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 university leased its lands to private-sector concerns, which ran the actual businesses. They contracted to lease the grapevines to a newly formed Texas winery called St. Genevieve. The winery was once well known for its sauvignon blanc. "Unfortunately there wasn't much of a market for sauvignon blanc in Texas then," observes McKinney.

Although the grapes did well, the winery did not. It was repossessed by Bank of America, which ran the winery from 1986 to 1987. Then, in a complicated lease-back agreement arranged to get around TABC regulations, a group that includes the French winery Cordier took over St. Genevieve and has run it ever since.

Wine has always been a hard sell in Texas. Thanks to our hellish summer temperatures, it's expensive and difficult to store and transport it here. And while the sales have increased in the last 20 years, we are still better known as one of the nation's largest per capita consumers of beer. For all of these reasons, a wine culture has never really developed in Texas. A high percentage of the consumers who do drink wine have unsophisticated tastes.

"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.
Haak's better wines are made from grapes grown in California.
Deron Neblett
Haak's better wines are made from grapes grown in California.

The varietals McKinney planted were way ahead of their time. Barbera did wonderfully, he recalls, but nobody had ever heard of it in Texas. Muscat canelli, a grape that makes fragrant aperitif wines in Europe, wasn't popular then either. Today it is widely considered one of the few varietals that really thrives in Texas, although the wine still isn't popular with the state's consumers. Most of the experimental varieties have since been torn out to make way for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the only two varietals that seem to sell in the Lone Star State.

Cotton farmers across the High Plains started imitating the successful agricultural experiment by planting cabernet and chardonnay grapes of their own. Several wineries were built near Lubbock, but they were handicapped by their remote location and their inability to sell wine to visitors, since Lubbock is in a dry county.

Texas wine got a huge shot in the arm when Southwest cuisine took off in the early 1990s, making Lone Star wines a popular fad. Wineries began to spring up, but for the most part they were outside the High Plains region. "People who want to invest in a winery want a certain kind of lifestyle," McKinney observes. They want to live in an attractive place, not out in Lubbock. They also, quite sensibly, want to build near the major drinking markets. As a result, Texas wineries and Texas vineyards grew up in different parts of the state.

This dislocation has always been a source of problems. Many of the former cotton farmers who grow grapes near Lubbock are Baptist teetotalers. It is common practice in viticulture to prune away as much as half of the fruit to increase the intensity of the flavor in the remaining grapes. But when viticulturists advise Lubbock farmers to follow this practice, they are often ignored. Grapes sell by the ton, and the farmers have no incentive to sacrifice their yield for the sake of good wine. They don't even drink the stuff.

Wineries located hundreds of miles from the vineyards also have an image problem. "People like to see grapevines when they visit a winery," McKinney says. But vinifera grapes, the kind that fine European wines are made from, suffer from Pierce's disease in southern climates. To keep the tourists happy, many South Texas wineries plant hybrid grapes, a disease-resistant cross between vinifera and native American species. The hybrid grapes do well in extreme climates, but most of the sweet, foxy wines they yield are unpopular among sophisticated wine drinkers.

One wine writer described the typical hybrid flavor as "Welch's grape jelly with a shot of vodka." Nevertheless, hybrids can be quite profitable; the New York Finger Lakes region is planted almost entirely in hybrids, which are used to make wine coolers and sweet, cheap and high-alcohol wines like Wild Irish Rose.

Santa Fe is a good location for grapes -- it's just not a good location for vinifera grapes. On his acreage, Raymond Haak grows Black Spanish and Blanc du Bois hybrids, which he uses to make port and fruity white wine. In a tasting room, his wines favor well, and they sell at an excellent profit. Haak recently expanded his production by buying hybrid grapes from other local growers. The ones I watched being crushed were grown in Fulshear, 28 miles west of Houston.

"Do you think there's a movement toward hybrid grapes in Texas?" I ask Haak.

"Yes, I think so. It's a struggle to get in tune with our climate and soil. I tried to grow vinifera here. I had 150 vines planted," he says. "The vines did great for a couple of years, and then they all died from Pierce's disease."

"Do you think anybody will ever make a good wine from hybrid grapes?" I ask. My arrogance gets Haak hot under the collar.

"Wine is a business," he says. "And quality is arbitrary. The tourists that come here are not discerning buyers. But who says that your taste is better than somebody else's? The better wine is the one that sells the most. Let folks like what they want to like."

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