Getting Stomped

Texas boasts the soil, the climate and the grapes for a strong wine industry. So what stands in its way? Bad taste and politicians.

With its sun-washed stone walls, arched windows and domed bell tower, the headquarters of Haak Vineyards & Winery looks like an old Spanish mission. Behind the building, acres of vineyards encircle a picnic area and patio. The charming winery in Santa Fe, a small town about 25 miles south of Houston, is bringing the promise of the Texas wine industry to a region where such grapes have never been grown before.

"Texans are pioneers," says owner and winemaker Raymond Haak, a retired instrumentation engineer who did well in the oil industry. "We love challenges."

Texas A&M extension agents told Haak that the Gulf Plains were no place for wine grapes. But Haak built his operation here anyway. And the tangle of thick vegetation outside would suggest that his grapes are doing quite well. "With its warm breezes and microclimate, [Santa Fe] is an excellent location for growing grapes," brags the Haak Web site.

"We're wanna-bes," says Texas winemaker Raymond Haak. "We want to play with the big guys."
Troy Fields
"We're wanna-bes," says Texas winemaker Raymond Haak. "We want to play with the big guys."

On this August afternoon, the crush is in full swing. Giant plastic bins full of dark red grapes are carried by forklift to a huge destemming machine. The partially crushed grapes are then piped through a wide plastic hose to a bladder press, which will squeeze out the bright red juice. It looks just like a small winemaking operation in Napa or Oregon. But appearances can be deceiving.

Haak's operation is typical of the new breed of small wineries in Texas. Owned by amateurs and retirees, they pay the rent by selling modestly priced picnic wines from their tasting rooms. You will probably never see the products from these wineries in your local supermarket. They produce minuscule amounts of wine. "We're in the entertainment industry," says Haak, whose winery produces 3,500 cases a year.

On September 1 new legislation granting wineries special exemptions from the state's liquor laws takes effect. Depending on your point of view, these new laws will bring either the second coming of the Texas wine industry or its further stagnation. Small winery owners like Haak are excited. But industry experts contend that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) regulations that have been changed aren't the ones that really matter.

This code is an exercise of the police power of the state for the protection of the welfare, health, peace, temperance and safety of the people of the state. -- Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code

The Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute is part of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The institute compiles statistics, releases reports and issues updates to wineries and vineyards across the state. The location of the group is not as unusual as you might think; some of the finest grapes in Texas are grown in the area around Lubbock. A local vineyard once donated bottles of wine to a Texas Tech homecoming banquet; the bottles were placed on every table. But before they could be appreciatively swished and sniffed, the party was raided by agents of the TABC. The donation had been judged illegal, and the wine was confiscated.

Under the three-tier system mandated by law, a winery wishing to make such a contribution would have to first sell the wine to a distributor, who would in turn sell it to a retailer or a caterer. Then the winery could buy back its wine at the full retail price -- only then would it be allowed to give the bottles away. The three-tier system supposedly protects Texans from evil liquor manufacturers, ensures local control of the liquor business, and increases the state's tax revenues. But it's also effective at protecting the profits of entrenched distributors, reducing competition for existing retailers and maintaining the status quo.

In 1992 I asked Dr. Steven Morse, then the director of the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute, about the irony of the state's wine marketing authority being located in a dry county. Morse assured me that although Lubbock was dry, its citizens actually drank a lot of wine. "So why doesn't Lubbock vote itself wet?" I asked, innocent of the fine points of Texas politics.

"It's not that simple," Morse told me. He proceeded to explain that the liquor retailers just across the county line would be out of business if Lubbock had its own liquor stores. And so these wealthy merchants make large contributions to local politicians to see that the matter never gets put to a vote. Wet-dry elections are extremely rare in West Texas, and whenever one seems imminent, the Baptist Church joins the existing liquor merchants in opposing it.

Alcohol is considered a tool of the devil by the Baptist Church, just as it was when prohibition was repealed. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code was written, in part, to satisfy the many opponents of prohibition's repeal. Its temperance-minded authors made sure that any inducements to drink (like giving away free samples) were illegal. This has long complicated the lives of wine sellers by limiting tastings and forcing competitions to buy the wines being judged.

By the same logic, the code strictly limited advertising. A winery may not, for instance, erect a billboard that depicts a bottle of wine to advertise its tasting room. Under the revised code going into effect next month, the state will perform an amusing juggling act as it attempts to provide marketing assistance to Texas wineries and simultaneously promote public temperance.

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