Another update on Calais winery, the Texas winery that Hatch contributor Rebecca Marmaduke loves to love
Deep Ellum had a carnival-like atmosphere on the Saturday morning I arrived early for my meeting with Benjamin Calais to talk to him about his Dallas winery and impending move to the Hill Country. I had some time to kill and some carbs to waddle off, coming off of a gigantic brunch at Jonathan’s Oak Cliff, and so lucky for me, the Deep Ellum Market was in full swing.
There was the usual gaggle of soap mongers, screen-printed t-shirts, and food trucks, and a lone musician was serenading the shoppers through an amplifier. But the thing that drew me in like a magpie was the shiny bling at the table of Far Fetched Imports. As I oo’d and ah’d over the rings and pendants, I chatted up the proprietor, Barbara Tamang (who doesn’t have an active website at the time of this post).
Barbara had been a tenant of the 2800 block of Elm for 19 years when developers came in recently and bought it all up. Businesses who had been long-time lessees suddenly found themselves without store fronts when they were basically sent packing. A sad story, and reminiscent of another conversation I’d recently had with a restaurant owner from the Knox-Henderson area.
I wondered if Benjamin would tell me a similar tale of displacement when I wandered back down Commerce Street to meet with him.
“I don’t want to dwell on that,” he said adamantly as we sat down to talk. “It’s done, and we’re moving on.”
Duly noted, and kudos to him for looking ahead. He did explain that he’d lost his skirmish with the City of Dallas to expand his wine-making enterprise, and that prompted him to look for the best possible location. That’s how he decided that Hye, Texas (just north of Fredericksburg) would be the new home to his state-of-the-art, custom-built Calais winery. The final day on Commerce Street in Dallas would be June 28.
I’d first met Benjamin briefly about 3 years ago as I took the Dallas Wine Trail tour. It was a pretty interesting story to me back then, how a Frenchmen named Calais from Calais was making wine called Calais in Dallas. I asked him to refresh my memory.
“I came here to Dallas with my employer. I was an IT security software designer, and I started making wine. Eventually I was working as a consultant, and the flexibility of that allowed me to devote more time to wine making, and within three years, I was able to devote myself exclusively to wine making.”
Within four years, he went from producing about 25 cases to bottling 500 cases. In a good year, he might produce 1000 cases. That’s the thing about trying to making wine from Texas grapes—you have to be able to put out about 1000 cases every other year because the terroir is so challenging that you have to be prepared to survive some pretty lean years.
So then, why, I asked him, bother with Texas grapes? Why not truck in from California, as he did early on while his vineyards in the High Plains were getting established.
“Because it doesn’t make sense from a business model. Putting the best Texas grapes in the tanks will help the industry. The commitment to making world-class Texas wines serves everyone in the long run.”
That’s what I’d been hearing from the other wine makers I’d spoken with.
Benjamin mentioned that he has several friends already producing wine in the Hye vicinity, which means that they can share best practices and resources like refrigerated trucks, a transportation necessity for the brutal Texas summers. It was another motivating factor.
I was starting to feel the pain of loss sitting across from Benjamin, especially when I sampled his third vintage of Roussanne, which was absolutely exquisite with aromas of black tea, pear, and mineral with a long finish. I saw the look of satisfaction on the wine maker’s face as I pulled a sip, and my own face revealed surprise, wonder, and awe—it was silky, balanced, and elegant, unlike any white wine I’d tried in a long time.
Benjamin is particularly proud of his Roussanne, which comes from Tablas Creek vines that were brought to Texas—a bit of Châteauneuf-du-Pape by way of Paso Robles, for those of you wanting to dig further. Last year in blind tastings, Calais Roussane held its own with Beaucastel, a legendary Rhone vintage and among Benjamin’s personal favorite wines. It was a very proud moment for him.
I should clarify that Calais isn’t a region of France known for its wine-making. Benjamin says he comes from a little farming town with a population of about 250.
“I came from nowhere, and I’m going back to nowhere,” he said.
He may be right, but I’m certain of one thing—his wines are definitely going places.