Ste. Genevieve Winery is located about 27 miles east of Fort Stockton. It is the largest winery in Texas and the 24th to 26th largest winery in the United States. Outside of California, one winery in Washington which is larger is Ste. Michelle Wine Estates who has multiple wineries in their portfolio including Columbia Crest.
Ste. Genevieve used to offer tours at the winery but since it is isolated and largely a commercial business with no romantic feel, which a lot of people associate with a winery, tours were stopped. After that it was decided there was no need to even have a sign outside with their name. If you pass the very large three story building driving down I-10, you would think it was just another business, perhaps a plant of some kind. But behind those doors is where 600,000 cases of wine are produced a year. (website: http://www.stegenwines.com)
I was fortunate to take a tour and spend time with Pat Prendergast, owner and president of Ste. Genevieve Winery and Mesa Vineyards. Since Ste. Genevieve has a long history and I learned so many things during my time with Pat at the largest Texas winery, the post about Ste. Genevieve will be in two parts.
Ste. Genevieve’s vineyard was initially planted between 1981 and 1984 by an American-French partnership which involved the University of Texas System and University Lands Office. The French partner was a French alliance called Gill-Richter-Cordier Inc. which was a consortium of American and French investors. The revenue from the lands benefited both the Texas A&M University System and The University of Texas System.
The winery was built in 1984 by Domaine Cordier of Cordier Estates and the winery and vineyard sits on about 1,300 acres. No expense was spared with the 68,000 square foot winery as it was built with the most modern and best equipment available, including the tiled floors which even came from France. The winery was built with the capacity to store a million gallons of wine and today they can store 1.8 million gallons.
In 2003, Pat Prendergast came to Ste. Genevieve. Pat had worked with Gallo’s international operations and Gallo’s European operation before moving to Texas to work for Ste. Genevieve. French winemaker, Bénédicte Rhyne, became Ste. Genevieve’s winemaker in 2003.
In June 2005, the winery and vineyard were bought by a group under the name of Mesa Vineyards when Pat Prendergast became the owner and president of Ste. Genevieve Winery and Mesa Vineyards.
I made arrangements to meet Pat at the winery for a tour. The winery is easy to find because at the exit on I-10, it’s the only building to be found and with the size of it, it cannot definitely not be missed. A small lobby is the only thing visible when you first enter the winery. I was expecting perhaps a receptionist, but the winery obviously does not expect visitors. There was a sign with the laboratory through one door and the executive offices upstairs. I took a chance and headed upstairs where I soon came upon Pat’s office.
After introductions were done, we soon started on a tour and the first visit was the next office where fortunately winemaker Bénédicte Rhyne was sitting. I say fortunately because Bénédicte lives in Fredericksburg and she was leaving the winery soon to head back home.
We went downstairs and stopped in the laboratory. The lab is also used for tasting since it is a clean environment. They have a rule when they blind test their wine versus the competition they have to be in the top two of whatever they taste for the wines which are sold one dollar above them. Most of the time they are. When they are not, they try to figure out why they are not and what they have to do to fix it.
Next up was a room with large 27,000 (technically 26,980) gallon tanks. Pat counted 28 of those tanks in the one room. The room is currently used mainly as a storage room. Most of the time they store partial blends of wine there.
The big bottling line came next. The line bottles only the 1.5 liter bottles and the line runs about four days a week at ten hours a day. The line is mostly automated including a palletizer at the end which circles around with the cases stacked getting shrink wrapped. The one bottling line does 3,800 cases a day even though it could handle about 4,000 cases. If they do two bottle types a day, they cut down the quantity to 3,600 cases a day. Gloria and I have helped wineries bottle before but those wineries have their wines being fed into the bottler from Flextanks. Ste. Genevieve has two 3,700 gallon tanks to feed their bottling line!
80% of Ste. Genevieve’s volume is 1.5 liter bottles. The main bottling line is capable of doing 750ml bottles but since the line is older, they keep it doing the one size and hence do not have to keep changing it which also helps increases its life. Pat said he plans on changing the line out in about two years and move it to another location.
One thing Ste. Genevieve does when bottling is to take three bottles off the line every hour. One bottle they use to analyze. Another is used for plating which is a system of putting the wine through a filter, then putting the plated wine through a humidifier which is like a little oven. After three days it tells if the wine is perfectly clear or if any yeast got through so they know it is able to ship. The third bottle they keep in their inventory for about 18 months in case they need to go back and refer to what they did.
It was a pleasure to see as Pat walked through the winery he would greet people wishing them Happy New Year and checking to see how their holidays went. Maybe to me it was interesting to see since I come from a large corporate environment where we hardly see any executives who know us, let alone the owner or CEO. It also could help since Ste. Genevieve has only 41 employees.
As we walked to the next room past stacked cases of various labels of wine, it reminded me to ask Pat about the different labels they have. I have seen many wine bottles in the stores which on the back say made in Fort Stockton and I assumed it had to be from Ste. Genevieve. Pat said, “The best way to think about it is we have one main broad brand which is Ste. Genevieve. In Ste. Genevieve we make about 15 to 16 wines. Of those 15 to 16 wines we make them all in 1.5 liters. In 750ml’s we make about ten of them so there are six that we don’t. In 187ml’s we make about seven of them.
“In premium Texas, we sell a lot of wine in a premium Texas wine category that people wouldn’t automatically think that we do as you have seen in the stores by turning the bottles around. We do a lot of this as a control label. Like Lost Maples is an exclusive to HEB. And then we have one at Spec’s called 5 Point. We have one at Kroger called 1836. We also have one at Goody Goody which is mainly in Dallas called Escondido Valley. We had one that was in and out of Sam’s Club called Big Star. Brix was a brand we don’t sell anymore. Shadow Brook is a brand we sell only to restaurants. L’Orval is sold at Spec’s, restaurants, and big military bases. 15 years ago it was found at most retailers in Texas.”
Their top value wine label Peregrine Hill is sold out of their new tasting room and other retailers. Peregrine Hill is named after the Peregrine Falcons that often visit the winery’s vineyards. The Peregrine Hill wines are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.
The Mesa Vineyards label is sold only out of the tasting room. More on that later. This year for the first time they will be doing a Rosé which will be going into HEB as a Lost Maples. They will also be doing a high-end Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, and all these wines will come from their estate vineyard.
As we walked by the stacked palettes of wine, Pat said the finished goods inventory will usually only keep about 45 days so the bottled inventory turns over every 6 to 8 weeks.
A lot of the Ste. Genevieve labeled wines have Texas fruit in them but some do not and the ones which do have a low portion of Texas fruit in them. They get the remainder from California, South Africa, and Chile. They even buy some wine from France.
Pat said, “I get Chardonnay from France. I grow Chardonnay. I get Chardonnay from South Africa and I get Chardonnay from California. In the Ste. Genevieve business, I’m trying to make the best Chardonnay for the price that I can and having more tools in the toolbox allows us to do it.”
Speaking of Chardonnay, Ste. Genevieve’s best-selling wine is Chardonnay. Their second best is their Red which is really a blend. Third is their Sweet Red followed by Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Muscat Canelli. 80% of their sales are in Texas but their next biggest selling state is Florida.
We then arrived at the room with the small bottling line which does 750ml and 187ml bottles. The smaller bottling line is fairly new as they first bought part of it in 2006 and the rest years later. While the larger bottling line runs at near 100% capacity, the smaller bottling line runs about 50% capacity so they have a lot of room to grow their business there. All the premium wines are bottled in the small bottling line.
Pat then guided me to the other side of the building where we first entered a cold room with 16,000 gallon tanks. They keep very finicky wines in there like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio which are more delicate. They can also use the room to cold stabilize the wines. Pat said since there are so many more methods to cold stabilize these days, they do not use the cold storage room for cold stabilization as much as they use it for storing the delicate wines.
Outside the cold room was a glassed in monitoring control station which shows every tank and temperature. From some movies I have seen, it looks similar to a subway monitoring station.
Pat said they have a few pieces of equipment which are not usually found in Texas wineries. One item is a crossflow filter. It is a filter you would use before you bottle. The bottling line does filtration also, but using the crossflow filter provides cleaner wine to the bottling line. It can run 24 hours a day by itself and it even cleans itself. It is ceramic inside so you don’t have to change the filter except perhaps every 25 years and the wine which comes out of it is so clean you would think you just got it out of a restaurant. Pat said it was an expensive piece of equipment but it paid for itself in a year and a half because they have so much cleaner wine going to the filtration system at bottling that they almost never have to change the filters in the bottling line. Before the crossflow filter, they used to have to change the bottling line filters monthly.
Ste. Genevieve is always updating the winery with new technology and newer equipment. Last year they added a new cooling system.
Next was another large room with more 27,000 gallon tanks. The room could be used as a cold room like the previous tank room but it is not currently used that way. In total they have 39 of the 26,980 gallon tanks in total.
The last large room in the winery is what Ste. Genevieve calls the harvest room. This room has the crush pad located outside and the fermentation tanks are located there. They actually have two crush pads but currently only use one.
Rotary presses are another piece of equipment which is unique in Texas. By rotating the press, they are not pushing the grapes as bladder presses do, but the weight of the grapes falling on the sides extracts the juice very delicately and hence they do not get a lot of tannins. The quality of the juice coming out of the rotary presses is very high. They can also use them as rotary fermenters and actually ferment the juice in them. They also have traditional presses which are not exactly like bladder presses but use the same concept. Instead of having a bladder in the press there are slats which expand crushing the grapes. They do use both types of presses. White grapes are pressed right away. Red grapes go to the fermenters and when they are done they go to the presses.
Pat talked about the freshness of wine by explaining, “One of the big myths in the wine business which a lot of people think is that all wine gets better with age. 99% of the wine gets worse with age. Freshness is a key conveyor of quality. But if we say to the consumer that Ste. Genevieve is fresh and because we’re in Texas, people would think automatically that we’re inferior. But they just know that this wine has more fruit, and it’s softer in the finish with a better balance. All that is a function of freshness but they wouldn’t connect that.”
Having finished a tour of the winery, Pat then wanted to show me the vineyard.
When the vineyard was first planted it was 1,000 acres. When owner and president Pat Prendergast came to Ste. Genevieve it was 800 to 900 acres. Over the course of several growing seasons, the vineyard was hit with freezing temperatures, hail, and strong winds which damaged a lot of acres leaving the current vineyard size of about 400 acres. Every year they plant more vines but they are not planting in addition to the current vineyard, but instead taking vines out and re-planting.
Even though the vineyard is located behind the winery, it is not really within walking distance so it required a hop into the car to drive to the vineyard. We eventually reached a gate with a ten foot fence surrounding 1,200 acres and designed to keep deer out. It must be working because along the road to the vineyard and on the way back out we passed deer.
Driving down the vineyard road we could see land on each side of the road which was getting ready to plant new vines. This year they are planting about 10 total acres of Pitite Sirah and Ruby Cabernet there. They are also planting 15 acres of Chardonnay in the back of the vineyard. As you drive down the road in the middle of the vineyard you face the mesa which is what you see on the label of their wine bottles. Years ago when they took photos of the mesa there was nothing in front of it, whereas now there are windmills and other obstacles which block the beautiful view of the mesa.
Since the majority of the vineyard was planted 25 years ago, the mature vines produce a lower quantity of grapes but the grapes have greater quality. Grapes grown are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, and Chenin Blanc.
Ste. Genevieve has about 11 people that work permanently in the vineyard. Pruning started in January and it takes 12 people two and a half months to prune the vineyard working six days a week.
I learned that Ste. Genevieve sells some of the grapes they grow to other Texas wineries. In addition, they also sell finished wine to other Texas wineries. A lot of times the finished wine is used as a blend at the other wineries. Ste. Genevieve produces 530,000 cases a year for themselves and if you count the bulk wine, they make a total of 600,000 cases.
After a drive through the vineyard, it was time to visit Ste. Genevieve’s tasting room located in Fort Stockton called the Grey Mule Saloon. We took our separate cars and I followed Pat to the tasting room. The Grey Mule Saloon was built in the 1880′s to serve Texas Rangers and cowboys who were passing through the area and the U.S. Army troops stationed there. The renovated building today is a historical landmark located across the street from the Annie Riggs Hotel and Museum built in 1899. The tasting room opened in November 2012.
Pat introduced me to Shera Lee Davis, the tasting room manager of the Grey Mule Saloon. While Shera was getting together the wines Pat suggested to taste, he showed me around the tasting room. The first room is what they call the harvest room. It had a table in the center and on the walls are photos of the vineyard in sequence of the grape growing process. The next room is the winery room and likewise, it had photos in sequence of the wine making process. It was a great idea with some excellent photos.
It had been a long day so far and it was time to taste some wine. They try to not serve any wines at the tasting bar which are available in retail. Looking at the tasting menu, I was really surprised. There were 13 wines and 9 of them were Texas appellation. The Texas wines were Peregrine Hill and Mesa Vineyards.
There are three tasting fees: $1 for one taste, $2 for three tastes, and $3 for five tastes. Glasses of wine average $5 to $6 and bottles of wine average $10 to $14. Also available are Sangria and cheese trays.
Being surprised at the number of Texas wines and the still low prices, I had to ask Pat how they can do it. He replied, “I always want to over deliver. I think one of the biggest challenges in Texas is people will ask why am I selling wine so inexpensively, and I say why are you selling wine so expensively? What will win the game in the end is quality and value for the money because we’re competing against California and everybody else. So we have to sit there and say this wine for $10 is better than all the alternatives that are available for $10. And that’s how you start to gain a reputation for the state.”
Ste. Genevieve will sell 20,000 cases of their premium Texas wines this year. Stores are always evaluating their wines against Chile, Australia, and other areas. Pat said their Zinfandel is good and he can sell it for $10, but he can’t sell it for over $22. If he tried selling Texas Chardonnay for $18 a bottle, he believes they are not going to have a lot of success and repeat business. He would rather over deliver for the price. I just wish more of their Texas wines were available elsewhere and people could appreciate Ste. Genevieve even more.
During our tasting, Pat called Ste. Genevieve’s Executive Manager Jean-Michel Duforat, and asked if he wasn’t busy to come over and visit. Soon Jean-Michel arrived and I got the chance to meet him.
(Prendergast, Shera Lee Davis, Jean-Michel Duforat) The tasting room gift shop carries on the practice of selling primarily Texas based products such as olive oil, chocolates, wine accessories, and wine baskets. Ste. Genevieve offers five wine clubs: Premier Wine Club, Premier Wine Club Spring, Premier Wine Club Autumn, White Wine Club, and Red Wine Club. The wine clubs feature exclusive wines found only in their tasting room.
It had been an incredible and eye-opening day with Pat Prendergast and the rest of the Ste. Genevieve team. I know during my visit I gained much respect for the winery, what they do, and their wines. I would highly suggest trying some Ste. Genevieve wines again, no matter which label you may find in the stores. And who knows, that other Texas wine you enjoy just may have some Ste. Genevieve wine in it.
Re-published with the permission of http://txwinelover.com
Photos by Jeff Cope