The first time I visited a Texas winery was in 1977, at a Texas Grape Growers Association meeting in the Hill County. Part of the meeting was a tour of local vineyards. There was a horticultural advisor sitting in the back of the tour bus saying, “Yew cain’t grow vinifera in Texas,” which made me wonder why we didn’t all just go home. Grapes from the vinifera species make the world’s best wines, so this wasn’t a promising pronouncement. Nevertheless, Texas has big ambitions in all things, so perhaps it was inevitable that the Lone Star State would manage to muster an industry of note.
The 1970s saw the reawaking of the Texas wine industry from the failed social experiment of Prohibition. In 1919, at the beginning of Prohibition, Texas had 25 wineries. After the 21st Amendment was ratified at the end of 1933 a few wine operations started up, but the Val Verde Winery founded in 1883 by the Qualia family in Del Rio is the only one that was still in operation at the beginning of the 1970s. A couple of professors at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Dr. Clint McPherson and Robert Reed, had been planting vines and, in 1976, created Llano Estacado Winery. Dr. Bobby Smith, an osteopathic physician, started a vineyard and then bonded La Buena Vida Vineyards in 1978 in Parker County in the north central part of the state.
In 1977, there were already people growing grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but many were growing various hybrid varieties. At that 1977 meeting we tasted wines made of grapes like Verdelet, a hybrid created by Albert Siebel (a French physician, ampelographer and viticulturist who created thousands of hybrid wine grapes with vitis vinifera and native American grapes in response to the phylloxera epidemic that decimated the vineyards of Europe). Many of these growers were cotton farmers or grew vegetables for major soup companies. They were looking for a higher value crop that had lower water requirements, and wine grapes fit the bill.
It was rather ironic but also exciting to see people talking about what kind of wine their grapes were producing--while living in areas where they couldn’t legally buy due to the patchwork of “wet”/”dry” laws. It was a living example of a concept that Leon Adams, a well respected wine writer and co-founder of California’s Wine Institute, first wrote about in The Wines of America, a history and survey of US wine and wineries in 1973. He believed that an important avenue for developing a wine drinking culture in the US was having wineries in every state. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1977 the per capita consumption of wine in the US was 1.8 gallons. A report by Trade and Data Analysis shows consumption to be not quite 2.5 gallons per capita in 2010. Obviously, many factors have affected this change, but I like to think that having a neighbor who is growing grapes and making wine, especially in an area where it’s difficult to buy wine, makes the idea of wine more accessible.
According to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, Texas has around 4,400 acres under vine. Compare that to 546,000 acres estimated by California Department of Food and Agriculture for 2012, 43,000 for Washington State or 20,400 acres (vinifera only 2011) for Oregon, 37,000 and you get a sense of scale. It’s hard to grow wine grapes in Texas. Pierce’s Disease is a bigger problem in Texas than in California, but at least something can be done about it. However, not much can be done about perhaps the biggest problem of Texas grape growing, namely, the weather. The 2013 vintage is a prime example. Several different freezes in the High Plains area wiped out many growers’ entire harvest. The Hill Country fared better this vintage, but I have visited wineries there in the past that have lost three harvests in a row to Mother Nature in the form of floods, freezes or hail.
The Texas wine business really started to take off in the mid-2000s due, in part, to legislation passed in 2003 that made it possible for a winery in a “dry” area to serve and sell wine at the winery. There were 40 wineries in 2004 and today, while the total may be a bit overstated due to the number of winery tasting rooms included in the count, the TWGGA reports that there are 270 wineries.
To me, the most exciting development in Texas wines from my early introduction is the grape varieties that are turning out to be good choices for the state. Not surprisingly, most are grapes that are successful in warm climates. Pat Brennan of Brennan Vineyards says that Viognier is THE white grape for the state. Roussanne, Vermentino and Blanc du Bois, a Florida-developed hybrid of four vitis species including one vinifera, are also showing well. Tempranillo is by far the most exciting red, while Syrah and “GSM” (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) blends are attracting attention. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are still important.
The four wineries established by 1977 are still going strong. The winemaker these days for Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock is California-trained Greg Bruni, whose Viviano, a Sangiovese & Cabernet Sauvignon blend is an elegant take on Italy’s Super Tuscans. Kim McPherson, whose father started the winery, was the winemaker from 1979 to 1985. He now has his own winery, McPherson Cellars, where he continues the family tradition of blazing trails with wines like Roussanne and Albariño. Ed and Susan Auler’s Fall Creek Vineyards was one of the wineries we visited in 1977 in the Hill Country. They were just beginning construction of the winery. A couple of their stand-out wines are Chenin Blanc and a Bordeaux-style blend called Meritus. Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo’s started Messina Hof Winery Bryan, near Texas A&M University in 1977. They make an extensive range of wines including fortified and dessert wines. They also have a tasting room and B&B in the Hill Country. Bobby Smith still makes his specialty port-style and table wines at his original La Buena Vida Vineyards in Springtown in North Central Texas. He sold his Grapevine tasting room to Gina Puente-Brancato who sells Dr. Smith’s wines as well as others.
There’s also plenty of new blood making in the Texas wine game. Newer wineries of note include Becker Vineyards in the Hill Country owned by Richard and Bunny Becker whose delicious Viognier was one of the firstrenditions of that variety. Haak Winery south of Houston where Raymond Haak is letting Blanc du Bois strut its stuff in various forms, from elegant dry white to rich and fortified Madeira style. Gary McGibben started Red Caboose Winery & Vineyards using his architect’s skills to build as green as possible. Wine Business Monthly included them in their 2012 list of 10 Hot Brands. Previously mentioned Pat Brennan of Brennan Vineyards in Comanche makes a lively Viognier and a Nero d’Avola he labels Dark Horse. Winemaker Dave Reilly of Duchman Family Winery near Austin has a deft hand with Italian varieties like Vermentino and Aglianico. Pedernales Cellars at Stonewall in the Hill Country with David Kuhlken’s winemaking skills makes a range of outstanding Tempranillos.
This is just a snapshot of what is happening with wine in Texas, but I hope it piques your curiosity enough to look for a few. A couple of places that list Texas wineries are the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association’s Web site and the Texas Department of Agriculture’s “Go Texan” site. As with most things, it isn’t a great idea to bet against Texas.