Grape and Pillage

When the University of Texas System began chain-sawing its research vineyard near Fort Stockton, vintners across the state responded with a fine whine.

BEER AND WHISKEY ARE PART of Texas folklore, but wine flowed on the frontier long before Lone Star did. Franciscan padres planted the first vineyards near El Paso in 1662, more than one hundred years before they cultivated grapes in California. At the turn of the century, Texas boasted more than two dozen wineries. Prohibition wiped out all but one—Del Rio’s Val Verde Winery, which survived by selling table grapes—but the wine industry bounced back, and today Texas has 27 wineries and almost 3,200 acres, mainly in the prime grape-growing regions around Lubbock, Fort Stockton, the Hill Country, and Dallas—Fort Worth. Commercial growers raise more than forty varieties of wine grapes in Texas, but Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most prevalent. Some farmers in the High Plains even plant grapes as a sideline to traditional crops like wheat and cotton. As of this summer, Texas was fifth in the nation among all premium-grape states, behind California (392 million gallons of wine produced a year versus our 1.2 million), New York, Washington, and Oregon.

Texas, however, is gaining on its rivals. Or at least it should be. Demand is building for Texas wines—once sneered at as Château Bubba, they’re winning more gold medals than ever at national competitions, even beating out California wines—and many Texas wineries in the state can’t get enough grapes. The problem is that recruiting new growers and teaching existing ones how to improve their harvests take time and research. It may be fifteen to twenty years before vines reach maturity and years before a vineyard breaks even, so no one can risk planting the wrong type of grape. Grape growing is a technical enterprise that requires the right irrigation, pruning, grafting, pest control, and harvesting techniques. Many growers, especially small ones, have relied in the past on state universities for such research, but that’s no longer possible because of budget cuts. And unlike some other states, Texas provides no direct funds to the wine industry for research, education, and promotion—even though the industry contributes almost $2 million a year in state excise and sales taxes and wineries and wine festivals are big tourist attractions. The result is that Texas added only eleven new acres of grapes last year, when vintners say it needs thousands more to stay competitive. “We have to double our acreage in Texas just to meet our demands in the next several years,” says Paul Bonarrigo, the owner of Bryan’s Messina Hof Wine Cellars. “Vineyards are going to be the lifeblood of our future.”

That’s why the so-called Grape Texas Chain Saw Massacre came as such a shock to winemakers like Bonarrigo. Earlier this year the University of Texas System decided to shut down its twenty-acre experimental vineyard and nursery near Fort Stockton because, UT System officials say, they cost too much to operate—between $200,000 and $250,000 a year—and had outlived their usefulness. So in August they got out the chain saws. Three acres of fifteen-year-old vines were cut down before angry growers, winery owners, and state senator Frank Madla of San Antonio intervened. “This was a humongous surprise,” says Lisa Allen, the executive director of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. “They had some of the oldest vines in Texas out there and some that aren’t found anywhere else.” Cord Switzer, whose family owns Fredericksburg Winery, was so angry he drove out to the vineyard and retrieved one of the toppled vines, which now hangs in his tasting room beneath a sign that reads “I’m Dead Thanks to the University of Texas System.” “This is a resource that should belong to the state,” Switzer grouses. “Our mission is education,” replies Mike Millsap, the UT System’s vice chancellor for governmental relations, “and we felt those dollars could be better spent elsewhere.”

When the UT System started the experimental vineyard back in 1975, the idea was to see what kinds of grapes could be grown in Texas and what quality of wine they might produce. A small experimental winery in Midland turned the test grapes into wines that the UT System bottled for taste-testing purposes. By the eighties, UT System officials believed the experiment had proved that good grapes could be grown commercially in a dry, cool climate. The University of Texas System had always drawn income on its 2.1 million acres of public land in West Texas mainly from oil and gas and grazing lease payments and royalties, which went into the state’s Permanent University Fund and paid for such UT System programs as minority recruitment and new construction, but now there was the potential to make money off of wine too. In 1981, the UT System began planting what would eventually be a 1,000-acre vineyard six miles west of the experimental one, built a winery, contracted with a wine consortium to operate it, and began producing wine under the Ste. Genevieve label. In 1987, after financial problems beset the consortium, the UT System leased the vineyard to a new operator, Domaine Cordier USA, the American arm of the giant French vintner Domaine Cordier, which also bought the winery. (A separate company, Cordier Estates, leases the winery building, buys the grapes from Domaine Cordier, and produces and markets wine.) The deal was and continues to be a money-maker for the UT System. In addition to the lease payment, the UT System gets an 8 percent royalty on gross sales of Ste. Genevieve wine, the state’s best-selling brand.

During this period of activity, the UT System retained ownership of the experimental vineyard, whose findings benefited the makers of not only Ste. Genevieve but also those of other wines. Private vintners and growers around the state say the test vineyard shared valuable research over the years on pruning and grafting vines, disease, and insect control, and that the University of Texas System sold them high-quality root stock from its nursery. Some vintners also bought grapes from the test vineyard. But UT System officials say the test vineyard didn’t generate much income and was

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