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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.

"We at Duchman have focused on varietals that maybe people don't recognize or know how to pronounce but grow well here," says Dave Reilly, head winemaker for the Hill Country vineyard owned by Houston celebrity cardiologist Stan Duchman. "We don't make wines that people have heard of, but that people enjoy. Texas is not a Cabernet state, or a Merlot or a Chardonnay. What we realized is that the consumer is chomping at the bit to try something new — they're willing to try something better."

That something better costs more — up to $40 or $50 a bottle — mostly because Duchman, like Becker Vineyards, works with the best growers in the state to produce their grapes and rarely purchases less expensive grapes from California or South America, where workers in places like Chile and Argentina are paid only $8 a day to harvest grapes. Instead, Reilly and his predecessor at Duchman — the recently deceased and greatly admired Mark Penna — took risks on varietals like "Dolcetto, Trebbiano, Vermentino that weren't at all commercially planted if at all in Texas."

But it's not all adventurous winemakers, says Reilly: "I also credit the growers like the Binghams who'll go out on a limb and take a risk. It's been great for their business and for ours. There are more and more Texas wineries going after them to grow their grapes." And as more Texas wineries purchase better-suited grapes, simple economics means that more growers will step up to supply the wineries, and the cost of these expensive grapes — and our expensive wines — will gradually go down.

Haak Vineyards in Santa Fe thrives on the humid Gulf Coast due in part to the varietals it chooses to grow.
Katharine Shilcutt
Haak Vineyards in Santa Fe thrives on the humid Gulf Coast due in part to the varietals it chooses to grow.
Katharine Shilcutt

Until then, Reilly says, the game is on to make better wines than anyone else — no more "me-too wines" but wines like the Blanc du Bois from Haak Vineyards or the Port from Messina Hof that showcase our natural climate and terrain. And that means learning from California's viticulture practices, not simply importing its grapes.

"The only thing we can do is take the Napa approach," says Reilly. "Make a product that's better than everybody else's so that we can justify the cost. Sure, our wines cost more than those from Argentina, but ours are better. And the price per ton will come down as more and more people want to live the dream and move out and plant a vineyard."

And one day, says Reilly, "the quality will matter" to consumers as much as the fact that the wine is from Texas. He already sees that changing attitude in the people who visit the Duchman estate, which sprawls across the rambling, shrubby hills southwest of Austin. "The consumer now is not just buying because it's Texas," Reilly says. "They're going to find the one that they like and only buy that one.

"The quality producers will continue to rise, and others will have to rise to the occasion or get out of the game. A rising tide raises all ships."

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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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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