Texas Wines: Behind the Cellar Door
Not all the Texas wine you buy is made from grapes grown in our state. In fact, most of it isn’t.
By Katharine Shilcutt and Jeremy Parzen Thursday, Jun 21 2012 - Houston Press
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Unlike Haak, most Texas wineries can't get by on Texas grapes alone. Although the state produces more than 1 million cases of wine a year, Texas is drinking itself dry. And what do Texas wineries do when they can't grow enough grapes to make the roughly 12 million cases a year that we drink?
They import the grapes from California.
That's right — the wine in your cupboard marked "Texas" that you purchased from a Texas winery is most likely made with California grapes. It's the dirty little secret of the Texas wine industry, an agricultural and tourism juggernaut that made $1.7 billion in 2009 alone, up from only $133 million eight years earlier.
As the Texas wine industry has flourished, it's brought with it a host of issues — including occasionally deceptive marketing practices, overreliance on chemical correction of "bad" grapes in the cellar and a propensity among Texas grape growers to focus too much on grape varieties that don't thrive in Texas. But that's not to say it's all plonk. It's in an awkward phase, a series of growing pains that serious Texas winemakers are eager to leave behind as they stretch toward a better future.
The unforgiving Texas climate, marked by late-spring freezes and arid, brimstone summers, can't sustain grape growing like California's Napa Valley, which lies at the peak of one of the most fertile and productive farming corridors in the world and enjoys the consistently mild weather and cool summer evenings necessary to deliver fruit with freshness and healthy acidity.
In a "bad vintage" like the disastrous 2011 harvest, plagued by drought and extreme temperatures, says Gabe Parker, director at-large of the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, "less than 50 percent of the wine bottled in Texas is grown here." In a "good vintage" like the 2010 bumper crop, "more than 50 percent of the fruit is grown in Texas," he adds.
Is that the best that Texas can do? In a state known for its self-reliance and its unabashed homegrown pride, do citizens realize that even in the best-case scenario, only half of the wine in their glass was raised by Texas farmers? Few are aware of federal regulation that allows bottlers to label their products as Texas wine regardless of its source, as long as "For Sale in Texas Only" is included in the fine print.
In typical Texan style, we like to drink what we make: Nearly all of the wine bottled in Texas is consumed here as well, even if it's not grown here. That's one of the reasons national wine writers like New York-based Alice Feiring, when asked to comment on Texas wines, don't have much to say on the subject: "I really haven't tasted enough wines in Texas to make any sort of educated assessment," says Feiring, "except that conventional grapes are really not the way to go."
It's the same argument Raymond Haak makes when he talks about the Blanc du Bois that's the crux of his vineyard's success. But although the grape thrives here, many Texas wineries would still rather focus on the basics: Cabernets, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs — in other words, wines that are familiar to the average wine drinker but that are nearly impossible to grow here. And when those grapes fail, the wineries turn to California to supplement their meager yield.
"It's a very difficult grape to grow, Cabernet is. It's a very labor-intensive grape. Having said that, I've tasted some very decent Cabernets from Texas," says Haak. But just as quickly he adds: "Were they as decent as those from Napa? I don't think so."
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