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.

November 1997By Comments

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 a drain on its budget.

Initially, the plan was to convert the test vineyard into more-profitable graze land, but once Senator Madla and the others stepped in, UT System officials agreed to maintain it and the nursery until they could find someone to take them over. And that, according to vice chancellor Millsap, is where things stand today. Texas A&M University, which operates five acres of experimental vineyards near Lubbock, is thinking about running the UT System vineyard too. Texas Tech University also has been mentioned, but its academic emphasis is wine marketing, not production; anyway, Tech has had to dismantle one of its own test vineyards because of a lack of funds. Private wineries have offered to lease the vineyard—Switzer says his Fredericksburg Winery offered $3,000 a year plus 6 percent of the sales generated by wine produced from the vineyard’s grapes—but UT System officials have rebuffed them. No matter who ends up in control of the vineyard, Madla wants to find some way to keep it running until he can push for funding in the next legislative session. “It’s a huge mistake to just plow under twenty years of research,” he says, “when we’re just now on the verge of competing with California.”

In fact, while California still controls about 80 percent of the national wine market and Texans still drink mostly California and French wine, more Texans are discovering Texas wine each year. In 1996 about 8 percent of all premium wine (wine sold in standard bottles and 1.5 liter sizes, not jug or box wine) came from Texas wineries, according to the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech; in 1990 it was only 4 percent. And most of the wine made in Texas—about 96 percent—gets sipped here. “I believe we could double production in the next two years and easily sell that amount,” says Tim Dodd, the institute’s director. Winemakers, meanwhile, say Texas wineries are getting better at making a consistent, high-quality product. “Five or six years ago our own wine tasted bad and was overpriced,” says Leonard Garcia, the president of Cordier Estates, which has changed Ste. Genevieve’s blending, packaging, and pricing. Today Ste. Genevieve’s national reputation as a reasonably priced wine is growing, and so are its sales. In 1992, for instance, the winery sold about 44,000 cases; this year it will sell close to 350,000.

Demand for Texas wine, though, is outstripping the grape supply for many vintners. A late spring freeze this year caused shortages of some white wine grapes, and there has been a worldwide grape shortage since published reports trumpeted the potential health benefits of wine. Last year, in fact, Texas wineries had to buy more than 51,000 gallons of juice and bulk wine—about 23 percent of their total need—from outside the state. Cordier Estates has sold wine to other wineries, and some wineries have had to buy juice or bulk wine from France, California, and even Chile. But to label their product a “Texas wine,” wineries have to get 75 percent of their juice and blending wine from within the state, which is why out-of-state growers are beginning to buy land in Texas. The last big new vineyard in Texas was planted in 1995 in Menard County by Dale Hampton, one of California’s largest growers. Other Californians are looking at Texas, too, to take advantage of available water, the demand for grapes, and cheap raw land: about $800 to $1,500 an acre here versus $8,000 to $30,000 there.

Of course, new growers from California and elsewhere can’t jump in cold. In Texas they confront pests they didn’t have back home: Californians tried to grow grapes in Texas in the thirties, forties, and fifties only to see their vineyards destroyed by leafhoppers and cotton root rot. Then there is the weather: drought, hail, late freezes. “The trouble is, people come in and they don’t realize we have problems they don’t have,” says Bill Lipe, a retired grape horticulturist with Texas A&M’s experimental station in Lubbock County. Lipe’s departure two years ago is symbolic of Texas’ lack of funding for grape research. A&M didn’t replace him, even though he was well regarded in the wine industry as one of the state’s most knowledgeable grape experts. “There are a lot of folks retiring and leaving,” Lipe says. “We may be the last generation of ag researchers doing research for growers.” Roy Mitchell, a veteran enologist who’s now semi-retired from teaching at Texas Tech, says Texas can’t afford to fall any further behind if it wants to stay competitive. “You’re more likely to get strong investment in a strong industry,” he says. “We need to strengthen our research, not weaken it.”

Ironically, jump-starting Texas’ dwindling grape research may fall to Californians. Not that Texas vintners seem to mind—in fact, they stand to benefit. Hampton’s Menard Valley Vineyards is launching its own public-private research effort and plans to go after federal grants, enlist universities such as A&M and California State University at Fresno in research projects, and share information with Texas growers. Hampton, who manages 6,000 acres of vineyards in California for Beringer and other big wine operations, and Jim Collins, Menard Valley’s general manager, have planted 210 acres of the 900-acre ranch with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay and smaller plantings of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Syrah. The first harvest next year—an estimated 300 to 350 tons of grapes—will go to Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock. Next year Menard Valley plans to add an additional 55 acres of grapes, with the intent of selling them to small Texas wineries. “Texas is a great spot to raise grapes and make wine,” says Hampton. “Texas people like Texas products.” Hampton knows Texas and California will be closely watching what happens at Menard Valley. “There are some companies that have already talked to me and are looking at us pretty heavily,” he says, declining to identify the interested parties. “If we can make it as an industry,” Collins adds, “there’s no shortage of people wanting to plant grapes here.”

Yet that’s part of the problem. The people who have planted grapes in Texas are a varied, fragmented lot: big wineries, mom-and-pop operations, big growers, weekend growers, amateur winemakers, hobbyists. Some vineyards number hundreds of acres; the smallest is half an acre. The big four wineries—Llano Estacado, Cordier Estates, CapRock Winery near Lubbock, and Fall Creek Vineyards in the Hill Country—often have different concerns from the dozen or so that produce five thousand gallons or less of wine a year. Big wineries sell most of their wine through distributors, while small wineries sell through their tasting rooms. The two groups found themselves on different sides of a legislative proposal this year that would have put a penny-per-bottle tax on every bottle of wine sold in Texas, with the proceeds going to a fund for grape and wine research, industry education, and promotion. After strong opposition by the liquor lobby and big distributors, the bill died a quick death in the last legislative session, although Madla hopes to revive it in some form. “We’ve held ourselves back,” Collins says. “We fight among ourselves. We need a more businesslike approach, and we need to look at this as a Texas industry.”

Indeed, while Texas may never surpass California in wine production—“It’s too much of a machine,” says Lisa Allen of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association—it could have a shot at number two. “We’re an industry right on the verge of exploding into something really good,” Collins insists. But for now, Texas’ wineglass looks only about half full.

Kathryn Jones has written for the Dallas Morning News and the New York Times.

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