Shared from the 10/28/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition


Texas wine growing into its own

State now ranks fifth in U.S. production, and tourism at Hill Country vineyards is booming

Photos by Carlos Javier Sanchez /Contributor

Paul Bonarrgio, left, Messina Hof cofounder and Texas wine pioneer, had a wine beat out the French in a “Texas-French Shootout” in the early 1990s.


Camp Vino in Fredricksburg brought curious fans and experts from around the state for a two-day deep dive into Texas wines, wineries and vineyards.

Photos by Carlos Javier Sanchez / Contributor

Brenda Barnett drinks Messina Hof sparkling wine at their winery during Camp Vino. Attendees received direction from horticulture professors at Texas A&M, industry experts and chefs about the state’s wine.


Pierre Helwi lectures during the first day of Camp Vino, which included behind-the scenes tours.

FREDERICKSBURG — In the former church that houses the Gillespie County Historical Society, wine fans ranging from curious retirees to a master sommelier swirled glasses and sniffed deeply for notes like honeysuckle, blackberry or citrus.

They defended taste judgments as disparate as “silver” or “gold” to “disjointed” and “overstimulated.”

It was the faux wine competition at Texas’ first Camp Vino, a two-day event meant to simulate the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wine competition. Put on by Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin’s Foodways Texas and sponsored by H-E-B, Camp Vino was a crash course of everything Texas wine. Its aim: educating while promoting a wine industry that has become as much a draw to this Hill Country town as schnitzel and peach stands.

A bus took participants 10 miles east on U.S. 290 to Messina Hof’s Hill Country winery, where patriarch Paul Bonarrigo hosted a toast of sparkling wine from the state’s oldest vineyard of muscat canelli.

Texas will never be California in terms of wine production, Bonarrigo said, but in the past 40 years, the Lone Star State has gained ground.

Texas now ranks fifth in U.S. wine production; in 1980 it was 48th. The Texas Hill Country now ranks second in wine tourism after Napa. The annual wine festival in Grapevine draws more attendees than the Sonoma County Fair.

Still, Texas wines command only 4.2 percent of the U.S. market. And unlike states with more aggressive — and, in some cases, government-funded — marketing there’s little distribution outside Texas. Virginia pays out $1.8 million to help get its labels on wine lists in chic restaurants in Washington, D.C., and New York. The Texas Legislature allocates its much larger wine industry about $250,000.

Wine grapes were grown in Texas long before California, albeit in 1-acre plots that provided just enough for the priests running the Spanish missions.

The Val Verde Winery in Del Rio is the state’s oldest, established in 1883. By temporarily switching from wine to table grapes, it became the only Texas winery to survive Prohibition.

The birth of the modern Texas wine industry otherwise dates to the 1960s and 1970s, when pioneers such as Bonarrigo and A&M horticulturalist George Ray McEachern set out to find grape varieties that could survive in the Texas terroir. That turned out to be just about every grape.

But what works in the coastal desert of the Rio Grande Valley — where at least one vineyard grows in the no-man’s land south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence and north of the Rio Grande — will be different from what grows in the Hill Country or Galveston area or High Plains.

Due to factors like cool nights and winds that quickly dry soils and prevent fungal growth, the High Plains is home to 85 percent of the state’s grape production, with growers increasingly finding it more lucrative than cotton. The Hill Country, meanwhile, is 85 percent of the commerce.

“People say, ‘Why? Because it’s such a great place to grow?’ No,” Bonnarigo said. “Wineries exist because of population centers. Vineyards exist because of great growing conditions.”

McEachern said the state’s wine industry has developed slowly. In 1973, he won a $500 grant to plant 12 test vineyards and ultimately determine that, despite prevailing thought, the vinifera that is the base of the European grape family could grow in Texas.

“Our big challenge from Day One was confidence,” McEachern said. “We assumed we were bad.”

Confidence builder

That began to change in 1976 when the “Judgment of Paris” shocked the world. A California wine was judged superior to a French.

In the early 1990s, McEachern took a group of Texas wine makers, including Bonnarigo, to a “Texas-French Wine Shootout.” Bonnarigo remembers a chateau owner consoling him before the competition with the reminder that the French had been making wines for “many, many years.”

When Bonnarigo’s wine won and the Frenchman’s came in third, Bonnarigo replied, “Although we’ve been making wines in Texas for a very short period of time, we learn very quickly.”

But there were also setbacks for the Texas wine industry. Disease that struck the vines as well as insects, root rot, spring freezes, withering heat and years of drought interrupted by flood.

“One of the things about the vineyard is that’s where the heartache is,” said Julie Kuhlken, a second-generation winemaker with Pedernales Cellars. “On top of some disease pressure, we’ve had two years in a row when we had hail that just knocked us out to the point where we called it our hailstorm. Literally, if nothing else, it just went back and forth across the vineyard several times.”

The flip side are the bumper harvests and accolades contributing to an industry with an economic impact valued at $13.1 billion.

Each winery has its story.

Kuhlken’s parents, engineers, saw the Hill Country as their retreat from the corporate world.

“At the time it was the mid-’90s,” she said. There were two things to choose: emus and grapes. They chose grapes.”

Raymond Haak of Haak Vineyards and Winery in Galveston County took training from a 30-year electrical engineering career to solving problems in the vineyard.

The coastal moisture that might have spoiled most varieties proved perfect for blanc du bois, of which he fashions seven different wines.

Dabs Holliman of 1851 Vineyards in Fredericks-burg returned to the family ranch after a teaching career.

She expects this year’s harvest to produce 9,000 cases, which she sells directly to Cabernet Grill, a Fredericksburg restaurant that sells exclusively Texas wines, and to consumers visiting the winery’s tasting rooms.

Building respect

The biggest challenge for the industry is marketing both within and beyond Texas.

Price point is a problem; few Texas wineries generate the volume to compete with the under-$10 California chardonnays or Argentinian malbecs found on supermarket shelves.

It was also a fight to launch one of the successful Texas wine marketing events around: the Houston Rodeo’s wine competition.

“The big guys at the top said, ‘We’re rodeo guys, we drink beer, we drink bourbon, we drink Crown Royal, we have maybe some of these chard-ownays every now and then ’ ” said Tamara Atkins, a longtime volunteer at the show

The wine auction last year raised $2.4 million. There are wineries in California and New Zealand that proudly display saddles and belt buckles awarded at the Houston show.

“They’re starting to sell for almost as much as those big damn steers, and they don’t even poop on the stage,” Atkins said.

While retailers such as H-E-B, Total Wine & More and Spec’s have embraced Texas wines, restaurateurs don’t see the cachet.

“My grapes are sought after by a number of wineries, but to go into a restaurant and try to get a glass of Texas wine is like pulling teeth,” said Guy Stout, a distributor with Souther Glazer’s Wine & Spirits who is one of the world’s fewer than 300 master sommeliers. “They’ll buy their lettuce from this place nearby, and say all of our peaches come from Fredericks-burg, but they won’t put Texas wine on the menu.”

Jessica Dupuy, a cookbook author who writes about wine for Texas Monthly, said things have come along way from when an editor assigned her to figure out if Texas wines were any good.

“Ten years ago, I was nervous to put out a list of 20 that I like, and this year I’m at 50,” she said. “That’s super fun. The quality just continues to get better, and that’s awesome.”

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