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Josh Fritsche: Portrait of a Winemaker

Josh Fritsche of William Chris Wines discusses the great epiphany that led him into the world of Texas wine and the birth of Tatum Cellars.

“If it wasn’t for the Texas weather, this would be the easiest job I’ve ever had because I love it so much.” ~Josh Fritsche

Ask any group of wine devotees what sparked their passion, and a good number of them will mention a single wine—one so evocative that it stamped in memory forever an event, an emotion, a moment in time. Josh Fritsche’s wine epiphany happened around 1997, late one night after returning home from a shift at Fort Worth’s acclaimed Reata Restaurant, where he had worked a variety of back and front of house jobs for several years. A customer tipped him with three bottles of Flora Springs Trilogy—an iconic Napa Valley, Cabernet dominated Bordeaux blend--a wine so arresting that Josh says he spent the rest of the night with “my nose in the glass.”

This singular wine set Josh off on an intense course of wine study, ranging from mastering the basics with Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, prepping for the rigorous Certified Specialist of Wine designation from the Society of Wine Educators, and graduating from the Texas Tech Viticulture program in 2013.

After years of working in every aspect of the restaurant industry, which in addition to Reata, included stints at Mars in Austin and The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Josh decided to match his employment to his passion. Having become “seduced by the language of wine,” he began looking for a position in the burgeoning Texas wine industry. After months of pestering Chris Brundrett, co-owner and winemaker at William Chris Wines in Hye, Texas, Josh was offered an entry-level position at the young winery in 2011. He was willing to work hard at any job thrown his way--the dirty, grueling work of the vineyard, interfacing with customers in the tasting room, or running the power washer in the production room—Josh did it all. His work ethic and his already impressive wine expertise, made him an invaluable asset to the growing winery. He was promoted to Assistant Winemaker at the end of the 2014 harvest, and then to Production Winemaker in 2015. As Production Winemaker, Josh now manages all the day-to-day operations and staff of the production arm of William Chris Wines.

The Birth of a Daughter and a Brand

The idea of developing his own wines coincided with Josh’s second harvest year (2012) at William Chris Wines. With the blessings of William Chris owners, Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett, he launched his personal brand, Tatum Cellars, on the day his first child, Tatum Rose, was born in May of that year. His initial wine, a rosé produced in the Provencal style he had long admired, carried the name Tatum, in honor of the daughter who inspired him.

The 2012 Tatum Rosé was made from 100% Mourvèdre grapes sourced from Lost Draw Vineyards (Texas High Plains AVA) and was released on May 18, 2013, Tatum’s second birthday. Subsequent vintages have been blends of Grenache and Mourvèdre from the Salt Lick Vineyards in Driftwood (Texas Hill Country AVA), and they have all been released on his daughter’s birthday. The timing of the 2016 Tatum Rosé debut was an exception—it was released on April 2, 2017, at the 2nd Annual Texas Wine Revolution (www.texaswinerevolution.com), a festival showcasing 100% Texas grown and made rosé wines.

At the same time he was developing Tatum Rosé, Josh collaborated with then William Chris vineyard manager, Matt Jaksik, to produce a red wine--the Hotspur Mourvèdre, of which two vintages have been released so far. Another vintage is in the barrel and will be released later this year as Tatum Cellars Mourvedre. The 2012 Hotspur, like the first Tatum Rosé, was made from Lost Draw grapes, and the 2013 utilized Salt Lick fruit. Additionally, in a nod to his muse wine, the Flora Springs Trilogy, Josh’s entry in the 2015 William Chris Winemaker’s Series was Trichotomy (Body, Soul, Spirit), a blend of Cabernet, Mourvèdre, and Tempranillo.

While William Chris Wines is renowned as an innovator in the Texas wine industry and has produced numerous award winning wines--many of which Josh had a hand in developing and making— his Tatum Cellars is less well known, but that won’t be for much longer. Despite very small production and limited marketing, the modest number of wines Josh has produced so far under his own label have garnered an astonishing amount of recognition. The 2013 and 2015 Tatum Rosés and the 2013 Hotspur were Texas Monthly picks for the best Texas wines of their release years. Likewise, the Texas Wine Journal named the 2015 Tatum Rosé its #1 Dry Rosé in 2016, and the 2013 Hotspur was the Journal’s top 2016 wine in the Other Red Varietals category. Last, but nowhere near least, Trichotomy was the People’s Choice winner of the William Chris Winemakers’ Series.

So how does he do it?

When asked to what he attributes the remarkable success of his wines, the first thing Josh mentions is the support and mentorship of William Chris owners, Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett, and others in the Texas wine industry, which is known for comradery among winemakers. Equally important are the growers of the grapes he sources—Andy Timmons of Lost Draw and Jay Knepp of Salt Lick Vineyards. He also feels that selecting the right grapes for Texas is key, and he sees the future of Texas wine in the southern Rhone Valley varietals, especially Mourvèdre, which he considers to be “THE” grape for Texas.

And then there’s the man himself. Beneath his scruffy, youthful countenance resides an old soul, a keen mind, a refined palate--Josh makes wines he likes to drink--and a deep yet artfully restrained passion for his craft. While Josh admits to babying his wines, he believes in minimal intervention. He lets the grapes speak for themselves, and they are talking great Texas wine to everyone who’s been lucky enough to lay their hands on a bottle he’s made.

Tatum Cellars wines are available in limited quantities from William Chris Wines (www.williamchriswines.com/Shop/Tatum-Cellars)

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This article was provided by Cynthia Spanhel, a long-time member of the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas and a passionate fan of Texas wines. She lives on a farm in Driftwood, TX where she raises horses, goat, and bees.

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