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.

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."

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."

"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."

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.

Kim McPherson, one of the state's most beloved and respected winemakers and a son of one of the industry's founders, painfully concedes: "In 2011, only about 20 percent of my [flagship] viognier was sourced from Texas vineyards," with the balance from California. "When your wine is sold in supermarkets and your distributors expect you to deliver the wine every year, there's no other way."

And in the case of our state's largest winemaker, Ste. Genevieve, producer of under-$10, "supermarket-friendly" wines, only a "drop in the bucket" comes from Texas farms, says French-born wine expert Benedict Rhyne.

But in a twist, says Rhyne, not all of it comes from California — some of it comes from as far away as Spain and Chile, equally arid growing regions that Texas should be looking to in order to learn how to grow and make better wine, not purchase grapes on the cheap to blend here into bad table wine.

Although Mark Hyman, vice president of sales and marketing for Llano Estacado — producer of two under-$20 Chardonnays — declined on two occasions to reveal the percentage of out-of-state fruit bottled by the company, a leading industry insider (who spoke on condition of anonymity) estimates that up to 90 percent of the winery's overall production is sourced beyond the Texas border.

Llano Estacado also produces a superb "reserve" Tempranillo made from 100 percent High Plains fruit. At around $20 retail, the label represents one of the state's best efforts in terms of its drinkability, varietal typicity and price-quality ratio. But when you must consistently deliver "approximately 168,000 cases a year at present, making us the largest premium winery in the state," as Hyman wrote in an e-mail, you simply have to look beyond Texas when it comes to the bottom line.

Although the Extension Service's Westover would disagree — saying diplomatically that "each region has its own unique aspects" — Bobby Cox, recently installed president of the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, puts it succinctly: "Ninety-nine percent of Texas is unsuited to [fine wine] grape growing."

The challenge lies not only in identifying the right spots (Westover estimates that only 25 percent of the sites he inspects for potential winegrowers are suitable), but also in identifying the right varietals to grow here. In places like Chile and Spain, those grapes are Tempranillo and Mourvèdre — grapes that will grow well here if only big wineries would stop focusing on better-known but far less suitable Chardonnays and Cabernets. This kind of whittling down of varietals is something that other countries (and even U.S. states) have done for years.

"The French planted every kind of variety that they could find hundreds of years ago," says Raymond Haak. "The answer to the question, 'How do you sculpt an elephant out of a one-ton block of granite?' is very easy: You just chip away everything that's not elephant. That's what you do with wine.

"You take away everything that's not producing great wines — and that's what the French did, and they look like geniuses now. It just took 'em a couple hundred years to get there."

Texas doesn't have a couple hundred years to get there, though, with wine consumption becoming increasingly popular both in the U.S. and around the world. If we want to compete on an international level, Texas needs to grow different varietals and better grapes. Better grapes means less chemical correction in the cellars after the fact — adding tartaric acid, for example, to reduce the flabbiness in wines that comes from the heat burning off grapes' acidity on the vine — and more terroir, that ineffable and highly desired sense of tasting the very soil in which a grape was grown.

As it stands now, almost all Texas winemakers chemically correct their wines. "When people ask me whether or not I acidify my wines," said one of the state's leading winemakers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "I answer by saying, 'This is Texas.'"

Even in the Texas High Plains in the Panhandle, where cooler temperatures make the AVA the top growing area in the state, the grueling summer heat generally makes acidification of wine a foregone conclusion. Except where Lewis Dickson is concerned.

Dickson — an expat Houstonian — runs the La Cruz de Comal winery, where the criminal defense attorney-turned-"natural" winemaker produces "courageous" bottlings, as writer and natural-wine authority Alice Feiring once told a reporter. It's an entirely different world from the days he spent defending such colorful subjects as cross-dressing "millionaire murderer" Robert Durst (accused of killing and dismembering his Galveston neighbor), Texas politician Tom DeLay (now a convicted felon) and some of Houston's leading drug traffickers while at the notorious Houston law firm of DeGuerin & Dickson.

But in 2001, Dickson turned his back on a jet-set lifestyle that included a full-time suite at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Houston and began growing grapes and making wine in Starzville — an improbable, however beautiful, backdrop for the production of fine wine. Under the tutelage of legendary Sonoma grower and bottler Tony Coturri, a pioneer in natural winemaking in California, Dickson grows grapes without the use of herbicides or pesticides, and he bottles his wines without the application of pharmaceutical yeasts, acidification or sulfuring — an approach virtually unthinkable for the vast majority of Texas winemakers who employ these techniques liberally.

Although the "natural wine" movement lacks any official doctrine and is splintered into often combative factions, "natural" winemakers are united in their rejection of commercial — as opposed to naturally occurring "ambient" — yeast, acidification and the addition of any other chemicals that will shape the flavor profile and mouthfeel of the wine. And while modern winemaking is virtually impossible without the use of sulfur dioxide (in racking and bottling), natural winemakers strive to use sulfur sparingly. In Dickson's case, he racks and bottles with no sulfur whatsoever. (Sulfur is commonly employed whenever wine is exposed to oxygen before bottling in order to prevent unwanted oxidation and the formation of bacteria that can spoil wine.)

It's the leading Texas wineries that are now finally shifting from the Napa model of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (traditionally grown in the coastal climate of Bordeaux), and Chardonnay (most famously grown in the cool climate of Burgundy) toward Mediterranean varieties like Italian Vermentino and Aglianico (as in the case of Duchman Family Winery) and grapes grown traditionally in Spain and the Rhône Valley of France (as in the case of McPherson and Becker).

But Dickson attributes his ability to make additive-free wines to the fact that he grows cultivars well suited to the challenges of Texas winemaking.

For his flagship white wine, he uses Blanc du Bois, the same grape as Raymond Haak. It's a hybrid created by University of Florida researchers and first used for commercial wine production in 1987, developed with the intention of providing a variety resistant to Pierce's Disease (Xylella fastidiosa) and its carrier, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which represent a potentially devastating plague native to the southeastern U.S. Its berries are naturally high in acidity, allowing Dickson to maintain healthy acidity levels in the wine without acidification despite the oppressive heat of the Texas summer.

For a new monovarietal red he plans to release in the future, he will use Black Spanish, a variety grown in Texas since 1889 that's naturally high in acidity and naturally resistant to Pierce's Disease, possibly as the result of spontaneous genetic mutation. The high level of naturally occurring acidity in the must pressed from these grapes, notes Dickson, not only makes it possible to forgo acidification, it also acts as a natural preservative, thus allowing him to bottle without the use of sulfur.

But Dickson's extreme approach to viticulture means that his wines are expensive — around $35 to $40 a bottle retail. And he's not alone in this problem. The few really excellent wines in Texas tend to be somewhat pricey — and that's an issue Texas will continue to struggle with for at least the next decade.

Beyond Dickson's approach, there are other ways to deliver quality in Texas wine without the crutch of acidification — and without the associated costs that are ultimately passed down to the consumer.

Bronx-born Sicilian-American Paul Bonarrigo, who sources much of the fruit for his Messina Hof winery from the High Plains, has his vineyard managers pick the grapes earlier than most growers. As a result, they are still high in acidity, although low in sugar. For his Texas-grown Chenin Blanc and his Riesling, for example, he arrests fermentation through the use of sophisticated microfilters that remove the active yeast, thus retaining enough sugar to produce "semisweet" expressions of the raw material.

Bonarrigo is one of the industry's most colorful characters, a brilliant marketer who credits the millennial generation's taste for wine and a burgeoning locavore movement for the wild success of his labels. His semisweet wines are highly popular with consumers in Texas (the fourth-largest in wine consumption in the U.S., says industry chronicler Russ Kane, author of a 2011 narrative guide to the wines of Texas, The Wine-Slinger Chronicles). Even Houston wine legend Bear Dalton, longtime fine wine buyer for Spec's, is a devoted fan of the Messina Riesling and its so-called "Port" and "Sherry."

But beyond our state's borders, where semisweet wines are considered a relic of the past and where wine enthusiasts increasingly favor dry, food-friendly wines, do wine experts and the wine-industry media take our wines seriously? And in a globalized world where wine lovers have access to immense value in fine wine thanks to the widespread availability of wines from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the many wine-producing countries in the New World, where price-quality ratio is virtually unbeatable, are Texas winemakers exploiting Texans' love of homegrown (or at least home-bottled) alcohol while delivering highly manipulated products often sourced from other wine-growing regions but labeled as "Texas wine"? Perhaps now, but that's not how the future of Texas wines is shaping up; we can be fooled for only so long.

In the meantime, making semisweet wines is one way to keep costs down and interest in Texas wines high. But when you're talking about making the kinds of wines found at Duchman Family Wineries — where its critically acclaimed Vermentino and Aglianico have taken the Texas wine world by storm — making inexpensive wine gets a lot more difficult. That's because you get what you pay for. (Disclosure: Co-author Jeremy Parzen writes for the Duchman Web site's blog; he did not interview anyone associated with the winery for the purposes of this story.)

"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.

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."


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