Get Outta Town is an occasional series exploring Texas locales near and far that offer uncommon sights and experiences.
There’s a little bit of Texas in every glass of French wine.
This fact is thanks in part to Thomas Volney Munson, a horticulturist who cultivated and hybridized hundreds of varieties of sturdy Texas and American grapes.
Munson, known as “the Grape Man of Texas,” was vital to saving the worldwide wine industry from devastation while living in Denison, a town near the Texas-Oklahoma state line, in the late 1800s. At the time, European vineyards were being ravaged by the virulent underground pest Phylloxera and facing a total loss within a decade and a half.
Munson, who was well-regarded for his extensive research and cultivation of disease-resistant stock, provided rootstock from the Red River Valley and Texas Hill Country that would eventually save French wine from extinction through grafting and cross-breeding.
The feat earned Munson France’s Chevalier du Mérite Agricole award in 1888, and 100 years later Cognac and Denison became sister cities.
T.V. vs. Ike
However, a recent visit to Denison showed that Munson’s legacy might be overshadowed by another onetime Denison resident.
Local lore says Dwight D. Eisenhower spent only his first 18 months in Denison and wasn’t aware he was born there until halfway through his presidency. Still, a giant bust of the 34th U.S. president stands prominently on a hilltop overlooking U.S. Highway 75 on the west side of town, eyes angled toward Eisenhower’s birthplace a scant four miles to the east.
Though no such giant statue of Munson exists in town, it was the horticulturist who “really put Denison on the map,” said Andrew Snyder, a professor at Grayson College and a primary caretaker of Munson’s legacy.
Snyder led the viticulture and enology program at Grayson for several years before taking the lead at the college’s new teaching distillery. He has helped oversee the planting and cultivation of a number of Munson’s grape varieties in the T.V. Munson Memorial Vineyard.
Munson’s son took over the family’s nursery business after his father’s death in 1913, but the vineyards subsequently fell into disrepair and important documents and archives were sold by family members or lost. Snyder estimates the college has managed to save about 35 varieties out of the hundreds Munson discovered, cultivated and hybridized.
Munson is “still well-respected and historically more noteworthy in France than he is in Denison, Texas, unfortunately,” Snyder said. “But he’s a very interesting gentleman, and we’re trying to preserve his legacy.”
Coincidentally, Eisenhower started the U.S. Sister Cities program, surely unaware that one day his hometown would receive the designation.
Reba and a famous dentist
A Munson family memorial stands near Reba McEntire Lane, in the shadow of the Reba McEntire Center for Rehabilitation on the north side of town and known locally as “Reba Rehab.”
McEntire also built Reba’s Ranch House just south of town next to the Texoma Medical Center, named for the eight-county Red River Valley region split between Texas and southeastern Oklahoma, where McEntire is from.
McEntire’s official biography makes no mention of Denison, but on the Ranch House website, she is quoted as saying, “This is a great community. I love it and all the people who I’ve [met] during my years there.”
Another famous figure with historical ties to Denison is Doc Holliday, the 19th-century gunslinger memorialized in the 1993 movie Tombstone starring Val Kilmer. Though famed for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Holliday got his moniker because he was a practicing dentist and once maintained a dental office in Denison when it became a boomtown thanks to the arrival of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway — better known as the Katy Railroad — in 1872.
The town pays homage to Holliday’s brief Denison stint with the annual Doc Holliday Saints and Sinners Festival, and a new brewpub just off Main Street is named Say When Brewing Company after a famous line in the movie.
Owner and brewmaster Jason Fulenchek’s family is from nearby Pottsboro and he grew up in Irving but moved to Denison to study electronic engineering in hopes of working for Texas Instruments. A hiring freeze sent him off to Seattle to work for Microsoft, but he returned to North Texas a decade ago and started brewing in 2021.
He said the change from the Denison he knew is remarkable.
“I used to live here 25 years ago, and it was totally different,” Fulenchek said.
Growth in the Dallas metroplex has spread north, he said, and investors are noticing. The 2020 census put Denison’s population at 25,000, but Fulenchek estimated it at around 28,000 and growing fast. Texas Instruments is building a new facility in nearby Sherman that will eventually employ 30,000, he said, noting that the town is an easy commute from the bigger city and its exurbs to the south.
Another deeply-rooted Denison family is the Likarish clan, called the “distillery dynasty” in Edible magazine. Their Ironroot Republic distillery name honors Munson’s legacy, as does their desire to become the first distillery to make brandy from Texas grapes.
They’ve parlayed Denison’s connections to Cognac into a brandy made from a blend of North Texas chenin blanc grapes and 13-year-old French cognac, but they’ve also applied French distilling traditions to their line of whiskies.
Whatever they’re doing has worked. Among plentiful other laudits, Ironroot Republic won World’s Best Bourbon from the 2020 World Whiskies Awards.
During a tasting tour of the facility, Marcia Likarish, the distillery’s general manager known colloquially as “the Mother of Texas Whiskey,” said their whiskeys benefit from the sandy soil of the Red River Valley and their copper pot still made in Kentucky, which imparts a distinctive mouthfeel.
Such a focus on terroir — flavors and textures imparted by the specific qualities of the region — is usually the province of winemakers, and one local vintner combines a deep knowledge of the North Texas climate with a respect for Munson’s grapevines.
A national treasure
The Square Cloud Winery occupies 10 acres just a half hour south of Denison in the town of Gunter. When I asked Snyder if any Texas wineries make wine from Munson grape varieties, he pointed me to Square Cloud, owned by former Grayson winemaking student Jackson Anderson.
Anderson’s business card identifies him as a “vigneron,” which a dictionary tells me means “a person who cultivates grapes for winemaking.” While pouring samples, Anderson graciously explained his enthusiasm for cultivating the 9,000 vines on the property he shares with his spouse, Cheryl.
Anderson maintains an interest in unusual varieties, including Alicante Bouschet, Malvasia Bianca and Aleatico.
“We didn’t import it from anywhere,” he said of Aleatico grapes grown on his estate. “It was grown here, and we’re very passionate about growing and making the wine here to express the fruit and the land.”
That passion led him to obtain Munson rootstock from the college. Currently in bottles is a 100% Captivator white wine named for a Munson-hybridized grape, and he’s growing another variety named Wine King — described as “entirely resistant to Phylloxera, mildew and rot” — that Anderson intends to turn into red wine by 2027 if the weather cooperates.
Winter storms and late freezes of recent years have made winemaking more difficult in the area, Anderson said, presenting challenges to Square Cloud and to the Munson Memorial Vineyard alike, as Snyder’s Grayson colleagues work to reestablish the vines.
“Hopefully they can get it reestablished,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a national treasure.”
If You Go
How to Get There
To ease the five-and-a-half-hour drive, take the Pickle Parkway, otherwise known as the State Highway 130 toll road. There’s no streamlined route through Dallas, but following Interstate 35E to State Highway 75, with a brief jaunt on Interstate 30, is most direct.
On the way home, my stop in Gunter had me meander down 289 through Dallas before rejoining I-35, recommended only for meanderers interested in a visit to the Big D.
Where to Stay
Denison and surrounding towns including Pottsboro and Sherman offer plentiful Airbnb opportunities. My stay was in a quaint, reasonably priced small home two blocks from Denison’s thriving Main Street.
Where to Drink & Dine
Denison is in the midst of a rapidly changing business climate, with several new restaurants, wineries, breweries, and boutique hotels opening soon, relocating or up for sale. However, plentiful options abound.
A good morning coffee option comes with browsing a selection of local artisan crafts and goods at the 410 Collective + Coffee. The Railyard Food Hall houses several food vendors, including Lettuce Indulge for salads, wraps and bowls, Sliders for miniburgers and Thai Loco for fusion cuisine including Thai tacos. For non-Munson wine lovers, the Hidden Hangar Vineyard & Winery offers a riesling that the Ironroot distillers swear by.
The Say When Brewing Company brewpub offers staple and seasonal brews, including the tasty Winter Tomahawk winter ale and Dawn of Eternal Peace Marzen, named after an Eisenhower quote.
On the night I was at Say When, patrons were served a special treat of sourdough pizzas made by the same carpenter who built the pub’s bar, Justin Flores. Fulenchek said Flores is a structural mason who has helped shore up many of Main Street’s historical buildings, “the main guy downtown who keeps these buildings from falling down.” Stay tuned to whether the pizzas become a regular feature of the bar.