Inside Texas’ first underground winery

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Laurie Wenden, a server at Thirsty Mule Winery & Vineyard, pours a red wine into a glass at the tasting bar. (Allen Tony Rhodes Photo)

Laurie Wenden, a server at Thirsty Mule Winery & Vineyard, pours a red wine into a glass at the tasting bar. (Allen Tony Rhodes Photo)

By Christine Bolaños

When Dan Marek Jr.’s great grandfather migrated from Czechoslovakia to Galveston to begin a new life in the United States, he began a family tradition that has become Marek’s lifelong passion and work.

“They didn’t go to New York because they said they didn’t have money to go that far so they dropped them off there (Galveston),” Marek explained. “Our family actually originated in the Granger area. When he came over he brought a bunch of grapevine clippings from Czechoslovakia.”

While other people were planting crops such as tomatoes and potatoes, Marek’s great grandfather specialized in grapes.

Dan Marek Jr., owner of Thirsty Mule Winery & Vineyard, is all smiles as he discusses the intricacies of winemaking in front of his tanks located inside the warehouse. (Allen Tony Rhodes Photo)

Dan Marek Jr., owner of Thirsty Mule Winery & Vineyard, is all smiles as he discusses the intricacies of winemaking in front of his tanks located inside the warehouse. (Allen Tony Rhodes Photo)

“He was growing grapes and trading grapes for the fruits and vegetables. He would make wines and trade it with different neighbors,” Marek shared.

From that moment winemaking not only became a family tradition but a way of life with the men in the family passing along their knowledge from one generation to the next.

“I actually have a nephew who’s fixing to start coming in here. He’s about 10. He’s going to start working here on Saturdays,” Marek said. “He’s going to start learning that trade now. My wife and I don’t have kids. We need somebody in the family to start taking over the commercial part of it so we’re going to start training him. He’ll just kind of see us and watch how we do it.”

Marek, along with his wife, Becca, own the Georgetown Winery and the state’s first underground winery, Thirsty Mule Winery & Vineyard, just outside Liberty Hill.

Already, other winemakers are adopting the concept, including one opening soon in Fredericksburg.

Why it’s different

According to the lifelong winemaker, it is not just the concept that makes his business stand out, but the quality of the products.

“One thing about my winery is that a lot of wineries in Texas are stuck with doing Texas fruit, Texas grapes. I don’t do that. To me quality is bigger than using your state product,” Marek said. “Right now, it’s 50 percent Texas, 50 percent California and New Mexico.”

Though, he explained, it depends on the type of wine, too. For example, the cabernates in Texas, lack the “big, heavy, bold(ness)” found in other wines, he said.

“What we do is we’ll take half Texas grapes, half California grapes, put them together, ferment them together, let them age together, and it comes out a little heavier red wine,” he said.

“My biggest thing is quality not quantity or what I can get locally. I would say quality of wines (is what makes the wineries stand out). Georgetown, we’ve won four international medals in the last five years,” Marek shared. “Our ports, we win top, gold medal. It’s about 80 percent California, 20 percent Texas. To me, I’d rather find the better fruit, make a better wine and have a lifelong customer.”

The native Texan said the climate is too hot in the Lone Star State to make that type of big, bold, heavy red. Marek takes the best of both worlds, to make something unique that visitors will remember.

Journey underground

He got the idea for an underground winery and tasting bar after visiting one in the Golden State.

“That went about two miles into a mountain cave. So you walk in there, they let you go about a mile in there, with all the wine. It’s pretty neat,” Marek shared. “It was dug by Chinese immigrants 100 years ago. It’s in Napa, called a Schramsberg. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have the first one underground in Texas?’”

Marek said though the original plans called for tours in the actual cave part of the winery, the insurance company said it did not meet safety requirements because it only had one exit. However, one thing visitors don’t realize upon arriving is that they are, in fact, four feet underground, when they enter the tasting bar and banquet room.

He pointed to some openings on the ceiling of the facility through which viewers can see rays of the sun. Virtually the entire building is made of concrete and the cave area can be seen through windows that replaced what were once doors leading to the cave. Those sections of the cave have been transformed into a staged wine bar.

The facility was built 40 years ago by a family that still resides in Liberty Hill.

“This was originally a five-bedroom, four-bath house. Originally, when this was built, all these walls, everything, is concrete. The ceiling, the walls, so it’s a good place to come during a tornado,” Marek explained.

The tasting bar and banquet areas were utilized as a hallway, a kitchen, living room and bedrooms.

“We gutted everything and made it two big open spaces. So we’ve got the tasting bar and the banquet room,” he said.

The third big room in the facility is used for storage and office space.

“We built this one bathroom and this little wall right here. Other than that everything is original concrete wall,” he said.

Where the ‘magic’ happens

Marek said the warehouse is the place where the magic happens. While six people operate the tasting bar only three people, including Marek, work at the warehouse.

“I have three of us that work in here full time Monday through Friday. We’re making wines, pressing wines, filtering, bottling, stuff like that,” Marek said. “Right now, we just have a few barrels in here. We’re in the process of cycling and having new barrels come in. Barrels usually last two or three years. It depends on what wine we’re making in there.”

The tanks can produce and hold 9,000 gallons at a time, which makes about 50,000 bottles of wine.

“Right now a few of the tanks are open. We have grapes coming in so we’re just in the process of cleaning and we’re ready for the grapes to get in. Once the grapes come in, they’ll go in, they’ll ferment, and barrel after barrel will go into the bottle,” Marek explained.

He has two people who work full time at the Vineyard located a short distance north of Liberty Hill off US Highway 183.

“That’s pretty much a full-time year-round job. Once we put two acres up in here we’ll probably hire one more assistant to help in here. He’ll be out there working most of the time in the vineyard,” Marek shared.

Banding together

While many similar businesses may compete over customers, wineries, at least the ones in the area, help each other out.

“We’re not the type that want to fight each other’s business. We complement each other,” Marek said.

Any tourists wanting to visit vineyards and wineries in the area will usually spend a day or a weekend checking a few out.

On any given Saturday, Thirsty Mule will see an average of 200 to 300 people, and that is since opening a few months ago.

“People can come and hit us, hit Pilot Knob, go over to Georgetown, go over to Florence, so the more out here the better,” Marek believes.

Potential economic impact

He believes the potential impact Thirsty Mule and other neighboring wineries will have on the local economy is significant.

“The impact in the community is going to be great because once you get two or three out here people are going to come out here and spend a day. They’re going to run over to Dahlia’s (Café) and eat lunch. Stay at a local hotel,” Marek said.

“This happens in a lot of different regions. I’ve been to Grapevine, people go there and spend the weekend because they want to hit all the wineries they can. It is going to impact,” he added. “There is another winery coming to Liberty Hill. They should be open this fall, plus the brewery that just opened down the road here.”

He said since Thirsty Mule has only been open for a few months most visitors are from what he refers to as the Hwy 183 corridor, or people from the Cedar Park, Leander, Liberty Hill and Georgetown areas.

“We’ve had a lot of people from Liberty Hill. They’re like, ‘Gosh, we’ve got somewhere to come sit and drink wine, with friends or whatever.’ Once we get a couple more out here it’s going to start bringing more people from Austin, Houston and Dallas,” Marek said.

Same owners, different menus

Though the Mareks own both Thirsty Mule and Georgetown wineries the menus are different, so Marek recommends wine aficionados visit both.

“We didn’t want to put Georgetown wines here so everything in the menu is completely different. Different vineyard, different wines, nothing’s the same,” Marek said.

The warehouse produces wines for both the Georgetown and Liberty Hill facilities, however.

Funny name, serious wine

The name “Thirsty Mule” was the outcome of friends gathered together brainstorming a comical name.

“Our plans are to bring a mule out here, but the insurance company wants us to wait one year. Just because it’s a new place, somebody could get kicked, bit or whatever,” Marek explained. “There’s a winery up in New York we know real well. They have a miniature mule there. People love going there and feeding it, petting it and stuff. So we’re hoping to bring one out pretty quick.”

He said many people ask him about the vineyard.

“Which we will be growing, we will be planting here, this winter, up on the hill,” he said. “We’re going to take the trees that are fixing to come out here in the next week or two. We’re going to take most of our trees but we’re going to leave the big oak trees. So when people are driving by they’ll see the vineyard and think, ‘Oh, there’s a winery down there.’”

More to come

Thirsty Mule currently carries 11 wines, including two whites, four reds, four sweets and one dessert. There are plans for two new dessert wines in the winter as well as a sweet wine in late fall.

The winery is also open for special events and group tours. For hours, rates, wine menu and other information, visit www.thirstymule.com or ‘like’ Thirsty Mule Winery & Vineyard on Facebook.

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