The judge asked the assembled group, “Who can’t serve on this jury?”
I raised my hand. “I can’t, your honor. I have to go on a Texas wine press tour.”
The judge gave me a hard, steely look. “That’s an original excuse, sir, since we don’t have any wineries in Texas.”
Welcome to the conundrum that is Texas wine. The state is too hot and gets too little rain to fit the French or California model of grape growing and winemaking. Its political and religious climate worked against the wine industry for decades, forbidding some producers from putting up signs for their wineries and selling wine from the tasting room.
And the price-quality ratio, always a problem for regions without 500-year histories, has been a struggle in Texas for years. It’s one thing to buy an $18 wine, and Texas always had lots of those. It’s another to buy an $18 wine that’s worth $18, and that took a while to happen.
So is it any wonder the judge questioned my veracity in that courtroom some 15 years ago?
Today, though, visit Fredericksburg in the Hill Country on a weekend, and the crowds visiting the dozens of wineries along U.S. Route 290 remind you of other, more famous wine regions in California. Drop by the John Deere dealership in Brownfield, in west Texas, and the conversation is just as likely to be about grape growing as it is grain, sorghum, or cotton. The state has some 400 wineries, the fifth most in the country.
The key to that change? The decision to make Texan wine, not French wine or California wine.
What’s different about Texas
Texan wine offers more fruit than its European counterparts, with lower alcohol and ripeness than in California. It also has a focus on Spanish, Rhône, and Italian varieties that can better withstand daytime highs around 100-degrees F and survive on an inch and a half of rain a month. Texas’ terroir is so different that harvest ends around Labor Day, two months sooner than in much of California.
The High Plains around Lubbock, where about 80% of the state’s grapes are grown, sits on a flat-topped elevation called a mesa, at 3,000 feet. So it’s at an unusual altitude, save for a handful of wine regions in the world, and with much more direct sunlight. That’s because there aren’t any of the hills, slopes, and valleys common elsewhere, which can shelter the grapes from the sun. In west Texas, there’s just sun, and lots of it. That took some adjustment to figure out how to get high-quality fruit, by tinkering with things like canopy management; research at Texas A&M University and Texas Tech helped find the best approaches.
“Has that increased the quality? I think that still comes down to who is growing the grapes and what is happening in the cellar, which still runs the gamut,” says Jessica Dupuy, the author of “The Wines of Southwest U.S.A.” “But I do think that it’s raised the consistency in varieties that Texas can do well from year to year. We can do Cabernet and Chardonnay well, but not every year. The warm climate varieties have helped start each season on better footing.”
Dupuy credits the change in approach, from Bordeaux to Mediterranean varieties, to Kim McPherson, whose father, Doc, helped start the state’s first post-Prohibition winery, Llano Estacado, in 1976. Kim McPherson “has championed warm climate varieties, and his mentorship and open line of communication with producers across the state has helped to solidify that trend over the past 15 to 20 years.”
Which comes back to Prohibition, which affected state laws well after it had ended. Much of the state was dry in some form, until the beginning of the 21st century, and wineries in dry counties couldn’t sell from their tasting rooms, advertise, or ship elsewhere in the state. The Texas Legislature, hardly progressive, recognized that wineries and grape growers were important employers in rural areas and gradually relaxed the anti-winery laws.
These changes in state law were crucial to the industry’s survival, says Houston’s Russell Kane, the author of “The Wineslinger Chronicles,” a social and cultural history of Texas wine. Most wineries were too small to have retail or restaurant customers, and if they couldn’t sell from their tasting room or market their product, survival was difficult. So it seemed like every time a winery opened, he says, another one would close.
But allowing producers to sell from their tasting room — and to market to customers anywhere in the state — vastly increased their chances of success, Kane says. Wine clubs and direct shipping are now as common in Texas as in California.
And no, the judge didn’t let me out of jury duty — I was forced to sit through a car crash lawsuit and I missed the trip. Today? At least she would have known there were Texas wineries.
3 Texas wines to try:
This red blend, made with Cinsault, Carignan, and a smidge of Counoise, demonstrates what Rhône grapes can do in Texas. Even older vintages are fresh and fruity, with lots of red berries. But it’s surprisingly balanced and structured, with plenty of tannins and acidity.
Duchman made its name with Italian varieties. For years the Vermentino, which is now in short supply, was considered one of the best whites in the state. The Trebbiano offers depth and weight, with ripe tropical fruit that’s not overblown, and an almost chalky, mineral-driven finish.
Texas producers spent years weaning customers off Chardonnay in favor of Viognier, and the effort was one of the state’s great successes. This Pedernales, richer and with some oak, takes Viognier up another notch. At 14.5% ABV, it’s rich and relatively high in alcohol, but it offers lots of crispness. There is also plenty of juicy stone fruit. Serve with oysters.