It started like many things once did in this town, over a bottle of wine at Mezzaluna.
Reed Clemens’ sometimes notorious restaurant at 310 Colorado was the epicenter of Italian wine, and really much of the fine wine culture in Austin, for over a decade. Mezzaluna launched the careers of hundreds of sommeliers, writers, importers, chefs, wine saleswomen, entrepreneurs, and general managers. It created a generation of wine fanatics – customers, vendors, and employees alike that were forever infected with a curious, almost cultish, passion for Italian wine.
My career was certainly shaped by my time at Mezzaluna, and I owe some of the credit for studying for my Master in Fine Food & Beverage in Italy to the lineage and story of Mezzaluna. Around it are the personalities that have built and destroyed, divided and conquered the world of wine in Austin, the U.S. and even abroad – and their stories play like a Mexican soap opera.
One of those personalities is a man by the name of Jay Knepp and what follows is just part of his story.
When Knepp was the general manager of Mezzaluna, one of his regular customers was so regular that he had his own stool, Scott Roberts. Roberts isn’t just the owner of the Salt Lick restaurant and third-generation proprietor of the more than 500 beautiful acres in Driftwood that have been the home to the Texas Hill Country Food & Wine Festival Final Festival Day. He’s also the visionary behind Salt Lick’s winery and new wine community development.
Eventually, over one of those bottles of wine across the back bar at Mezzaluna, long after Roberts, his wife, Susie Goff, and Knepp had become great friends, Roberts started talking to Knepp about planting a vineyard on the property at the Salt Lick. Knepp, being from California, and also a certifiable Italian wine elitist, felt planting a quality vineyard in Texas was impossible. But it kept coming up.
Maybe the most important thing was that the three shared a passion for family and the kind of living that each of those Italian wine bottles represented – a more balanced way of life; a cultural focus on time with loved ones; a belief in time as something you have, not something you spend like money; a love of good times and great food and drink – an Italian sensibility. As Knepp has told me, he considers himself the “evil adopted Italian stepson.” He always wanted to blend that Italian way of life with his passions.
In time, Knepp began to realize that people were having some success making wine in Texas, and suddenly Roberts’ vision didn’t look like such a bad idea – oh, and there was the challenge too. It’s a feat to do the thing that people say can’t be done. It’s an even greater one to do it and believe in it.
The Roberts family came to Texas in 1867 and in the years that followed bought the 525 acres in Driftwood. Roberts’ father started Salt Lick in 1967. The vision has always been to keep the family lineage going and to share the beauty of the land.
Before leaving for Italy, I went to see Knepp and check out how everything was developing. I pulled through the gate, and he greeted me with a bottle of Mandola’s wine. (Until Salt Lick builds the winery, Mandolas and Fall Creek vini fy all the grapes the Salt Lick grows). It was good to see an old friend, but it was great to see him so happy and in his element. I would have never imagined back in the Mezzaluna days that I would be saying this. Besides still having his hand in running the restaurants, including Round Rock, Knepp is responsible, with Roberts and Goff, for all the vineyards and for the housing community development. You will find him working on a tractor, driving around in an off-road golf cart through the vineyards, digging in the dirt, and checking the weather and the almanac like an old farmer.
Off we went with Viognier in our glass for a look at how the wine community development and vineyards were growing. Knepp recounts, “we always want to take what nature has given and not compromise it with development.” Just like at the Salt Lick, we share a glass of wine and a plate of food with friends and family and watch the Texas sun go down.
It’s all coming together. Just as in Napa Valley, there are miles and miles of un-hewn walls that line the 36 acres of vines around the winery. (Keeping it in the family, they were laid by some of the family’s workers that have been with them for 15 to 20 years). The walls frame the 36 acres of vineyards that are planted in almost equal parts to Grenache, Syrah, Tempranillo, Sangiovese (of course), and Mouvedre- grapes that can take the heat. There are 10 miles of natural hike-n-bike trails winding through the 85 multi-acre home sites that are going to make up the wine community.
Knepp drives us through a gate and we talk about his belief in keeping the vines as healthy as possible. “It’s like a person, my kids, an animal,” he explains. “These plants need to be as healthy as possible so they can withstand all the pressures that growing in Texas puts on them. Every year in Texas is a special challenge. There is the incredible fungal pressure from the humidity and weather that changes at will; then there are late frosts and hails that come out of no-where. Growing grapes is like being on a roller-coaster.” I’m sure that is why he likes it. There is a reason he was the GM of Mezzaluna.
But it’s more than that for him and for Roberts too. It’s not about being fashionably “green.” It’s about being tied to the land and the way of life. One-hundred huge, old oaks had to be removed to plant the vineyards in the right spots, so at a cost of $1,000 each, the duo made the decision to relocate them so that none would be lost. Knepp is currently nursing the one tree that had trouble in the move. “It may just make it.”
Lots are three-to five acres, which is large, but the actual building footprint is just 10,000 square feet, leaving a great deal of space natural and green.
The actual winery, which is in a three-to five-year development period, will eventually include wine lockers, a more up- scale restaurant focused on smoked meats, fish, and cheeses (keeping with theme) and common space for all the families that build homes in the development. “It’s about being apart of something that lasts,” says Knepp.
I knew as I prepared to leave that day, I had never seen my friend so content. Then he says to me, “I can’t believe you’re headed to Italy to study wine.” I reply with something like, “I can’t believe you’re getting up in the middle of the night and getting on a tractor to go protect the vines from frost because you are MAKING WINE!” The things people will do when they have a cultish, inextinguishable passion for wine and the way of life that surrounds it.
“Bye Mox,” he says. “
Ciao ciao, Jay, Ci vediamo (see you soon).”
(In following articles we will explore the stories of the many personalities that have come from the root of Mezzaluna and will be creating a who’s who and where are they now and family tree, our “chart” of just how far a little passion and a few stories, from a little restaurant in Austin Texas can reach all the way around the world.)