Legends in Winemaking: Jack Keller

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If you've spent any amount of time in a community like ours you're bound to have read the name "Jack","I got this from Jack's site" or any of the variations that are out there.

"Jack" is Jack Keller, and Jack Keller is American home winemaking.

Being one of, if not the most prolific winemakers and writers of the past century, Jack Keller has revolutionized the idea of home winemaking, and helped carry it out to the forefront were it currently resides.

Whether you've tried his traditional wines, or his not so traditional, Mr. Keller is the source from which most great wine recipes stem. Truly an expert in all things winemaking, I was fortunate to sit down with Jack in our newest series "Legends in Winemaking".

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Austin: How did you start your winemaking?

Jack: Actually, I helped a friend decades ago make dandelion wine. This was done at his place so he did most of the work and I actually never observed a racking. When I was gifted a large bag of figs, I decided to make fig wine. I went to the library and checked out an old book on brewing that had a short chapter on winemaking. There was no fig wine recipe in it so I adapted another recipe and added boiled and chopped raisins because the other recipe did. I used a balloon with a pin-prick in it for an airlock. It turned out reasonably well considering I used bread yeast, there was no homebrew shop in my town and so I had no Campden tablets, and I used DAP fertilizer because it was the only DAP I could find. I froze papaya peelings because they contained natural pectic enzyme. I used oranges and lemons for aid. After that I found a recipe in an almanac for making apple wine from apple juice and bought it in glass gallon jugs which served as secondaries.

When I mentioned my wines to my grandfather a couple of years before his passing, he gave me a cigar box of his own and printed recipes from newspaper and magazine articles and an old catalog from a company called White Owl where you could order Campden tablets, actual wine yeast, food-grade DAP, pectinase, acid blend, and potassium sorbate. Later, I obtained a copy of C.J.J. Berry's "First Steps in Winemaking" and that began my more structured winemaking efforts. The hard part was converting English measures (they weren't metric yet) into American measures.

Austin: Did you get to try the Dandelion wine? You didn't know of your family's history of winemaking till then? That's very interesting. Do you brew with family now to help pass the legacy on?

Jack: The dandelion was very good to me, but my palate was not well trained at that time. That wine was only racked once so it had a lot of yeast clutter in it, and we drank it very young, but hey, it was our wine and we thought it was damn good.

When I was a child, probably 6-7, I visited my grandfather while he was making wine (he made fig and pear from his own trees and blackberry and muscadine from wild vines outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana.0. He let me "help" him, which only many years later I realized meant doing chores that kept me out of his hair, but one thing he said stuck with me, or rather was remembered many years later. He drank wine while he made wine. He said, "Never drink your wine until you are making its replacement. It needs to age a while." He was much smarter than I thought, and I thought he was a genius.

No one else in my family has shown any interest in making wine except my sister, who made plum wine once with a friend around 1980 but never again that I know of. If I lived closer to any of them, I like to think it would be different.

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Jack with his wife Donna

: Why do you make wine?

Jack: Originally I made it to improve upon my last attempt. I drank it only because I had to do something with it. I preferred beer, but gradually acquired a taste for wine. Like all newbies, I made it sweet with as high an alcohol content as I could push the yeast, but the more I drank my taste slowly shifted to drier and more sensible alcohol levels (high alcohol then was 14% and most wine yeasts topped out at 12-13%). During this transition, the only grapes I could get were table grapes from the market so I started making wine from anything I could, and it was that challenge that really got me hooked. I kept trying new fruit and juices and finding edible wild berries, fruit, plants, roots, etc. and the rest is history.

Austin: Have you ever brewed a beer? If so how did it turn out?

Jack: I made beer once with a friend in the early 1980s using his supplies, bottles and capper, which I compensated him for. It was okay, but seemed dangerous to me (the batch he was making along-side mine started blowing bottles) and so I stuck with wine.

Austin: Can you tell us about one of your most memorable winemaking experiences?

Jack: I once belonged to a wine club in which everyone but me made exclusively red wines from varietal grapes. A few made an occasional white from Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc but those grapes were hard to find then. I considered them all pretentious snobs. When my turn came to present a program of course I focused on non-grape wines and stated my often repeated mantra that you can make wine from anything both fermentable and non-toxic. At the next meeting one of the members shoved a large, stapled shut, paper grocery bag of something into my chest and said, "Here, ferment this." It turned out to be Bermuda grass clippings. I boiled them and made wine from the strained liquid. About 10 months later I brought the mystery wine. After careful tasting, most thought it was an acceptable but not great Chenin Blanc. When I announced it was Bermuda Grass Clipping Wine they about soiled their underwear.

Austin: That is an amazing story! How long were you part of that club? Are you a part of any clubs now?

Jack: I was a member for two years. They all got their grapes from post-harvest leftovers from Napa and Sonoma vineyards. One would announce, "This is my Iron Horse Cabernet Sauvignon," and I would think, "No, you ***. That is your Cab made from grapes you bought and picked at Iron Horse---grapes they didn't want in their wine." I never vocalized these thoughts but we clearly lived in different universes.

I've belonged to the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild (SARWG) since shortly after moving from San Francisco to San Antonio in the early 1990s. The members of SARWG are in my universe. At the very first meeting I attended the wines members brought for tasting were 90-95% homemade non-grape or non-Noble Grape wines. One fellow brought a pyracantha wine and another a prickly pear cactus wine and I knew I had found my home. SARWG is the oldest, continuously active wine club in Texas.

Austin: What's your favorite wine?

Jack: My favorite grape wine is Cabernet Sauvignon but Tannat is a very close second. I love the depth of both, the rich tannins and their testament that terroir really does matter. However, a really good Pinot Noir is totally enjoyable for very different reasons. Next in order would be a really excellent Mustang Wine, a Texas native grape (V. mustangensis) with a horrible taste, insane acidity and thick skins which, while almost inedible, can be coaxed into an absolutely delicious wine. I rate it so high because it is a difficult grape to make excellent wine from, and when I taste an excellent one I savor it with great appreciation of the total transformation.

Austin: What's your favorite fruit wine?

Jack: Without doubt it's black raspberry. It delivers a richer, more complex flavor than any other non-grape berry I've ever tasted as wine. If you want to confine the question to strictly "fruit," I'll surprise you and select wild plums -- especially the Texas Wild Plum, Sand Plum and Beach Plum. When sufficient fruit are properly processed, augmented and fermented, then allowed to age, both in bulk and in the bottle, it makes an exceptional wine.

Austin: What's your most popular wine among your friends and family?

Jack: Currently, it's my Black Raspberry Chocolate Port, but at various times it has been Blood Orange Chocolate Port, Loganberry Wine, Texas Purple Sage Mead, Marula Wine, Chocolate-Covered Cherry Wine, Praline Dessert Wine, Dandelion Wine, Mustang-Blueberry Port, Beet Dessert Wine (aged 5 years and was exquisite), etc, but Black Raspberry is always the favorite whenever and however I make it.

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SARWG President Larry Lothringer and Jack Keller holding
Honorable Mention and Best of Show rosettes - Image courtesy of Jack's Site.

Austin: What are your thoughts on the current winemaking culture in Texas? Have you seen it transition?

Jack: The winemaking culture in Texas began with Spanish missionaries growing vineyards for sacramental wine. The so-called "Mission Grape" was undoubtedly an open-pollinated hybrid of unknown cuttings brought from Spain and unknown native grapes in Mexico. We can deduce this because the Spanish cuttings only survived one or two fruitings and yet Mission Grapes, planted from seed, survived for decades.

Settlers, of course, made wine from wild grapes, fruit and berries. In east Texas muscadine was the favored grape with V. aestivalis var. lincecumii a close second. In the rest of Texas, the mustang is the most prevalent grape and, while an unlikely candidate for a good wine, the early settlers managed to tame it out of necessity.

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Mustang grapes. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries T.V. Munson of Denison, Texas pioneered an American grape culture. His work was based on a simple fact: European grapes cannot survive in America without either grafting on native rootstock or genetic crossing with trait-specific natives. Munson made tens of thousands of crossings of various native, European and French-American hybrids and introduced hundreds of table and wine grape cultivars, most of which were lost after his death and during Prohibition. He is one of the two prominent men responsible for saving the Noble Grapes of Europe from the phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century by sending tens of tons of American native grape cuttings to France to serve as phylloxera-resistent rootstock. Munson's monumental work, Foundations of American Grape Culture, established the methodologies that would serve later generations of grape breeders.

The only Texas winery that remained open during Prohibition, making sacramental wines, was Val Verde Vineyards and Winery in Del Rio. Since few vineyards survived this period anywhere in America, Texas was primed to jump-start a huge wine industry. And yet it didn't happen for many reasons, not least of which was the Great Depression, but during the 1970s and '80s the stars aligned and dozens of vineyards and wineries were established in Texas. Momentum has built ever since with now about 320 wineries and an estimated 8,500 acres of vineyards. Most grow the popular varietals but some grow old and new hybrids.

It is encouraging to see more and more of them growing Tempranillo, Syrah, Malbec, Tannat, and others than the more common Nobles. Tempranillo especially grows well in Texas, and Tannat is doing well up north in the Texoma AVA.

Austin: Could you discuss Texas grape growing and wine industry in the Hill Country area?

Jack: I'm not really a wine industry analyst---just a casual observer, but I'd have to be blind and mentally deficient not to notice new vineyards and wineries every time I drive the highways and backroads north of San Antonio.

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Two different species of unripe native grapes. Image courtesy of Jack's site.

Except for a little less rainfall than optimal, the Hill Country is almost perfect for vineyards. With a limestone bedrock, decomposed limestone on top of that and modest (30 cm) to thick (152 cm) topsoil of clay, clay loam and sandy clay loam, it's perfect for vines grown on rootstock derived from vines native to the region but with preferences to one of the three soil types. Even then, drip irrigation is required.

Things can go wrong. More than one vineyard has died because wealthy "imports" (if you weren't born or raised in Texas, you're an "import") bought land and planted their vines on rootstock that worked where they came from but not where they are. Here you must have stock that can deal with local problems, chief among them Cotton Root Rot and Pierce's Disease (PD). Rootstock cannot protect the graft from the latter, but can extend the life.

PD resistant (or at least tolerant) hybrids are popular with the growers, but the public still wants the Noble Grapes that don't survive more than a few harvests here. That means that growers are always replanting one portion of their vineyard[s] while harvesting others. Still, there is always an ample supply of Noble varietals.

When a wine trail gets established, and the Hill Country has several, the larger Texas wineries are drawn to it, even if only with a tasting room for wines made outside the immediate area. The last time I counted there were 42 wineries on the Hill Country wine trails.

The Hill Country viticulture area consists of two distinct but contiguous areas (Fredericksburg and Bell Mountain) and encompasses all or part of 23 counties. There are five other AVAs in Texas, with only the Texas High Plains AVA approaching the Hill Country AVA in size. You can grow a lot more grapes in the High Plains because it doesn't include as many steep and rock-exposed hillsides totally unsuitable for agriculture of any kind; located north of the deadly PD belt, the High Plains supplies a lot of the popular varietal grapes for southern wineries, including some in the Hill Country.

I could say more, but I don't know how useful it would be, but I will add two things:

First, some of the best wines I've enjoyed have come from the Texas Hill Country and other Texas AVAs. I am completely enamored with Bushy Creek's Tannat, especially Rachel Cook's (their winemaker) Reserve.

Second, Texas wines would be a lot cheaper if consumers simply tried and acquired a taste for Lenoir (a.k.a. Black Spanish), Blanc du Bois and other grapes that tolerate PD but never make it into Wine Spectator. Early Texas settlers acquired a taste for mustang wine because they had little or no choice. Today's consumers have an unbridled choice, but tend to follow trendy wines. They do so at a higher cost per unit of local wine because Argentina, Chile and other low wage countries can ship lower cost per unit wines. I'm not complaining. I love many imported wines, but rarely drink them when I make so much wine myself---very often more interesting wine, but then my palate likes interesting.

If you want a more expansive look at Texas wines in general and Hill Country wines in particular, ask Dr. Russell Kane at Vintage Texas, a very folksy but informative blog.

Austin: What was the worst wine you ever made?

Jack: Without doubt it was White Onion & Garlic Wine. I had made each separately, for cooking, and often found myself adding both to marinades and sauces. When I ran out of the garlic wine I decided to make a single wine combining both ingredients. It was a monumental mistake and proves the adage that blending is done on the bench (with finished wines), not in the primary.

Austin: What's one piece of your setup you could not live without?

Jack: When I think about my hydrometers and refractometer, my gram scale, my pH meter, and my various testing kits, my answer is going to surprise you. I'd say my floor corker is the one thing I couldn't live without unless I wanted to spend hundreds of dollars replacing all my bottles with screw caps. I wouldn't have said that when I was younger. My hydrometers have always been the essential gauge of record and progress, while my gram scale has allowed me to manage additives with precision. My pH meter is really only necessary when my tongue is indecisive or, with the aid of an SO2 testing kit, I need precise pH to guide sulfite additions. All of these are, in my opinion, essential for consistently making exceptional wines, but when the wine is made and I'm out of screw cap bottles, that floor corker is indispensable. Your mileage may very well vary.

Austin: That raises an interesting point. If you don't make the wine you want on the first attempt, how many more batches do you typically do before you give up on that wine?

Jack: Depending on the wine and the availability of the base, I might try making the wine again. If I think there is something I'm just missing, I might make several attempts. With the Onion & Garlic wine, I decided blending was the way to go. If you've ever made either, you'd know the odors generated during fermentation will make a house unlivable after just a day of vigor. Luckily I have a patio where I could banish them. Fermented together is much worse. They pollute the whole neighborhood and I live in an area where every property is 3-5 acres, so I knew this was a serious mistake the first time I tried them together. Fermented separated but side-by-side, the smell is not nearly as bad. Blending is the humane answer.

For many years I had both pear and wild plum trees and every year I improved upon previous batches. Similarly, wild blackberries used to be quite common around here and I could make at least one good batch every year. One year I came into about 130 pounds of frozen, farm grown blackberries as a gift and made many batches using different yeast. Also, I allowed one batch to undergo malolactic fermentation, which metabolized so much malic that I had to later add some back. I learned a lot that year.

My first experiments at infusing chocolate in a base were total failures and I gave up after three attempts. Later, someone told me about an excellent Orange-Chocolate wine being commercially made in Florida. I called the winemaker and he only laughed when I asked him his secret. I finally got him to sell and ship me two bottles and was so impressed I went back to my experiments. I gave up after five attempts and that would have been the end of it had a couple in Tennessee not sent me some wines to evaluate. Two were infused chocolate wines and I asked them to share their secret without really expecting them to. They did and with their permission I published the recipes I made on my own using their method and now anyone can make them---even kit manufacturers are selling chocolate infused wine kits.

I've thrown out more watermelon batches than I've bottled. I even grew watermelons to have a large supply to experiment with. It, too, required a breakthrough method that I learned late in the game but works.

So to answer your question, it depends.

Austin: What's the worst product you've used?

Jack: I'd really rather not say -- to prevent alienating a friend who works for the manufacturer. It's an extract from hops used in the beer industry -- not meant for wine but the chemistry said it might serve as a tannin substitute. It not only didn't succeed at that, but it ruined the wine. The result is partially my fault. The stuff is powerful and meant for huge vats of beer. Reducing the recommended dose down to a 3-gallon batch of wine resulted in using a 1 mL pipette and I only needed a fraction of that. A chemist friend recommended a method of dilution and measuring from that but still it was a crap-shoot and I lost. I never tried it again and never will.

Austin: Is there any wine you wish you could make but haven't had a chance to yet?

Jack: Yes. There are many exotic fruit and berries out there, mostly in Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia-New Zealand I can't obtain. I've obtained some canned or as juice, but canned fruit and fresh fruit are two different things (think of the difference between a fresh peach and a canned peach) and I have no way of knowing if the juices I've managed to obtain are true to taste.

A woman in New Foundland once read me mention cloudberries on my blog. The following year she sent me six quarts of her own canned cloudberries so I could make wine. I did and it was lovely. I later learned it took her two weeks of foraging to gather those berries, which she normally would have made cobblers with during the year. Instead she sent them to me. I tried to send her a bottle of it but it was seized by Customs because it had no tax stamp and I was fined quite heavily. I would not have resented paying the fine if they had sent her the wine (or returned it), but they did neither. It turned out she was 86 years old. Can you imagine wandering the wilds at that age, gathering rare cloudberries, to can and send to someone else? It touched me deeply.

There are a few other northern berries I wish I had....

Austin: It seems like you have done literally hundreds of kinds of wine. Any tally of all the different kinds?

Jack: Not exactly. I've know I've made over 700 kinds of wine and lots of repeats---almost 3,000 batches. It would take a lot of time and effort to come up with an exact tally. Maybe one day I'll find the time to do it, but maybe not. It isn't that important to me to know anymore.

Austin: What is one piece of advice you wish someone would've given you when you first started?

Jack: This is going to sound odd, but I wish I had told my grandfather earlier that I was making wine. He had made wine when I was just a boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old and by then he had been making it since my mother was my age. He knew far more about it than I did 15 years later and because he had to leave he really couldn't do more than give me the box of rcipes and the catalog, which was 8 years old at the time, but the company was still in business. The catalog was the first real clue it was as involved as it is. My first wines were made so simply and without sulfites. It's a miracle I only lost one batch to contamination -- an apple wine. I cleaned my primary, secondary and racking hose with bleach and hot water. I was very lucky to have rinsed them as well as I did -- especially the racking hose.

So, there really isn't one piece of advice I wish someone had given me when I started. What I really would have wished for had I known what to wish for was C.J.J. Berry's book or an equivalent. My winemaking knowledge was just a decibel point above zero when I made my first wine and rose slowly until Berry's book. Then it all changed and I began realizing there was so much more to learn. Having an insatiable curiosity can be a curse. I've never stopped learning.

As a community we're learning a lot about winemakers and wines we make. All of us, from small batch producers to those who made the jump from home to commercial winemaking, owe a debt to Jack Keller. Revolutionizing our understanding of homemade wine, and tilling the fertile ground which would become American home winemaking, I raise a glass to Jack Keller, a true legend in winemaking, and hope you do as well.


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January 20, 2015  •  02:24 AM
What an honor to have a conservation with Jack Keller !!
I started making wine and still do by using his recipes.

Very nice article !! Great Job to you both !!
January 20, 2015  •  02:02 PM
I tried not to gush...well, I waited to the interview was complete.
January 20, 2015  •  04:03 PM
Great article. I've been to Jacks website many many times.
Now I know a little about the man.
March 9, 2015  •  01:33 AM
I enjoyed this interview very much. I have only been making wine just over 2 years and owe everything I have learned to Jack. Every search I have done on the internet will bring up Jack. I quickly found out that any questions I had about wine making, I need to go straight to Jack's website. I have now made more that 20 kinds of wines and the most radical wine is Jalapeno (thanks to the recipe from Jack's website). In my opinion Jack Keller is a legend in the home winemaking circle....Thank you Jack for sharing your knowledge so unselfishly.