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Category Archives: Regional wine

Texas wine at the crossroads, one year later

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Texas wineAnd, apparently, not much has changed with Texas wine a year after I wrote: “Has Texas wine reached a plateau, where quality isn’t going to get any better given the state’s resources and climate? Or is something else going on?”

That was my conclusion after a couple of days tasting wine and moderating a Texas wine panel in the Hill Country last week. The day before I left, a Texas winemaker (who has told me I’m an idiot) took to the Internet to criticize almost everyone else who disagreed with him. During my visit, a winery owner told me I knew nothing about wine, Texas wine, and the ugni blanc grape, my Gascon favorite that is starting to be grown in Texas. And the wine during those couple of days? Mostly, and sadly, ordinary. At worst, it brought back memories of the bad old days in the late 1990s.

What’s going on? Why is this happening? Much of it has to do with the state’s wine success over the past decade — more wineries, better quality, and increased recognition here and elsewhere as part of the local wine movement. There are more wineries making better wine than ever before, using the grapes best-suited for the state’s terroir, and it’s easier to buy quality Texas wine than it has ever been — even grocery stores sell it.

But that success has led to other, less welcome, developments: First, people getting into the wine business not because they particularly care about wine, but because it’s a successful business and they don’t understand that wine is more than a business. Second, as the Texas wine business has changed, not everyone has changed with it, and many of those people are bitter and angry about the changes.

U.S. Hwy. 290 in the Hill Country had a couple of wineries when I started writing about Texas wine some 20 years ago. There are more than a dozen today, and applications for almost two dozen more. Ignoring for the moment whether there is enough business to support that many, we can’t ignore that there aren’t enough grapes. As Houston wine writer Ron Saikowski pointed out during the seminar at Boot Ranch, there are about 8,000 acres of grapes in Texas. We need 40,000 acres to meet the demand, which means we use all the grapes grown here, regardless of quality, and make up the difference with imports, mostly from California and Washington state, and also of varying quality. The irony? As Texas wine becomes more successful, and we get more wineries, the grape shortage becomes more acute.

Which is not to say there isn’t good news. The new vintage of Becker’s Provencal rose ($17, sample, 12%) may be the best ever, and it’s usually one of the best roses in the state (and which says something about how professional wineries can make quality wine). Consumers are more knowledgeable, and so are the people who follow Texas wine. The writers on the panel — Saikowski, John Griffin of SavorSA, and Austin’s Matt McGinnis — know their stuff, and are more than capable of tracking the changes in the business and holding producers accountable. And they’re far from the only ones, also much different from the early days when there were just a couple of us.

Because, frankly, this version of Texas wine has worn me out, and it’s why I’m not judging the Lone Star competition this year. I’ve done it every year but one since they invited me 10 years ago, but I don’t see the point this time. Too many Texas producers don’t want honest criticism; they want gold medals and parades in the street, because they know how much better they are than everyone else. That’s not the way I do business, and anyone who is honest with themselves shouldn’t, either.

 

Civil War wine: What we drank 150 years ago

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Civil War wineThe Wine Curmudgeon will be in East Texas over the weekend doing a freelance piece about Civil War re-enactments. This means two things: First, very little wine for three days, because East Texas is both rural and still dry in many places (which offers the prospect of going cold turkey). Second, though the U.S. was not a wine drinking country 150 years ago — we drank twice as much beer and 20 times as much spirits as wine — there was a thriving wine industry.

The heart of Civil War wine country was the Ohio River near Cincinnati, and its Robert Mondavi was a lawyer named Nicholas Longworth. As with all American wine pioneers, from Thomas Jefferson to Mondavi, everyone thought he was crazy, but for some 40 years Longworth produced quality wine despite the difficulties of grape and terroir. His best wines, including a semi-sweet sparkling, were made with catawba, a native hybrid grape that needs to be sugared to overcome its flavor flaws, and the Ohio River Valley is too humid and too hospitable to grape pests and diseases for long-term success.

But by 1860, Ohio made one-third of the country’s wine, Longworth farmed 2,000 acres of grapes (by comparison, we have just 8,000 in Texas today), and produced almost 10,000 cases in a country where the total production was probably less than 100,000 cases.

In the end, the difficulties caught up with Longworth. Diseases, including powdery mildew, destroyed the vines, and the Civil War took care of the rest. The area saw some fighting, which is never conducive to grape growing, but more importantly, there was no one left to pick grapes after the work force went off to fight the war.

Longworth, though, turned out to be more than footnote in U.S. history. His law practice, as well as his real estate speculations, made him one of the richest men in the 19th century U.S. His great-grandson, Nicholas III, became speaker of the House of Representatives and married Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest child and of whom T.R. said: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

Local wine, local food

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local wineThe Wine Curmudgeon, despite his good intentions and his advocacy of all things local, is not perfect. Even the co-founder of Drink Local Wine sometimes forgets that local wine goes with local food.

Case in point: A recent dinner with pork shoulder rubbed with cumin and coriander, roasted with garlic. onions, and peppers, and served with guacamole and black beans. So, like the wine snobs and dilettantes that I spend so much time excoriating, I bought a French wine, a white from the Rhone, to drink with it.

What a maroon.

I live in Texas. I have been advocating Texas wine for Texas-style food for almost three decades. So why did I buy a French wine made with viognier when when we make some of the best viognier in the world in Texas?

Like I said, what a maroon.

It’s not so much that the white Rhone was overpriced and under-qualified. Even if it had been better made, it didn’t have the bright apricot and peach fruit to stand up to the pork the way a Texas viognier (Brennan, McPherson, and Pedernales among many others) would have. And it was heavier, as well, with an unpleasant oiliness, both qualities that didn’t complement the pork’s spiciness and something the best Texas viogniers don’t have. Ours are lighter and more crisp, which gives them an affinity for something as rich as the pork shoulder.

So the next time you opt for safe instead of local, know that you’re making the same mistake that I did. Just be willing to admit it, and do the right the next time.

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