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Reign of Terroir

A decade and a half after I wrote about the poor quality of Texas wines for this magazine, Lone Star vintners are starting to turn heads.

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Duchman Family Winery's Dave Reilly inspects grapes before harvest.
Photograph by Wynn Myers

Fifteen years ago this month, I penned a piece in this magazine about Texas wine that would change my life. Weeks after the story came out, the phone in my cubicle rang. On the line was an editor at Food & Wine who’d read the story and asked if I would want to write an essay. I was just an amateur oenophile at the time, harboring no professional ambitions. But one thing led to another, and a year later I was living in San Francisco and publishing monthly columns in the Austin American-Statesman and a Bay Area metro magazine. By now, I’ve traveled to almost every significant wine region on six continents, published a few books on wine, and even married a sommelier in a Sonoma vineyard. All thanks to an innocent article about a production area that was, at the time, irrelevant to the rest of the world.

In that piece I complained about the low quality of wine from Texas, the country’s fifth-largest producer, especially compared with other top states like Oregon and Washington. And I lamented that Texas had yet to produce a single world-class wine.

But Texas wasn’t even producing great, well-priced table wine. The world is overflowing with cheap, generic, technically well-made wine from places like Argentina and Chile, places that can make it more consistently than Texas and at a fraction of the cost. Those are fine for wine drinkers. But wine lovers ask for more. No matter the price, what we ultimately want is for it to taste like it comes from somewhere. The terroir of the wine—or its “somewhereness,” to use a term coined by the wine writer Matt Kramer—comes not only from the climate and soils of a place but also from the sensibilities and cuisines of the people who live there.

At the time of my first article, if Texas wines tasted like they came from somewhere, it seemed to be a place whose people weren’t discerning about what they drank and whose smug vintners passed off poor imitations of wines that came from elsewhere. Things like excessive oak and overripeness—traits that might seem impressive to some—typically drown out any hope of finding deeper qualities. During my reporting, I remember one local winemaker pouring me some of his 200 percent new-oak Chardonnay, meaning it had been fermented and aged consecutively in brand-new oak barrels to intensify the toasty, woody taste. This much new oak (these days, 100 percent is often considered excessive) would be an atrocity for the world’s best Chardonnay, much less the weak, flabby stuff he had produced. I wasn’t galled merely by the offensiveness of the wine but by the superior, self-congratulatory manner with which he deigned to let people try it. This wasn’t a real wine culture but a pantomime version of one.

The editors stuck the piece with the inflammatory headline “Sour Grapes,” perhaps causing the article to garner some strong reactions from people who probably didn’t read past the first couple of paragraphs. More than one Texas wine lover threatened to cancel his subscription, and the state’s agriculture commissioner sent a letter defending Texas wine. I was a little miffed by the response.

While I’d been critical of the thinness and sour flavors that marked many Texas wines, I’d also highlighted various other winemakers who were experimenting with grapes, harvesting times, and vineyard sites, setting up the state’s wine for a better future.

Well, here we are in the future. So this summer, I came back to spend some time looking into how Texas’s wines and wine culture have evolved.

Wine is the ultimate slow food. To produce something palatable, grape vines must be meticulously tended—pruned, precisely irrigated, and guarded against an onslaught of pests, molds, diseases, and unpredictable, ever-changing weather conditions. After the fruit is ready, a million more decisions must be made in order to guide the juice into becoming wine; one must choose the optimal harvesting moment, whether or not to use ambient or commercial yeasts, and so on. Mistakes at any point could seriously compromise the development of acidity, flavor, and tannins. Since this process happens only once a year, most vintners will never have more than thirty or forty shots in their lives to get it right. Compare that with the world’s greatest wines, whether from France, Spain, or Italy, which have benefited from thousands of years of uninterrupted practice. Texas’s modern industry is only in its forties, a blip in wine time. And thanks to the extreme climate, it’s exceptionally hard to grow supple wine grapes here. In California, where it’s easy, wines were already garnering international attention a century before the shocking Judgment of Paris, when a Golden State wine ranked best in each category at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. Today California boasts over 600,000 acres of vineyards, offering its winemakers boundless sources of grapes for experimentation. Texas’s acreage, on the other hand, is a drop in the bucket, roughly 4,000 acres.

Somewhereness cannot be manufactured, only discovered, and discovery in those mere 4,000 acres depends on asking the right questions. The main character in “Sour Grapes,” Jim Johnson, who with his wife, Karen, created Alamosa Wine Cellars in 1996, was asking the right ones from the beginning. What grapes should be grown? And what location had the best combination of climate, soils, and marketability? It seemed only fitting to pay him a visit fifteen years later.

At their little vineyard, winery, and tasting room in the broad hills west of Lampasas, Jim, sporting his customary Hawaiian print shirt and scraggly beard, and Karen greeted me with a pour of their rosato. A dry, very robust wine, it was darker and richer than most of today’s fashionable vin gris (or light pink) rosés—stubbornly unconventional, much like its maker.

Johnson is significant as a part of the movement to eschew mainstream varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot. When he started out, those grapes drove the market nationwide, but Johnson knew they struggled in Texas’s climate, making inferior versions of the wines from elsewhere that already flooded store shelves. Instead, Johnson focused on grapes from warmer European climes, like Southern France (Viognier), Italy (Sangiovese), and Spain (Tempranillo).

“The conventional wisdom at the time was that if you’re going to be a Texas winery, you’ve got to plant the market-driven varietals,” Johnson told me. “What we decided was that conventional wisdom was meant for conventional people. Our buddy told us, ‘Nobody’s going to buy Texas Sangiovese. It’s hard enough to sell Italian Sangiovese.’ I think we were both mentally prepared for the market to reject everything we did, because that’s what people told us would happen. But it didn’t, and we never looked back.”

That is, until now. After a few pleasantries about the wine, Johnson asked, “Have I indicated to you that we’re retiring?” The news caught me off guard. “This interview is kind of the bookend of all this. You were there at the start and you’re here at the end,” he said. He told me that the vineyard is for sale and that the tasting room would close for good after Labor Day.

The reason for the sale isn’t exactly business related, though I’m sure the wine business has taken its toll. Initial capital investment is high; years of hard work go into it before you even have fruit, much less wine, which may or may not be good. Then the wine must be sold in a crowded, competitive, and confounding marketplace. For most producers, especially small ones, financial returns, if they ever come, will be enjoyed by their descendants.

“Karen’s seventy-one and I’m sixty-eight,” he said. “It’s time. We want to travel in Europe before we get too old and decrepit to haul our bags.” Though Johnson did admit to making a few mistakes along the way, such as positioning his tasting room in the far north of the Hill Country instead of along the 290 corridor west of Austin, which for wine tourism has become Texas’s version of Napa Valley. Direct sales to consumers from tasting rooms and winery clubs are especially important revenue streams for smaller wineries. Being located seventy miles north of all the action didn’t help Alamosa’s business.

The fact is that Johnson’s wines, though some were good, were never so great as to inspire life-changing sales. If they had been, I suspect the Johnsons would still be in it. Johnson wasn’t Texas’s most important winemaker, but he was a gutsy, forward-thinking spirit who spent twenty years laying the groundwork, preaching about Texas Tempranillo instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today’s winemakers are taking the questions Johnson—and the other pioneers who thought like him—put to the land and going further, making Johnson’s radical choices seem somewhat safe. They’re not merely planting Sangiovese, Italy’s most common variety, but Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, and Vermentino, grapes even more suited to warmer climates. They’re not only making Syrah, a well-known variety from the South of France, but Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Tannat, and Picpoul. These grapes are so outside the mainstream, they represent nothing short of a Texas declaration of wine independence.

If I had to choose one wine I found this year that articulates the new horizon of Texas wine, I’d pick the Cinsault rosé pét-nat from William Chris Vineyards, a producer in Hye. Allow me to decode rosé pét-nat for you: Pét-nat is the wine style, a genre so recently popularized by wine hipsters from France that it’s still unknown to many aficionados in the U.S. and is produced by only a handful of U.S. wine nerds. The term is shorthand for pétillant naturel, French for “naturally sparkling,” a low-fi technique popular in the natural-wine movement for producing sparkling wines without the addition of yeast or sugar, as practiced in Champagne. To find a rosé made from Cinsault in Texas was staggering, but a pét-nat even more so. This wine couldn’t have existed fifteen years ago; it’s a flowering of Texas’s new connectedness, resourcefulness, and creativity.

And did I mention that it was damn good? One of the better pét-nats I’ve had—pink in color, fairly dry, with the racy flavor of wild strawberries and a rich, creamy, bubbly texture. It’s too early to tell if it exhibits somewhereness, but it undeniably boasted the clarity and spark of something that wants to exist.

Chris Brundrett, one half of William Chris, is illustrative of the new generation of Texas winemakers: he’s young, wine is his sole job, and he’s open to anything. Also in this new generation are the two very young men behind Lewis Wines, former college roommates Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb. They make a wine called Swim Spot from Blanc du Bois—a hybrid grape created in Florida in 1968 to successfully grow in hot southern conditions—which is a dead ringer for Portugal’s classically crisp, dry, low-alcohol Vinho Verde. And then there’s Pedernales Cellars’ Fredrik Osterberg, a Swede who married a Texan with a vineyard. He gave up a finance career in London to move to Texas and start a wine business with his wife, Julie Kuhlken, her brother, David, and his wife, Heather. First and foremost, wines like Swim Spot and the Cinsault rosé are balanced and palatable. They’re refreshing, urging us to come back for a second sip. They have some complexity and minerality, secondary traits that our palates find compelling. They are dry and sometimes acidic and racy, which makes them agreeable with food—wine’s primary responsibility—adding a refreshing spark to unctuous, classically Texan fare like barbecue and burgers.

One morning at 1 a.m. in the August heat of Dallas, I found myself trudging up from a suite on the golf course of the Four Seasons—where a party had been raging, fueled by an iced bathtub filled with wine, including a jeroboam (four bottles’ worth) of Prosecco—to the hotel lobby, where at least fifty people were still swarming. Amid the throng, I recognized winemakers from California, Washington, and Australia, sommeliers from New York and Chicago. Wine bottles were strewn all over as revelers clustered in various groups, swirling their glasses, sniffing, and talking noisily. Someone wandered through in a terry-cloth bathrobe, while a swimsuit-clad phalanx headed to the long-since-closed pool, and a well-known wine critic poured me a glass of old and rare Chartreuse, all while the hotel staff impassively waited for the crowd to go to bed. I’m not sure when that happened. But I am sure that the next morning, these same people were back in form, wearing suits and business attire as they studiously attended sold-out, expertly conducted seminars with such titles as “White Grape Varieties of Greece” and “Wines of Process: Sparkling, Oxidized, Fortified, and Beyond.” By evening, it would all devolve again, starting with hospitality suites sponsored by the likes of German vineyards, a low-alcohol California wine group, and even Texas wineries, as well as various importers and distributors.

Lots of industries work hard and play hard, but I can think of few where play is such an integral part of the work. No venue better incorporates both than the Texas Sommelier Conference, known as TexSom (full disclosure: Texas Monthly is a sponsor). Founded eleven years ago as an intimate forum for about 80 Texas wine professionals to talk shop, it has grown into the world’s most important sommelier conference, drawing more than 1,100 of the country’s greatest wine experts (including, this year, 38 of North America’s 147 master sommeliers).

Texas wine is not the focus here, but it has a small presence, and it’s gradually making an impression on the larger wine world. I remember chatting with Australian winemaker James Erskine, of Jauma, about a panel on the grape Carignan. “One thing I did not expect,” he said, “was that one of the better wines in that tasting would be from Texas.” He was referring to a sample submitted by winemaker Kim McPherson, of McPherson Cellars. “It had a nice little zip to it,” he said. Later, I questioned Larry Stone, considered the dean of American sommeliers, about wines from the Lone Star State. “If they pick early here,” he said, “to preserve fresher flavors and acidity, they have the chance to make some really interesting wines.”

Ultimately, the focus of TexSom is on the education of sommeliers. Twenty-five of them from Texas restaurants competed for the title of TexSom Best Sommelier, and dozens of others came from around the state to volunteer, exchanging hours of work polishing thousands of glasses, pouring wines, and setting up venues for the chance to sit in on seminars and rub elbows with the industry’s elite. This year alone, somms could take classes like “Wine Fraud Prevention in Restaurants,” “Viewing a Beverage Program From an Ownership Perspective,” and “The Philosophy of Wine Lists.”

All this education and experience ends up flowing back into Texas wine. Sommeliers can be controversial figures, but their presence indicates and supports a thriving wine culture. Even if some diners continue to mistrust them (believing they’re mostly there to cajole customers into spending more than they want to), sommeliers are discriminating and enthusiastic wine buyers.

One July evening, cooled by a fan, I sat out on the patio of Austin’s Josephine House restaurant to taste about fifty highly regarded new Texas wines with two of the city’s more important sommeliers, June Rodil (the beverage director of the restaurant group that owns Josephine House, who generously offered to host my tasting) and Mark Sayre (the former beverage director of the Austin Four Seasons, now with the ELM restaurant group). Each started out as volunteers at TexSom, won the grueling Best Sommelier competition, and now has a leadership role in the conference. An extra table was pulled up to accommodate all the bottles, many of which were sweating in a large ice bucket.

“I really love the dry but rich peach flavor in this wine and that underlying minerality,” said Rodil, swirling a pour of McPherson Cellars 2014 Reserve Roussanne.

Neither sommelier has many Texas wines on their lists, but in the course of four hours, we found many wines, especially whites and rosés, that the two somms said they’d be pleased to present on a wine list. Bottles like Kuhlman Cellars’ Calcaria, McPherson Cellars’ Les Copains Rosé, and Duchman Family Winery’s Vermentino. “Judge them not if they’re good for Texas,” Sayre said, “but if they’re good for the world.”

“Exactly,” Rodil followed. “The challenge is that they have to be good value and quality. Otherwise, why not buy the wine from France or Italy?”

Red wines were not as successful, as many of them showed flaws like the flabbiness that comes from overripe fruit or certain sulfurous aromas that come from careless winemaking. Less can go wrong with whites and rosés, whose grapes are picked early to preserve acidity and freshness.

But I loved that Texas white and rosé wines stood out. After all, in the overbearing Texas heat of most of the year, that’s what I want to drink: crisp, refreshing, low-alcohol wines served chilled. They’re the closest thing the wine world has to a cold beer and are the most versatile wines with Texas cuisine, from enchiladas to chicken-fried steak. A good rosé is probably the best wine pairing there is for barbecue.

The fact that Texas is now the source of dry, crisp, Franklin Barbecue–worthy rosé is a stunning achievement. Rosé is, after all, a wine well suited to Texans: simple and humble, requiring no maturation and asking for no genuflection from its drinkers. It’s the kind of wine you can legitimately drop an ice cube into, not the stuff wine critics wax about eloquently. It’s certainly not the kind of wine I was wishing Texas winemakers would produce fifteen years ago in my first piece on the subject.

That earlier article was written by a younger man in thrall to the aspirational side of wine. I was overly concerned with the question of when, if ever, Texas would produce something that would be celebrated by critics, sought by collectors, and fetch impressive prices at auction. Today, I couldn’t care less about scores and medals. Such icon wines will no doubt come, but for now there’s nothing more important than Texas rosé, because it represents a real wine culture—where the local wines are good and pair well with the local cuisine and are drunk by the local people. When those things coalesce, you know you’re really in wine country.

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  • Ross Arlen Tieken

    What a fantastic article. Thank you. What do you think about using Texas native grapes. Where I’m from, people still make homemade wine with mustang (muscadine) red grapes, and they’re terrible–but in the right hands, could a port-like dessert wine with some age on it work for these wild grapes? Will careful cultivation improve the cloying sweetness and overwhelming tannins? These grapes to me express our terroir more than anything, but can they be made into delicious wine? I’d appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

    R

  • Norm Wilson

    Texas wines are winning awards, and you are right about great rose. One example that I really enjoy is the Becker Provencal Rose. It won Double Gold and Best of Show at last year’s San Francisco wine competition.

  • Jed

    becker made the first wine i was willing to serve to my friends from california. but even that was done with a shrug.