Grape Balls of Fire
The Texas wine industry battles it out over a bill that would require all state-labeled bottles be made from 100 percent Texas-grown grapes.
Do you expect your Texas wine to be from Texas? It’s not a trick question. As wine connoisseurs have noted, slapping the outline of Texas on a label doesn’t guarantee that the wine is from our state. But if you’re among the growing number of people taking an interest in Texas wine, then help uncovering true Lone Star vintages might be on the way.
Currently, Texas adheres to a federal law laid out by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which states that for a wine to claim a state origin on its label, it must contain at least 75 percent of wine from that state. The remaining 25 percent is up for grabs.
All 50 states produce some form of wine—some are just more familiar than others. The vast majority of states, 46 to be exact, adhere to the 75 percent requirement, sourcing up to 25 percent of their wine from markets like California, which has a large amount of wine made in bulk. The only states that require 100 percent of the grapes to originate from the state are California and Oregon. Washington, meanwhile, requires 95 percent. These tougher requirements were passed through state legislation, which many argue adds industry credibility that has helped their ubiquity in the wine world. If HB 1514 passes, wineries would still have the right to produce and blend wine from other states—as long as they were accurately labeled.
In an effort to bring the truth about what’s in Texas wine one step closer to consumers, Texas State Representative Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs filed House Bill 1514. The bill would require that wines labeled with a Texas appellation (or as coming from Texas) must be made with 100 percent Texas-grown grapes. Supporters of the legislation, which is the first of its kind in the state, contend that passing HB 1514 will not only work towards building consumer trust, but will also help establish Texas as an authentic wine-producing region on an international level. “I’m a fourth-generation Texan, and I know Texans are proud of our state,” Isaac said. “Most people I know would be disappointed if something labeled “Texan” was really ‘Texafornian.’”
Supporters believe that the bill would promote transparency for consumers. “As things stand, it inhibits our ability to compete in the market. When I go to sell my wines in restaurants, the first question I’m getting is ‘how do I know this is real,’ which is just shocking to me,” says Chris Brundrett, co-owner of William Chris Vineyards. “Our labels should mean what they say.”
But proponents are by far in the minority, with only handful of wineries, grape growers, and wine professionals banding together against a sizable majority of larger wineries and grape growers—as well as organizations such as the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) and Texas Hill Country Wineries.
Opponents cite a number of reasons the Texas wine industry is not ready for a law like this, particularly because there simply aren’t enough grapes in the state. (Though numbers are far from accurate, Texas is believed to have around 4,000 acres of vineyards. California, by comparison, has more than 600,000 acres.) Llano Estacado Winery, Grape Creek Winery, and Ste Genevieve Winery—all who have an established history in Texas wine—argue that the case for transparency is not so simple, and that the industry could suffer some serious blows if the bill were to pass.
At a special committee hearing on April 24, a total of 31 industry professionals registered to testify in what led to a two-hour session. Robert Landon, of Landon Winery in the Dallas area, was one of the first called to the podium. Landon, who served as the recent president of TWGGA was first concerned that HB 1514 was not an industry-wide initiative, but the creation of a small contingent of Texas wineries. “This idea has come up a few times for TWGGA to discuss as the industry representative, but in multiple different votes, the industry decided this is not the direction we want to go,” Landon said. “Those that are in favor of this bill are in the minority, not the majority.”
Following Landon, owner and winemaker Paul Bonarrigo of Messina Hof, one of the state’s oldest and largest Texas wineries, testified that the bill could mean significant change for his winery’s overall business model. “Those in favor of this bill say that our business models need not change, but that’s not true. We would have to adopt the American wine label, which would be more damaging for the industry,” Bonarrigo said. An American label would force the Messina Hof wines out of the designated Texas section of retail stores. Bonarrigo also voiced concern of losing retail space when the some of winery’s 100 percent Texas wines fell short of the necessary amount of fruit to fill retail orders. “If we lose those points of distribution, we lose our demand for the product,” he said.
Bonarrigo, whose winery does make a significant amount of 100 percent Texas wines—though not exclusively—says that the public attention given to the bill has created both confusion for consumers and a rift within the industry. “Just by begging the question, ‘is every Texan wine on the shelf really Texan?’ It has caused damage to our industry because it leads everyone to believe that it’s not. This has been the most divisive and damaging issue that has faced the industry in decades.”
Brian Heath, owner of the long-standing Grape Creek Vineyards in Fredericksburg, echoed Bonarrigo’s sentiments, but he also emphasized that, eventually, the change will need to come to Texas. “This industry needs to do this, but not now,” Heath said. “We need to discuss it together. For that reason, the Texas Hill Country Wineries association voted against it 26 to 10.”
Mark Hyman, President and CEO of Llano Estacado Winery, one of the first commercial wineries in Texas dating back to the early 1970s, also voiced his concern about industry-wide cohesion, particularly with regards to the actual amount of grapes available in Texas. Hyman referred to an email exchange he had with Tim Dodd, the director of the Texas Wine Marketing Institute at Texas Tech University, who said that there are anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 grape-bearing acres in Texas. “That’s a little scary to me as a large producer of Texas wine,” Hyman said. “We’re considering changing the law to move our requirements up and we don’t even know how many plants we have on the ground? We have a lot of work to do before we can get to this place.”
Hyman, also touched on another opposition concern: pricing. According to Hyman, the average price for California wine is $742 per ton. Texas’s per acre price is much higher at $1,600.* “This may not impact the smaller producer who do the bulk of their business inside their tasting rooms to a captive audience who hear their story and buy their wine at a higher price, but that’s only five percent of our business,” Hyman explained. “My business is out in retail stores like HEB, Kroger, and restaurants. And we are at a pricing disadvantage from the start when you are competing against brands like Kendall Jackson, Clos du Bois, and Robert Mondavi. In our case, we need that 25 percent to be able to blend into our Texas wines to be able to offer our product at a competitive price.”
The potential price point was further illustrated by Patrick Prendergrast of Mesa Vineyards, which owns Ste Genevieve Winery near Fort Stockton. As the largest wine producer in the Texas, with more than 600,000 cases annually, Pendergrast’s testimony was meticulously organized and extensive. He argued that simply using the larger wine origin of a whole state for the wine label, such as Texas, doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s a quality wine. He then held out an example bottle from national retailer Trader Joe’s, wine that is commonly referred to as “Two-Buck Chuck.”
“This wine is a California wine with 100 percent California fruit,” says Prendergrast. “If I bought this to my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary dinner, I wouldn’t be in good standing with my wife. A state appellation doesn’t necessarily drive the image of a brand.”
But Prendergrast’s main argument was that there is currently nothing preventing Texas wineries from making 100 percent Texas wine and making sure consumers know about it. “That’s a fine marketing plan for a winery, but it doesn’t mean you should take away any tools of any other winemaker if it meant they could make a better wine,” Prendergrast said.
Prendergrast also cautioned that the passing of the bill could have significant negative effects from other wineries. “The demand for buying Texas grapes could go down. Some people may say, ‘I can’t make 100 percent this year, so I can’t carry the Texas label, I might as well just skip it all together and make a Paso Robles wine or something else.”
Following the string of opposition testimony, one of HB 1514’s biggest champions, Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines near Johnson City, was called to the podium. With a total case production of about 5,000, Lewis wines is significantly smaller than any of those in opposition to the bill. His commitment to the authenticity of Texas wine, however, is mighty.
“I’ve never bought a grape or a drop of wine from any other state. I’ve never had to,” said Lewis. “I think part of the problem we have here is we have some big businesses who put their carts ahead of the horse, and their business and marketing programs are successful but they out-paced their planning on sourcing grapes. When I go to sell wine in the market place and the client questions the authenticity of my wines and all Texas wines. That’s a problem. The higher end of wine consumers don’t take us seriously.”
Lewis went on to defend the quality of grapes grown in Texas, so long as winemakers and grape growers are working together. “They talk about the quality not being usable to make good wine, but that’s because they’re not willing to go work with the grower and tell them why the quality is not good enough,” Lewis added. “They won’t tell them that it’s the wrong variety or that they’re hanging too many grapes or not enough grapes or that they need to farm better. There’s so much input that a farmer needs from a winery. Every successful wine industry relies on the collaboration between wineries and growers. I think when you look at proponents, you see a lot of brands that go out and work with growers to get really good fruit.”
One of those growers, Nikhila Narra of the fairly new Narra Vineyards also stood to defend the work of Texas grape growers. “We have 140 acres of vineyard, and more than 60 of those acres are not currently under contract,” said Narra, who added that her public testimony on the bill actually lost her a contract by one of the larger wineries. “I have been asked by some of the wineries we were selling grapes to not to speak on this topic because it would hurt my ‘short game.’ As a result, I have lost about $600,000 in revenue that I hope to make up from other wineries. If you want to keep supporting California, keep putting your money with them, but you’re only hurting Texas grape growers who are trying to grow this industry.”
Though many more stood to testify, it was clear that the issue was polarizing. With the heels of both sides dug deep into the very Texas soil in which their grapes are grown, neither seemed willing to budge. The status of the bill at the time of publishing was “pending in committee.” The likelihood of it actually making it to the House for a vote is slim, but if nothing else, the drama that the topic has kicked up within the industry has no doubt left a mark on the next chapter for Texas wine. And it leaves an open-ended question that perhaps only consumers can answer: do you expect your Texas wine to be from Texas?
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the pricing structure for grapes. We regret the error.