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Don't Mess with Texas...Wine?
By W. Blake Gray
Jun 29, 2010
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Texans like a challenge.  That's the only way to explain why people plant wine grapes there.

And not just a few people:  Texas is America's 5th largest wine producing state, with more than 150 wineries, and 7th largest wine grape producer.

But why are so many cattle ranchers and music producers and finance analysts so high on Texas Tempranillo?

As if the short growing season and Biblical weather (hail, thunder, frost, possibly some brimstone) isn't enough, the state has perhaps the world's most serious Pierce's Disease problem and plays host to insects and molds other regions don't even know about. 

Most growers who have been here a decade have had to replant at least once; it's a tough way to make money.

Running a winery is a different story.  Texans have a tremendous amount of pride and like buying the local product -- even if it's made from grapes trucked in from California, as many are.

Yet there are plenty of wines made from Texas grapes.  The question is, are they any good?

I visited Texas this spring because everything I've ever read about Texas wines was written by a Texan.  I had to know how their wines really stack up under objective scrutiny.

I didn't have any killer wines in Texas -- wines worth traveling across the country for.  But I did have some pretty good wines I would gladly recommend if you're visiting charming Fredericksburg and the beautiful Texas Hill Country. 

I also learned the basic issue of drinking Texas wine.  It's a big state with big folks and big steaks, but the wines are dainty like a wildflower because of that short growing season.  Don't expect much body in any Texas wine, so look for varieties where you won't miss it.

Many people say Viognier and Tempranillo are the future grapes of Texas.  I believe in the former, but am not sold on the latter because of that body problem. 

I liked some Viogniers a lot, including a McPherson Cellars Texas Viognier 2008 ($15) that had plenty of apple fruit, and a Grape Creek Lost Draw Vineyards Texas Viognier 2008 ($17) that had strong jasmine aromas and just 13.3% alcohol.  Both had good balance, unlike many West Coast Viogniers that are too potent for their own good, and if they were in a wine shop in San Francisco, they would stand up well in their category.  Moreover, they're very reasonably priced, especially by comparison to their most famous French forebearers.  You definitely can't get a great Condrieu for under $20.

As far as I'm concerned, Viognier is what Texas does best.

My favorite Tempranillo was an Inwood Estates Newsom Vineyard Yoakum County Tempranillo ($40) that actually had some body and tannic structure as well as good cherry fruit.  I also liked two lighter-bodied wines: a Pedernales Texas Tempranillo 2008 ($29) that was quite aromatic with notes of dried cherry, smoked meat and granite, and a Fall Creek Salt Lick Vineyard Texas Hill Country Tempranillo 2008 ($25) that also had a complex nose.

But it's a different value proposition for these wines.  They may be better than California Tempranillo, which isn't difficult.  But on the world market, they're up against Rioja Robles and Crianzas that cost half the price. 

I'm going to write something that I didn't hear a single Texas wine expert say:  Maybe the state's future should be in white wines.  I also had a fine Semillon (Spicewood Vineyards Texas Hill Country Estate Semillon 2008, $20) and a delightful Chenin Blanc (Becker Vineyards Martin Vineyard Texas Chenin Blanc 2008, $15).

However, it's hard to imagine Texas -- where beef is very definitely what's for dinner -- without red wines.  (Side note: I stayed in Fredericksburg in a fascinating place, Kingwood Suites, a furniture factory with a few fashion-magazine-worthy rooms on top.  Practically everything was made of leather -- headboards, chairs, wall coverings, sheets.  Dead cows are cheap in Texas.)

Sometimes the search is a joy in itself.  Distances are big in Texas; in two days of tasting I was glad to visit 6 wineries.  Each was welcoming, unpretentious and interesting, and it wasn't hard to get them to tell me their own outsized tales of overcoming adversity.

Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards is the pioneer of modern Texas wine.  He started planting in the mid-1970s when the bottom fell out of the cattle market.  In 1990 he lost most of his vines to a freeze; then he was hit by Pierce's Disease.  Today, he buys most of the grapes he uses to make 50,000 cases annually.  "We're much more comfortable with spreading the weather risk out and having the blending potential," Auler said.

Flat Creek owner Rick Naber lost not a vineyard, but rather a winemaker to Texas' riot of summer vegetation: "She was allergic to Texas," Naber says.  "She was running around with an epi pen.  She finally gave up."

Naber found Paso Robles winemaker/vineyard manager Charlie Kidd through a classified ad, and Kidd moved because he likes a challenge.

"I'm making a bigger difference here than I was in Paso," says Kidd, who harvested just three tons of grapes off of 20 acres last year, a yield so low that it makes Domaine Romanee-Conti seem like Yellow Tail.

And Kidd's not even a Texan.  I thought Ron Yates, 31, was a little nuts for buying the going-defunct Spicewood Vineyards. 

The previous owners stopped paying attention to the vineyards in 2006 and left almost no inventory.  Yates, an Austin native, was a partner in a music label.  He fell in love with wine while studying in Spain, but had no winemaking experience.

What he does have is a property that's closer to Austin than most other wineries.

"We're lucky that Texans want to drink Texas wine," Yates said.  "You get this mix of cowboys and artists and musicians.  Just over the last two years we've seen such a big change.  We had people come in with cowboy hats and they would like the sweet wines.  Or they wouldn't know Merlot is a grape.  Now they say, 'The tannins are really soft on this Syrah.’"

Yet even with the 22 weddings he held last year, Yates says he has a 5-year plan to break even that took a setback when he lost 85% of his crop last year to frost.

But he's replanting.  Of course he is--he's a Texan.

"It represents the whole Texas spirit," Yates said.  "Don't tell me I can't do it.  I'll show you I can do it."