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.

In a study conducted by Texas A&M researchers, 240 wine drinkers from around the state were asked to compare a glass of French wine with a glass of Texas wine. The subjects were asked which one they preferred, how much they would be willing to pay for each, and which wine they would be more likely to give as a gift.

The wine drinkers liked the French wine substantially better, were willing to pay a higher price for it and were much more likely to give it as a gift. The results were similar regardless of age, income, education or the subject's degree of "Texan-ness." But in fact, the two glasses contained the exact same wine -- from the Messina Hof winery in Bryan.

Haak Vineyards & Winery: Giving Texans a taste of boutique winemaking.
Troy Fields
Haak Vineyards & Winery: Giving Texans a taste of boutique winemaking.
Mark Harwell: "The new law discriminates between Texas wineries and California wineries."
Troy Fields
Mark Harwell: "The new law discriminates between Texas wineries and California wineries."

"Quality really isn't the problem," says Dr. Tim Dodd, the current director of the Texas Wine Marketing Research Association. Dodd doesn't think that hybrids will hurt the reputation of Texas wines. While small producers keep planting them, their wines are hardly ever sold outside of a tasting room because the grapes have no name recognition among consumers, he says. Currently hybrid wines account for only about 1 percent of the market.

Dodd, who is originally from New Zealand, conducted a quality experiment of his own during his last visit to London. He brought five bottles of Texas cabernet in the $15 to $18 price range with him. And he asked a London friend to purchase five bottles of the best Bordeaux available in the same price range. Then he conducted a blind tasting for a group of London wine lovers. "Texas wines took second and fourth in the top five," Dodd reports.

Why do Texas wines have such a poor reputation? There are many opinions on the subject. Wine writers often opine that Texas has yet to find its varietal. New Zealand made a huge splash in the world market with sauvignon blanc. Oregon has done remarkably well with its excellent Pinot Noirs. But growers in Lubbock prefer cabernet sauvignon because it draws the highest prices. Unfortunately, Texas wineries must compete in this crowded category with inexpensive imports from Australia and Chile, and highly rated wines from Washington, California and, of course, France.

Consumers also fault Texas wines for inconsistency, a problem inherent in small wineries. "Small batch wines are easy to screw up," says McKinney. "Every little effect is magnified. It's hard for small wineries to consistently make great wine." How small are Texas wineries? Consider that in the early 1980s, St. Genevieve made nearly all the wine in the state. And if you include bulk wines and grape juice sold to other wineries, it still accounts for somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent of Texas production. Which means that the other 39 wineries in the state combined produce less than one average-sized California winery.

"Is there any hope for the Texas wine industry?" I ask McKinney.

"We may just end up growing grapes for California," he says. "Grapes make economic sense. There is already a California winery with 800 acres planted in Texas. Lubbock is so cheap compared to California!"

"And where will the wine business go?"

"For a long time, we will have a small tourist-oriented industry," McKinney predicts. "The laws are just too restrictive here for anything else." If you have a tasting room, the laws in Texas say you can sell only 25,000 gallons, he laments. That keeps anybody from getting big.

"So what would it take for Texas to really get into the wine business?" I ask the man who helped start the state's wine industry.

"I have an unpopular position," he answers. "I don't think the industry will take off until some big names get involved in Texas."

French investment and expertise helped build the wine business in California and Oregon, he observes. If a big California or French winery were to locate here, it would give us some credibility. So why can't that happen? "It all comes back to the TABC," says McKinney. "The laws in Texas won't allow it."

A winery permit is subject to the same rules as any other alcoholic beverage permit, and the law requires 51 percent Texan ownership for at least 12 months. You can't have two permits, either, so you can't run a restaurant and a winery at the same time.

Shell corporations and phony partnerships are routinely set up to get around these laws. But Rothschild, Mondavi or Gallo aren't going to get involved in those kinds of legal shenanigans. Neither are we going to get a multimillion-dollar showcase like Chandon built in Napa, with a state-of-the-art winery, a fabulous restaurant and a tourist facility, McKinney opines. "Nobody is going to invest that kind of money and take a chance on a legal battle, too."

The Texas wine industry is getting stomped. Statistics show that the industry peaked in 1997 when 27 wineries produced 1.7 million gallons. Since then the number of wineries has increased to 40, but the production level, which dropped to around 1.3 million gallons in 1998, has remained flat. A million gallons may sound like a lot of wine, but it's a stain on the tablecloth compared to the 444 million gallons California produced last year.

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