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.

Fifteen years ago the business was full of visionaries who firmly believed that the state would one day become a major American wine center. They proved that Texas could grow excellent grapes. They also proved that Texans could make outstanding wines. After that, they thought everything would fall into place. But what they didn't count on was Texas politics. And the fact that for half the state, prohibition has never been repealed.

As the California-based Wine Institute's lobbyists discovered in Austin, the state's liquor interests, and the legislators who regulate them, will block any effort to reform the alcoholic beverage code. These good old boys don't lose a lot of sleep over the fact that their liquor laws suffocate the Texas wine industry. But an upcoming federal lawsuit does give them nasty nightmares.

In 1999 Mark Harwell, a Houston attorney, filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of three Houston wine lovers. The suit challenges provisions in the beverage code that forbid wines to be shipped into Texas from the out-of-state. The laws have become especially unpopular among wine collectors because they also make it illegal for Texans to buy wine over the Internet. Harwell argues that the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs are being violated. "The commerce clause of the Constitution prohibits the erecting of trade barriers between the states," notes Harwell.

"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."

In the spring of 2000, U.S. District Court Judge Melinda Harmon granted a summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs, setting off a short-lived celebration among wine aficionados. The matter was put on hold when the state of Texas filed a motion for reconsideration, and the case has been floating on the docket ever since. Some observers guess Harmon was waiting to see what would happen in the Texas legislature before proceeding.

I ask Harwell what effect the new laws would have on the case. "The recently enacted winery bill, which now allows Texas wineries to ship wines within the state, brings the whole matter into sharper focus," says Harwell. "The new law discriminates between Texas wineries and California wineries, and that's unconstitutional. I'm all in favor of Texas wine, but I'm more concerned with a Texan's constitutional right to buy rare wines by direct shipment, which is still prohibited from outside the state."

Harwell and his clients are not alone in this fight. State laws that restrict interstate commerce for wineries are also being challenged in New York, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan and North Carolina.

At issue is a conflict between two sections of the Constitution. The amendment repealing prohibition granted the states the right to regulate liquor sales. But the commerce clause prohibits trade barriers between the states. The matter may be decided in Harmon's Houston courtroom. Or it may end up being argued, along with the cases from the other states, in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the direct-shipping ban is struck down, challenges to other discriminatory provisions of the 66-year-old Texas beverage code are sure to follow. But even if the state's laws survive the suit, the issues raised promise to make the TABC's next review before the Sunset Advisory Commission in 2005 a real melee.

The high-ceilinged tasting room of Haak Vineyards & Winery is impressive. The room is decorated with old barrels and winemaking equipment. A refrigerator case is stocked with cheeses and other picnic items. A cheerful attendant sets up glasses on the polished stone bar for a couple who has just stopped in for a tasting. At least for the short term, the future of the Texas wine industry belongs to tourist-oriented facilities like this one.

Raymond Haak offers me a glass of his 2000 cabernet. Blended with 6 percent sangiovese, the red wine is unusually fruity. "I like vinifera wines myself, even if hybrids are what sell here," Haak tells me. When he started making homemade wine from Concord grapes 26 years ago, he wasn't really a wine drinker, Haak admits. His homemade Concord and other sweet wines tasted just fine back then. "But gradually my tastes started changing," he says. Now Haak prefers the taste of vinifera wines.

It's just like when you first start drinking when you're young, Haak says. You want a bourbon and Coke at first. Then, after a while, you graduate to whiskey and water. And you end up drinking Scotch on the rocks. Haak thinks the same thing will happen to his customers. They may like sweet hybrid wines now, but eventually their tastes will change, and he'll sell more of his cabernet.

Of course, Haak doesn't grow any cabernet grapes at his Santa Fe vineyards, or sangiovese either. "Where did the grapes come from?" I ask.

"The Lodi region of Northern California," he tells me. The expensive wines that Haak makes -- a crisp sauvignon blanc, a buttery chardonnay and the fruity cabernet we are drinking -- are all made with California grapes that he buys by the ton and ships across the country in refrigerated trucks. The cabernet sells for $18.95 a bottle. It doesn't compare well with similarly priced wines from other parts of the world, a fact that Haak freely acknowledges.

So why is he making cabernet with California grapes on the Gulf Coast? Hybrid wines may pay the rent, but every winemaker wants to make some wines that will be taken seriously, Haak explains. It's a matter of pride for small Texas wineries. "We're wanna-bes," Haak says. "We want to play with the big guys."

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