Texan Winemakers Want to Their State to Become the Next Napa Valley
To say that Texas is not known for its fine wine is to trade in understatement. But quietly—and perhaps surprisingly, especially in a state known for making itself heard—the industry here has boomed, with the number of wineries quadrupling in the last...
Photo by Emma Dixon
In the tank room at Pedernales Cellars, wine is slowly being pumped into the open neck of an oak barrel. An occasional splash of deep scarlet stains the wood as last summer's Tempranillo harvest is tasted and blended, filling the air with the sweet, warm smell of red wine.
But this isn't a Cabernet being decanted in California, or even a Rioja in northern Spain. I am in the heart of Texas, in a vineyard that has only been here for ten years.
To say that Texas is not known for its fine wine is to trade in understatement. But quietly—and perhaps surprisingly, especially in a state known for making itself heard—the industry here has boomed, with the number of wineries quadrupling in the last decade.
The two hubs of Texan wine—the Hill Country and the Panhandle—have both seen huge changes, with farmers who had traditionally traded cotton in the high plains now turning their fields over to grapes.
And while growers here realize they face a skeptical public—as awards have started trickling in from competitions in San Francisco and as far away as Lyon in France—people are starting to take note. Recently, wine guru Ray Isle even called the state one of the most interesting wine regions in the country. The quality of some of the wines now being produced, he said, could allow Texas to go "head to head with any major wine region."
It was Spanish missionaries who first brought wine to this southern border state in the 1600s, but after centuries of production, the industry was decimated by Prohibition.
"Nothing was left in this area," says Julie Kuhlken, a co-founder at Pedernales. "And Texas was tough. Even once Prohibition ended, it was very hard to produce and move alcohol around. I remember when parts of Dallas were dry, and seeing the liquor stores out of town along the highway."
Starting from scratch, in the 1970s, a handful of intrepid growers returned to the Hill Country just outside of Austin. Production started to increase in the 90s. The problem was, the wine simply didn't taste very good.
"There was quite a bit of Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot. The scene was dominated by a few producers that were very proud of the idea of making wine in Texas," says Devon Broglie, a master sommelier and the associate global beverage buyer at Whole Foods Market.
"These wines were the right price and they were good for Texan wine—but we always added that: 'good for Texan wine,'" he says. "Ten years later, Texas is making wines that are increasingly becoming part of the conversation."
Knowing that something had to change, new vineyard owners began ripping up the old vines and planting grapes suited to dry weather and difficult soil.
"There was a realization that we must focus on grapes that do well in this climate," says Fredrik Osterberg, Kuhlken's husband and the president of Pedernales Cellars. "Chardonnay, Pinot … you can grow these in Texas but they are not going to be world-class wines."
Instead, they opted for Viognier and Tempranillo, which Osterberg says is "fast shaping up to be a flagship grape for Texas." These are varieties that thrive rather than wither in the heat.
Pedernales Cellars was not the only winery to see potential in the hot dusty soil of Texas. Cruising down Highway 290, an hour outside of the state capital of Austin, you find yourself in the heart of the wine country, with vineyards and wineries crowding the roadside.
A boom of truly Texan proportions has seen the number of wineries in the state grow from 46 in 2001 to 220 in 2011, according to a report by the US Department of Commerce. Wine production doubled between 2001 and 2009, from 600,000 cases to 1.2 million, the same report found. More recent figures from Texas Tech University, which monitors the industry, show there are now 286 wineries, with more than 11,000 people now employed in the field and an estimated 1.6 million wine tourists visiting the state's vineyards every year.
"Seven years ago, if we had 50 people to the tasting room at the weekend, we were excited. Now, 300 people is a good crowd," says Ron Yates, a seventh-generation rancher who bought the Spicewood Vineyards in 2005. "We are still fighting [reactions like] 'What? They make wine in Texas?!', but things are changing rapidly."
Growers here often face a perfect storm of seasonal extremes. From scorching summer days to spring frost, ice storms to the constant battle against drought, it is fair to say that the local terrain is not hospitable to fragile varietals.
"It's definitely not an easy thing to grow grapes in Texas," says Laura Martin, the owner of Perissos Vineyards, who started fermenting wine in her garage but now runs a 16-acre estate in the Hill Country. "The key is finding the varietals that are suited to us here. There are not that many because it is so hot. The vines have to be stressed to do well, but it has to be calculated."
Some years, the weather can be so severe that much of the harvest is wiped out, such as in 2013 when the Panhandle saw four consecutive frosts. Even the more robust Tempranillo grape could not survive.
"There's no high plains Tempranillo from 2013," says Kuhlken, who says that spring was so bad they were forced to make a best-of-the-rest "hardy survivors" blend from their white grapes of Albariño, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc.
But Texas is not a state to be cowed either by an uphill PR battle nor a fight with mother nature, and Dan Cook, tasting room manager at Spicewood, says there is a sense of excitement in the industry.
"We are Napa Valley 30 years ago, as far as the growth and the expansion of the vineyards goes," he says, walking through the vines that, while bare, are due to bud any day to provide next year's vintage. "We are finding the grapes that are good for Texas and it's just going to get bigger and better. It feels [like] there's a tidal wave. We are on the crest and are riding that wave."