Life DiVine

Cover Story
2014
June

Right before the Tyler Pounds Airport going westbound on State Highway 64, there’s a single, little blinking, yellow light flashing day and night. If drivers turn right onto the farm-to-market road (that light helps signal,) and continue along its winding path, they will not see anything out of the ordinary. In fact, for these parts, all that is in view are the everyday sights of East Texas: cows and longhorn grazing in the pastures, wild flower patches dotting the roadside fields, buzzards perched high above the treetops and of course the ever-beautiful, piney wooded-curtain, draping the background.

Continuing, about five miles down and a couple more county roads over from Farm-to-Market 416, lies something that is pretty remarkable, and not so ordinary for these parts. Along this route lies Rio Neches Ranch. While the ranch itself is not an odd find in Tyler—think breathtakingly picturesque, with its rolling hills and resident cattle lingering off in the distance, what does make it extraordinary is the vineyard and winery perched atop its land.

As if a piece of Napa Valley were planted right here in East Texas, Pelle Legna Vineyards and Winery is the culmination of owner, Dawn Leatherwood’s blood, sweat, tears and passion. Quite simply, the planting and maintenance of the vineyard she established eight years ago became a reality because of her true love of the vine. However, it was not until her husband encouraged her to pursue other projects reflecting this passion that she resigned from a career that meant working long hours and being away from home. “I’ve always been fascinated with the making of wine, and the science and art behind it, so it was a natural progression for me, thinking-wise.” Keeping that in mind, she revisited her interest melding her math and science background into the vines that would cultivate her life’s new direction. 

Established in 2007, among a fenced-in, 20-acres of land, Dawn started the vineyard by planting eight acres and produced her first harvest a year later. After that, she built a small winery in 2010, a little bigger winery in 2011 and last year, she built the final and permanent winery located right at the start of the driveway near her homestead. Working as “Head Honcho,” as is printed on her business card, she and her right-hand-man, Francisco Altamirano, keep Pelle Legna’s daily operations growing. 

The vines, Francisco and Dawn work around the clock to care for, bear an array of grapes, that ultimately, become the palate-pleasing wine varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cab Franc, Sangiovese, Mourvédre, Malbec, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. While her passion for wine does not necessarily favor one over the other, she does like a little cabernet for her personal consumption. The beauty of her boutique winery is that she can produce an array of varieties to please all kinds of wine lovers, even if it means experimenting with grapes that typically pose challenges for growers. 

Staying on top of the process, Dawn seeks to hone her craft by learning as much as she can through a bit of old-fashioned "trial and error." She also looks to others in the industry near and far to continue moving her passion forward. In fact, two of the first experts she called on, even before she started planting, were her now mentors, Pierre de Wet (owner of Kiepersol Estates Vineyards & Winery) and his daughter Marnelle de Wet Durrett.

Kiepersol Estates, also located in Tyler, was hand planted in 1998 and 1999 and encompasses 61-acres of vineyards, that produce estate-grown red and white wines, explains their official website. “Pierre probably gets 100 calls a day from someone saying, ‘Hey, I am thinking about starting a winery.’ But, [when I called], something about what I was saying made him believe that I was serious,” she explained. “So, Pierre came out and checked the land and made sure we had a good site for it. And, we did!” With that confirmation, Dawn plowed ahead, despite the uphill battles she knew she would face. In fact, it was at the start of her grape-growing education that she learned about one challenge this region faces in growing grape varieties, known as vitis vinifera. Dawn explained, vinifera are a species of grapes used to refer to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, to name a few, versus other native grapes or hybrids like Blanc du Bois, Black Spanish and Muscadine. 

The challenge with vinifera in Texas is due to Pierce’s disease caused by a glassy-winged sharpshooter “piercing” the leaf and infecting the plant with a bacterium that prevents the vine from taking up water—eventually causing its death. Kiepersol taught Dawn how to battle the disease. Accepting the challenge, she worked out the bugs, grew her own vinifera and heeded Pierre’s advice when he said, “Just grow what you like to drink and you’ll make it work.” So, she did.

“[Pierre was so right.] Up until last year, I was not selling my wine because I was scared to death thinking … ‘Has it been long enough? Have I put in enough work and has enough time passed? Is anyone ever going to drink this wine, like it and buy it again?’ So, last year, when everybody came out to the tasting, liked it—and we sold out—I thought to myself, ‘Ok, I can do this’!” By 2013, Dawn began enjoying the fruits of her labor. Pelle Legna Vineyards officially went to market with its first 200 cases last year, and within two weeks of introducing her wines; Dawn sold out of 75 cases of red. 

Today, Pelle Legna wines are available at several locations in Tyler and the surrounding areas. Some places where Pelle Legna can be found include of Cork Food & Drink, Dakotas Steak & Chop House, FRESH by Brookshire's, Harley's Liquor Stores (Longview, TX), Lago Del Pino, Lochinvar Golf Club (Houston, TX), Stampede 66 (Dallas, TX), Villa Montez and Willow Brook Country Club. Joseph Guzzetta Beer & Wine Manager for Fresh by Brookshire’s isn’t just pleased with the wine; he is also impressed with Dawn’s efforts to produce a superior product. “Since FRESH opened, we have focused on quality and local.  Pelle Legna is not just another Texas winery. Dawn is doing it the right way by growing her own grapes and producing the best wine she can from what the vineyard gives her,” he commented. “We don't just support Pelle Legna because it's local; it's really good.”  

With last year’s success, no time was wasted in getting this year’s harvest ready. The vineyard is slated to produce more than twice the amount as it did last year. Presently, there is much anticipation for the introduction of two new varieties including Vivace, a Rosé, and a red blend, Bilancia. With much to still learn and experimenting to do, Dawn continues to keep in mind that the art of making a great wine always starts from the beginning. “You cannot make a delicious wine if the grapes do not taste good to start with or you did not keep your vines free of most diseases. Even starting with the best soil will have an effect,” she explained. “You have to have a healthy crop and good-looking grapes need to be harvested at the right time. All of that lends itself to giving it great flavor. All of that comes from what happened to it in the vineyard, as well as what happened to it at the winery.”

Being that Dawn’s days can get caught up in the vineyard, it is surprising to learn that she still has time to make sure she gives back to the community. As it has been in the past, the site of her beloved home, vineyard and winery, Rio Neches Ranch, will host this year’s Cattle Barons’ Gala on June 14.  Pelle Legna Winery will be part of the event serving as a backdrop to the always, highly-anticipated Barons’ Reception. Like many whose lives have been touched by cancer, Dawn’s involvement and support reflect a personal commitment to help fight the disease. “Thank God I have not lost anyone close to me to cancer, and I hope and pray that continues to be the case. It has touched me like many others. My husband lost his father to cancer, which in turn, has robbed me of the chance to ever get to know him. We also have dear, dear, friends and family who have overcome, or are facing, the illness with the utmost strength and determination. Because of these reasons, it means so much to be able to host Cattle Barons’ for the fourth time. Each time, it affords us an opportunity to create awareness and raise money that we know makes a difference in our community and beyond. We are particularly passionate about the Li’l Wranglers and getting those brave boys and girls well, so that they can enjoy a long full life.” That passion has led Dawn and her husband, along with The Moss’ and East Texas Seed to sponsor the Li’l Wranglers every year.  This year, they’ve dedicated their sponsorship in honor of Ruben DeLong.

Sowing the seeds to a passion-filled life will continue to move Dawn forward in the vineyard and out of it.  Despite its everyday challenges, she is just happy to have discovered that what she loves to do has given her a chance to do what she loves. “If I never sold one bottle of wine, it is truly been one of the most enriching experiences I have ever had. I could not have imagined it, and I just can’t even put into words just how exciting it is.”

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