Several retired Abilene physicians have found a second career in winemaking.
Take it from four local health professionals – winemaking is not for the faint of heart.
Dan Munton, Vince Viola, Ed Brandecker and Roberta Kalafut Brandecker can attest to that. The Brandeckers are retired. Dan is retired from full-time practice but still monitors neurosurgeries remotely from his home, and Vince is a physician assistant. The Brandeckers specialized in pain management before retirement and Dan practiced sports medicine, with Vince as his physician assistant.
Trails End Vineyard is on property owned by Dan and named for the location. Ed and Roberta, who live in Tuscola, are partners in Rancho Loma Vineyards in Coleman. That “vineyard” now is a tasting room only but originated as a vineyard and winemaking facility. It isn’t uncommon, Ed said, for the word “vineyard” to be in the name of the winery, even if the actual vineyard is located elsewhere.
When the Brandeckers retired after 30 years in medicine, Ed wanted to get into winemaking. Roberta wanted to tend to her garden but agreed to help her husband for four months. When those four months passed, it was obvious the work had just begun.
“This has turned into a full-time job for both of us,” Roberta said.
Dan and Vince can vouch for that. They both work the three-acre Trails End Vineyard and take the grapes they grow to San Saba to be turned into wine at Wedding Oak Winery. The entire property on Trails End Road is for sale currently, and Dan said it would be up to the new owners to decide whether to continue with the vineyard, but he speculated that they would, with input from Dan and Vince.
The two partners knew nothing of the intricacies of vineyard planting or winemaking when they started. They just knew they wanted to try. About 10,000 man-hours and plenty of mistakes later – birds ate their first crop – the partners now are in a position to offer advice. That especially applies to money lost due to mistakes.
“We can tell you how to save thousands of dollars,” Vince joked.
The four health professionals share not only a medical specialty and an interest in winemaking, but also an overlapping work history. Dan and Vince worked together for 15 years when Dan owned Texas Sport and Spine on Ridgemont Drive. In September 2018, Integrated Pain Associates (IPA) expanded from Central Texas into Abilene, with the acquisition of Abilene Spine and Joint on Antilley Road, which was operated by the Brandeckers.
In July 2019, IPA purchased Texas Sport and Spine on Ridgemont Drive and moved there from the Antilley Road location. Vince still is employed at IPA as a physician assistant.
They all will tell you that winemaking is not a leisurely endeavor compared to practicing medicine. In fact, there are some similarities. Sugar levels must be monitored and temperatures taken. New treatment plans are prescribed based on lab results.
“It’s almost like what you do when you have a patient in the hospital,” Ed said.
Trails End Vineyard
Drive east on FM 707 to Trails End Road, take a peek to the south, and expect to be amazed. A picturesque boutique vineyard will greet you. Sentinel plants stand guard at the entrance to each row of grapevines, alerting Vince and Dan if a fungus is developing. If they see a fungus growing on a sentinel plant leaf, that means it’s time to spray the vines.
The entire three-acre vineyard is covered with netting to protect the delicate vines and fruit from hail and birds. Both Dan and Vince will tell you that getting the vineyard to look like a magazine spread took hundreds of man hours of hard labor that never lets up. The two men, with the help of family, friends and groups, including the Big Country Master Gardeners, planted every one of the two thousand vines. They also hand cut the six hundred cedar posts from Dan’s ranch near Lake Abilene to prop up the trellis system and add to the rustic ambience. Of the two, Vince is the vineyard manager and wine connoisseur. Dan provided the land and the grunt labor.
Vince, a second-generation Italian, got into the physician assistant field after a stint in the Army. He moved to Texas, first Stamford and then Abilene, when a job became available. Vince and Dan got to know each other well working together at Texas Sports and Spine. After visiting family in central Italy, Vince mentioned to Dan that the two should start a vineyard in Abilene. Dan didn’t bat an eye.
“Let’s do it,” he said.
The first step was to get the soil at the proposed site tested at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office in Abilene. That was followed by a big test when Vince took a sample to central Italy when he visited family. The diagnosis couldn’t have been better.
“It’s got sand, it’s got clay, and the chemistry is perfect,” the test showed.
The first five hundred plants went into the ground at Trails End Vineyard in 2009, with the first batch of grapes sold in 2014. Today, the vineyard is home to two thousand vines, which produce two to four tons of grapes annually. Each ton yields sixty cases, with twelve bottles to the case. The varietals or types of grapes grown at Trails End are Sangiovese, Barbera and Montepulciano, all native to central Italy.
The first rootstock was purchased from Luna Rossa Winery in Deming, New Mexico. The winery was founded in 2001 by Paolo and Sylvia D’Andrea. Paolo was born and raised in the northeast part of Italy and comes from four generations of wine growers. He first brought rootstock from Italy to New Mexico thirty-five years ago and it is from that stock that Trails End Vineyard got its start.
Jumping from the idea of planting a vineyard to actually doing it was quite a leap for both Vince and Dan. Vince was from central Italy and had “winemaking in his blood,” but that was about it. Dan didn’t even drink wine. So, they did what any 21st century would-be winemakers would do. They got on the internet.
“We literally googled ‘how to build a trellis,’” Dan said.
That was in 2009. Today, the men sound like experts. In addition to doing the fine pruning in the vineyard, Vince often gives talks on the fine art of viticulture. The vineyard also has become a popular place for special events held several times a year when groups or individuals are invited to help with a specific project, like planting or harvesting. They are well-rewarded.
“We cook homemade Italian food,” Vince said, “and sample wines made from our grapes, courtesy of amateur winemaker Pastor Clyde Kieschnick of Zion Lutheran Church.”
Springtime is for fertilizing the vines, doing repairs, and pruning each plant to produce quality fruit. Harvest comes in the late summer. An ongoing job is pulling unwanted leaves from the vines.
“We’re constantly pulling leaves off,” Dan said.
Dan and Vince are not sorry they jumped into the vineyard business, but they do have a warning for anyone considering doing the same thing. Their three-acre vineyard – about as much as two people can handle – pays for itself but isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. In fact, Dan has a quip he tells people.
“If you want to make a small fortune,” he tells people, “start with a large fortune and then start a vineyard. You’ll have a small fortune in no time.”
Rancho Loma Vineyards
It’s not as big a leap as it may sound from being full- time physicians to just-about-full-time winemakers, as Ed and Roberta Kalafut Brandecker can tell you. In fact, long before the couple retired from medical practice in August 2018, they were into the science of winemaking. They both took a two-year certification course in viticulture, the science of grape growing, through Texas Tech University. Ed added a two-year certification in enology, the science of winemaking, through Washington State University and Roberta through Texas Tech University. Before that, they were wine enthusiasts, dating back to when they both were in their 30s.
“All our vacations were wine trips,” Ed said.
Now in their 60s and retired from medicine, they devote most of their time to the business of winemaking through their Rancho Loma Vineyards (RLV) or enjoying the fruits. Those fruits include a number of impressive awards for their wines, critical reviews in Houston, San Francisco, and New York, and inclusion in magazines such as Forbes, Texas Monthly, and Southern Living. In January, RLV was one of twenty Texas vineyards invited by the Texas Department of Agriculture to represent the state at an event in New York.
It all started in 2014 with talking and planning. By 2015, Rancho Loma Vineyards LLC had been formed and by 2016, the first vintage was produced. The original idea of the founding partners was to plant a vineyard at Talpa in Coleman County, next to Rancho Loma, a tony restaurant that Robert and Laurie Williamson opened in 2003. The Williamsons were among the original partners in the vineyard but aren’t now.
A three and a half acre vineyard was planted in Talpa in the spring of 2016 but the owners realized a vineyard that small wouldn’t produce enough grapes to be economically feasible. The partners originally thought about planting a separate 15-20 acre vineyard in Coleman County but knew it would take five years before grapes deemed worthy of fine winemaking would be available. So, the partners scrapped plans for the larger vineyard and began purchasing grapes from Reddy Vineyards in Brownfield, west of Lubbock.
“We realized we needed to hit the ground running,” Ed said.
And did they ever. The first vintage was the RLV III, and Roussanne. In a blind taste competition sponsored by TEXSOM, an international event for beverage professionals from all tiers of the industry, the RLV III was selected as the best white Rhone blend, beating out a French wine.
“We were really excited about that,”Roberta said.
That wine was produced in Coleman, where RLV originally set up shop in a 100-year-old building. In 2019, the winemaking was moved to Reddy Vineyards.The partners were having to transport tons of grapes in the heat of summer from Brownfield to Coleman, three hours away.
“It just made more sense,” Ed said, “to have the production where the grapes were.”
A tasting room remains in Coleman, along with a bonded wine storage area in the former winemaking section of the building. In January, a second tasting room opened in Fort Worth, at the 4-Eleven, a trendy restored 1920s warehouse setting for dining, wine tasting, celebrations, and shopping. About a month after opening, the new tasting room had to shut down, along with other businesses, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
“It was just starting to explode,”Roberta said.“It was a happening place.”
The COVID-19 shutdown also affected the tasting room in Coleman. But Sean Gravalos, an RLV Level III sommelier who oversees both tasting rooms, came to the rescue by hosting a virtual tasting party via the Zoom meeting app.
Six years after the planning for Rancho Loma Vineyards began, much is the same but much has changed. The changes occurred primarily in location, with grapes purchased and made into wine in Brownfield instead of Coleman County.
Of the original partners, only Robert and Laurie Williamson are no longer part of the business.The current ownership consists of the Brandeckers, Dr. Tom and Teresa Headstream of Abilene, Tom and Jamie Munson of Brownwood, Dr. Ed and Pam Hellman, and Tony Bowden. Ed Hellman is a professor of viticulture and enology at Texas Tech University. Bowden, founder of the cult wine Screaming Eagle, lives in San Francisco. A French consultant who is not a partner, Guenhael Kessler, was added in 2016.
“All of us had connections by association,” Ed said.
Six years from the planning stage to award-winning wines is remarkable in the wine industry, but the RLV partners have managed to pull it off. In spring 2020, Ed was contacted by Jessica Dupuy, a writer for Texas Monthly magazine. Dupuy was working on a section of a book, “The Wines of the Southwest,” which will be published by Infinite Ideas, based in England.The Southwest section of the book will cover wineries in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.
Among Dupuy’s comments on Rancho Loma Vineyards was the following: “Under the guidance of French wine consultant Guenhael Kessler, RLV has shown itself to be a serious contender in terms of quality and consistency in the Texas Wine Industry. Try the summery Trés Rosé, for its bright Provencal style, or the Toro Tempranillo, a full-bodied red with notes of cola and blackberry.”
That’s great publicity for a fairly small player in the wine industry, with roots in Coleman County. The Brandeckers are pleased, but maybe not too surprised that their efforts are being rewarded. They have put in the work and the hours. Now it’s time to sit back, sip some fine wine, and enjoy that commitment – at least for a little while.
Before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, the RLV partners had decided to create an events venue in the former winemaking area of the building in Coleman. That was put on hold in the spring but the partners hope that dream becomes reality in the future.
“We’re constantly developing and growing,”Roberta said.