Why the Texas Wine Industry Is Set to Become a Major Player

'I did not know there was any wine in Texas' is an all-too-common refrain; here's why it's an increasingly indefensible one
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Bluff Dale Winery

Andrew Chalk

Bluff Dale Winery

In the inaugural season of The Taste, the prime-time ABC network cooking competition hosted by Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre, and Marcus Samuelsson, Lefebvre, a famed Los Angeles French chef, conducted an introductory interview with one of the contestants. After being asked to “Tell us about yourself,” the contestant responded, “My name is Don Pullum, and I am a winemaker from Mason, Texas.” With the shock of a man regurgitating his food, Lefebvre retorted “I did not know there was any wine in Texas!”

More recently, I joined the official study group for the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) qualification of the Society of Wine Educators, where the assigned text was American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. What I found in the six pages devoted to Texas in the 2013 edition were obsolete data, some timeless errors of fact, and only a superficial understanding of what is happening in the state. The latter led to vagueness and no discussion of the major challenges, no consideration of the measures being taken to overcome them, no discussion of trends in wine production, nor any assessment of where the state is in terms of winemaking maturity. Neither was there any consideration of the academic infrastructure for viticulturalists or enologists.

Faced with this double whammy of vacuousness, maybe the lesson Texas wine lovers need to learn is that we are doing a terrible job of telling our (overwhelmingly encouraging) story — doubly bad for a state with a reputation for having a big mouth.

The most important issue is the real story taking place on the ground. Texas is at an early stage on the path to a fully mature winegrowing state. We still don’t know exactly where to grow grapes and which varieties are best. However, there is a huge amount going on. (Elsewhere, I have written other articles on Texas enology and viticulture that provide a more complete picture.)

According to the 2012 USDA agriculture survey, Texas has the fifth-largest acreage of wine grapes of any state in the union, with about 8,000 acres. Seventy percent of these grapes grow in the High Plains region, although the state’s wineries are concentrated in the Texas Hill Country.

The state has no statewide disease or climatic problems. It is an area the size of France, though, so there are localized issues. In the High Plains, the near-desert humidity produces low disease pressure, but the area is prone to late-spring frosts that can destroy the crop if they follow bud break. Also, hail storms can be severe. With these conditions, Vitis vinifera (European wine grape) varieties are ubiquitous in this region. In the south and east of the state, a band of Pierce’s Disease susceptibility runs from the Louisiana border down the Gulf coast to Houston. That is the area where blanc du bois and Lenoir plantings are most common.  

There are now around 300 bonded wineries in the state, although fewer than half are producing; about 40 of the wineries are aspirational, in the sense that they consistently strive to make the best wine possible from Texas grapes.

Perhaps the most important trend of all is the number of medals won by Texas wines in out-of-state wine competitions from 1984 to 2014. The number hovered around 30 medals per year for about a quarter of a century. However, in 2011, the medal count took a dramatic turn up, reaching 164 medals in 2014. Since these are out-of-state competitions, there is no "home field advantage." In fact, 80 percent of these medals came from shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Finger Lakes. The only explanation for the increase is improved quality. We are observers at a moment when the Texas wine industry is undergoing a seismic shift.

Medals are only one metric of quality, of course. Another is that Texas wineries are stepping into the worldwide labor market for winemaking talent. In 2013, there was a visible example of this when Fall Creek Vineyards of Tow, in the Hill Country, hired Chilean winemaker Sergio Cuadra, an alumnus of Concha y Toro, where he served as principal winemaker at its Curicó, Puente Alto, and Colchagua facilities. Cuadra was recommended by Paul Hobbs, who makes acclaimed wines in California and Argentina, and close observers note that he has already had an effect with the winery's impressive 2013 sauvignon blanc and 2013 GSM. (What there hasn't been yet is any lasting foreign investment similar to that by French, German, and Italian wine producers in places like Washington State, Chile, and China; France's Domaine Cordier briefly came into the market in the 1980s to build Ste. Genevieve winery, but sold it and now it is the privately owned L.P. of an investor group that remains rather opaque.)

In addition, new plantings are increasing the total acreage in Texas by over 10 percent per year, a trend that started in the mid-2000s. One consultant, Bobby Cox, told me that he estimated that there may be as many as 1,100 new acres planted in the High Plains alone in 2015. This is partly the result of confidence in the long-term future and partly pressure on water supplies in the High Plains. The latter situation is encouraging cotton growers to switch to grapes, as the latter use only one quarter of the amount of water per acre that other crops do. In the next two years, Texas will likely overtake New York in bearing acreage of Vitis vinifera vines, making the state America's fourth-largest vinifera producer

Two major labeling issues have faced the industry. One was resolved in 2014. The other remains open.

In 2014, the Texas Department of Agriculture modified the rules of its brand support program to require that wines be made from at least 75 percent Texas grapes in order to use the "Go Texan" logo on the label. Prior to the change, a wine containing no Texas grapes at all could carry the logo. As important as the change itself was the thinking behind it. When the Go Texan program was created, nobody thought of Texas wine in terroir terms. By 2013, when this rule change was proposed (full disclosure: I applied for the rule change), terroir was front and center. The democratic process looked vibrant in Texas as not one but two public comment sessions produced an unprecedented volume of input from growers, wineries, and consumers that eventually led to the new TDA rule. Consumers can now rely on the Go Texan logo on a bottle of wine to mean that the wine is pretty much a Texas wine.

The other issue involves "For Sale in Texas Only" — a legal loophole that lets wines conceal the origin of their grapes and that has a continuing damaging effect. By writing those words on the back label (typically in small print, using a difficult-to-read cursive script), a wine is removed from interstate commerce and thereby exempt from Federal labeling requirements that require declaration of the origin of the grapes. State law applies, and Texas state law does not require the source of grapes to be declared. This allows companies to bring in California jug wine by the tanker load and bottle and label it using label symbology designed to fool the consumer into believing that the wine is from Texas (look for long-horned cattle, cowboys, Texas poets, and the state flag adorning bottles of California jug wine your local supermarket). “For Sale in Texas Only” is the consumer’s single best guide that they are drinking a California jug wine. The fraud has fooled the nation’s largest wine retailer and even a Master of Wine. Sales of these wines are, as a first approximation, equal to “sales of Texas wine not made” and result in reduced demand for actual Texas grapes. Until FSITO wines are required to also state the appellation of origin of the fruit prominently on the front label (e.g. ‘American’), the damage will continue.This allows companies to bring in California jug wine by the tanker load and bottle and label it using label symbology designed to fool the consumer into believing that the wine is from Texas

While there is no still no apodictic certainty about which varietals do best in Texas, an empirical consensus is starting to emerge. Virtually nobody is growing pinot noir anymore (despite the favorable chalky soil in the High Plains and Hill Country AVAs). Chardonnay has been similarly written off (see below for an important exception). The long-story-short on grapes in Texas (considering only Vitis vinifera varieties) is that thus far viognier is the most successful white, and tempranillo (grown by over 20 aspirational producers) the most successful red.

Roussanne is in a close chase with viognier for best-selling white, but is not yet as widely planted. Good muscat and vermentino are each being made by more than one producer. The emerging white is albariño. Other white grapes (e.g. picpoul) can be good on a case-by-case basis.

Among reds, the bench of promising grapes is much deeper than for whites. After tempranillo, there is a litany of red varieties with successful wines to their name: aglianico, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, Montepulciano, mourvèdre, petit verdot, petite sirah, sangiovese, syrah, tannat, and touriga nacional all have their proponents and concrete examples of success.

There are two inferences that can be drawn from the above list. First, Mediterranean varieties appear to do best in Texas. Second, optimal grape choice is still an open question. The latter issue extends deeper, down to the question of clonal selection. I met a grower recently who is growing a Bordeaux clone of cabernet sauvignon. He thinks criticism of cabernet in the state is misplaced. It has been the choice of the wrong clones that has made the wines unexciting, not the inherent suitability of the grape or winemaking skills.

Expect new names to crop up in the next few seasons. I saw new plantings of arinto (a Portuguese white variety) in the Texas Hill Country AVA in July of 2014. Other Mediterranean varieties will likely follow suit.

Another successful white cultivar is blanc du bois. A hybrid grape with golden muscat in its ancestry that proved to be able to survive Pierce’s disease, it was originally vinified in Texas to make semi-sweet and semi-dry white wines, most of which were sold at the cellar door. Now it finds at least three more expressions: in the Madeira style, invented by Raymond Haak at Haak Vineyards; in the opulent Rhône style developed by Dan Gatlin at The Vineyard at Florence; and as the base for sparkling wine. The last of these may eventually emerge as the predominant style for the grape.

In terms of sparkling wines, Charmat machines have appeared at a couple of locations, and methode traditionelle is being used as well in small experiments as part of what is becoming an incipient Texas sparkling wine industry. Not large yet, but watch this space!

The wineries below are each in its own sense models, or pioneers, in the state. This list is not exhaustive, and other people may have their own examples. It is presented in alphabetical order.

Founded in 2009 by physician Bob Young and his son-in-law John Rivenburgh, Bending Branch Winery is distinguished by its rapid rise into the top ranks of Texas wineries. The winery routinely wins medals at respected wine competitions around the country. Throughout the winery’s short life, the leadership team has shown an ability to focus firmly on well-defined goals. First, there was site selection for the estate vineyard. They searched for 18 months before settling on a place which has proven, thus far, to be a good choice. In particular, the sloping topography contributes to a lower risk of frost damage. Second, they stress the Mediterranean varietals that are emerging as the most promising category in the state. They select them without regard to perceived consumer popularity. Thus, picpoul blanc is among the whites, and tannat and mourvèdre among the reds. Third, Bending Branch views winemaking technique as an evolving process. Young uses cryomaceration and was just the fourth winery in the United States to adopt flash détente.

Raymond Haak invented the Madeira expression of blanc du bois at his Haak Vineyards and Winery, even implementing that wine’s Estufagem process. The wine’s fame spread, even reaching Jancis Robinson, who described it as "superior." The important thing for the Texas wine industry was that here was a totally new expression of blanc du bois that had none of the organoleptic or commercial flaws of traditional ways of making the wine. It could be priced against Madeira, rather than low-end sauvignon blanc, and had the long shelf life of fortified wine that made it an attractive by-the-glass option in restaurants.

Led by founder Dan Gatlin, Inwood Estate Vineyards has established itself as the producer of the most expensive wines in the state. They sell out every year, almost exclusively to a mailing list and a cadre of savvy restaurants where sommeliers and beverage managers are loyal customers from the winery’s early days. Gatlin is such a perfectionist that it was over two decades from his first plantings until his first commercial wine release. Along the way, he learned to eschew native and hybrid grapes in favor of vinifera and figured out that tempranillo in the High Plains offered the most potential. In the present day, it is a mantra that tempranillo is one of the state’s best grapes, but many of the believers have no idea that Gatlin established the fact, working with farmer Neal Newsom to found the now highly regarded Newsom Vineyards. Also breaking with tradition, he bottled palomino as a dry table wine, sometimes blending it with chardonnay. After over 30 years in the business, Gatlin shows no sign of slowing down. Shattering icons is one of his favorite pursuits. Just as everybody started to agree that chardonnay did not do well in Texas, he released not one but two chardonnays with Texas appellations (from grapes grown in Dallas County, to boot). Far from a gimmick, the wines had the steely structure of Chablis grand cru, as accomplished winemaking defied climatic differences. Gatlin is also reinventing the state’s approach to cabernet sauvignon with new clonal selections and vineyard locations. For The Vineyard at Florence, he invented an expression of blanc du bois as a bright Rhône-style wine that may move sales of wines from that grape beyond the state’s borders. Perhaps Gatlin is best regarded as the Manfred Krankl of Texas.

Kiepersol Estates should not exist. Former South African farmer Pierre de Wet is growing 14 different varieties of vinifera in East Texas, where Pierce’s disease is supposed to make it impossible — and his daughter, Marnelle Durrett, is making award-winning wine from them. Kiepersol is a fact on the ground to confound all East Texas skeptics. Their measures against another vineyard danger, the glassy-winged sharpshooter — such as innovative zinc treatments — get national attention.

The Messina Hof Winery, founded in 1977, has turned a local dependence on the Lenoir grape (a victim of Pierce’s disease) into a unique selling point by vinting it as a late-harvest wine and selling it as Papa Paolo’s Port. Lenoir’s structure and teinturier (colorant) properties made it a natural for the role.

The Hill Country winery Pedernales Cellars was founded by the husband and wife team of Frederick Osterberg and Julie Kuhlken, who brought on her brother, David, as winemaker. They would be notable solely on their success winning medals domestically and in France. However, they are also a poster child for successfully running a winery as a business. The visitor facility is Napa quality and they were the first in Texas to introduce a reserve room for the visitor who wants a more personal tasting experience led by a credentialed sommelier (an idea that I hope spreads). As of 2015, it is surprising to find how many hospitality staff members at Hill Country wineries had stints at Pedernales Cellars. Behind the scenes, they are a modest good neighbor, quietly providing facilities for young startup wineries (Lewis Wines was a one-time occupant).

In the 1980s, Pheasant Ridge Winery started the medal trend under innovative winemaker Bobby Cox. Critic Robert Parker said “For cabernet sauvignon Pheasant Ridge Winery is turning out lush, intense wines with plenty of character that can compete in quality with anybody”. Their 1982 cabernet won a medal and their sauvignon blanc gained an honorable mention at the San Francisco Wine Competition. A silver medal was awarded to the 1984 sauvignon blanc at the San Francisco Wine Competition in 1985 and at the same event in 1986; the 1983 cabernet sauvignon won a gold. The wines also won several in-state awards during the 1980s. The early 1990s saw a recession, which put the original winery out of business. Just this month, history was made: Cox repurchased the name, vineyard, and winery building with the intention of reviving the winery.

Other Texas wineries to watch, again in alphabetical order, are Arche, Bar Z Winery, Becker Vineyards, Bingham Family Vineyards, Brennan Vineyards, Brushy Creek Vineyards, Calais Winery Compass Road Cellars, Crossroads Winery, Duchman Family Winery, Eden Hall Winery, Fall Creek Vineyards, Flat Creek Estate, Grape Creek Vineyards, Hilmy Cellars, Hye Meadow Winery, Kuhlman Cellars, Landon Winery, Llano Estacado Winery, Lewis Wines, Los Pinos Ranch, Lost Oak Winery, McPherson Cellars, Perissos Vineyard and Winery, Red Caboose Winery, Sandstone Cellars, Solaro Estate Winery, Spicewood, Stone House Vineyards, Times Ten Cellars, Wedding Oak Winery, and William Chris Wines.

Virtually all Texas wine is sold in state, though most wineries will sell to out-of-state customers through the Internet. One exception is McPherson Cellars, which is distributed in the Northeast. At a March 2015 meeting of the Texas Hill Country Wineries, a winery group, there was very little interest in pushing out-of-state sales via distributors. Burgeoning in-state demand made costly and risky out-of-state expansion unattractive.

One thing is certain: This article will soon be out of date, as the Texas wine industry continues to rapidly evolve. As of now, 2015 is going to be a good harvest — if growers dodge disease following the heaviest rain in years — and may yield a new record tonnage. There might even be enough for Ludo Lefebvre's restaurant, if somebody will send him some.

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