Nestled among 140 oak barrels in a cellar off South Congress and St Elmo streets are six barrels the Elliott Family Winemakers use for producing their small-batch wines. When I arrived in March 2019, Travis Elliott, winemaker and co-owner of the business, had a 155-case batch of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon he had just finished bottling by hand and was in the process of labeling each bottle by hand.
These wines have been aging in oak barrels for about 16 months alongside other wines that are made by the Austin Winery at 440 East Saint Elmo Road, A1, Austin, Texas 78745.
The Austin Winery is not your traditional winery. They don’t close their doors at 5 p.m. Their facility is not located down a country road, and the owner’s house isn’t next door. In fact, they are located in a warehouse district that has a brewery, distillery and recording studio in it. They are open Tuesday-Friday 4-10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday noon-7 p.m.
Travis is a part owner of the Austin Winery as well as Elliott Family Winemakers, and together with his father, Sam Elliott – no, not the actor – he is working to broaden his winemaking creativity and has developed some elegant, bold red wines.
Travis, 27, first worked for the Austin Winery as an intern in 2014. At the time, he was studying anthropology at the University of Texas with a focus on food and wine. It didn’t take long for him to become a co-owner, and now he is branching out to a new endeavor with his father,
Travis’ mantra is simple: “Apply honest principles, and do not adulterate the grape. The wine-tasting experience starts and ends in your palate and it is completely a personal experience.”
He and his father have produced only two vintages, a 2016 and 2017. The 2016 batch made only 55 cases and it took 1.3 tons of grapes from the Texas High Plains region to produce it. “Growing good grapes is a hard job, because you have to deal with many factors all at once, like sun exposure, the soil, the irrigation and keeping the grapes healthy, using the right techniques to deal with pests and insects.”
Travis said he pays close attention to the raw materials he uses for his wines as well as the entire fermentation process. Finding the right grape and choosing which type of barrel he uses is paramount to the process. But just as important is the continuous monitoring of the PH balance and sugar levels.
He learned on his first batch that you can over-check your wine. “So much of winemaking comes down to delayed gratitude,” he said. “I think I probably mentioned it a dozen times. I have had to learn so so so much patience that I didn’t have before.”
The family has three wines available at this time; Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and a 50-50 blend of the same two grapes. They are considering making a white wine such as a skin-contact Pinot Gris, meaning the skins of the grapes are left in the tanks longer, usually about 14 days. As a comparison, most of their reds have skin contact for 5-12 days.
Travis prefers wines with a long finish, good body and smooth tannins. “If you don’t love it when you drink it, it’s not a good wine.”
Of the wines he has made, the 2017 Tempranillo, called Bad Habits, is his favorite. This wine is well balanced and agreeable to those who like fruit and spice. It’s smooth to the palate and has a lasting finish. This wine is extremely versatile for pairings and is good with white and red meats, cold cuts, grilled vegetables, hard and semi-hard cheese like mozzarella, feta and pecorino. This wine is shiny red with shades of purple. It has strong aromas of black wild fruits, notes of lavender and violets, all of which blend well with the tannins to provide a rich, balanced flavor.
Badhabits is the personification of Travis’ growing pains as a young winemaker. “I know I’ve made big strides and grown my understanding, but there’s still so much to learn.” He identifies with a bonsai professional who said his pursuit was a life-time of learning, and by starting earlier in life only means there’s more to learn and ultimately more to master.
Travis also creates his own labels and uses them as an artistic expression. The Badhabits label symbolizes the intense environment the grapes endure. The sun bakes these West Texas flat lands until the soil is arid and dusty. The deep roots of the grapevines dog their way to water far below the surface and provide the moisture needed to produce these grapes.
The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon is dark and full-bodied with a punch of fruit flavors such as cherry, plums and hints of pepper, mint dark chocolate and olives. It has juicy tannins that glide across the palate while delivering richness and concentration. It has a deep purple hue with not much translucency. To the nose, it has aromas of violets, cherries and bacon. It pairs well with roasted pork, rosemary-braised lamb shanks, blue cheese burgers, beef stew and short ribs braised with mushrooms.
The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, called Daydream, is deep, dark purple with intriguing aromas of black cherry, balsamic herbs, coffee and lightly toasted oak. Harmonious flavors of dried flowers, chocolate and vanilla fill the palate. It has an exotic complex character, full-bodied with velvety tannins and a long smooth finish. With this young Cab, you can pair it with almost any red meat served rare, grilled portobello mushrooms, roasted or grilled lamb, blue cheese like gorgonzola, cheddar and gouda.
The name Daydream represents the time Travis spends pondering whether he’s made the right choices while making his wines. “You make your decisions and essentially daydream about their consequences and impacts. You make your moves, have an idea of how they’ll turn out, but at the end of the day, you wait to see what happens.”
The Tempranillo-Cabernet blend is called Say Goodbye. It is juicy and velvety smooth with rich fruit flavors and has a very delicious soft finish. A quick whiff reminds me of black currants with hints of tobacco. On the tongue there is blackberries, black pepper, blueberries, spice and licorice. It has medium tannins and acidity and has a firm mouthfeel. This inky, dark burgundy-colored wine pairs well with spicy barbecue sauces, tomato-based sauces and pasta, rich cheesy dishes and recipes that have mushrooms and truffles.
Say Goodbye is the wine he will save and open as he bids farewell to the last of his single varietals as they are sold to his patrons. “This was my farewell to the vintage. It’s the wine between the three I’ll expect to hold on to the longest.” The wine’s label represents two types of grapes and two points in time. Circles moving forward and backward represent the past and future while the wine serves as a bridge between the them in the present.
In Travis’ future, he and his father are planning releases of white single varieties, and Travis wants to start his own wine club, where he can gradually grow as a winemaker and producer.
“Winemaking is an amazing artistic endeavor,” Travis proclaims as he describes his journey and passion. “The goal is to follow your creative intentions and produce an excellent wine. It’s important to be critical of your own work.”
During harvest season, Travis works up to 80 hours a week without a day off for up to two months. He will check his wine every week during the fermentation process and tastes samples monthly after about three months in the barrel.
With the current facility at near capacity, Travis’ plans for expansion are modest. On any given weekend the 5,000 square-foot building is teeming with patrons. Travis has considered opening his own winery, but right now he is content with a gradual expansion. He says he would prefer to increase production about 10-25 percent a year. “That’s a manageable increase. Right now, we’re selling everything we have and even running out of some of our most popular wines.”
“When people ask when will the wine be available again, I tell them, it’s a long process.”
“As with any small business owner, finding a place for yourself is difficult.” For now, you can enjoy his wines at the Austin Winery, but don’t wait too long to visit. When he’s out of wine, it’s a long wait until the next batch.
By Aleida Taddei-Elwell