Texas, the Other, Other Wine Country

Texans are a stubborn lot.

Texans are a stubborn lot. The celebrated war cry of “remember the Alamo!” is a glorification, not of victory, but of bull-headed resolve. Texas didn’t win the Battle of the Alamo. Quite to the contrary, the Texas combatants were killed to the last man, but the sacrifice and stubbornness of the soldiers (Davey Crockett and James Bowie among them) rallied the army and compelled the forces to victory several weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Texas wine is kind-of like that. It didn’t start well, but the troops are rallied and forging into a new age, winning some battles and creating heroes along the way.

A Brief History of Texas Winemaking
In the mid-17th century, decades before William Penn planted European grapes in the Pennsylvania Colony and a couple of centuries before Louis Vignes opened the first winery in California, Spanish missionaries were producing sacramental wine near what is now El Paso, Texas. With this head start in a state larger than France, one might have expected Texas to become a major player in the world of grape growing and winemaking, but that’s not what happened. A few European settlers planted vineyards as they migrated into Central and South Texas, but it never truly caught on. Even as the French government was awarding Thomas Munson with the Legion of Honor Chevalier du Mérite in 1888 for his Texas-grown, disease resistant rootstock that saved the French from phylloxera, the Texas wine industry was being left in the Lone Star dust. By the time prohibition hit the industry in 1919, Texas had a few dozen wineries to the over 700 in California. Until just recently, Texas never seemed to recover from the Volstead Act.

In the 1970’s local, home-grown winemakers (along with transplants from France, Italy and Germany) started making serious wines in California. One milestone of this American resurgence was the “Judgement of Paris.” American producers took home the top honors in both red and white wine blind tastings against top French Châteaus. This would have been the perfect time for Texas with its widely-varied soils and microclimates to establish itself as a major player in the nascent, American winemaking boom. But that’s not what happened. Texan wine pioneers did plant vineyards but there were powerful forces working against them.

First, the American palate was just developing a taste for the familiar varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The library vineyards (parallel rows planted with different grapes for the purpose of selecting the best acclimated fruit to a specific climate) put to root by men like Clinton “Doc” McPherson proved that the Texas High Plains were indeed well suited to wine grapes, the problem was that the grapes best matched with the soil and climate were lesser-known varietals like Tannat, Tempranillo, Viognier and Rousanne. It was possible to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, just not optimal. The consensus was to spend resources on growing what the people wanted and not on educating the US market on the virtues of virtually unknown varietals. So the plantings of less popular fruit were ripped out and replaced by inferior vines for the soil and the climate. The result… Texas did produce wine in the 70’s – it just wasn’t very good. With the lack of critical mass, Texas wine had the unfortunate double-whammy of high prices and low quality. From there it limped along unremarkably until the decade between 1995 and 2005 when a boom of winery construction exploded onto the scene in Fredericksburg, already a tourist destination for leisure seekers from San Antonio, Austin, Houston and other Texas locales.

Texas Wine Country isn’t Just One Place
This is where it gets a little strange. The grapes are predominately grown in the High Plains around Lubbock. It makes lots of sense to grow them in a place with a robust agricultural economy. The soil matches up well with several varietals of grapes. There isn’t the right amount of rain, but farmers in the area are well accustomed to drip irrigation methods. And finally, the land is priced right for agricultural use. With this confluence of grape growing factors it makes sense that the majority of grapes that end up in Texas wine come from the High Plains. Certainly not all of them but most. Around Fredericksburg for example, the wineries do plant significant acreage in vines and the content of local-vs-High Plains grapes can vary wildly from as little as 0% to as high as 100%, but the average split is about 80/20% High Plains to Hill Country fruit.

The problem is that since the mistakes of the 1970’s, people don’t trust Texas as a wine-producing region enough to support wide distribution of the wines. In other words, if you are in your neighborhood wine shop and you see a Tempranillo from Spain selling for $14 next to one from Texas at $25, chances are you’re going to go with the familiar product at the lower price. Most Texas producers aren’t making the volume necessary to get the prices down. And making good wine (or any wine for that matter) isn’t cheap. To make up the difference in lower volume sales, wine producers found another source of revenue… tourism. But how viable is Lubbock as a wine tourism city? Not very.

That’s where Fredericksburg comes in and creates the perfect marriage of wine that is made from grapes grown five hours away from most of the wineries. Fredericksburg already has tourists, lots and lots of them. Vacationing Texans have been coming to the small German town in the Hill Country for as long as any Texans could remember. The city boasts of nearly three million tourists every year. The city leaders promoted a plan to increase vino-tourism with wineries popping up along the main drag where Main Street becomes Highway 290. Tourists flocked to the tasting rooms. Brides planned destination weddings at wineries and the winemakers got some breathing room. Tourists, with a bellyful of wine and a warm glow from a tasting tour are more than willing to pay retail and sign up for wine clubs that remind them of the tasting room experience. The one-two punch of direct sales and repeat customers provides the winemakers with lower revenue than widespread distribution, but much higher margins since the wine isn’t going through a broker, wholesaler and finally a retailer, all of whom take a big cut of sales. This marriage of necessity between High Plains growers and Hill Country vintners is working, for now. The big question is: for how long?

There is great debate about the sustainability of relying on buyers coming to the wineries. One camp believes that increasing tourism and direct/club sales is the key to growth while others are convinced that increasing production and distribution will be the key to growth. Which side is “right” will play out over the next several years. True to their Texas roots, these pioneers will find a solution that cuts against the established grain. A solution that satisfies both camps will be the likely scenario. The wineries that want to concentrate on tourism will keep spending their capital to draw new faces to the Hill Country and their tasting rooms and the wine growers/producers in the High Plains will keep focusing on production, pricing and quality to win over distributors and make a name for Texas wine in the marketplace.

The View from Lubbock
Kim McPherson, son of the Texas wine legend and pioneer Doc McPherson is limping a bit and grousing about how long his appointment with a foot doctor took and how he’s late catching up with me on the tour. As we stand in the fermentation room with the glorious winemaking smells of doughy yeast and bright, acidic fruit permeating the air, he turns on a dime and the grumbling melts into pure charm.

This is a man who loves what he does. He watched his father turn a wine hobby into a wine industry and he took it even further. Kim graduated with a degree in Food Science from Texas Tech (where his professor started experimentally planting and tending wine grapes in the 1970’s) and then finished the enology and viticulture programs at the University of California at Davis. Between 1979-2007, Kim migrated between the Texas High Plains and Napa, California making wine for Llano Estacato, CapRock and storied California producers. Ten years ago he put the McPherson name front and center on its own label. He pitched his bankers, bought the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in Downtown Lubbock, installed the expensive, shiny equipment and finally the name that started the modern era of Texas winemaking took its rightful place on a bottle of Texas wine.

Kim is partial to the Rhône varietals and warm weather grapes from Spain and Italy. “There’s still folks around Texas that want to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I can’t tell you why they didn’t learn their lesson back in the 70’s but they’re still growing that stuff.

Kim is free with his opinions. Chiefly among them is the belief that the Texas wine industry must make some tough choices about what it wants to be. “The only way we’re going to make this thing a viable industry is to raise quality, lower prices and seek wider distribution. We’ve got to move beyond tasting rooms and wedding receptions.” Kim opined from his truck on the way to pick up some Rudy’s BBQ for his staff. “My dad wanted to put Texas wines on the map. Well, he’s dead and gone. Soon I’ll be gone and this next generation is going to need to make some tough decisions about what we want to be.”

Kim’s premium wines are getting a foothold with distributors and his TX and Sam Houston Federalist lines are well-stocked on the shelves of H-E-B grocery stores. As his production ramps up, he sees a future where he spends his time crisscrossing the country singing the gospel of McPherson Texas Wines to anyone who’ll stand still long enough to listen and taste.

Steve Newsom was a cotton farmer. So was his father and his father’s father. The family has been planting and harvesting crops since before the Revolutionary War and growing cotton in Texas since the 1850’s so when Steve told his family he was going into the business of planting vineyards for making Texas wine, it didn’t go over well.

“It was pretty bad.” Steve told me, shaking his head with a touch of sadness. “At church one Sunday, a friend of my grand-dad and a fellow cotton farmer came up to him, put his arm around his shoulder and said ‘Don’t worry. He’ll be back.’ The mere thought of a Newsom not growing cotton was too much for him to even consider. He looked on it like a death in the family.”

Grandpa and his friends eventually came around. They understand that what drew Steve to viticulture was his love of farming, respect of the land and his desire to pass down the ethos of an agricultural lifestyle to future generations.

“Water is precious here and it takes a lot of water to grow cotton. A hundred years from now we might not be able to sustainably grow cotton in the Texas High Plains, but with modern vineyard irrigation systems, we can surely grow grapes. I want my kids and their kids to keep farming. I think what we are doing honors the past and protects the future. It’s a hands-on way of farming that we can pass down. I tell my kids, the best thing you can put in your vineyard is your shadow.”

Apparently, his shadow makes for some tasty grapes. With his new venture at English-Newsom Cellars (a partnership with the venerable Caprock Winery and Vineyards) we’ll be tasting that shadow for a couple of generations.

Meanwhile in Fredericksburg
The tasting room/gift shop at Becker Winery is awash with visitors. There are families who arrived in minivans, biker-tourists in expensive, leather chaps and vests, freshly unsaddled from their chromed-out Harleys, retirees in jean shorts, young couples in double-date packs and more than one troop of bridesmaids and their brides-to-be swirling and sipping flights of delightful local juice. We’re met by Public Relations Coordinator, Nichole Bendele, who takes us though the rooms where the different stages of winemaking magic take place. She tells us about the history of the Becker family and how they came to build a winery after merely looking to purchase a log cabin as a vacation home. She expounds on the work of the late Abilene artist Tony Bell, creator of the paintings found on several of the winery’s labels. She escorts us past the crowds and into the cool, exquisite cellar and “library” where the walls are filled with bottles from every vintage they have produced. It’s a beautiful place. It smells of lavender and the air bursts with charm and a touch of magic. The visitors are happy and the Beckers are happy to have them stop by. In the past 28 years, they have perfected the tourism/direct sales model and as one of the largest wineries in Texas, they have set a high bar for the newer players to match.

One of those new kids is Narrow Path. Like their down-the-road predecessors at Becker, they started small. Unlike Becker, they intend to stay small. The picturesque, seven-acre vineyard expands before the modern, minimalist tasting room and small event space. Bob Turbeville was a homebuilder who came to Fredericksburg with ambitions toward the retail business. Around 2000 he started experimenting with growing grapes on a small plot of land and their first harvest ended with a traditional grape stomp in the family backyard. Bob says they got lucky and the wine was good enough to share. From there his focus moved away from retail and headlong into agribusiness. He expanded his vineyards to seven acres and his sons moved home to help do everything from netting the vines to shooing away the multitude of wildlife.

“Every creature from bugs to birds to white tail deer want to eat as much as we can grow.” Bob lamented as we walked the rows of grapes with his dog Maggie trailing excitedly behind us. “I could plant another three acres and that’s about where I want to stop. We make about three thousand cases a year and I like to think someone in my family has touched every single one of those grapes.” After drinking their Marsanne, I have to say – they have a nice touch.

At Pedernales Cellars we taste some delightful Tempranillo and Viognier. Around the grounds there are multiple families with picnics spread out on blankets in spite of the hot, Texas, summer sun. The breathtaking views of rolling hills have a way of negating the heat. We’re told that the winery encourages visitors to come, pick up a bottle of wine or two and linger. Between their shop on Main Street in Fredericksburg and the winery down the road in Stonewall, they are firmly in the camp of “Make the wine and customers will come to us.” Why tamper with success? It’s a pretty good argument.

It Just Works
So what’s the future of Texas wine? Who knows. Kim and his crew at McPherson are ramping up for wider distribution. He feels like he’s winning. Dr. Becker and his eponymous winery have plans to expand their facilities and operations to accommodate the every-increasing, on-premises demand and his wine is delicious. Pedernales will keep selling to passers-through with picnic baskets and Narrow Path remains Zen-like in their “think small” approach. In some ways, they’re all doing it right. With a little luck and more of the hard work that Texans relish there may come a day soon when a customer in Michigan is standing in a wine shop checking out the label on a bottle of Texas Viognier and the lady next to them says,

“I know that wine! My husband and I toured the Texas Wine Country last summer. You should get a few bottles. Even better, you should GO there!”

Written by Tom Ramsey / Photography by Jody Horton and Robert Jacob Lerma

www.mcphersoncellars.com              www.narrowpathwinery.com

www.pedernalescellars.com              www.caprockwinery.com

www.williamchriswines.com             www.beckervineyards.com

www.visitfredericksburgtx.com        www.pontotocvineyard.com