The last two growing seasons in Texas’ High Plains AVA saw historically wretched weather that cut wine grape production by two-thirds, leaving the state’s wine business between a rock and a hard place. Now, legal claims that a chemical herbicide drift from nearby cotton fields has damaged thousands and thousands of vines may ultimately leave the local wine industry in no place at all.
The High Plains accounts for as much as 80 percent of production in the fifth biggest wine producing state in the country. But if herbicide drift has damaged enough vines—something more than 100 growers and winemakers claim it has, in a lawsuit filed against the herbicide’s manufacturers last summer—then the future of Texas wine may well be in doubt.
“The High Plains has to be an important part of the Texas wine industry,” says Jessica Dupuy, the author of The Wines of Southwest U.S.A. “It’s not just that the quality of the grapes is better than elsewhere; it’s the amount of production. Without it, there would be no industry.”
The lawsuit, filed against Bayer-Monsanto and BASF, makers of the Dicamba herbicide, shows the growers and producers are scared. Damaged vines would be bad enough, but there is also a fear that consumers will assume that herbicide drift has hurt wine quality. So far, there’s no proof it has, but if smoke-taint-panicked California is any indicator, imagine the panic from pesticide taint—real or imagined.
Who is to blame for the herbicide ending up on grapevines from nearby cotton rows?
There is also a sense that some growers, if they win the settlement, may plow their vines under and return to cotton. Because, in one of the many ironies surrounding the suit, several growers on the High Plains were cotton farmers who switched to grapes because they use less water and bring higher prices.
Another irony: The question doesn’t seem to be whether Dicamba, used to control weeds in cotton fields, actually damages vines. In fact, Ed Hellman, PhD, who has tracked Texas vineyards for more than 20 years as a professor of viticulture at Texas Tech, can confirm that it does, saying that drift has almost certainly cut grape yields. He’s even seen Dicamba symptoms on trees in Lubbock, which is dozens of miles away from said infected vineyards.
Rather, the lawsuit focuses on human error: Who is to blame for the herbicide ending up on grapevines from nearby cotton rows? Cotton and grapes are grown next to each other on the High Plains; that’s just a fact of the region’s agricultural life. So, the manufacturers’ argument is not without merit: Did the cotton farmers apply the herbicide correctly? If they had, it would have reduced—maybe prevented—drift into the neighboring vineyards. If not, it’s the farmers’ fault for misuse of the product, say the manufacturers, and the wine industry plaintiffs are just…out of luck.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!