My guest, Gus Clemens, went to business college when he was just 12 years old to learn how to type because he knew even that he wanted to be a writer. He’s held editorial positions with the San Antonio Express-News and the Star Magazine in New York, and has written or contributed to about twenty books about Texas and a range of other subjects.
Today he owns an advertising agency in San Angelo and writes a regular wine column for several Texas newspapers that often gets picked up through the Gannett news chain of more than one hundred papers throughout the U.S.
And he joined me from his home in San Angelo, Texas: Welcome Gus Clemens!
Stay tuned as we’ll also soon be featuring our conversation on my podcast, Unreserved Wine Talk.
Want to know who our next guests are?
You can find out here and also watch previous episodes of the show.
We’re going to chat about Texan wines in the second half of our interview, but let’s start with your wine writing. What drew you to it in the first place, apart from a love of wine? What was the exact moment? Where were you?
My client had the premier wine-liquor store in town, but an existing, out-of-town writer only wrote about hard to get Texas wines. At the urging of my client, I complained several times until the publisher of the newspaper challenged me to write a column. I accepted.
From the beginning, the column has been about the broadest wine world. I also work at word play and humor. I sometimes describe the column as a humor column that happens to be about wine.
What’s the most challenging aspect about writing about wine?
I’ve provided a new column every week for 11 years. I don’t find it difficult, I find it fun and exciting. I close every column with wine humor of some sort. The biggest challenge is keeping that fresh.
What is the part you love best, apart from generally meeting people and tasting wine?
I enjoy friends and strangers talking about wine. I’ve been in elevators when stranger looks at me, says something like “you write that wine column, right?” And then they ask me a wine question or just say the enjoy the read.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever discovered while writing about wine?
That wine makers, or their marketing/PR people, email me and ask if I would be willing to get some free wine to sample. Like, uh, duh …
What do you think people misunderstand most about wine writing or writers?
That there is work involved. My online reviews, which I file almost daily, run to 300 words or more and involve much more than a few tasting notes. I love writing and research—and drinking the wine is part of the research, so this is enjoyable work. But it is still a task that needs attention. I took to heart the advice to find something you love to do and you never have to work.
What do you think are the primary ethical challenges in writing about wine?
I accept free wine, but I never promise a positive review. If I do not like the wine, I don’t write a review.
How do you handle the samples of wine sent to you?
You can see they are all around me, and there is a large wine refrigerator in the other room.
How about free media trips?
Never taken one.
You have a unique viewpoint from both the advertising and wine writing worlds: where do you think these clash?
I’m not sure they clash. We do represent one wine brand, imported from Chile. West Texas Wool and Mohair is the sole importer to U.S., and we work for them. Working in the wool and mohair industry got them involved in importing Conde de Velázquez wine. Much of our business relates to health; we do political campaigns, too.
What’s your opinion on wine advertorial?
You can get information. I want to know who sponsored the piece and take that into consideration.
What caveat emptor advice would you give to wine consumers when it comes to wine advertising?
The score they quote will be the highest score they got.
Tell us about your all-time favorite wine advertising campaign (you don’t need to have created them). Why did you like them?
Orson Welles: “Paul Masson will sell no wine before it’s time.”
Tell us about the worst campaigns you’ve seen. Why didn’t you like them?
None come to mind, which is why they are so bad.
Let’s move now to Texan wines and the wine industry there. Many people, especially in Canada, would be surprised wine can be made there, as we’d assume it’s too hot. Why is that not so?
The key is the grape type—tempranillo does well here. I included a column about what grapes do well here. And elevation. 85% of Texas wine grapes come from the High Plains. That’s elevations from 3,000-4,500 feet. I may be 100% during the day, but it will drop 40 degrees at night.
Lost Draw Winery
Are draughts and heatwaves a big problem?
Not really. The High Plains is atop the Ogallala Aquifer. They’ve been growing cotton and grain there for more than a century. Late freezes and hail are much bigger problem.
Give us the big picture: how large is Texas compared to California or Italy? How many acres of vines are planted?
Texas is 268,597 square miles. That’s 20,000 square miles bigger than France and twice as big as Italy. The distance between the southern tip of Texas and the northernmost town in the Texas Panhandle is only four miles less than the distance from that town to the Canadian border. El Paso is close to the Pacific Ocean than the Gulf of Mexico.
Which regions are the best in the state?
The High Plains for growing grapes. The Hill Country between San Antonio and Austin for wineries and tasting rooms. The Texas Hill Country AVA is the second most visited in the U.S. behind only Napa. Now, Napa is less than 1,000 square miles and the Hill Country AVA is 14,000 square miles.
What are the top 2 reds and whites that Texas produces? How do they taste different from wines made from the same grapes say in California?
Tempranillo and mourvèdre for red.
Viognier and alvarinho/albariño for white.
Describe your favorite Texan wine and food pairing. What made it great? Where were you?
I’ve had many. Viognier with fish from the Gulf. Tempranillo with Texas beef. The Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg has excellent food and the best Texas wine selection I know of. Elizabeth Rodrigues has earned a national reputation.
Why is the region the second-most visited wine region in the U.S.?
It is large and located to major population centers. Texas has five of the 20 largest cities in the U.S. San Antonio and Austin are an hour or so away. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are further away, but less than four hour drives.
Advice/tips on how to make the most of a visit there?
Stay at a bed and breakfast or airbnb in Fredericksburg.