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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.

Haak reserves even less praise for other varietals."We're in a warm state and we're trying to grow Pinot Noir?" he laughs. "Come on."

"I'm gonna get shot at by my colleagues, but...I've tasted Texas Pinot Noirs. And some of it is pretty good. But as I said earlier, we can't make 'pretty good.' If you want to make a Pinot Noir, you'd better be ready to compete worldwide. And I think we're handicapped severely if we don't choose the varietals that match the terroir."

The biggest problem, Haak says, is that people both in and outside of Texas experienced our initial forays into winemaking and formed their opinions — most of them poor — early on. "We had some pretty bad to mediocre wines, and a lot of folks tasted them, trying to be local to Texas products," he says. "Now we've gotten better, but folks have memories like elephants. That's what we're trying to overcome."

Katharine Shilcutt
Raymond Haak, owner of Haak Vineyards, knows that in order for the Texas wine industry to be internationally successful, "We can't just be good winemakers; we have to be great winemakers."
Katharine Shilcutt
Raymond Haak, owner of Haak Vineyards, knows that in order for the Texas wine industry to be internationally successful, "We can't just be good winemakers; we have to be great winemakers."

"For us to continue to grow and be successful," Haak says — for Texas to attract the attention of the national and international wine communities — "we can't be just good winemakers. We've gotta be great winemakers. Mediocrity is not going to get it done. There's already too many me-too wines in the world."
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Although grapes have always grown in Texas, as they have in much of the world, the first commercially successful wineries began in earnest in the late 1970s. That's when the Sandy Land Grape Growers Association was established in 1974 by Clint McPherson, Robert Reed and Roy Mitchell. A year later, both Lubbock and Fredericksburg were already beginning to be known as Texas wine centers — and the two towns still are to this day, acting as de facto capitals of the High Plains AVA and the Hill Country AVA, respectively.

Before that, the Val Verde Winery in Del Rio — established by an Italian immigrant, Frank Qualia, in 1883 — thrived until Pierce's Disease wiped out a significant portion of the vines. In a prescient move, the winery converted its crops to LeNoir — another disease-resistant grape that grows well in Texas — and, as a result, endured even through the testing times of Prohibition. Today it's managed by Qualia's grandson, the third generation to carry on Frank Qualia's legacy.

But though stories such as Val Verde's may make it seem so, there's nothing particularly romantic about starting a winery. It's just business.

"You put an acre of vines in the ground, it's close to $15,000 an acre," says Fritz Westover, the viticulture extension program specialist for the Texas Gulf Coast Region of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. "With a commercial vineyard, you're not even breaking even until year six or seven, best-case scenario — not something for the weary."

One of Westover's roles with the Extension Service is running workshops for prospective winegrowers — half of whom, he says, leave the workshops after the lunch break. "It's way more work than they thought it would be and way more expensive up front. You have to buy the land and the tractor and drill a well and put up deer fencing." And that's before the grapes are even planted.

From there, Westover says, prepare for a life of hard, labor-intensive work to grow a crop that will eventually yield a decent batch of wine. "You physically have to touch each vine six or seven times in the growing season — and you're talking about 800 vines per acre, with 50 acres total." It's easy to see why hobbyists can get turned off by a decidedly unbucolic retirement spent babying acre after acre of temperamental vines.

And yet it's these very hobbyists who've started the touristy vineyards and wineries that dot the rolling hills west of Austin. On a pretty spring day, you'll find the vineyards filled with wine lovers who have driven down the winding roads punctuated with billboards inviting them to "sit, relax and enjoy," luring them in with a taste of "Tuscany in Texas."

On a picturesque corridor of U.S. Highway 290, the winery tasting rooms are rivaled only by the occasional fruit stand, antique store and barbecue shack: The Hill Country "Texas Wine Trail" has become the epicenter of the state's billion-dollar wine industry despite the fact that our leading wineries and top growing sites — in terms of both quality and quantity — lie a six-hour drive to the north near Lubbock. Serious winemakers call these Hill Country wines "novelty wines," even though many of the growers behind the wineries have been in the business for generations.

One of the most recent operations to set up shop here is the Four Point O "winery," a smart, modern-style venue and a joint venture between Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery and McPherson Cellars — the same family that helped launch the Texas viticulture industry in the 1970s.

"We want there to be a second Napa in Texas," says Sylvia McPherson, her teeth gleaming in the warm and fuzzy welcome video that greets visitors in the opulent private dining room set apart from the sleek tasting bar. And there is a second Napa in Texas. Sort of. If you consider the fact that most of the wines coming out of these wineries were made with California-grown fruit.

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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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