In the 1980s, after a series of academic studies on its grape-growing potential, Texas became home to a post Prohibition viticultural boom. Its impacts continue to reverberate across the state.
“When the studies led to wineries opening, the mentality changed,” says Paul Mitchell Bonarrigo, CEO and head winemaker of Messina Hof Winery. “Because it’s not just about whether or not the plant can grow, but can it make great wine?”
Over the last 30-plus years, Texas winemakers have honed their craft and the state’s wine has established regional and national esteem.
Now, the industry is at a precipice.
“Ultimately, we need recognition to continue to grow,” explains Chris Brundrett, owner of William Chris Vineyards and president of Texas Wine Growers. “We need our story to be told.”
Is it time for winemakers to usher in a broad consumer audience? Or are Texas winemakers’ efforts best focused on resolving the challenges that create inconsistencies while working to define a world-class wine region?
Adapting to Constant Environmental Changes
Environmental and infrastructural issues pose challenges for winemakers. But in order to keep up with the growing demand and reputation of Texas wines, grape growers and winemakers need to be ready to adapt to the uncertain climate.
“No two growing seasons are alike,” says Ben Calais, owner and winemaker at Calais Winery in Hye, just outside of Fredericksburg.
“From the Hill Country to the High Plains is 330 miles, farther than the distance between Bordeaux and Champagne —it’s different, the soil, the water [and] the climate,” says Jon Leahy, winemaker at Becker Vineyards.
In the Texas High Plains, where nearly 70% of Texas’ grapes are grown, the climate stays dry and gets cool at night. But frost and hail can “decimate primary buds,” says Akhil Reddy, co-owner of Reddy Vineyards in Brownfield.
“Especially in the last few years, frost events have happened close to when harvest is finishing or during harvest,” says Nikhila Narra Davis of Narra Vineyards, also in the High Plains.
And so, Narra Davis and her husband, Greg Davis, focus on high-quality, low-yield reds like Italian Teroldego and Carmenère, which they find do well when there’s fruit on the vines.
“Cabernet, Tannat and Tempranillo are big Texas grapes, but they are not as resistant to frost, at least not on our property,” Narra Davis says.
Dr. Vijay Reddy, a soil scientist, plant physiologist and founder of Reddy Vineyards, often protects his vines from hail with a canopy well into June. When he removes the canopy in July, the concern becomes exposure to high heat, as temperatures can reach upward of 100°F and burn grape clusters.
Along with canopies, Eric Sigmund, chief operating officer at Reddy Vineyards, explains that Reddy grows 38 different varieties to mitigate climate variability. The diversity, in turn, leads to a wellspring of creativity in the winemaking.
Andy Timmons, owner of Lost Draw Vineyards, piloted using a wind machine to mitigate spring frost a few years ago. Many growers have since implemented this practice and started to use hail nets.
Dr. Richard Becker, who cofounded Becker Vineyards in Fredericksburg in 1992, was the first to plant Viognier in Texas. Becker now sources Viognier from five different vineyards, safeguarding against unexpected turns in weather while showcasing a diversity of Texas terroir.
Also in the Texas High Plains, winemakers contend with the fact there is only, on average, 18 inches of annual rainfall. The Ogallala aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to northwest Texas, provides a critical water supply. But it’s not inexhaustible.
Recharge depends on rainfall not just in Texas, but farther north also, says Dr. Reddy. He conserves as much water as possible and uses drip irrigation. Akhil Reddy foresees relying exclusively on solar power in the future and integrating a water reuptake system.
A Growing Industry at a Crossroads
“I want to showcase Texas,” says Akhil Reddy, “as people don’t know how sophisticated the grape growing and the winemaking are. We have a lot of confidence in our fruit.”
Akhil Reddy is interested in multitiered growth, with a combination of direct-to-consumer sales and national distribution.
Wineries like Messina Hof, McPherson Cellars and William Chris Vineyards are also focusing on building a wide consumer audience.
A commercial line of wines allows Bonarrigo to focus on cultivating varieties he feels have tremendous potential in Texas but may not yet have as much of an audience, like Sagrantino, for example.
“We have a lot to learn, and that happens in growth,” he says. “We open locations throughout the state and introduce virtual programs, so we can reach a broad customer base and educate about the quality of Texas wines. That part is one of the coolest things about this.”
“We were told when we started that everybody in Texas drinks sweet wines,” recalls Nichole Bendele, public relations and tasting room manager at Becker Vineyards. “And yet, at wine shops, liquor stores and grocery stores there are a plethora of wines from around the world, and many choices—so why would you give a Texas winery a different set of recommendations or limitations?”
“I never had a burning desire to sell wine at the grocery store,” says Brundrett. “But we’ve got to create demand for our wines outside of the state of Texas. Can we compete on a $20 to $30 scale? Hell yeah.”
Dan Gatlin grows nine clones of Cabernet for Inwood Estates in Fredericksburg.
In his 41 growing seasons, Gatlin has experimented with 45 different grape varieties in nine vineyards. He believes focusing on low yields and genetics will lead to the very best Texas wines. But that means fewer bottles to sell, and at a higher price point.
Gatlin ships wine to 30 states and has a large direct-to-consumer following. He worries that working toward higher yields is driven by economics instead of an interest in creating the caliber of wine that distinguishes renowned regions.
Texas Wine Growers formed in 2017 and became a member of the Wine Origins Alliance that year. It has since successfully advanced a bill that requires wines labeled with Texas American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) to be made from 100% Texas-grown grapes.
“Terroir has value,” says Calais. “If you’re not expressing terroir, you are removing any sense of place from the wines. No major wine region has been successful that is not on that quest.”
“Our varietals here in Texas should be in some sort of varietal correctness, but they will have character that our soil within our borders imparts,” says Austin-based winemaker Randy Hester of C.L. Butaud Wines. “That’s the purpose, right? A Napa Cab tastes different from a Chilean Cab, which tastes different from a French Cab. Different varietals taste different in every wine region.”
Calais emphasizes, “We need to teach that this matters in Texas, just like it matters in France, California, Oregon and Washington state. We are the new kid on the block, and we want to be lined up with the people that matter instead of with states that don’t have any regulation on sense of place. But then, regulation only gets you so far after that.”
“To me, we have only started to scratch the surface of what we can do here,” says Hester. “We have millions of acres and very suitable soils and climates to continue to grow and grow and grow.”
Tony Offill, winemaker at William Chris Vineyards, echoes this. “I don’t think we want to be consistent in taste. We want to be consistent in good wine.”
With Texas wine in the spotlight, the industry faces fascinating and complex questions. “For a lot of complicated reasons, the real untold story of Texas wine is how good it is,” says Dr. Becker.