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Is Texas wine at a crossroads?

Texas wineTexas wine may be approaching a crossroads, something that was evident during the 31st annual Lone Star International wine competition this week. That’s because some of the best wines at the competition weren’t Texas, but included California wines sold by Texas producers. Which is not supposed to be the point of what we’re doing here.

Years ago, when a lot of Texas wine left much to be desired, what happened this week wasn’t unusual. Or, as I told the competition organizer when I first judged Lone Star in 2005, “Give us better wines, and we’ll give you gold medals.”

Given the revolution in Texas wine quality and production over the past decade, I had hoped those days were gone. But the uneven quality of many of the wines I judged, this year and last, has me wondering. 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?

After the jump, my take on what’s happening:

Texas wine is better than it has ever been, with more top-flight wineries making more terrific wines, and the best Texas wines at Lone Star showed that. The 2013 McPherson rose, named best rose, is everything a pink wine should be — cheap, fruity, fresh, and crisp, and all Texas. Grape Creek’s 2013 viognier, a gold medal winner, displayed classic Texas style, showing what can be done when a Texas producer has to improvise and use California grapes when there aren’t enough Texas grapes. Also impressive: the 2011 Duchman tempranillo (gold), 2013 Fall Creek sauvignon blanc (gold); and 2012 Pedernales GSM, a red blend (silver), all made with Texas fruit.

But the industry most overcome a variety of obstacles if it’s going to continue to improve:

• There are too many wineries, 300 or so, and not enough grapes, only about 4,400 acres. By comparison, Napa Valley, with 500 wineries, has 43,000 acres of grapes. That math makes consistent wine quality difficult even when the weather cooperates, since there are so few grapes to go around.

• And the weather doesn’t cooperate often enough. There were almost no Texas white wines in 2013 because a late freeze killed most of the grapes. Hence we judged relatively few 2013 Texas wines at the competition, and many of the older wines producers entered because they didn’t have 2013 wines had seen their best days.

• State money for grape and wine agricultural extension programs, which other crops have, and to encourage farmers to plant grapes, which need less water than other west Texas crops, ended in 2011, victims of Rick Perry’s political ambitions. Even many less important states do much more for their industry than Texas does.

Texas may be where California was in the 1970s, but not necessarily headed in the same direction. That’s when California was a minor part of the wine world, and carignan and not cabernet sauvignon was that state’s most planted red grape. But California transformed itself by focusing on quality, on planting the best grapes for the climate (chardonnay was also little known in California 50 years ago), and working together to sell the idea of California wine. Robert Mondavi is a legend not because he sold a lot of Mondavi wine, but because he understood that every bottle of California wine that a consumer bought, Mondavi or otherwise, benefited every winery in California.

Yes, Texas has finally figured out which grapes to grow, and quality has improved dramatically. But we need more — more research, more grapes, more marketing, and more cooperation. We need the state to take wine and its $2 billion of economic impact as seriously as it takes football. If a Dallas-areas school district can waste $60 million on a stadium that can’t be used, can’t we find the $4 million the wine industry lost in 2011? Anyone who doubts the role Texas wine plays in job creation should spend a weekend in the Texas Hill Country, where some two dozen wineries line Highway 290 and where 20 years ago there was one motel.

There are terrific wines and wineries, but there aren’t enough. We still have too many producers who figure climate doesn’t apply to them and who don’t appreciate Mondavi’s perspective. The next winery owner who says, “I like big, bold red wines, so that’s what I’m going to make here,” and which I hear constantly even though Texas is famously unsuited for big, bold red wines, should be required to taste his wines blind against similarly-priced big, bold reds from the parts of the world that are suited for them. Maybe then we can get past this crossroads.

11 Responses to Is Texas wine at a crossroads?

  1. mike@redrockestate.com' Mike Dickey says:

    From the perspective of someone wanting to grow grapes, it’s nice to have this perspective on the need for more grapes from Texas. I completely agree with your thoughts about producers trying to grow grapes and make wines from varietals not at their optimal in our Texas hot climate. Texas wine producers do themselves and the state industry as a whole a favor when they stick to showcasing the bests suited varietals in Texas. To some degree (and to RM’s point), every bottle of Texas wine sold carries with it the reputation of all of Texas wines..

  2. Hello Jeff, always appreciate your take on the status of Texas wine, since your view of the national and regional/local wine landscape has so many reference points.

    I am on a tasting panel for the new Texas Wine Journal, and we are tasting Texas-based (aka 75%+ Texas Grapes) wines blind, as a panel, by varietal or category. Our recent tasting panel of White Blends confirms your findings of quality variability. To be sure, some excellent wines that give you hope, and other wines that may be vested in hope but not much else. The other tasting done by TWJ is a “Texas vs the World” panel, where the winner of the Texas-class wine is then vetted, blind, against comparable wines of quality and critical acclaim from other states and nations. The early results from this panel also give reason to place confidence in a future of quality for Texas wines, as evidenced by William Chris Syrah results this Spring.

    As you say, the issue is volume-based quality from Texas production. There is investment in the High Plains and Hill Country AVAs, both in new acreage, improved vineyard management over existing acreage, vineyard maturity, varietal designation, and even capital investment in wind machines to fight frost (which, happily, will salvage some TX Viognier for the 2014 harvest — barring hail, hurricane and pestilence!). Keep an eye on Lost Draw Vineyards and Newsom Vineyards, to name only two, as they navigate the long winding road to volume and quality over the next decade.

    I recently tasted a 2009 Cabernet made from Newsom Vineyards grapes — they have some of the best mature cabernet vines in the state — and it was a wonderful expression of the varietal that would satisfy and impress. The 2012 Hunter from William Chris, based on 85% Merlot from a small vineyard plot, is another wine that exudes quality. Production levels are simply not at a level that extends to retail programs, so the wineries are taking advantage of the tourism interest and offering their best wines to club members.

    The good and excellent wines are out there, and there is joy in the journey to find them. But yes, we are a decade away, at least, from being able to find this level of Texas-based quality on the shelf every day at HEB. I enjoy traveling and visiting the High Plains vineyard owners as much as the wineries, because they hold one of the keys to our future. I wish them every chance for success – against the odds!

  3. nancykerschen@gmail.com' nk says:

    I’m a proud Texan (what Texan isn’t?) who makes wine in France and I really appreciated reading your article. But I think for Texas wine to really take off, in quality and in vineyard plantations, we need to stop comparing it to California. That’s one reason it has taken so long to even get noticed, too many Texan wineries trying to grow the same varietals as Napa. It could be just me, but seeing GSMs and Tempranillo coming out of the Hill Country makes much more sense than Cabs or Merlots.
    It is great to see how the industry has grown exponentially in the Lone Star State in the last 5-6 years, and hopefully it will continue to do so. Thanks again for the post.

    • Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and intelligent comments about the Texas wine post. I’ll be honest — I thought there would be some slobbering at the mouth and namecalling, mostly aimed at me.

      NK said it best: “But I think for Texas wine to really take off, in quality and in vineyard plantations, we need to stop comparing it to California.”

  4. Jeff, nearly every word you wrote about Texas would be equally valid if you substituted the name “Michigan”. I dread seeing the quantity of out-of-state fruit that will be purchased by Michigan wineries for vintage 2014, as they compensate for the vineyard devastation from last winter’s polar vortex.

    • This is a problem every regional state has, Joel, as you and I know from long experience. What has disappointed me over the past couple of years is that I thought Texas was getting past that, but the momentum that was there in the five years ago seems to have run out.

  5. What does Texas need? Yes, California has a deep reservoir of support- Ag agents, viticulturalists, winemakers, cellar helpers, UC Davis, Ftesno and Cal Poly. And they we have had more time to determine what varietals to grow and where to grow them. But where California has a true advantage is in the food and wine culture among vineyard and winery owners and their customers. I see less naive quoting of wine scores in CA compared to Texas, less name dropping and more intellectual inquiry. Less about cash flow and more about quality. In California there exists an idealism motivated from the heart.

  6. Kweichold@gmail.com' Karl Weichold says:

    I agree that the Texas wine industry needs to stop comparing itself to California, but Oregon might be a more apt and useful comparison. Both Texas and Oregon’s wine industries began in their modern iteration within 5 years of each other(late 60s/early 70s). However, Oregon’s comparative success can be attributed to a number of factors the Texas wine industry isn’t currently implementing. Oregon discovered much earlier its flagship varietals (Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris) and has planted accordingly. You don’t see too much variation in planting outside of clonal and rootstock selection and the occasional regionally trendy varietal (previously Riesling, currently Chardonnay). Academia, the state’s extension service, growers, and producers cooperated early and often in the industry’s development. Many millions of dollars from the state went into research, grants, and promotion of the Oregon wine industry. The industry was quick to attract farming and winemaking talent from established winemaking regions and highly regarded institutions. Most importantly, the industry held itself to much higher and cohesive standards than the Texas wine industry has (I’m speaking to the ambiguity that is Go Texan). As a result, it fared well quite early when pitted against its international peers and when judged by legitimate and established publications/critics. The potential in Texas may still be there. However, the industry needs consensus in winegrowing, vast improvements in marketing, more support from the state, and a means by which to attract top talent before it can expect to compete on a national or international level.

  7. dgatlin@inwoodwines.com' Dan Gatlin says:

    Jeff, I respect your skill set, but this article is a giant logical mess. You have assumed so many facts not in evidence that it would take me weeks to untangle the truths. Furthermore, this is a study in everything that is wrong with wine blogging: a small amount of truth, intertwined with provably wrong facts, mixed with many other conditional facts that may be true or untrue depending on the circumstances. Yet in a rush to make expert declarations about the future of the Texas wine industry, everything is published as fact. Everyone wants to be a prophet but nobody wants to do the difficult work of drilling down deep enough to get at the (often ugly) reality.

    So here’s the take-away: You cannot make any predictions about the future of the Texas wine industry based on the wines you find on your store shelves today. How can that be? Well, this is a little technical, but stay with me: I say often, “Making a great wine is like a long string of falling dominoes. If one domino falls out of place, the process is lost at that point and the result is some fraction of what the final wine should have been.” At least 85% of all Texas wine made today is screwed up. On the other side, of course, it doesn’t take much for a domino to fall sideways, which is why we have to be very, very specific and apply our best critical thinking skills when we talk about Texas wines.

    Great wines are, and always have been, made from great grapes. But the vast majority of Texas vineyards are poorly situated, planted to the wrong varietals, planted to the wrong clones of the wrong varietals, have the wrong trellis systems, have poorly managed canopies (common in warmer areas where vigor is high), have bad water management, excessive pesticide programs, are not, or are incorrectly, netted where loss of the highest value fruit is devastating and are incorrectly evaluated at harvest. That doesn’t even address the elephant in the room which is ridiculously excessive crop loads.

    Furthermore, all of the foregoing taken together is not even 25% of the total problem: The vast majority of Texas vineyard owners and even wineries either don’t care about, or have little to no understanding of, the phenolic ripening process including but not limited to, the production of anthocyanins, the degradation of tannins, the proper retention of anti-oxidants and how these items are matrixed with plant stress. On top of all that, I have not even started into winery operations…I will not even dare to go there.

    Now, back to those store shelves…when you solve for all of the variables I have listed above, (and many more which I have not listed), THEN and Only Then, can you draw accurate conclusions about a Texas wine. So here’s what usually happens: your average Joe Consumer pushing his shopping cart in Spec’s buys a Texas wine (or, a wine from any other undeveloped wine region, like say, Uruguay for example, where there is not widespread knowledge about local quality), takes it home and has a ho-hum experience. From that he concludes that his wine is a representative slice of the quality of Texas (or other) wines, which it is not true because there is an 85% chance it is screwed up as a direct result of any of the other reasons listed above. All too often he just says, “Well, I guess it’s just too hot in Texas for good wine” because that’s what the Californians have programmed him to believe. Here’s the really sad part: at least half of the Texas Sommeliers believe the same thing(!), and are completely unaware of the other “dominoes”, and are unwilling to expend enough energy to ask the right questions. It’s easier just to agree with the conventional wisdom and keep the Californians happy.

    Now what happens when a Texas winery actually makes a good wine in the other 15%? They can sell it at their Tasting Room in a heartbeat. It probably never sees distribution unless (like Inwood) they want to allocate a small portion for brand building. That’s why you cannot draw any conclusions from wines on shelves today (assuming they are even Texas grapes).

    You want to know where the future of the Texas wine industry is? It’s in the laboratories of the top 8 or 10 wineries right now. The prototypes out there make your prognostications about the Texas wine future look silly. Be patient. Don’t draw conclusions by assuming facts not yet in evidence. Don’t be silly. Dan Gatlin, Inwood Estates

  8. timideas@bellsouth.net' Tim McNally says:

    Gosh, Dan, I’m no expert in Texas wines (we don’t get many of them next door in New Orleans) but from what I read in your comments, and what I saw a few days ago in Jeff’s observations, you folks are not that far apart in your views of the same topic.

    As a wine writer myself I’m fully understanding of the challenges faced by wineries in Texas, as outlined by you two feet-on-the-ground experts.

    The root problem (pardon the pun)is that grapes only give us one result a year. When something has to be worked out, like location, vine stock, process in the winery, etc., you only know it once a year. Then when the winemaker/vineyard manager makes the modification, the next year is something completely different in terms of climate experience.

    I think Jeff hit the nail squarely on the head in that some Texas winemakers have not yet found the ideal for their situation. If there is a “rich target” year where all matters come together to affirm all the processes and ingredients, then at least you know the goal is achievable. But just because someone says plant this in that spot and then do this, does not mean it can ever really happen that way. The West Coast is rich with stories of winemakers who were told something by the gang at UC Davis or Fresno, then embraced the advice only to find out in real-world experience that the “experts” were wrong.

    So, I think that’s the point I took from Jeff’s comments, and from yours also, Dan. This work in progress, which is the development of the Texas wine industry, is only going to succeed if everyone remains in motion, curious, and flexible. Oh, and someone has to be willing to say that the entire episode was for naught and now we have to start over with a new location, new grapes, and new ideas.

    You can talk to those growers who 25 years ago thought the Salinas Valley was going to be as good for wine grapes as it was for asparagus, lettuce, and garlic. Those vines are still in the neighborhood but they are now up on the hillsides in Sta. Rita Highlands.

    Again, Texas wines are not my forte. However in the process of creating a new industry, some people will hit the solution very early, while others may never get the idea that “this is simply not going to work.” And that brings us to Jeff’s conclusions. Crossroads.

  9. “Yet in a rush to make expert declarations about the future of the Texas wine industry, everything is published as fact.” Yes, there is some evidence of this!

    Case in point:

    “At least 85% of all Texas wine made today is screwed up.”

    “But the vast majority of Texas vineyards are poorly situated, planted to the wrong varietals, planted to the wrong clones of the wrong varietals, have the wrong trellis systems, have poorly managed canopies (common in warmer areas where vigor is high), have bad water management, excessive pesticide programs, are not, or are incorrectly, netted where loss of the highest value fruit is devastating and are incorrectly evaluated at harvest.”

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