t anything like I was used to tasting in California or Washington State. It wasn’t even in the same ballpark. But what started happening is people like me, people who had never went to school for wine but had a passion, arrived and started to make wine.
The other issue is the infrastructure here in Texas is 10-12 years behind California in terms of people and equipment. When I started, I had to hand bottle everything. There were no bottling trucks, no places to store wine, no custom crush. You had to go out of state to even buy tanks. Just getting equipment was a challenge, and that wasn’t too long ago.
Fast forward to today, and nearly every winery you go to, all the wines are solid, balanced, done properly, and you can tell the chemistry is in line. It may not be my perfect wine, and I am not saying I love all Texas wine, but they all tend to be well balanced. And almost all of our wineries are 100% Texas fruit.
Was there a wine that made you realize “this is it?”
In Paso Robles, it is just one of my favorite areas. Not just because I grew up there, but because there are some fantastic winemakers there. They don’t have to do much to grow perfect grapes compared to Texas. Two grapes there really stood out. Mourvèdre, when Paso really started to make those, and their Tannat. Those two Paso varietals really got me into wine. And on the white side, which really prepared for the transition to Texas, Vermentino. I was very familiar with all the classics, but those three grapes, they really opened my eyes to the diversity in wine grapes.
Tell us about the name Bell Springs
We are in Dripping Springs, around 25 minutes from Austin. It has become the corridor between Fredericksburg and Austin. In 2010, there was one winery and one distillery on our road, which is Bell Springs Road. Now there are over fifty wineries, breweries, and distilleries in the Dripping Springs area. So, being the marketing genius I am I named the winery after the road we sit on (laughs).
Tell us the broad details of Bell Springs. Acreage, case production, and number of employees
We have around a third of an acre of grapes on the property, more for testing purposes than anything. We have space to grow on the vineyard side, but growing grapes and making wine are two distinct skills, and I have chosen to not venture into that side. More than 90% of our fruit comes from the Lubbock High Plains area. We also have a few local vineyards where we take all their fruit.
We make around 6,500 cases a year. 100% direct to consumer, so no distribution. Pre-Covid, we had around 23 employees.
Tell us about the geography and weather of Dripping Springs and also the Lubbock area where you get your grapes.
We are in Hill Country. If you are in Austin and want to get out and do stuff, we are your gateway. There is so much food, art, outdoor activities, and now, booze.
People think of Texas, and they think flat, dusty, lots of tumbleweeds. Austin is one the four major metros, and we have rolling hills, definitely not mountains, but hilly, with lots of lakes. We have lots of elevation, are in the mid-90s most of the summer, with very little humidity. We don’t hit 100° on a regular basis, so we are a bit cooler than many parts of the state. And with the exception of the freeze this year, it is mild. Today, it is 80° degrees (Editor’s Note: this interview took place March 27, 2021).
Precipitation wise, it is pretty consistent, though we have lake issues lately due to drought. In this area, we can pretty much grow any varietal in the ground. But the problem is the vines like to go to sleep and we can’t provide that. We don’t have the 30° day and night temperature swings vines really want. It is 95° during the day, and mid-80s at night. The grapes will grow, but you won’t get high-quality fruit.
Lubbock, they do get those temperature swings. It reminds me a lot of Paso Robles, where it might get to 110° during the day but at night it is 70°. The second thing they have going for them is they have no trees, which means no birds, which means no nets and no loss. Here in the Hill Country, we have so many trees and birds, which is another challenge to grow fruit. Another big problem we have in Texas is the winds and pesticide drift, which can really do a number on vines.
Do you get any assistance from any Texas universities?
Not really. Texas Tech has a wine program, and they do promote resources. But we haven’t got a lot from them.
That is discouraging, since there are literally hundreds of obscure Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varietals that may be perfect for Texas, but it doesn’t seem anyone is testing them so wineries don’t have to (similar to what Purdue does for Indiana).
I know Texas Tech has a small plot in Fredericksburg, but we don’t get anything from them saying “these are the varietals you should be growing or you should consider.”
It is frustrating, and I want to emphasize this is just my perspective. But I do think we haven’t been supported enough by the state. We are a good percentage of the tourism and agriculture industry, especially in our growing area. If you look at what is happening in Lubbock, generations of farmers who have grown cotton and peanuts, many are slowly devoting acres to grapes. You can get $800-900 a ton for cotton, and $2,000 a ton for grapes. But the state doesn’t really support us from vine all the way to the finished product. It seems like we are always battling something as opposed to working together. I am not asking for free money, but some of the taxes and regulations really make it hard for us small producers. People talk about what a friendly state Texas is to do business in, but I literally have to have two winery licenses and two brewery licenses because I have two facilities seven miles apart, and that also means double the record keeping I have to do. The federal requirements are much easier.
What is the biggest misconception about Texas wine?
There are two main things. People think we just make sweet or off-dry wine, and that is all Texans want. The second misconception is we aren’t making good wine. Just about every varietal that comes out of California or Washington, we grow and make here. Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Vermentino, Alicante Bouschet, and Montepulciano, those are all being grown and made here and they are solid dry wines that can compete with anyone.
You’re a wine region that has been getting a lot of attention lately. What are the ups and downs of that?
In any growing community like Dripping Springs there can be some issues. When I moved here, we had one stoplight and no grocery store. One of the biggest struggles for people is the growth. This industry has brought a lot of people and attention to the area, and a lot of people have moved to the area. We have tripled in population in the last fifteen years. Sometimes you hear, “don’t talk about Dripping Springs, we don’t want people to know about us.” I live here and I own businesses here. I want people to know about us. I want tourism. Our tourism board has done a tremendous job of promotion, which has fueled a lot of positive things.
When we came here, we didn’t get a lot of pushback. The people who lived here when we opened, they are the ones who sustained us in those early years. I would be lying if I didn’t sometimes look back wistfully on the quaintness of those early days when now on a Saturday, we have huge buses dropping off people, and 600 or so people on the lawn, but that is not a complaint at all. But I don’t know the right answer when it comes to growth.
Tell us more about weekends at Bell Springs. You seem to be taking full advantage of Austin’s famed music scene and have become a cultural destination.
From day one, it’s what I set out to do. Every winery has its own vibe, and I want to give visitors my vision. Wine tasting is about the experience. I have gone to several wineries where I didn’t necessarily love the wine, but I loved the vibe and experience. This is a generalization, but Fredericksburg has so many great wineries and places to go, but the landscape there is more drive down a single road and find wineries on the left and right. If you come here, we are like Sonoma or the westside of Paso Robles, where you come over gentle hills and find us.
We are more laidback here; it is not as structured. We have plenty of places to bring blankets and chairs. People are throwing frisbees on the lawn and listening to the live music we have on Saturdays. There is a chef onsite for food. It is a place to hang out with your friends. This place is literally my backyard. I used to live in the property we now use as the brewery taproom. So having visitors here, they are my guests.
You transitioned from winemaker/owner to hiring a full-time winemaker (Nic Compton, who we will hear from next week). Tell us about the transition. Is there a part of the winemaking process you really miss?
I miss all of it. I was a one man show for the first three or four years, doing everything and working a full-time job. There were lots of long days and evenings. Go home, hug the wife, have dinner, and then to the winery until 3 in the morning doing whatever we needed to do. It got to the point where we just kept having consistent growth and I was doing operations, scheduling, making wine, repairs, going from 300 to 4,000 cases a year, with twelve employees. It just made sense to bring someone in, and I always aspired to bring someone in from my home area of Paso Robles. I am an art and science winemaker, I shoot from the hip. I didn’t go to school for this. Chemistry is not my biggest strength; I consider myself to be a supertaster who can spot flaws in the wine.
The transition was easy, thanks to Nic being a phenomenal wine maker, and the trust was there from day one. I still participate on a regular basis. I may not be doing punchdowns or running the bottling line, but I am around to provide help as needed and give my two cents. But this is Nic’s show now. I am just a resource for him to come to.
Tell us about the Sidecar Tasting Room.
That is around seven to eight minutes from us in the town of Dripping Springs. It is a wine and beer bar with indoor and outdoor space. It is an old house in the historic downtown, and we remodeled it into a Mission-style bar with lit copper ceilings. We have music and food like the winery, but the urban setting makes it different in a great way.
I made the decision a long time ago I wasn’t going to distribute. I just never wanted to be part of the grocery store wine scene. So many of those wines aren’t even made by the winery, they’ve been sitting on the shelf for who knows how long, and there is just an endless sea of wine. Plus, if you distribute, you have to invest in it, and you have to make more wine with lower margins. If you don’t distribute, you can make less wine which you can hopefully sell at higher margins, but you do have to create a way to sell more wine and beer. So, we created another place we owned and controlled to sell wine and beer out of, and that is how Sidecar came to be.
How did you weather the recent winter storm? How did the vineyards fare?
We were good. We had some pipe issues, but from a facility perspective, we did ok. We lost some power, but lack of power with wine is a much bigger deal in the summer than in the winter. Of course, we weren’t able to open for a few weeks, but if you have to do this any year, might as well do it this year, and just lump it in with COVID.
The last growers report showed the vines were mostly sleeping when the freeze happened, but some of the white wine varietals may show a bit less ability to snap back. We are just now getting into bud break, so the next month or so will show us what it did to the crops.
Editor's Note: Reports continue to be optimistic.
How did you weather COVID? You were fortunate to have the expansive outdoor space to allow customers to socially distance. But you don’t distribute, and curbside service might be a stretch for a lot of your customers.
There’s a couple of things. I was in a different position than a lot of small businesses in that I wasn’t leasing the space. I own the property and I didn’t have to raise a bunch of money and go in debt to start the winery. I have grown organically. I learned that from my dad, if you earn a dollar, you can spend a dollar. So, when COVID hit, I wasn’t strapped and could weather a storm. Sidecar was shut down pretty much the entire time, we only reopened a few months ago. But owning the real estate, there was little overhead. The big issue is we couldn’t keep as many employees. I was able to keep the majority on and we had enough business outside with some modifications to make ends meet. We also have a loyal and growing wine and beer club, which also helped. It hasn’t been a great year, but it wasn’t the disaster it could have been.
If you are an adaptable business and employ smart people, you can change things and come up with processes that will help you survive. We have done some things as a result of this that made us more efficient and we will likely keep those after this is all over.
Suppose you are about to meet the younger Nate who just got into his head the idea to start a winery. Knowing what you know now, what do you tell him?
Don’t do it (laughs). Seriously, the whole thing about needing to have a large fortune to make a small fortune in the wine business, there is some truth there. A lot of people have done it like me, I am not unique in that perspective, but I think there are two types of paths for a winery. You can either grow organically and keep it small, or go bigger and share the risk with partners. I wanted to do it small and not press on the gas too hard. I have a software background, so I am very aware of raising venture capital, but that way was not for me. We have had some new wineries come into the area, which is something I really love, because it helps lift the whole area. My advice to them is stay in your lane, don’t get overextended. So many wineries get caught up in the sexiness of the industry, thinking you have to have the biggest, baddest equipment and everything else, but it can get you in trouble.
Also know wine is a generational thing. You won’t make money overnight. You are waiting at least a year before you can serve a wine and start to make money, and that’s if it tastes good. We require the most patience of the alcohol triangle. You can distill in the morning, bottle in the afternoon. You can brew and, in a month, you’ll have beer. But wine is a patient game. A lot of people coming into the business don’t realize that.
You are unique because you make both beer and wine. We don’t see that often, as they are two divergent skill sets.
It is hard. Anyone can make beer; it is relatively straightforward. It is a bit more work up front than wine, with the boil and hops and fermentation, but it is much quicker. You also have ample opportunity to brew beer, so you can more quickly hone your brewing skills, but with wine you get one harvest a year. With beer you have to hit your numbers and your consistency, which isn’t always easy. Our brewer is phenomenal, but it is a skill to make consistent beer. When someone comes in for your beer, they want the beer to taste exactly the same batch after batch. That is our challenge.
There is more intervention in wine. You could add yeast to grapes, and you may very well have some decent wine, but it takes skill to make it great. And as far as consistency, you never know what you are going to get from the raw product. You can get Merlot from the same vineyard in a different year and it’s going to be completely different due to the weather. No vintage is going to be the same, but your customers don’t expect your 2018 to taste like your 2020. Those minor differences are part of the beauty of it. Of course, the winemaker has tools like what kind of oak, what kind of barrels, and so on. You have to be somewhat consistent but keep the personality. We have the luxury of being smaller and not being bound to a certain profile like the big box wines have to be. We can put some of our Merlot in Hungarian oak, some in American, and then blend some. So there is more freedom.
Where do you see Texas wine in ten years?
COVID really threw a wrench into things, but even before that, I actually think a lot of people had gotten in the Texas wine industry without their eyes wide open. There is a very clear set of winery owners that got into this thinking “I want to do something big, so I will just make wine.” Generally, they aren’t doing so well right now, and some are for sale, though COVID played a role as well.
On the flip side, I think there is a core group of 85% or so of our wineries in the Hill Country and Fredericksburg area, where the growth has been really steady, with a core group of wineries making great wine and getting better every year. We are bringing in talent from the outside, like the winemaker we brought in from Paso Robles. We are bringing in more infrastructure and elevating everyone’s game.
We are never going to be California in terms of the infrastructure and the amount of wine because it is just a different experience. But I don’t see any reason why soon we won’t be the second largest wine producing state. We are right on the heels of New York now, and I think we will move past Washington and Oregon in the next decade. Texas is a big state, and there’s a lot of people and a lot of demand for wine. I think our wines are going to rival anything out there. Just like anywhere, you have to go out there and experience the wines and get a taste of the dirt. Our Sangiovese is going to taste different than a California Sangiovese. Our wines will have a bit of Texas flair, but they will stand up to the best.
What do you drink when you go home at night?
An Old-fashioned is one of my favorites. Red wine with a steak. I am also on a Merlot kick right now. Texas Merlot is just great right now. If I am just drinking wine by itself, it is a buttery oaky Chardonnay. Our Chardonnay is stainless steel, but a buttery oaky Chardonnay reminds me of home. For a beer, I love a good Pilsner. I have been drinking a lot of light lagers lately.
What is a wrong assumption people often make about the wine industry?
People assume if you own a winery you are the wealthiest person around. I would completely reverse that, and say we are some of the hardest working people around. This is just really hard work. Sure, you have downtime for a few months in the winter, but it is not all sexy and glamourous like some would think. There are a lot of people who get seriously injured in this industry, and several who have died, and that is certainly not a question people ask. You have to really enjoy the craft of making wine to make it in this industry.