When it comes to the future of East Texas wine, Michael McClendon is crushing it

Michael McClendon is a self-described East Texas cowboy who not only enjoys drinking wine with his BBQ, but helps craft it, too. This "bearded, dreadlock-wearing, African-American millennial" entrepreneur shared the story of launching his latest venture at our popular Out of the Loop storytelling event last month.

Portrait by Jamie Maldonado

“My name is Michael McClendon, and I am a winemaking cowboy.

Wine is a story. It’s about a farmer tending his field. It’s a history lesson on how grape-growing evolved with the conquest of new lands. It’s a religious teaching about having to endure adversity to grow, just as a grapevine has to be pruned to produce fruit. It’s a passport that takes you to an exotic destination, to experience a new culture. Even if you can’t speak their language, you can take food and drink with someone and be on common ground. You see, wine is my career choice, but more than that, it’s my passion.

I am an enologist—a wine scientist. I graduated from Van High School and then from The University of Texas at Tyler as a Faulconer scholar. Near graduation, the biology department chair asked if I wanted to do some research. I thought, ‘Cool, I could use some research hours.’ He told me it would be at a winery here in Tyler. I’m thinking, ‘There’s a winery in Tyler, Texas?’

You see, before that, my experience with wine was drinking Carlo Rossi out of a jug on Sunday afternoons with the boys, thinking we’re classing it up from our usual Natty and Keystone light. Don’t judge! We were broke college kids.

Nonetheless, I agreed and went to Kiepersol, starting as an intern. When I arrived, I was greeted with stainless-steel tanks and a small laboratory tucked away in an office tucked away at the back of the building. I used my science experience to test pH, sugar content, and alcohol, processes I didn’t even know were important to winemaking at the time. Over the years, I worked my way up to lead the wine production team. In 2017, we were named the Top Texas Winery.

During those years, a friend of mine hatched a plan and decided that we should start what’s called a ‘custom crush facility.’ We help new and established wineries with everything from special processes to complete wine production, working with them from grape to bottle.

Courtesy Michael McClendon

A couple of years ago, we started Sages Vintage in Nacogdoches, Texas. Now, I’ve been in some large production facilities with all the bells and whistles. Kiepersol had facilities I took for granted: huge tanks, flat concrete and drains for miles. I assure you, our building was not that! We’re just two regular guys with a bank loan and a vision. We took a little old dairy barn and did some renovations. We invested our money in equipment and bet on ourselves to be knowledgeable enough to make this thing happen.

Now, harvest time in the state of Texas happens during the summer months. Grapes typically start ripening at the end of June, develop through most of July, and are harvested at the end of July and into August. We had mild winters in 2016 and 2017 and ended up with an awesome growing season for most of 2017.

What we didn’t see coming was that some grape varieties were ripening earlier. In this case, it was Blanc du Bois, a hybrid white grape variety that grows well in Texas. It was early July, and we were still waiting on some equipment. One of our first clients, Clay and Stacy Rollins, from Rollins Vine 2 Wine in Winnie, Texas, had some fruit that was ready to go. In farming, there’s no waiting. When the crops says it’s time to go, it’s time to go!

Courtesy Michael McClendon

So here we are, in a lackluster building, blazing hot outside, asking Clay and Stacy to trust us with their business. We’re assuring them we’re the experienced pros. We’re presenting ourselves as this shining beacon in the winemaking industry. But now it’s opening day, and we don’t even have a pump.

While my business partner and I are putting on a pro-grade persona, calm on the surface, underneath we are straight-up shook. We began crushing grapes through our machines, which created hundreds of gallons of juice that we could not move. So we thought, let’s use buckets. We started bucketing all of this raw grape juice from one vessel to the next when Clay, our client, says, “I have a small water pump in the back of my pickup if you think that will help.” So of course we obliged and used his—which was not half the size of our pump on order. The mental pressure on my partner and me was immense, but somehow Sages Vintage made it through the most awkward first business day ever.

Courtesy Michael McClendon

Opening day was intense. We were nervous and we problem-solved as best we could. But for me, there was more at play. Winemaking at a high level is a rarity. An even greater rarity is me. To be in the industry, I have learned to play a game, speak a language, wear a costume. Because there’s always that certain amount of side-eye and double-taking that happens when the guy that’s the ‘expert’ looks like me: a bearded, dreadlock-wearing, African-American millennial son-of-a-gun.

Dealing with the pressure to perform well as a minority is a thing, but it’s something that I’ve grown accustomed to. It may not be fair, but it’s the way it is. There’s no need to cry about it. I’ve always accepted it and believed that my actions will speak for me. I’m not setting out to be a good black winemaker; I’m setting out to be a great winemaker, period.

Like many African-Americans growing up in the South, I come from a community where my great-great-grandfathers worked the land because they had to. They were farmers because they couldn’t just go into town and get produce. So it’s serendipitous that I ended up back in agri-business. And since that first day with Clay and Stacy, I’ve proven it over and over again. That particular wine from opening day became a Reserve Class Champion at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2019.

Courtesy Michael McClendon

My desire is to be a part of the story we’re writing right now for the Texas wine industry. Even if it’s just a sentence that says ‘Wine was being made in East Texas,’ I’m the period at the end of that sentence. In a land of Bud, Miller, Coors, and sweet tea, I want to bring something else.

As our community grows and develops broader tastes for food and beverage culture, I have a vision. I hope to see old cowboys eating barbecue accompanied by a nice glass of semi-sweet white wine—maybe a Gewürztraminer or a Chenin Blanc—to wash it down.”

Have a true personal story about life in Tyler and East Texas you’d like to share at the next Out of the Loop storytelling event? Email storytelling coordinator Jane Neal and describe your story in a sentence or two.

Want to learn more about Michael’s work and his thoughts on the future of East Texan wine? We’ve got you covered.

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