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Texas Wines: Behind the Cellar Door

Not all the Texas wine you buy is made from grapes grown in our state. In fact, most of it isn’t.

Texas Wines: Behind the Cellar Door

Check out our slideshow of Texas wineries and the Texas wine industry.

Haak Vineyards and Winery lies off the beaten path of the flat coastal plains of Santa Fe, Texas — a far cry from the idyllic vineyards of France or Italy, and certainly not an area historically associated with growing great grapes.

Out here, Pierce's Disease runs rampant and the erratic weather can either burn or freeze the grapes off the vines, depending on the year. But it's Raymond Haak's home — it has been for most of his life — and it's where he decided to plant his vineyard's roots.

Haak Vineyards is known for pioneering wines sourced with grapes that thrive on the Gulf Coast — grapes like the Blanc du Bois, which have been hybridized over years of research to withstand devastating disease and hot, humid weather. "You can't make great wine from bad grapes," he says.

Although there are a few acres of vines behind the quaint tasting room at Haak's tourist-friendly winery, most of his grapes don't come from the winery itself. This is standard in Texas, where wineries contract with growers. Haak's grapes come from both the Gulf Coast and commercial grape growers in places like the High Plains of northwestern Texas, where the finicky fruit thrives in the higher altitude and cooler weather.

The High Plains American Viticultural Area covers 8 million acres, a number that seems large enough — especially when combined with the 9 million acres in the Hill Country AVA, the second-largest in the entire United States — to sustain a Texan thirst for wine. And yet it's not. Only 3,500 acres of the Texas Hill Country AVA are planted with grapes. In the Texas High Plains AVA, it's even less: 800 acres currently grow grapes.

Unlike Haak, most Texas wineries can't get by on Texas grapes alone. Although the state produces more than 1 million cases of wine a year, Texas is drinking itself dry. And what do Texas wineries do when they can't grow enough grapes to make the roughly 12 million cases a year that we drink? They import the grapes from California.

That's right — the wine in your cupboard marked "Texas" that you purchased from a Texas winery is most likely made with California grapes. It's the dirty little secret of the Texas wine industry, an agricultural and tourism juggernaut that made $1.7 billion in 2009 alone, up from only $133 million eight years earlier.

As the Texas wine industry has flourished, it's brought with it a host of issues — including occasionally deceptive marketing practices, overreliance on chemical correction of "bad" grapes in the cellar and a propensity among Texas grape growers to focus too much on grape varieties that don't thrive in Texas. But that's not to say it's all plonk. It's in an awkward phase, a series of growing pains that serious Texas winemakers are eager to leave behind as they stretch toward a better future.
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The unforgiving Texas climate, marked by late-spring freezes and arid, brimstone summers, can't sustain grape growing like California's Napa Valley, which lies at the peak of one of the most fertile and productive farming corridors in the world and enjoys the consistently mild weather and cool summer evenings necessary to deliver fruit with freshness and healthy acidity.

In a "bad vintage" like the disastrous 2011 harvest, plagued by drought and extreme temperatures, says Gabe Parker, director at-large of the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, "less than 50 percent of the wine bottled in Texas is grown here." In a "good vintage" like the 2010 bumper crop, "more than 50 percent of the fruit is grown in Texas," he adds.

Is that the best that Texas can do? In a state known for its self-reliance and its unabashed homegrown pride, do citizens realize that even in the best-case scenario, only half of the wine in their glass was raised by Texas farmers? Few are aware of federal regulation that allows bottlers to label their products as Texas wine regardless of its source, as long as "For Sale in Texas Only" is included in the fine print.

In typical Texan style, we like to drink what we make: Nearly all of the wine bottled in Texas is consumed here as well, even if it's not grown here. That's one of the reasons national wine writers like New York-based Alice Feiring, when asked to comment on Texas wines, don't have much to say on the subject: "I really haven't tasted enough wines in Texas to make any sort of educated assessment," says Feiring, "except that conventional grapes are really not the way to go."

It's the same argument Raymond Haak makes when he talks about the Blanc du Bois that's the crux of his vineyard's success. But although the grape thrives here, many Texas wineries would still rather focus on the basics: Cabernets, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs — in other words, wines that are familiar to the average wine drinker but that are nearly impossible to grow here. And when those grapes fail, the wineries turn to California to supplement their meager yield.

"It's a very difficult grape to grow, Cabernet is. It's a very labor-intensive grape. Having said that, I've tasted some very decent Cabernets from Texas," says Haak. But just as quickly he adds: "Were they as decent as those from Napa? I don't think so."

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17 comments
Burris Travis
Burris Travis

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Burris Travis
Burris Travis

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Bobbygrape
Bobbygrape

I would like to clarify my quote. I said that 99 % of Texas is unsuitable for COMMERCIAL winegrowing. That means a winegrowing venture that I would smile at if you invested your 401-K in because you would receive a nice return . That's 1.7 million acres guys, over three times the size of CA winegrowing. Lewis Dixon is a swell guy but he will never "make the market" with those wines at that price point but Dave, Paul and Richard are developing a true market for Texas grown wines. Drink up we'll grow more! Bobby Cox

Billy
Billy

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Stevemorgan
Stevemorgan

When are we going to hear back from our authors about all the mis-information in this article? For example, wrong information on the Hill Country AVA, wrong information about the acreage in all the AVA's mentioned, and leaving out the information that other areas and countries use "tartaric acid" and other additives to their wine. Are the wines of France and Germany leading the life of a "dirty little secret" because they sometimes add sugar?

Gilbert
Gilbert

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Gilbert
Gilbert

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Circle S Vineyards
Circle S Vineyards

We've been growing Mediterranean varietals in our Centerville, Texas vineyards and producing the wines in our Sugar Land, Texas location for over a dozen years now. As most growers have discovered they do very well here in Texas. We just this week released our 2009 Nebbiolo. Lots of Texas wineries fight the same battle; customers only know "Cab" or "Merlot" so then the education process begins.

Patrick Davies
Patrick Davies

This story is misleading. Texas is not alone in using "chemicals" like Tartaric Acid. Which, by the way, is not some inorganically derived petroleum or otherwise based nasty thing. Tartaric acid is the acid that makes up over 90% of a grapes total organic acid content. And,as decreed by federal law, it must be derived from grapes and not produced through chemical reactions of non-grape material. Most, if not all, is produced in the US or Europe. Also, From Walla-walla all the way down to Temecula and everywhere in-between, Tartaric Acid is used in ABUNDANCE. California, Washington, Oregon and yes Texas. In addition, Naturally occurring yeast is seldom the case. One will find that in brand new vineyards, with a brand new winery... there is nothing natural that will properly convert grape juice to drinkable wine. Usually what happens is after a few years of standard winemaking, the wine cellar starts building up cultures of cross-bred wine yeasts, derived from the multitude of "pharmaceutical" grade yeasts used in prior years.

Mann Rita
Mann Rita

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SueB
SueB

Shoddy "journalism"at it's finest. Since 2009, the TX Hill Country AVA has been the third largest, not the second largest AVA in the U.S. Try some research!

Gentry June
Gentry June

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Dustin Kalman
Dustin Kalman

This is something I've known for a while. We need more grapes grown in Texas and they have to be the RIGHT grapes. The only problem I have with this article is that it makes it sound like Haak doesn't buy any grapes from outside of Texas. They have and I believe they still do but since they properly label & market their wines, I have no problem with this practice.

Joe Pat Clayton
Joe Pat Clayton

I've been telling Texas winemakers for years, grow the right grapes for the terroir. Wine should be about passion, unfortunately a good portion of the people that decide to start a winery project in Texas underestimate the business side of the wine industry and follow the Pied Piper of the same ol' varietals that grow everywhere else. It takes people that believe in what they are doing, like Mr. Dixon and Dr. Duchman, to go tie on a flour sack cape and jump off the barn. Sometimes you land in soft hay, sometimes you land in horse

Jeff Cope
Jeff Cope

Russ made some very good points with the need for accepting grapes other than the norm. This article was interesting as we just got back from our first trip to the High Plains. It concerns me as apparently the wineries are deceiving the consumers. For example, on our visit to Llano Estacado when asked what percentage of TX grapes they use, replied 90%. Reading this article, it's just the opposite where it said 90% are out of state. We met up with quite a few grape growers in the High Plains. For a long time I have heard that Texas just doesn't grow enough grapes requiring the wineries to go out of state for fruit. I asked more than one grape grower why that was the case when there is plenty of unplanted land owned by the vineyards in the High Plains. The answer by all was pointing the finger back at the wineries with answers such as they are not able to accept more grapes or are not able to handle the capacity for production. If the need was there, they would gladly plant more. But if there isn't anybody ready to accept the extra grapes, it is a loss on the grape grower's part. I look forward to the day when we have no problem in finding a 100% grown Texas wine. Jeff Cope

Russ Kane
Russ Kane

Just read this, but it fits with this story: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." - T.S. Elliot

Russ Kane
Russ Kane

Good pentrating view of the Texas wine industry and its challenges. You've highlighted an important aspect that needs to be handled before a major ramp up in production of Texas grapes can possibly fulfill demand. The grapes for Texas have to want to grow here. This is actually a very simple concept, but with a complicated path as it will likely not include the most commonly known grapes in the American wine lexicon. Texas winegrowers are still in the hunt for their wine grapes with some good successes with Blanc Du Bois, Vermentino, Tempranillo, Aglianico, Viognier and Roussanne. They have started producing award winning wines at the International level. However, effort now needs focus on making these wines dependably, economically and sustainably year in and year out. And, of course, working to get the word out that great wines can be made from grapes other than Cab, Merlot, Chard and Pinot. Once this happens, investment will follow and expansion in vineyards will eventually meet the demand as it has in all of the other wine producting regions. However, it may take 10, 30 or over 100 years just as it has in other wine producing regions around the world. However, 10-20 fits my timeline and lifetime and I'm enjoying the variety as the experiments continue. Cheers, Russ Kane

 
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