Today's Cover Story on the Texas Wine Industry
See our slideshow of Texas wines and wineries.
In the piece, we take a hard look at the challenges that Texas winemakers face.
Many of our readers will be surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of fruit that is bottled and sold as Texas wine is actually grown beyond our state's borders. Some of it even comes from South America and Europe.
Over the course of my research and the many interviews I conducted, one of the most interesting and surprising conversations was with one of the most colorful growers and bottlers in Texas, Paul Bonarrigo, owner and winemaker at Messina Hof. He spoke earnestly and frankly about the challenges he faces -- as a grower, winemaker, bottler, and marketer of his products. While his customers demand Pinot Grigio, he said, there simply isn't enough of the grape variety grown in the state to quench their thirst. This is due to the fact that the variety was only planted here a few years ago.
He also told me about one of the creative ways he retains acidity in his wines without resorting to the crutch of acidification -- a foregone conclusion for most Texas winemakers.
Unlike many growers who allow their fruit to achieve the highest sugar levels possible, he picks his High Plains white grapes very early in the ripening process. As a result, they still have enough acidity to make wines without the use of chemical acidulation. And to compensate for the high sugar levels (that would result in excessive alcohol), he arrests fermentation using sophisticated micro filters (filtering out the active yeast). It's a method that Sicilian winemakers employ: Like their Texan counterparts, growers in Sicily have to deal with extreme heat during ripening (the heat causes the sugar level to rise rapidly as acidity declines during maturation). I was impressed by his openness and honesty, and although I can't say that I am a fan of the wines, I admire his chutzpah, as they say where I grew up. In the end, he manages to deliver his wines to market without the crutch of acidification. There is no denying that he is a pioneer in a still youthful industry.
Texas wine authority Russ Kane recently published a narrative guide to the wines of Texas that stands apart in my mind as the first serious monograph on the subject (The Wine Slinger Chronicles, Texas Tech).
"For the Texas wine industry to succeed," he said, "wineries need to look to Europe [and in particular Champagne], where winemakers don't always have a 'vintage' year and where they make blends, with different grape varieties, depending on which grapes performed well and where they can even blend different vintages together."
"Napa Valley," he added, "with the Pacific Ocean as its [weather] stabilizer, isn't the model they should be using."
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