Q: I recently read that Texas has hundreds of wineries, and that the Fredericksburg-area wine trail is one of the most popular in the country. How can this be good for our image as a bunch of saddle-weary, tobacco-spittin’, whiskey-swillin’, chaps-wearin’, campfire-singin’ cowboys?
Sally Good, Lubbock
A: Thank you kindly for the thought-provoking missive, Ms. Good. The Texanist appreciates mightily you taking the time to write. Another thing the Texanist appreciates mightily is the sublime pleasure of an occasional whistle-wetting pick-me-up. Depending on the circumstance at hand, the Texanist might be found hoisting anything from a $2 can of Lone Star to a $75 snifter of single-malt Scotch whisky. And by “anything,” he could be referring to a bourbon whiskey on chipped ice, a refreshing daiquiri, a spicy Bloody Mary, a lemony Chilton (which, as it happens, is a drink of Texas origin), a Brandy Alexander, a Harvey Wallbanger, a Mad Dog Margarita (also Texan), a Halekulani, a tall Ranch Water (once again, Texan), a screwdriver, a margarita, a martini, a Mexican martini (which, despite its name, is Texan), a sweet Cuba libre, a sweeter Velvet Hammer, a cerveza preparada of some sort, a ceramic cup of earthy tequila, a ceramic cup of earthy mezcal, a ceramic cup of earthy sotol, a Ramos gin fizz (Texan-ish), a paloma, a flaming Dr Pepper (flamingly Texan), an Irish coffee, or maybe even a peachy Teeny-Weeny Woo-Woo. The Texanist, a man possessed of a hollow leg, could go on ad infinitum—and, as the night goes on, ad nauseam.
On occasion the Texanist also will partake of the fruits of the vine. Is this a bad thing? It appears, Ms. Good, that you might consider it so. But please belly up to the bar and hear the Texanist out while he uncorks a big bottle of Texas-style oenological knowledge.
Firstly, while the saddle-weary, tobacco-spittin’, and whiskey-swillin’ cowboy image is a familiar, if somewhat exaggerated, description of the typical Texan, our state is no John-Barleycorn-come-lately when it comes to subjecting grape juice to the fermentative arts. In fact, wine was being made in Texas, or what would eventually become Texas, about one hundred years before grapevines were planted in California, or what would eventually become California.
All the way back in the 1600s, out near the West Texas town of El Paso, or what would eventually become the West Texas town of El Paso, Spanish missionaries were cultivating grapevines they’d brought with them from points south for the purpose of making sacramental wines. These were among the very first grapevine plantings in the entire country (or what would eventually become, et cetera). Fast-forward a bit, and by the early nineteenth century a wine from the El Paso area known as “Pass wine” had become so popular throughout the Southwest that, according to Thomas Pinney’s 1989 academic tome A History of Wine in America, vino from El Paso was the only moneymaking agricultural product in the entire province of Spanish New Mexico, of which El Paso was, at the time, a part.
Pinney’s book also includes an excerpt from a letter written by Private John T. Hughes, a young Missourian who was attached to the United States’ 1846 Mexican War expedition into New Mexico territory. In his communiqué regarding what he referred to as the “fruitful valley of El Paso,” he claimed that “the El Paso wines are superior, in richness of flavor and pleasantness of taste, to anything of the kind I ever met with in the United States, and I doubt not that they are far superior to the best wines ever produced in the valley of the Rhine, or on the sunny hills of France.”
There may have been a dose of hyperbole involved in that dispatch—one suspects that Private Hughes had little opportunity during his salad days in Missouri to sample a full range of Europe’s viticultural wares. But there’s no doubt that winemaking was on the rise in Texas. In the 1890s, some 1,800 acres of vineyards produced nearly two thousand barrels of wine each year. A few of those barrels almost certainly came from the Val Verde Winery, which was founded in Del Rio in 1883 and survives to this day as the state’s oldest winery.
Texas’s most heroic accomplishment in the winemaking realm, though, occurred in the late 1880s, when Denison resident T. V. Munson all but single-handedly saved the European wine industry. At the time, the Continent’s vineyards were suffering a devastating blight caused by the insect phylloxera, and vintners were desperate for help. Enter Texas—which, as it happens, is home to fifteen of the United States’ twenty-something
native grape species, more than any other region on earth can boast. Munson, a horticulturalist who had come across several Texas grape varieties that were resistant to the bug, suggested which rootstocks the European vines would best graft onto. After some trial and error, the pairings worked spectacularly, which is why today the world can still enjoy a fine cabernet sauvignon or a silken Pouilly-Fumé.
For his efforts, Munson was named Chevalier du Mérite Agricole in France’s Legion of Honor in 1888. More than a century later, in recognition of this special relationship, Denison became the sister city of Cognac, France. (Fun fact: The national sister cities program was initiated by Denison native Dwight D. Eisenhower.)
These events should be regarded as a matter of pride by all Texans, but the Texanist is extra proud to report that three of the grape rootstocks that ended up saving European wine hailed from Central Texas’s Bell County, just like the Texanist himself. Heck, it’s very likely that the Texanist, as a young man, smoked a few sprigs of those heroic grapevines, which has him wondering if he might now also be resistant to phylloxera.
So why is it that, if wine has such an illustrious history in Texas, anybody would ever consider it a profoundly un-Texan drink? Much of the answer lies in the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in 1919 established the prohibition of alcohol throughout the country. The legislation—introduced, incidentally, by killjoy East Texas–born senator Morris Sheppard—brought Texas’s wine industry to a screeching halt.
Even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Texas’s own prohibition wasn’t lifted until 1935, and for decades afterward our repressive alcohol laws had a depressive effect on the Texas wine industry. But thanks to a countrywide wine boom, a better understanding of the state’s viticultural possibilities, and a loosening of those strict alcohol laws, Texas wine began catching on again in the seventies. That’s when the likes of Lubbock’s estimable Pheasant Ridge Winery and the Llano Estacado Winery launched. Over the subsequent fifty years, the industry has blossomed and is now every bit as impressive as you’ve described it in your letter, Ms. Good. Indeed, today Texas boasts some five thousand acres of vineyards (we’re fifth in the nation in wine production), more than four hundred wineries (fifth, again), and a plenitude of increasingly palatable products, which attract more than two million visits to Texas wineries each year and help account for much of the industry’s $20 billion annual economic impact (second in the nation).
Why, just recently the Texanist and his missus found themselves at a reputable Austin restaurant that specializes in locally sourced farm-to-table fare, including an all-Texas wine list, and were kindly pointed to a delicious 2017 vintage Alluvé from Stonewall’s Kuhlman Cellars. Gulping down the complex-yet-approachable blended red, which is made with Texas High Plains grapes, the Texanist was more than happy to contribute a drop into that $20 billion barrel.
If, after gulping all of this down, Ms. Good, you’re still convinced that there’s something highfalutin about wine that rubs your down-home Texas nature wrong, perhaps it would be useful to simply think of winemakers as farmers, which many are, and of wine as the end result of a longtime agricultural endeavor, which it is. And isn’t it every Texan’s patriotic duty to support our hardworking farmers—especially those who supply us with barrel upon barrel of homegrown, whistle-wetting fermented fruit juice? Even the most saddle-weary, tobacco-spittin’, whiskey-swillin’, chaps-wearin’, campfire-singin’ cowboy would have a hard time arguing otherwise.
Besides, the Texanist figures that there are only so many Teeny-Weeny Woo-Woos a Texan should consume in his or her lifetime. Cheers! And thanks again for the letter.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.