Art by Jan Heaton
Photography by Randy Allbritton
Often, when pondering the future, it’s of great benefit to examine the past. Viewed in terms of its past, Texas winemaking has a long and rich heritage from which to draw. The lands that now comprise the state of Texas are among the oldest wine-producing regions in the United States, but the newest to establish an industry of winemaking. In fact, wine grapes were planted in Texas more than a hundred years before they were planted in California.
Most historians agree that the earliest vineyards—thought to grow the mission varietal grape, no longer found in Texas—were planted by Franciscan priests as early as the 1650s along the Rio Grande River near present day El Paso. Early European settlers in Texas also planted (for the most part, unsuccessfully) European Vitis vinifera grape varietals in an effort to maintain the wine culture they had enjoyed in their homelands. And German immigrants who settled in New Braunfels and Fredericksburg had great success producing wines from the native mustang grapes, although those wines would most likely not be palatable today.
The Val Verde Winery in Del Rio is the longest operating winery in the state. Founded in 1883 by Frank Qualia—a Northern Italian immigrant with an agricultural background—the winery is still operated by the Qualia family today. There were at least 20 wineries in Texas before prohibition, but only Val Verde survived by selling table grapes and making wines for church sacramental purposes.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that there was a renewed interest in winemaking in Texas. The first two new wineries were established in 1974—one by Bobby Smith in Springtown, and one west of Lubbock by a group called the Sandy Land Grape Growers Association, led by Texas Tech professors Clint McPherson, Roy Mitchell and Robert Reed. (The trio, along with investors, would later form Llano Estacado Winery in 1976.) Ed and Susan Auler founded Fall Creek Vineyards in 1975 and in 1979, William Gipson, Sr. established Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock. In 1981, St. Genevieve Winery (now Cordier Estates, Inc.) was established in Fort Stockton on land owned by the University of Texas. By the mid-’80s, vineyards had been planted all over Texas, with many eventually becoming wineries.
Today, Texas has over 3,700 acres of family-owned vineyard land, and boasts eight American Viticultural Areas (wine grape-growing regions that have been identified by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Texas is the nation’s fifth largest grape and wine producer with over 170 wineries and counting. The industry contributes more than $1.35 billion annually to the state’s economy, and has created over 8,000 associated jobs with an annual payroll of almost $300 million in direct wages.
But the road to this level of success hasn’t been an easy one. From the very beginning, the mission of the early Texas wine industry pioneers had been, according to Ed Auler, “to produce premier wines from the very best grapes we can grow.” And since the very best wine-producing grapes were Vitis vinifera, that’s what they planted. This decision was greeted with a mix of positive enthusiasm and general skepticism from the experts, though—many were dubious that Vitis vinifera grapes would grow in Texas. Luckily the grapes proved to be successful in the Texas High Plains, North Central and East Texas regions, and in the Texas Hill Country.
Vitis vinifera vines, however, do not have a true dormancy period, so a major freeze in early fall can kill them, and a late freeze after spring budding will destroy new growth—an aspect that has sounded the death knell for many vineyards in Texas. The grape is also susceptible to many types of fungus, which makes it unsuitable for growing in the southeastern or coastal regions. One of the most serious threats is Pierce’s Disease, caused by bacteria that live in native plants and are vectored to grapevines by insects. Pierce’s Disease destroyed hundreds of Texas vineyards before its presence was even detected.
One of the biggest obstacles facing the Texas wine industry, though, is a lack of recognition caused by a tangle of Catch-22s. A million people each year tour Texas wineries, generating about $300 million in sales—an amount which exceeds the revenue produced by the wine industries in Washington and Oregon, combined. Yet both are ranked higher in production than Texas. National glossies like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast rarely give Texas wines a mention. In fact, since statistics show that only 8 percent of the wines consumed by Texans per year are Texas wines, but 95 percent of Texas wines are consumed within the state, there’s no incentive for the Texas wine industry to advertise in national publications, nor any reason for those publications to tout Texas wines. And although Texas giants H-E-B (the largest retailer of Texas wine), Central Market and Spec’s Liquor retail Texas wines, that very fact discourages boutique wine markets and restaurants from supporting the industry.
Scott Spencer, owner of Houston Wine Merchant, used to purchase every Texas wine that he could get, but things have changed. “As our business grew, we added one country at a time, until today, our inventory is worldwide,” says Spencer. “Wines from Texas have become a less important part of our product mix. As our emphasis broadened, so did the desires of our customers. At our peak—about 12 years ago—we had about 90 varieties of Texas wine. Now we stock about 30.”
In its beginning, the Texas wine industry emulated the wines that had been successful in France—the Bordeaux varietals, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay being the most widely planted. Texas winemakers proved they could grow the noble European varietals and make wines that could compete in the global marketplace, as well as in global competition. Now many Texas wineries have moved the focus to varietals other than European, like the Mediterranean varietals, which seem to be doing very well. Texas winemakers are finally figuring out what grapes grow best in their climate and soil and are building their lists around those. Jim Johnson of Alamosa Wine Cellars in Bend grows only Mediterranean and Rhône varietals—viognier, tempranillo, sangiovese, syrah and muscat. He believes these grapes will give Texas its best shot at “getting its own chapter in wine atlases.” Just as Oregon found its niche with pinot noir and pinot gris, Texas winemakers need to find grapes that work best for Texas, according to Jim. Many other Texas winemakers agree.
Becker Vineyards, located between Stonewall and Fredericksburg, has been wildly successful with the release of the first malbec grown and produced in Texas. Gary and Kathy Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard rely heavily on the Mediterranean varietals sangiovese, pinot grigio and syrah. Kim McPherson, son of Llano Estacado founder Clint “Doc” McPherson, and owner of his own winery, McPherson Cellars, has long believed that the Mediterranean varietals will be the focus for the future of the Texas wine industry. Even Danny Hernandez, winemaker at Sister Creek Vineyards in Sisterdale who, from the beginning, has adhered to producing only Bordeaux-style red blends, has now slipped some sangiovese into his newest red blend.
Don Pullum of Mason County’s Sandstone Cellars Winery says the growing number of boutique wineries in Texas will encourage the development of niche-market products made from many grape varieties not well known to the U.S. consumer.
“Of the alternate red grape varieties,” Pullum says, “I think plantings of Touriga Nacional, tempranillo, Mourvedre, grenache, barbera, petite verdot, Norton and sangiovese will continue. For alternate whites,” he continues, “I think muscat canelli, orange muscat, viognier, blanc du bois, semillon, pinot grigio and albarino will be planted.”
Ed and Susan Auler at Fall Creek Vineyards are hoping to produce a torrontes—an astonishingly flavorful Argentine white varietal that’s a perfect match for many of our bold, Texas-style seafood dishes. Llano Estacado winemaker, Greg Bruni, uses the red Carignan varietal to produce his proprietary Rhône-style blend, Passionelle.
To foster visibility, the Texas industry has developed the “Wine Trail” concept—a progressive tasting and moveable feast, where visitors follow a cluster of events from winery to winery—as well as the creation of at least 14 regional wine festivals. Both efforts have brought prodigious numbers of consumers into personal contact with the wineries and provide invaluable exposure.
Scott Spencer believes that one of the best ways to build consumer awareness is to boost restaurant wine list placement. “To do this, the wines need to compete with whatever else is on the list,” Spencer says. “Most diners would support a Texas-grown product.”
The Texas Department of Agriculture has recently developed a “Go Texan” partnership with restaurants within the state, encouraging member restaurants to serve Texas agricultural products, including Texas wines. The impetus is growing, with several high-profile Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Austin eateries now serving a decent number of Texas wines.
Ross Burtwell, chef-owner of Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg, has taken what many perceived, at first, to be a great risk. He started with a couple of Becker Vineyards wines on his wine list, then added some Fall Creek Vineyards wines. Soon his list was about 50 percent Texas wines. He then decided to “take it to the next logical step” and became the first restaurant in the state to offer a wine list comprised solely of Texas wines. To complete the circle, Ross developed a menu of Texas cuisine to match the wine list, and most importantly, trained his staff in the intricacies of pairing the wines to the dishes. The first month after initiating the list, he saw a 28 percent increase in wine sales. The all-Texas list is now two years old and Ross is convinced it was a wise decision. He continues to add to the list as he discovers new and better wines, and when one wine is added, another is dropped—upping the ante of quality each time.
Increasing restaurant wine list placement brings up the issue of distribution. Many smaller wineries simply can’t afford to discount their wines to wholesalers—they make a limited amount of wine and need to maximize their selling price on each bottle. And of the wineries that have used wholesalers, many have been disappointed by the service they’ve received—often their wines are lost in the giant portfolios of the distributors. These problems are countered by makers hand-delivering their wines to restaurants and merchants, and by selling as much as they can in their wineries’ tasting rooms.
Another recurring hindrance in the development of the wine industry is the inescapable fact that there are some bad wines being produced in Texas. Many of the early vineyards planted back in 1975 now have vines that are over 35 years old, qualifying them as “noble vines” capable of producing mature, good wines. Regardless, far too often the quality of Texas wines comes into question.
Dr. Russell Kane, noted wine writer, founder of many Texas wine competitions and creator of the Vintage Texas wine blog (vintagetexas.com ) suggests winemakers ask themselves Why? Why did this wine get made? Why does it have this style? Why will the consumer want to buy it? Kane feels these are important questions because the consumer has a lot of options when buying wine and needs compelling reasons to request and buy Texas wines.
“In Texas,” Kane says, “we also need to focus on quality across the board—in the vineyard and in the winery. We have a lot of new faces opening wineries. Some have experience and some do not. Some can afford to hire ‘fly-in’ consultants, others can’t or won’t. The good news is that the Texas Department of Agriculture now supports regional viticulturalists around the state, and has a state enologist [a specialist in wine-making]to help those new wineries to improve quality on both fronts.”
Michael Oubre, owner of Rising Star Vineyards in Rising Star, mentions the need for more sources of education within the industry. “Although grapes have been grown in Texas since the days of the Spanish missionaries,” he says, “modern grape growing has not been done for very long. Instead of generations of farmers passing down their knowledge to their children, most of us are having to learn what works in Texas on our own.” To its credit, the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) has been diligent in efforts to provide quality educational seminars and programs to members.
Another critical issue facing the Texas wine industry is a shortage of grapes. As the number of wineries in the state has grown, the acreage devoted to growing grapes has not kept pace with the demand. Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards firmly believes that the Texas Department of Agriculture must continue to aggressively encourage Texas farmers to add grapes—which are a very lucrative crop—to their farms, and to support existing grape growers in the expansion of their acreage.
Dr. Kane notes that Texas has gone from 110 wineries in 2005 to over 170 wineries in 2007, yet still utilizes the same 3,700-plus acres of grapes. This incredible shortage, he says, makes it difficult and expensive to make quality Texas wines at a price point comparable to other wines in the marketplace, and to have a consistent brand to market from year to year. By contrast, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, in 1999—just 10 short years ago—Washington State had 160 wineries, but 24,000 acres of grapes.
Interestingly, many of the newer Texas wineries have no vineyard, and it takes three to four years to bring a vineyard into commercial production. There simply aren’t enough existing grapes in Texas to supplement their needs, as most of the existing grape growers already have ongoing contracts with established wineries.
“The response from many wineries was to buy grapes in New Mexico or California, load them into refrigerated trucks and bring them to Texas to crush, ferment and age,” says Houston Wine Merchant’s Scott Spencer. “This was followed, and supplemented, by importing juice, and then by importing actual wine itself. Texas wines are no longer only from Texas. This may be fine for the bulk merchandise market, but the consumer who loves wines and researches them wants the real thing.”
The real thing, experts say, has a lot to do with the dirt in which the grapes are grown. In wine vocabulary it’s referred to as terroir—a term used to describe the soil, the geography and the climate surrounding the grapes. A cabernet sauvignon produced from grapes grown in the Napa Valley will have a completely different taste from one grown in the Texas High Plains, as will a Rhône Valley syrah and a syrah produced from grapes grown in the Hill Country.
“Most Texas wineries take pride in sourcing grapes from Texas vineyards,” says Jim Johnson of Alamosa Wine Cellars. “Grapes grown in Texas soil have a special taste that comes only from a sense of place.”
Of course, the folks who have been longtime fans of Texas wines want that real taste of Texas. But if the wine is made from grapes from another state, there’s no Texas terroir in the bottle, and these wines must be labeled “For Sale in Texas Only” indicating that some portion, or all, of the grapes came from out of state.
Fall Creek Vineyard’s Ed and Susan Auler respond to the issue by offering a different perspective: although they’ve learned from the weather and disease disasters, the truth remains that there just aren’t enough grapes to go around.
“Let’s say a winery wants to create a benchmark taste in a new wine,” Ed proposes. “They draw upon grapes from their own vineyards, from the other Texas vineyards, yet they’re still 2,000 gallons short of reaching their creative goal. So, what does the winery do? They have two choices: lose the vintage year and the market shelf space, which they probably won’t get back because they don’t have a wine to go in their slot, or purchase enough grapes from out of state to finish that wine.”
Ed says that many of the top six Texas wineries would have gone out of business a time or two over if not for the availability of grapes from out of state. His view on Texas wineries that have no vineyards and make all of their wines from grapes purchased from out of state is “let the public decide.”
John Roenigk, owner of The Austin Wine Merchant, carries only a few Texas wines. When asked why he doesn’t carry more, he notes that as a retailer, he must approach Texas wines from the perspective of a discerning customer, and on the whole, the wines don’t offer the qualities or value one demands.
“Our clientele won’t respond well to a lesser quality and poorer value, just because it hails from Texas,” says Roenigk. “We’ve long since given up trying to swim against this current.”
However Roenigk admires the efforts of Texas winemakers who are passionate about finding grape varietals that will do well in Texas climes, and he believes that native grape varietals are an untapped resource not being explored as much as they should be.
There are several Texas wineries currently producing good wines from native grapes: Angela Moench at Stone House Vineyard crafts an outstanding award-winning wine called “Claros” from the Norton grape. Raymond Haak of Haak Vineyards and Winery in Santa Fe, Texas (which is close to Galveston, where Vitis vinifera grapes would last about a month) has had smashing success making wines from the blanc du bois grape. Paul Bonarrigo at Messina Hof Winery in Bryan, and the Val Verde Winery in Del Rio, make award-winning ports from the native Lenoir grape, and Paula Williamson, owner of Chisholm Trail Winery in Fredericksburg, uses Lenoir to create many wines, including the new port, Almagres.
So what lies ahead for the Texas wine industry? “Growth!” is the enthusiastic reply of Sandstone Cellars Winery’s Don Pullum. “The industry grew from a $997 million economic impact on the Texas economy in 2005 to a $1.35 billion economic impact in 2007,” he says. “I believe that’s the product of general growth in consumption of wine by U.S. consumers, the increasing interest in agritourism in Texas, the strong support of the Texas Department of Agriculture and the aging of the Baby Boom generation.”
“The good news,” notes Dr. Kane, “is that in the 2000s we’ve addressed many of the major structural issues that were barriers to the development of the Texas wine industry—shipping, wet/dry county issues, technical support—and we’re now working on increasing wine-grape production. This is the same path that was used in Washington State to build, promote and support their explosion into the forefront of the American wine industry. These were hard-fought changes that required state legislation and even a state constitutional amendment. I hope that in five to 10 years we can overtake Oregon.”
Ed Auler thinks we’re finally starting to head in the right direction. “I like to make an analogy of the Texas wine industry with the Texas oil industry,” says Auler. “When the oil industry is trying to find a solution to a problem or a way to expand, they don’t go out and start ‘wildcatting’ with dozens of new wells. They go back to old wells and study what went wrong and what was successful. They expand on existing knowledge. We need to do the same thing in the wine industry. We need to learn to minimize the effects of climate, conquer Pierce’s disease, grow hardier vines through better root-stock selection and practice proper pruning techniques to deal with diseases. Texas wineries need to be creative, to create wines that are unique to Texas, not copies of wines from somewhere else, to make the best wine and let it stand on its own.”
An interesting proposition being bandied about within the industry would involve a certification process—and possibly a point system—under the auspices of the Texas Department of Agriculture to monitor the quality of service in winery tasting rooms and the quality of individual wines. Certainly there would be an instant incentive for wineries to improve the quality of their wines and the level of knowledge required for winery representatives in tasting rooms. The hope is that these new credentials would have consumers seeking Texas wines with those certifications and giving visitation preferences to those tasting rooms.
To expand beyond the state borders, the industry must continue to participate in national and international wine competitions, gaining credibility one medal at a time. Winemakers must train more open-minded sommeliers and continue to establish personal relationships with restaurant owners and wine consumers. And Dr. Kane suggests a modern-twist option to maximize the visibility of Texas wines: foster high-interest, media-rich competitions featuring iconic Texas foods paired with Texas wines.
And the winner is slow-smoked cabrito with Alamosa Wine Cellars’ El Guapo Tempranillo!
"Malbec 1" "Malbec 2" "Rioja 2" by Jan Heaton. Represented in Austin by Wally Workman Gallery, wallyworkmangallery.com.