Refining the Art of Texas Winemaking

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Lubbock's Llano Estacado Winery, one of the oldest and largest producers in the Lone Star State, is getting better all the time
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Photo by John B.  via Yelp

First-rate Texas wine

Lubbock's Llano Estacado Winery is the second largest winery in Texas, selling 165,000 cases per year. It is also one of the oldest, founded in 1976 by Texas Tech chemistry professors Clinton "Doc" McPherson and Robert (Bob) Reed to market the results of their (then) novel experiments in cultivating vinifera vines in Texas. It was the first Texas winery to open since Prohibition. Over time, ownership transfers and inheritances have resulted in the proprietorship of the privately-held operation being split into about 70 different parcels.

When the current leadership invited me out to Lubbock, in the Texas High Plains, to see their new additions I expected just that — a tour of a new facility. What I found was that this relative heavyweight on the Texas wine scene is nevertheless nimble enough to pivot adroitly to face the new realities of the wine business in Texas.

Its changes hold lessons for other Texas wineries, particularly those growing to the point that they plan to enter the three-tier distribution system, or otherwise sell their wine through mass-market outlets like supermarkets and liquor store chains.

The story of the modern Llano Estacado starts in 1993. That was the year that the owners started the process of installing new leadership, still at the helm today. Greg Bruni came on as vice president of winemaking. He had trained in enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis (America’s top wine-making school), worked at Bandiera, Arciero, and Byington in California and grown grapes in the state, and consulted in Europe and South America. He was ready to move to a position in which he had some equity and a location where he could afford to buy a house. Though it was tiny at the time (the winery's output was only 30,000 cases of Llano and a few thousand cases of a secondary brand), Llano was well-funded, and checked both boxes for Bruni. It also looked just like a startup, belying its 17 years.

Mark Hyman joined as vice president of sales and marketing in January of 2004 and later became president and eventually CEO. He had years of sales experience with Seagram, Vintner’s International, and Heublein, culminating in responsibility for a 14- to 16-state area of the U.S. He wanted his life back and turned down promotions to both coasts for the entrepreneurial role at Llano Estacado.

To both men, this looked like an opportunity to build something, with a much larger case turnover and a reputation for quality. It turned out they arrived at just the right time.    

It is important to appreciate how many viticultural eons can fit into 20 short calendar years. In 1995 there were fewer than 40 wineries in Texas. Most imported all or most of their wine from California, either in tankers or unlabelled bottles (called "shiners" in the trade) and packaged the wine — to look Texan — for sale on supermarket shelves. The true origins of these relabeled jug wines was hidden, quite legally, by labelling them “For Sale In Texas Only” (FSITO), in tiny letters, on the back label. To these producers, the accounting aggregates of volume, margin, and costs were the things that mattered. The terms "authenticity," "quality," and "creativity" just elicited blank stares from them. Marketing consisted of a me-too pushing of the nationally best-selling grape varieties. The consumer wanted cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, and white zinfandel, which represented about 90 percent of the market, no matter where the juice came from.

Alcohol was sold in a social climate that treated it as anything from the devil incarnate to a necessary evil. Many Texas counties were dry, and a winery in a dry county could not even sell a taste of wine to a visitor for fear of losing its license. When you visit Llano’s new facility, step into the adjacent original winery and note that the walls are made of six inch breezeblock. That wasn’t for insulation or protection from tornadoes, it was because Doc McPherson thought that prohibitionists in the local population would shoot up his winery.

To be sure, even back in those dark ages, the seeds of a new Texas wine industry had been planted. Wineries that used Texas grapes tried to make the best wine they could. They resembled the boutique wineries of California’s Napa or Sonoma valleys, except that, unlike the Californians, they were learning everything about making wine in their region from scratch, without a textbook. The star in the 1980s had been Pheasant Ridge, where winemaker Bobby Cox earned gold medals at California wine shows and caused Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, to say “For Cabernet Sauvignon Pheasant Ridge Winery is turning out lush, intense wines with plenty of character that can compete in quality with anybody.” Economic conditions in the early 1990s caused Pheasant Ridge to go bankrupt, which some interpreted as a lesson that boutique wine making was not viable in Texas. The mainstream Texas wine industry looked on the artisans as either naive dreamers or totally mad. Yet Llano prevaled.

Llano flirted only briefly with FSITO wines for a couple of years before adopting the honest alternative of labelling wine with its origins, in most cases the most generic formulation, "American." Their genuine made-in-Texas wines, meanwhile, received national reviews and accolades, and they cultivated a following with blends such as their Signature Red, Signature White, and Viviano — their most critically praised wine. Llano’s best bottlings won medals at out-of-state wine competitions and acclaim from national publications. Some wines, for example the 1997 Texas Signature Red Meritage, earned over 90 points from Wine Spectator (it was also one of the magazine's "100 Best Buys of 1999").

From 2005 to 2015, the Texas wine industry boomed. The best winemakers stopped choosing grape varieties based on consumer preference and instead used those that grew best in the Texas terroir (climate and soil). Fortunately, a new era of consumer open-mindedness about grape choice (particularly among millennials) worked in their favor. Llano was among those adopting less common varieties. Sometimes they were a little ahead of the curve. A viognier that Mark Hyman describes as "excellent" bombed, despite getting wide retail distribution, because consumers simply did not know what it was 15 years ago. Nowadays over 20 Texas wineries make a viognier.  

Llano produces more than 30 wines today, 28 of them from Texas grapes, representing over a dozen grape varieties. Only the $7 supermarket sweet wines are from out-of-state fruit. The product line expansion has been mainly at the high end. This is a significant shift for what is, in Texas winery terms, a large ship to turn around. But it is part of a wider trend. (For example, the 2015 vintage from another large Texas winery, Messina Hof, will be 100 percent Texas fruit for the first time.) Private labels for restaurants are another example of new high-end wines. The THP line was developed by Llano for Stephan Pyles’ Texas-themed Stampede 66 restaurant in Dallas. Designed to encourage a second glass (or bottle), it is offered as a montepulciano (based on an Italian red-wine grape rarely grown in the U.S.) and a red blend aptly named Stampede.

Llano diversifies its in-state grape sourcing as a defense against frost years, so its relationship with growers is central. Two growers, Reddy Vineyards and Newsom Vineyard, figure prominently in the winery’s sourcing. Newsom provides sangiovese for the product-line-leading Viviano, a Tuscan-style blend that also includes some cabernet sauvignon, and merlot for the Cellar Reserve Merlot. Reddy Vineyards supplies all the grapes for Llano's Due Compaesani (a sangiovese–montepulciano blend) and cinsault rosé. Grapes from both properties go into the winery's pinot grigio and the Stampede red.

The other named property that figures prominently in Llano wines is Robert Carpenter's Mont Sec Vineyard, located in Dell City at a 4,000-foot elevation in the Chihuahuan Desert about 100 miles east of El Paso. As if to prove that vines thrive under adversity, Carpenter's chardonnay, chenin blanc, gewürztraminer, grenache, muscat, riesling, and syrah all produce premium wines for Llano.

Technique is a major focus for Greg Bruni and Llano winemaker Jason Centanni. To that end they have installed expensive microoxygenation equipment at the winery. Microox, as it is called, is controversial among winemakers but it lowers the tannin and partly oxidizes red wine, making it softer and making the aroma and bouquet more complex. The wine seems more mature than it actually is. Significantly, Centanni’s background is in biochemistry. He marshalls some expensive laboratory tools (like an OenoFoss analyzer) to monitor some 40 simultaneous fermentations during each fall.

The winery has recently expanded yet again, this time building a Napa-quality tasting room, visitor center, and wedding facility adjacent to the old winery. This seems like a natural evolution of the company — but there is a surprising lack in their marketing program: Llano Estacado does not have a winery or tasting room along “wine road 290,” the stretch of U.S. 290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City that houses over 20 wineries and is the second most travelled wine route in the U.S. after Napa’s Highway 29. Hyman says he has done the spreadsheets but is canny about his future plans there. I suspect that a facility will be open there before 2020 and that the new winery in Lubbock is a dry run for the kind of facility that they will build..

Tastings of Llano’s best wines endorsed the quality focus. The flagship Viviano and the wines with a vineyard designation on the front label are especially recommended. This winery is committed to quality and one of the wineries in the lead in the entry of Texas onto the national wine stage.

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