By Melinda Esco
Wine can be made from just about any fruit but most, if not all, commercial Texas wines are made from grapes. Texas winemakers are recognized in international wine competitions and the industry has grown significantly over the past couple of decades.
For centuries, grapes have grown wild in Texas. Fifteen native species grow here, giving Texas the distinction of claiming more native species than anywhere in the world. In the 1600s, Spanish missionaries, with vines they brought from Mexican missions, planted grapes near the Rio Grande close to present-day El Paso, thus establishing the first vineyard at the Ysleta Mission. But for many early Texas settlers, grape growing was unfamiliar.
As Europeans from wine-producing countries began settling in Texas in the 1800s, they brought grapevine cuttings with them, and they planted the rootstock on their newly acquired land. A number of these imported grapes grew for a while, but the vines eventually died and only the native varieties survived.
Illinois native Thomas Volney Munson (1843–1913) graduated from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, earned a Master of Science degree from the State Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky, and worked at the university as a science professor in 1870–1871. In 1873, he moved to Nebraska and began his career as a horticulturist and viticulturist. His passion for grape growing motivated him to experiment with the native wild grapes of the area, but the weather extremes in Nebraska hampered his efforts, so he moved in 1876 to the North Texas town of Denison where his brothers were already living.
Munson quickly recognized the enormous diversity of soil and climate around Texas, and he began traveling extensively throughout the state to collect native varieties of grapes. His research led him to write a number of articles on the classification and hybridization of grapes. Much of his work concentrated on improving American grapes, and his studies eventually led to the introduction of more than 300 grape varieties.
The Texas wine industry grew in the late 1800s, and by the turn of the century, as many as 25 wineries were operating in the state. But in 1919, the 18th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the Volstead Act, was passed and Prohibition outlawed the production and sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide. Only one Texas winery survived: the Val Verde Winery that was established by Frank Qualia in 1883 near the border of Mexico in Del Rio. (See Italian Texans.)
Originally from Italy, Qualia moved to Mexico when he was 18 years old and eventually ended up in San Antonio. It was there that he heard that land was available through a land development program, so he moved to Del Rio and acquired some fertile property. He farmed various crops, including grapes. What began as winemaking for family and friends later turned into a commercial venture. During Prohibition, Qualia continued to grow grapes, and his vineyard was able to survive the ban on alcohol by selling table grapes.
It wasn’t until 1933, when Prohibition was repealed by another amendment to the Constitution, that the wine industry got a new start. But it still took years for Texas to make a comeback. Even after the repeal of Prohibition, there were still many laws on the books governing the sale and distribution of alcohol that hindered the industry. (In fact, today, there are a number of Texas counties or parts of counties that remain “dry,” where the sale of alcohol is prohibited.) Vineyards in California started thriving and when their wines began winning in international competitions, people began to notice.
In 1971, Dr. Bobby Smith, an Arlington osteopathic physician, bought 50 acres of land near Springtown in Parker County and planted a vineyard that next year. A few years later, the Llano Estacado Winery just outside Lubbock began operations. Then, the Shady Lake Growers Association was formed, and a new generation of Texas wineries was born.
Texas law, however, needed changes in order to support winemaking as an industry. It was illegal for Smith to make wine in Springtown. Unable to afford a lobbyist, he spearheaded a group that eventually influenced the Texas Legislature to pass the Texas Farm Winery Act of 1977, which enabled grape growers to produce wine in a dry county as long as the distribution of the wine itself took place where it was legal to do so. But some of the best vineyards were located in dry counties.
Smith bought property in nearby Lakeside, just inside Tarrant County, where it was legal to sell alcohol. He opened a tasting room there but had to establish it as another business so he could legally sell the wine he made in Springtown to the tasting room he ran in Lakeside. Smith later had to sell his Lakeside tasting room for the expansion of Texas 199 but continues to maintain his Springtown vineyard.
In 2001, laws changed again. Susan Combs, then-commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), was instrumental in shepherding through the state legislature the successful passage of laws that paved the way for Texas wineries to profit. It finally became legal in dry counties for wineries to sell wine in their tasting rooms and to ship wine to or from dry or wet areas.
After subsequent years of appeals and legal wrangling, customers now can place their orders with any winery in the state and pick them up at approved package stores.
A Booming Business
Texas currently claims the distinction as the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the country, after California, New York, Washington, and Oregon. More than 8,000 people are employed in some aspect of the wine business, and the industry pours over a billion dollars a year into the Texas economy. There are more than 200 wineries in Texas scattered throughout the state. >
Not all wineries grow grapes, and not all vineyards make and sell wine; but the ones that do both rely heavily on tourists to support their ventures. The wine business in Texas is as much about tourism as it is about the grapes on the vine or the wine in the bottle.
Wine events across the state range from intimate dinners and afternoon concerts to seasonal tours of one- to three-day road trips at various times during the year to visit regional wineries. Occasionally, winemakers work together to offer opportunities for folks to taste a number of wines from the different vineyards in a single setting. Some of the larger wineries may include a bed and breakfast (B&B), and a number of them support restaurants that prepare dishes to showcase their wines.
As Gladys and Raymond Haak, owners of the Santa Fe vineyard and winery bearing their last name, put it: “We’re in the entertainment business.” In addition to hosting Sunday afternoon concerts during the summer, they have their grapevines blessed by a priest and they invite the public to help them harvest. Many wineries conduct tours of their operations to share with the public how they make their wine. There are also numerous wine festivals. Grapefest—probably the state’s largest one—is held annually in Grapevine over several days in September, and thousands of people attend.
The Texas Department of Agriculture supports the state’s winemakers with the GoTexan program that helps with marketing and representation on state, national, and even an international level.
Winemaking is an expensive venture. Initially, a winemaker must decide whether to grow the grapes used to make the wine or to purchase them from other growers. This business decision affects all the rest: the location and size of the winery; what to include, such as a tasting room, an events center, a restaurant, or a B&B; which grapes to grow; which wines to make; how to market them. It takes deep pockets to finance a winery, and there are considerable risks. Even as the number of wineries across the state continues to grow, several of them have closed. Running a winery while maintaining a vineyard requires substantial resources, including workers, and as romantic a venture as it may seem to be, it is simply a huge commitment of money, time, and effort.
Despite risks, including disease, pestilence, and extreme weather conditions, growing grapes in the Lone Star State can be profitable, and the demand for Texas-grown grapes has skyrocketed.
There are a number of challenges to growing grapes that need careful consideration and the best solutions for success: how to irrigate; how to recognize disease and how to prevent it; how to control weeds and pests; and how to prune the vines. Determining which grapes to plant can be a daunting task and, consequently, has the potential to make or break a vintner. Over the past several years, however, the TDA has implemented programs to educate prospective winemakers and aid them in making such important decisions.
The Texas Winegrape Network, a joint effort by Texas A&M University and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, is a valuable resource for grape farmers. There is even a grape-growing and winemaking degree offered through the Viticulture and Enology program at Grayson County College outside Sherman. Aspiring vintners can choose between an Associate of Applied Science degree or a Viticulture Certificate Program. Classes are taught at the T. V. Munson Viticulture and Enology Center located at the college, a facility that includes a library, classrooms, and labs for processing grapes to make juice and wine. It is home to the T. V. Munson Memorial.
Grapevines generally are sold as dormant, bare-rooted plants. Grapes are self-fruitful, which means they need no pollination, and most are grafted — the vine is started with a cutting from one variety that is then connected to another variety by a horticultural process called grafting. The resulting rootstocks are resistant to certain pathogens. The variety of the grape determines the variety of the wine. The quality of the grape determines the quality of the wine but, additionally, every single element in the process influences the quality. The type of soil, the mineral content of the water, and the timing of the harvest all affect the outcome of the wine long before the actual fermentation process even begins.
Location is key in the grape-growing business — conditions have to be just right to grow grapes successfully and the location of a vineyard affects the amount of grapes harvested as well as the quality of the fruit.
There are eight federally approved viticulture areas in Texas and, although they are somewhat determined by region, the designation simply means that a minimum of 85 percent of a wine’s grapes must be grown in that particular viticulture in order to be labeled from that area. They are the Bell Mountain Viticultural Area, established in 1986; Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country Viticultural Area, established in 1988; Texas Hill Country Viticultural Area, established in 1991; Escondido Valley Viticultural Area, established in 1992; Texas High Plains Viticultural Area, established in 1993; Davis Mountains Viticultural Area, established in 1999; Mesilla Valley Viticultural Area, established in 1985; and Texoma Viticultural Area, established in 1992. The viticulture area in which a vineyard is located has everything to do with deciding which varieties of grapes to grow.
Grape growing is labor intensive, and the success of a vineyard depends on the people who work in it. Currently, the single biggest threat to grape production in Texas is Pierce’s disease. There is a huge effort by a number of institutions coordinating with the Texas A&M University System to understand and ultimately control this devastating disease, for which TAMU has established the Texas Pierce’s Disease Research Laboratory and Vineyard at Fredericksburg.
Irrigation is critical for maintaining a vineyard. Grapes are mostly water, and with the extremes in weather, especially when it comes to rain, mechanical irrigation is a requirement. The most effective way to irrigate is by a simple drip system that supplies water to the roots, because overhead watering promotes disease. The Texas Agri-Life Extension Service offers research on best practices that consider such factors as soil composition and evapotranspiration data. If watering is the most critical component to a good crop, pruning is second. Following scientific methods of pruning during the establishment of a vineyard is important and necessary in subsequent years, as well.
Harvested grapes, whether by machine or hand, are sorted and destemmed. Large, industrial stainless-steel crushers extract juice from the grapes. Juice from all varieties is essentially the same color; wine gets its color from how long the skins of the grapes soak in the juice during fermentation.
For white wines, the skins are removed immediately after crushing; leaving the skins in for a short amount of time results in a blush wine, while leaving them in for an extended period of time yields the reds. The crushed grapes are allowed to settle, and the sediment is removed by a process called racking, whereby juice is pumped out of one container and into another.
Next, yeast is added, which begins the fermentation process, converting sugars in the juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation takes place in large steel vats that are monitored closely by measuring samples for sugar content. The winemaker also checks taste and smell. White and blush wines undergo clarification, a filtration process to protect against microbial spoilage that is unnecessary for red wines. White, blush, and reds wines then undergo a fining process to remove tannins. Next come stabilization processes to prevent tartrate crystals from forming. The quality of wine is strongly affected by the stabilization process; the goal of a winemaker is to achieve stability without over-processing.
Wine is then stored and aged in oak barrels, which when full weigh about 600 pounds each. The wine can be racked again a time or two during the aging process. After aging is complete, the wine is ready to be bottled. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) enforces strict guidelines for bottling wine. The bottling area must meet state requirements, and no bottles can be reused. Corks can be either organic or manmade; screw tops are also used. Bottle labels must adhere to labeling guidelines and be approved by the TABC, as well as the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
– written by Melinda Esco for the Texas Almanac 2016–2017. She wrote the book Texas Wineries, which was published by TCU Press.