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.

The legal problems that plague the Texas wine industry are especially frustrating to many of those who work in it, because the laws all seem so pointless, so petty and so easy to fix. But when it comes to liquor in Texas, common sense falls into the rabbit hole and emerges in TABC-land, where nothing is quite as it seems.

Established at the repeal of prohibition in 1935 as the Liquor Control Board, the TABC has had a checkered career, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. Coke Stevenson Jr., who ran the agency from 1949 until 1968, resigned amid allegations of influence peddling. In 1975 a TABC official was dismissed for allegedly accepting bribes from a Houston liquor store. Sherman McBeath, a former U.S. Marine who ran the agency in the 1980s, was accused of selectively enforcing the code against minorities.

In 1992 the agency faced the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a review board that assesses the performance of state agencies. Legislators from Houston and other districts related horror stories about TABC police tactics, and critics accused the beverage commission of having too cozy a relationship with the liquor industry. The comptroller's office and other powerful forces in Austin called for the agency to be disbanded. But the TABC survived the review process with little more than a slap on the wrist.

The new Texas liquor laws will encourage more wineries like Haak's, where they sell picnic wines at a respectable profit.
Troy Fields
The new Texas liquor laws will encourage more wineries like Haak's, where they sell picnic wines at a respectable profit.
"People like to see grapevines when they visit a winery," says Charles McKinney. Texas winemakers respond by planting hybrid grapes that produce mostly unsophisticated wines.
John Anderson
"People like to see grapevines when they visit a winery," says Charles McKinney. Texas winemakers respond by planting hybrid grapes that produce mostly unsophisticated wines.

The new changes in the state liquor laws actually began as a much more ambitious attempt to bring the beverage code up to date. A proposal backed by the California-based Wine Institute would have allowed mail order and Internet sources to ship wines directly to Texas consumers for the first time -- and for Texas wineries to ship within or outside the state. The "direct shipping" law was defeated by the well-funded Texas liquor lobby. Four large liquor companies, including Republic Beverage of Houston and Block Distributing of San Antonio, distribute some 85 percent of all the wine sold in the state. These companies, according to a May article in The Dallas Morning News, are generous contributors to Texas political campaigns. Their influential lobbyist, "Butch" Sparks, has been single-mindedly promoting big liquor's interests in Austin for more than 30 years.

The changes passed by the last legislature are a consolation prize for beleaguered wineries. The laws make it possible to ship wines directly within the state (without a distributor) and to hold festivals on a winery's premises. And for the first time, wineries in dry counties will be able to sell their bottles for consumption off-premises. (Previously, such wineries had to direct you to a liquor store in a wet county to buy their bottles.) The legislation also created the Texas Wine Marketing Assistance Program, which sponsor Representative David Swinford, R-Dumas, says will help small wineries that have yet to find a market.

"The new laws will allow more small wineries to survive," says Haak. "These little wineries that make 500 or 1,000 cases are going to be able to support themselves now." It's hard for a small winery to make any money selling at the wholesale price to a liquor distributor. Selling to customers from a tasting room at full retail, on the other hand, is very profitable.

"Half a dozen new wineries have popped up since the bill was passed," reports David A. Miller, executive director of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. "If you look at a map, you see that half of the state is dry. We've got a lot of wineries in those dry areas. They can make wine, but they can't sell it. This levels the playing field for them."

The Texas wine industry is headquartered in West Texas. The best grape-growing region is in the High Plains near Lubbock. The Spanish called this area the Llano Estacado, which means staked plains. It was covered with prairie grasses when the conquistadors found it; it was also completely devoid of landmarks. They had to drive stakes into the ground as they traveled to keep from getting lost. Today, the High Plains is a featureless stretch of cotton fields with no trees, no mountains and no significant bodies of water. The locals wax eloquent about the beauty of the sunsets and the wide-open spaces, but nobody will ever mistake this wine region for the Napa Valley or the South of France. Tourism is not a major factor in the local economy, either.

The coolness and the lack of humidity are why this area is best for grapes, viticulture consultant Dr. Charles McKinney tells me. In 1981, while serving as director of research at the University of Texas Lands Office, McKinney headed up the experiment that started the modern Texas wine industry. UT owned more than two million acres in different parts of the state at the time, and it was McKinney's job to come up with ways to use the acreage profitably.

On a piece of property near Fort Stockton, UT planted wine grapes. "Grapes need less water than cotton, and sell for more money," McKinney explains. More than 1,000 acres were planted with a multitude of varietals, including chenin blanc, French columbard, ruby cabernet, barbera, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and muscat canelli. Many did well.

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