How the Martins Tilled New Life Into Perissos

(This story originally ran in the March/April issue of Vintner Magazine)

Much is being said about the US 290 Wine Trail these days. It’s a stretch of highway connecting Johnson City to Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country that is on a path to becoming densely populated with wineries, tasting rooms, resorts and even distilleries, providing casual wine drinkers and discerning wine aficionados a way to efficiently sample the flavors of the Lone Star State.

But one Texas winery you won’t find on that road is Perissos Vineyards and Winery. A half hour away, near the craggy cliffs of Inks Lake State Park and Lake Buchanan, owners Seth and Laura Martin grow an array of European varietals in the decomposed granite soil that is a unique characteristic of the area.

Years after the 290 Wine Trail began gaining in popularity, the small direct-to-consumer winery’s idyllic property still remains off the beaten path.

That’s the way the Martins like it.

The rolling hills that provide the winery’s backdrop — often festooned with colorful wildflowers for months of the year — have complemented a focus on customer service and a loyal customer base that has helped attract more customers by word of mouth.

“We’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Laura Martin said. “We had one billboard and got no traffic from it.

“That has been all of the advertising we’ve done. The getting away and the destination is part of the magic of it. We wondered if we were idiots for not going on the 290 Wine Trail. But people say they are spending special time there and I think that’s a reason we’re growing.”

Keeping the Vineyard Healthy

Being out among the vines is something Seth said he really enjoys. He calls it a spiritual experience and says it’s really good for him.

So in 2010, when his vineyards started hurting, so did he. He noticed they were beginning to lose about 20 percent of their vines per year to fungal pathogens.

“We spent a lot of money getting experts out here to tell us what was happening,” he said. “We could see that in five years we wouldn’t have any fruit. The common consensus was we needed to do a soil drench fungicide to kill both the good and bad pathogens that were destroying the vines.”

But that suggested course of action gave him pause. 

“We read all the labels and made sure we knew what was going tinto the vines. Most of the fungicides were class 2 carcinogens,” he said.”We were not willing to do that. It was too drastic of a measure.”

Seth’s exhaustive research led him to a different philosophical approach.

“It led us down the rabbit trail,” he said. “Composting. Mulch. A row mulcher. Special tractors. Me and my winemaker Brett Pape get out on the tractors and put out 14 miles of compost in the vineyard. 

“We till it in and use it primarily for nutrients and beneficial microbes, and then when we feed the plants in April, we feed them seaweed, kelp and molasses. 

“Over the years, the soil has been getting healthier because of no synthetic fertilizers. The experts told us to use ammonium sulfate, but with synthetics you can farm yourself into no crop.”

Building up the ground and composting religiously is not inexpensive.

“Each time we’re composting, it’s probably costing us about $25,000-$30,000,” Seth said. “We use turkey compost. We can’t afford bat guano … the marijuana growers use that. 

“It’s a labor of love and economically, the way we farm grapes, our average cost is about $5,000 per ton good year. Last year was a bad year. We had a lot of bud damage from that week of really cold weather (in February 2021). So in a year like that where you had almost no fruit, you still have to maintain the crop. During the most expensive years it could be $10,000-$12,000 per ton. 

“Farming grapes is not for the faint of heart. It’s a challenge.”

Embracing the Individual Grape

The Martins’ journey to farming grapes and owning a direct-to-consumer winery started in the yard next to their Austin home, where they started with six grapevines. They also planted vines in East Austin at a contractor’s property, and in Marble Falls at Laura’s sister and brother-in-law’s land. 

Eventually, they also planted another test vineyard and managed a small previously-planted vineyard.

Growing and managing these grapes was one piece of the equation. They wanted to make wine, and they weren’t afraid to experiment with the process from grape to glass.

“We had the idea we could make wine from the beginning,” Laura said. “We had test vineyards. We were making horrible wine — if you even want to call it wine — but we were learning a new craft. Research and failure are some of the best teachers. We didn’t have a long-term business plan. There was never a formal outline or any growth plan. Some might say that was foolish of us, but that’s how it happened.”

But the Martins learned the craft and honed their farming and winemaking skills. In the beginning, they did almost everything themselves. Two decades later, they’re still adhering to their philosophy of letting the grape do the talking and embracing the variables that contribute to making different grapes every year.

Making a replica of the previous year is not what Seth Martin cares about, he said.

“One thing that really captivated me when we started growing grapes next to our house and still does to this day, is the expression of art that winemaking is. 

“You can have the same grapevine in the same location, but from one year to the next, it will never make the same glass of wine. That is the single most interesting thing about this entire business.

“If you did a vertical tasting of our Aglianico from over the past seven years, I wouldn’t say they would be vastly different wines. But based on the soil and heat (from year to year) they are all different wines. We let the vineyards speak.”

Added Laura, “It’s not a cookie cutter every year. It’s got the characteristics of an Aglianico, but it’s going to taste a little different. We have (largely) the same winemaking practice but we may adjust it from one year to the next. We might age it longer in a different type of oak. It’s never going to be a repeat. It’s a different wine.”

Attention to Detail

The name — Perissos — is a Greek word meaning “exceeding abundantly, beyond what is expected,” and that’s what the Martins tried to do and continue to do, they said.

Attention to detail from ground to glass is part of the key to their success.

“We tend the vines and we use custom compost,” Laura said. “We compost them every year. We prune them. We train them. We take so many steps in the vineyards to make sure our fruit is exceptional. 

“With our winemaking, we keep things clean and we’re constantly monitoring things. On the customer side, we need to have the best experience and the best product or our customers are not going to want to come back. We feel like our vineyard is special, that the valley it is in is special, and the people coming into the tasting room are gifts to us just because they came in. 

“We want them to feel that back, so everything from staff training to who we bring on has to embrace that.”

As the winery has slowly evolved and seen its customer base grow, it’s been a balancing act to maintain the consistent product and the everyone-knows-your-name customer experience their regulars are used to.

“As a business owner and entrepreneur, there’s a frailty to what we do,” Seth said. “Wine quality is a Jenga tower. If we just started letting our guard down on grape growing, people would realize the quality is diminishing. If we start getting snippy with customers, the spiritual act of loving people disappears, and people will pick up on that too. ‘Specialness’ has a log of facets that hold it up, so we have to tread very carefully on what we do as a business.”

Laura said hiring and keeping good staff was crucial to staying on brand as they grew.

“When we were small we knew everyone’s name, and before COVID, everyone got a hug when they came in,” she said. “But when you’re growing like we are growing and we’re not in the tasting room as often as we used to be, it’s hard to keep that relationship centric thing going.

“But our staff and crew are loved so much by our customers that they’re like family. It’s the team that makes that happen.”

Finding a Winemaker

For years, Seth handled the winemaking duties at Perissos.

These days, the head winemaker is Brent Pape. Seth said Pape taking over as the head of winemaking has allowed him to shift his focus to other areas of the business.

“The biggest limiter to our growth was we got to a point where we couldn’t physically do every single thing and if we tried, we weren’t doing it efficiently,” Seth said. “Have to be able to hand over duties, responsibilities and roles to someone who can do things better than we were. We needed to fInd someone who could take over the baton. 

“I get to play assistant winemaker now which is fun for me. It was the No. 1 biggest handoff for me, personally.”

Seth said the role of a winemaker was, in part, not to screw up extraordinary fruit with shoddy winemaking practices. Pape, he said, is a guy who does his job diligently.

“You have the technology, the tanks, and the infrastructure, but you have to have the cleanliness protocols,” he said. “After making wine for 20 years now, I tell people it is glorified janitorial work. You’re always cleaning hoses, cleaning valves, and trying to keep things microbiologically sterile before bottling to keep the wine’s longevity. It’s a lot of focusing and hard work. 

“With Brent, we feel like we have someone we can walk away from, turn our back and we would be in great hands. We’re not doing that, but we could.”

Adapting and Growing

As the business has evolved, so have Perissos’ facilities.

They added their new tasting room in 2013 and barrel storage in 2016. They have the equipment to cold ferment their red wines in the 68 degree range and their white wines in the 54 degree range.

But one addition that’s given them a lot of consistency is their bottling line.

“In our former winery life, we had a bottling company show up and do all of our bottling,” Laura said. “Now, with our new building, everything is vertically integrated to where we do everything. We also barrel age and bottle. Everything is in house.”

The Martins said they made the move after some wines they made were contaminated by the bottling company truck.

“With a lot more control, we’ve seen the quality improve,” Laura said.

Seth said the eight-spout filler with vacuum filling nozzles has many of the attributes that more expensive bottling lines have and the tool allows him to keep the wine clean and preserve its longevity.

“Sanitation is our number one motivation,” he said. “With wine, especially red wine, the product is designed to last 10-15 years, and if you have microbial spoilage at the time of bottling, it’s deteriorating every day. Bottling the wine ourselves is about being able to control our own destiny. When you use an outside contractor, there are a million points where wine comes in contact with the bottling line. 

“Now, if there’s a mistake, we can only blame ourselves. Being 100% vertically integrated is cool.”

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