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Texas: There's Wine in Them Thar Hills

Harvest, cowboy style. [Source: Vintage Texas]
Harvest, cowboy style. [Source: Vintage Texas]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

For many of us the image of the Texas countryside is simply a mash-up of remembered scenes from any number early westerns: various stretches of dusty wasteland dotted with cowboys drinking bourbon and clusters of melancholy cattle—maybe a saloon or two. Wine is likely not the first thing that comes to mind, and it's a bit of a reach to insert it into such a landscape. But Texas claims a wine history that is nearly a century older than California's. Its is one of the most viticulturally diverse growing regions in the world, and thanks to a man named T.V. Munson, Europe owes its recovery from Phylloxera to Texas.

Despite all this though, The Lone Star State has only recently seen serious growth. Prohibition hit Texas harder than most and it was slow to get up. But over the last decade the state has seen its number of commercial wineries grow from 40 to more than 200. It's now the fifth-largest wine producing state in the U.S., and after years of struggling with Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties, Texas winemakers are finding increased success with grapes like Tempranillo and Viognier.

Currently about 95 percent of all of the wine produced in Texas is consumed by Texans, but in the years to come this is sure to change. The state boasts a bustling wine tourism industry, and as wineries continue to procreate and improve in quality, Texas just may be the next big player in domestic wine production.

The Padres
About a hundred years before they would arrive in California, the Spanish Franciscan priests planted Mission grapes—a variety of Spanish origin also known as Listán Negro—near present day El Paso. Winemaking for sacramental purposes would remain consistent throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but it wasn't until European immigrants arrived in the mid 1700s that Texas wine became more than just one-half of the Eucharist.

The Europeans immediately began experimenting with Texas's native varieties—of which there are plenty. North America boasts 21 native grapevine species—the most in the world—and 15 of them grow wild in Texas. By comparison, almost all of Europe's wines originate from only one species of grapevine—Vitis Vinifera.

How Texas's native vine diversity actually translates to successful wines is a more complicated issue; not all vine species are necessarily created equal, and many of Texas' native vines produce wines that are marginally more interesting than Pellegrino. It would take decades and warfare with Pierce's Disease—a bacterial vine plague long considered the biggest inhibitor to successful production in the state—before Texas would be able to pin down what grows well in its hills and high plains.

The Italian Job
Of course, no story of Western winemaking would be complete without an Italian or two. Around the mid 1800s, the West saw an influx in Italian immigrants, many of whom had a keen interest in bringing a piece of their country's wine-centric culture to America. In California, you had pioneers like Andrea Sbarboro of Italian Swiss Colony and Secundo Guasti of Italian Vineyard Company, and in Texas you had Frank Qualia of Val Verde Winery.

Val Verde was established in 1833 in Southwest Texas, and was planted to Mission and Lenoir, the latter being the most popular native variety to this day. Prior to Prohibition the estate experimented with hundreds of native and Vinifera vines to test their resistance to Pierce's Disease and rot. Their findings would inform new wineries over the next half-century, growing Texas' acreage under vine to 1,800 by Prohibition.

East Texas Savior
But before the 21st amendment would send Texas into nearly a century of obscurity, a man named T.V. Munson would put the state on the international map. The "East Texas Savior of the French Wine Industry," as he is often called, is credited with idea to graft Vinifera vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock—more specifically, native Texas rootstock—during the late 1800s when the pest destroyed most of Europe's vineyards. To this day, much of the Europe's rootstock is of Texas origin.

He also is responsible for a number of hybrid varieties—many of which are resistant to Pierce's Disease, in varying degrees—which are now collectively known as the "Munson varieties," and is credited with creating the most comprehensive catalog of American vine species. As of late there is a growing interest in cultivating these grapes along the Gulf Coast where the vines are more prone to disease and rot due to high levels of humidity.

The Modern Era
It wasn't until the late 1980s that Texas began to see signs of serious growth. Only one winery, Val Verde, survived Prohibition and the industry continued to decline after repeal and by 1970 Texas had less than 90 acres under vine.

Today the state is home to eight AVAs, two of which are considered to be the state's viticultural Promised Land: the Texas High Plains and the Hill Country.

The High Plains, once known for its cattle and cotton production, is located in Texas’s panhandle near Lubbock at altitudes that range from 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level. The climate is warm and dry and soil is primarily red sandy loam on top of limestone which traps moisture and allows the grapes to ripen. Here you’ll find a good deal of Cabernet Sauvignon, American's great fallback variety, but in recent years there's been a good deal of experimentation with grapes like Tannat (grown primarily in Southwest France and Uruguay), and Vermentino.

In the Hill Country, the scene is far more reminiscent of Napa Valley, with rolling hills and endless gradations of green. But the climate here is universally hotter than California's and winemakers are finally beginning to quit banging their heads against a wall to produce Cabernet blends that mimic Bordeaux or Napa. Here the climate is more akin to Spain, Southern Italy, or the Rhone, and winemakers are beginning to experiment with grapes from these areas, with great success.

The question remains though: Can you really convince Americans to drink Tempranillo from Texas? We are, in many instances, married to the idea of Bordeaux and Burgundy mimicry as the model from American wine production. Even though places like California's Central Coast have found success with Rhone varieties--Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay still rule the day. But as our tastes began to broaden and our awareness of European wine increases, perhaps there's room for a state whose production shuns the established model.

Giddy up, Texas.

Further Reading: Vintagetexas.com - the best blog on Texas wine there is penned by Russ Kane, the unofficial expert on Texas wine.

Wineries of note:
Cruz de Comal/Dickson – Texas Hill Country (further reading via Saignee)
Texas Hills Vineyard – Texas Hill Country
Duchman Family Winery – Texas Hill Country
Newsom Vineyards – Texas High Plains

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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