Wine Time

From Defender of Wily Politicians, Serial Killers and Drug Dealers to Texas Winemaker

"I don't read anymore," said Dickson when I asked him to share his thoughts about the recent uproar in the world of Natural wine. "I did enough reading when I was an attorney."

On Friday, I drove out to Houston native Lewis Dickson's Hill Country estate and winery, La Cruz de Comal, on the southern side of Canyon Lake, to visit his new tasting room (which he opened officially on Saturday). He's been growing grapes and making wine on the property since 2001 and he finally has a venue where he can show and talk about his "naturally made" wines, produced from fruit grown (mostly) using chemical-free agriculture and vinified with native (naturally occurring) yeast and without the addition of any sulfur. (As a "zero sulfur" winemaker, Dickson belongs to an extremely small group of courageous winemakers and is the only winemaker in Texas -- to my knowledge -- who makes "no sulfite added" wine in Texas; see our post on sulfites, sulfur, and wine here.)

His gorgeous Hill Country estate is a far cry from his lawyering days in Houston, when he was well-known around town as one of our city's leading bon vivants and full-time resident of the Four Season Hotel in downtown.

From the cross-dressing "millionaire murderer" Robert Durst (accused of killing and dismembering his Galveston neighbor), to Texas politician Tom DeLay (now a convicted felon) and some of Houston's leading drug traffickers, the law firm of DeGuerin and Dickson has defended some of our country's most high-profile and dangerous criminals.

It's no wonder that Dickson, one of the most famous defense attorneys in the state, prefers to avoid reading about wine-world bickering and controversy. He's more concerned about late-winter frosts and crop cover, and he'd rather be explaining why high acidity is a natural preservative in wine.

Dickson is no surgeon cum vintner, like so many of the top winemakers in our state. He is a farmer first and foremost, and he works his vineyards himself: Shake his hands and you'll find that they're chapped from pruning and picking. In fact, he prefers to call himself a grape grower, giving winemaking credit to a close friend, legendary California Natural winemaker Tony Coturri, who has vinified Dickson's fruit in every vintage except 2011 (when he walked his Texas counterpart through the process via phone conference).

Although Dickson still purchases some fruit from his Hill Country neighbors, his primary focus today is his estate-grown Blanc du Bois (white) and Black Spanish (aka Lenoir, a red grape).

Today more than ever, he told me, he is convinced that the key to making great wine in Texas is the cultivation of "grape varieties that work well here" and not "the Mediterranean grape varieties that so many winemakers are excited about these days." (Black Spanish has been grown in Texas since the time of the Spanish conquistadores, while Blanc du Bois was first introduced here by university researchers in Florida in the late 1980s, before the Texas wine boom of the last ten years.)

Whether you like Dickson's wines or not (and I do), they are proof that fine wine can be produced in Texas vineyards without being "corrected" in the cellar, as per the historic California approach to winemaking. In other words, if you grow the right grapes and you take care to grow them in a healthy environment, you can deliver the acidity levels needed to make wines that won't require acidification (common practice in Texas) and high levels of sulfur.

Cruz de Comal wines are not perfect, and they're not easy to understand or apply: They are unfiltered and many of them have sediment; they don't travel well and need to "rest" after transport and before being served; and they often stink when you first open them, even though they will reward the patient drinker with their signature freshness and technicolor fruit flavors and aromas.

No matter what you think of the wines, there is no disputing that they really taste like Texas. Thanks to DIckson's un-manipulated approach, they are a true expression of place and terroir. I, for one, am a fan of the wines and the honesty.

Man, I'm glad this dude gave up lawyering...

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen