The ancestors of this Texas wine family arrived to the state in the late-1800s, but their wine story begins in 1994, when Jeanine and Larry Kuhlken decided to plant Kuhlken Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country as a way to return to the land after a life in corporate America. Both worked for IBM where they met working as contractors to NASA for the Apollo 11 Mission. They both contributed to the software that guided the mission. Daughter Julie was born just days after the moon landing.
“I’m a native Texan and I was born in the Galveston area. My brother Dave was actually born outside the state; we moved a lot as children, according to the colloquial IBM acronym ‘I’ve Been Moved’,” daughter Julie Kuhlken said.
“Our family, however, has been in Texas for six generations, as most ancestors arrived by the 1890s. As an adult, Dave can claim more years living in Texas. I went to university in California and then lived in Europe for a decade. Dave, by contrast, went to Rice and has never lived outside the state since high school.”
Julie became a philosophy professor teaching in both the United States and the United Kingdom, while Dave stayed in Texas following his parents' more scientific endeavors as a software engineer.
While children Julie and Dave pursued their own interests, Jeanine and Larry started their new chapter as grape growers and sought advice from a winemaker friend in Washington state.
“Our parents planted the grapes that they could grow commercially, meaning find buyers for, so they initially planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon,” Julie said.
“It was immediately obvious that the whites were ill-suited to the site—as I always say, the saddest looking grape vines ever. At this point, we grow almost exclusively red grapes, so that was definitely lesson No. 1. The other lesson was that, even though the two reds thrived as plants, it was difficult to ripen the grapes sufficiently from year to year. That said, we continued to grow both the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for nearly 20 years.”
In 2005, Julie returned from 10 years of working and living in Europe, and Dave had just finished his MBA. Both were ready for a fresh start and ready to begin working for themselves.
“At that point,” reminisced Julie, “our family had been growing grapes for a decade, so we had some understanding of the agricultural basis of the industry and we were ready to take it to the next level. Our parents had never been interested in the winery side of the business, so it was completely open for us to establish.”
The decision to plant Tempranillo in 2007, as part of the expansion of Kuhlken Vineyards for the newly created Pedernales Cellars, was a bet that this warm weather variety would be a good fit for the microclimate of the vineyard. They also planted some Grenache and Mourvedre, as well as some Portuguese varieties, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao, and Tinta Amarela.
All of the next generation of the family have been active in the winery and vineyard, too, picking grapes, working in the cellar, and supporting the tasting room. Julie thinks it is too early to know whether any of them will contract the winemaking bug. The two oldest, Dave’s son Andy and her daughter Anne, have just started college.
“I would want each of them to try something else professionally and gain some work experience before returning to the winery, assuming that is what they choose to do,” Julie said.
Currently, Julie’s role is director of marketing and hospitality, but she usually goes by the moniker of “Resident Wine Philosopher.” Dave goes by “Winemaker and President,” though the day-to-day winemaking is now done by full-time winemaker Joanna Wilczoch.
For the holidays, the Kuhlken clan will gather around the table and pour the wines made by the family.
“Wines that are perfect for the holiday season are our two benchmark wines: Viognier Reserve and Tempranillo Reserve. The Viognier is fabulous with roast meats and vegetables and is a slam dunk for Thanksgiving. Another food-friendly wine is our GSM Melange for those looking for a Turkey Day red,” she said.
“For Christmas, I have to recommend our Family Reserve for those who want a beautifully elegant red. We also release Glogg, our traditional Swedish-style Christmas wine, later this month for those who want a spiced fortified dessert wine for the holidays.”
Talking about the upcoming holidays also reminded Julie, “I spent Thanksgiving in Galveston two years ago with my daughters, and we had a blast. We took in the Christmas lights at Moody Gardens and had a great time at Pleasure Pier.”
When asked about the most recent growing season, Julie had a promising report, “2021 is a solid vintage. After a low volume vintage in 2020, we have been able to deliver on our core program in 2021 with high quality Viognier, Tempranillo, and Rhone varieties. We have also been able to source some of the blending grapes that we like to work with such as Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, and Graciano.”
This holiday season, bring the wines grown and made by this Texas family to the table to share with your family.
The Pedernales Cellars line can be purchased online, and Spec’s on 61st Street carries the Viognier and Tempranillo Pedernales Cellars wines. For more information on the winery visit www.pedernalescellars.com.