The wine writing world is gushing about a new edition (the fourth) of The Oxford Companion to Wine. edited by Jancis Robinson with the assistance of Julia Harding, published on October 1. Reviews are cropping up already despite its 800-plus pages, which suggests that others reviewers had less of a problem getting their hands on the book than I did. (After the Oxford University Press stopped responding to my repeated requests for a review copy, I ordered one from Amazon — and got it the same day.)
One way to find out if a guide is reliable is to see what it says about a subject you know. To judge a wine encyclopedia, the logical subject for me to pick is Texas wine, as I have written on the subject for more than five years.
Unfortunately, The Oxford Companion — hereafter OCW — comes out as badly as the 2012 edition of American Wine (which I discussed here) did. At least the latter had the partial excuse that it was just out of date. The brand new 2015 edition of OCW reports a grape acreage of 4.400 acres in Texas, ignoring the USDA 2012 report that put it at 7,200 (error, 63 percent). In fact, one can update that number further. Using documented plantings since 2012, there are now likely over 9,000 acres (though not all producing yet).
As to where those grapes are, OCW states that 40 percent of the state’s grapes are grown in the Trans-Pecos region, an arid desert area anchored by El Paso, and that the Texas High Plains region accounts for about the same acreage. That is utter fiction. Oddly enough, Wikipedia spouts the same thing, referencing an earlier edition of OCW as its source. I wonder who beat whom to that match of fictional ping-pong?
In fact, 70 percent of the state’s grapes grow in the High Plains. The only vineyard of note in the Trans-Pecos region is Mesa Vineyard, a former University of Texas experimental vineyard still owned by the university byt managed by the corporate entity Mesa Vineyards (plural), under the name Ste. Genevieve Winery. That started at over 1,000 acres but has withered to less than half of that and most of the remaining vines are in poor shape. This is the result of bad site selection, despite having been planned by one of the state’s most respected vineyard managers. Output this year will likely be only about 400 tons.
The OCW claims that Ste. Genevieve is a major supplier of grapes to the Texas wine industry but there is a basic mathematical problem with that. Ste. Genevieve sells 600,000 cases of wine per year . For the sake of argument, let us assume that they still have 1,000 acres and assume that those vineyards produce a healthy five tons of grapes an acre. That gives them 5,000 tons of grapes to work with. One ton of grapes produces 60 cases of wine so 5,000 tons produces 300,000 cases. That is only roughly half their output. This assumes that they use all of their own grapes and have twice the grape acreage that they in fact do, and have a yield that is likely twice what they actually get. More realistically, they make between 12.5 percent and 15 percent of their wine from their own grapes and the rest is bulk wine shipped in from California. That is why, on Google Earth, their production facility on Interstate 10 looks like an oil refinery and not a winery. They store wine, not make it.
OCW describes the Fredericksburg AVA as known for good quality cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Neither is the case, as an examination of Fredericksburg wine medals or other measures of recognition show. Fredericksburg is known as the wine tourism hub of the Texas Hill Country. That is an important role in the industry but it is in the hinterlands outside Fredericksburg where most of the wineries are located. I have never heard a compelling argument as to why Fredericksburg should be an AVA.
The Texas Hill Country AVA (of which Fredericksburg AVA is one tiny part) is where one finds the most wineries and a preponderance of the wineries that I have characterised elsewhere as representing "the new Texas wine industry" — that is, wineries dedicated to using Texas grapes to make wine in Texas that stands comparison to wines from more established regions, and that behave in an accessible and transparent way towards their customers. When new, aspirational wineries start up nowadays it is almost invariably in the Hill Country. The foremost reason is the proximity to their customers (the region is about an hour from San Antonio and Austin), which allows them to sell direct and circumvent the invidious (to small wineries) three-tier distribution system. “Wine Road 290” is the marketing name for the stretch of US-290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City — now the second most popular wine trail in the U.S., after Napa Valley. As of January 2015, there were 18 wineries on or close to the road and no fewer than 16 pending applications for additional wineries on it.
Most Hill Country wineries grow or buy their grapes in the High Plains. They are mechanically harvested at night and transported to the Hill Country winery by reefer truck, arriving before 8 a.m. the next morning so that crush can begin before the temperatures rise too high. Some wineries sort and crush on site.
That said, more grapes are being grown elsewhere in the state as a result of better viticultural practices. Contrary to OCW, which states that “a few hardy souls persevere,” the northeastern corner of the state is successfully growing vinifera varieties and expanding acreage. Plus there are microclimates that make vinifera a success in East Texas as well. Kiepersol Estates in Tyler is the obvious example, with 100 percent vinifera and 14 different varieties on over 50 acres.
In the past, some wineries have supplemented their production with California fruit. The 2015 harvest is, at the time of writing, expected to be so abundant that the owner of one of the state’s largest wineries, Messina Hof, predicts using 100 percent Texas grapes.
The state’s biggest authenticity problem is bulk wines shipped in from California. They are sold in bottles adorned with Texas symbology (and the legal weasel words “For Sale in Texas Only” in tiny cursive script on the back label) to fool consumers into thinking that they are Texas-made. The conceit is good enough to fool Masters of Wine and the nation’s leading wine retailer. These wines damage wineries that make real Texas wines and the growers who supply them. The single biggest legal battle remaining for wine consumers is ridding the market of this scourge by requiring that all wines use appellation labelling.
Beyond the errors of fact, OCW makes bigger errors of omission. In fact, the whole Texas entry appears to have been written without a sense of context, of what’s trending, or what the biggest problems are (beyond the obvious ones like weather).
The first big story is that there has been a huge improvement in quality in Texas in the past few years. Several metrics document this, but one that forms a concise and compelling summary is the number of medals won by Texas wines at out-of-state wine competitions. From a fairly constant 30 medals per year from 1984 to 2010, this graph shows that subsequently the medal count rose dramatically, reaching 164 in 2014. Most of the data behind these totals came from two San Francisco shows, plus competitions in Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York's Finger Lakes. I'm reporting just out-of-state wins in order to remove any appearance of a “home field advantage.” If I included Texas, the trend would be reinforced. I documented other quality metrics in this earlier piece on The Daily Meal.
The second big story is the industry's ebullient attitude about the future. Two metrics that indicate this are new, non-vineyard capital expenditures and new vineyard acreage plantings. In Wine Business Monthly, I published the results of a survey I conducted of investments that showed that wind machines are coming to Texas in a big way. Previously, the value of the crop was not worth saving from late spring frost, but times have changed. Surveys that I conducted of new plantings indicate that the High Plains alone will account for a 10 percent increase in state acreage during 2015. A major force behind this is the huge amount of High Plains land that used to grow cotton. By switching to grapes, water use per acre decreases by three quarters. There are also now two custom crush facilities in the state and two Charmat machines, anticipating an increased output of sparkling wine.
The state’s large agricultural base means that there is a lot of existing skill in grape growing. However, enology skills have been in short supply historically. That situation is now being relieved with winemaking programs at Texas Tech University (in the High Plains and an extension in the Hill Country) and Grayson County College in northeast Texas.
Vinifera grape varieties currently showing best in the state are viognier for whites and tempranillo for reds. The emerging white grapes are albariño, picpoul , roussanne (which, I predict, will surpass viognier as the state’s signature white in the next few years), sauvignon blanc, trebbiano, and vermentino. Emerging reds are aglianico, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, montepulciano, mourvèdre, petit verdot, petite sirah, sangiovese, syrah, tannat, and touriga nacional. This diversity reflects the fact that the young Texas wine industry is still searching for the best grapes and there are currently no certainties. Winemakers were on the verge of declaring chardonnay a failed experiment, and then in 2014 Inwood Estates Vineyards released two impressive Chablis-style examples (from grapes grown in Dallas County, of all places).
Some hybrids and native varieties are found in areas with a heavy incidence of Pierce’s disease. Blanc du Bois, Lenoir, and Norton are the three doing best. Blanc du Bois is an especially interesting case, as necessity has been the mother of invention, resulting in multiple interesting expressions of this historically lowly-regarded grape.
One trend not evident yet is inward investment. This is somewhat surprising, given that an acre of land for planting in the High Plains can be had for around $4,000.
One is told that the OCW is “authoritative, comprehensive and elegant.” Based on the Texas entry I am left with the impression that the OCW is not helpful or informed regarding the Texas wine industry and that makes me wonder how carefully researched it is with regard to other areas. Sure, it will get well-trodden ground like Napa or St. Emilion right, but for those there is less need for the an encyclopedic work of this sort. How does it cover Virginia, Arizona, Michigan, or other emerging states?