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Inside the Texas Wine Trade

Four wineries are joining to launch Texas Fine Wine

By Wes Marshall, March 21, 2014, Food

Over the last 10 years, the quality of Texas wines has been on an exponential upward arc. At the turn of the millennium, you could count the good wineries in Texas on your two hands. Today, that list is in the dozens and is constantly growing. Chalk up the improvements to the fact that more wineries means new competition, and that encourages everyone to be on top of their game. In fact, Texas wines are now gathering a fan base even outside the state border. Double-blind competitions are forcing the hard-nosed critics who would normally snub Texas to admit we are making world-class wines. Texas wines have always done well at local contests like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Competition, where perhaps there was a touch of state-ism that allowed the wines into their top categories. But national and international wins were rare. In fact, back in the mid-Eighties, it was big news when Kim McPherson was the first Texan to win a double gold medal – for his 1984 Llano Estacado Chardonnay – at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. While everyone still gets excited when a Texas winery gets a national or international award, the truth is, Texas wines are winning so many awards that some people are starting to take them for granted. We shouldn't. These winemakers have had to claw their way to the top.

It's important to understand the myriad pressures a Texas winemaker faces today and why it really is a big deal when our wineries win national or international awards. Growth in the number of wineries has created a serious grape shortage, so a large number of Texas wineries are either topping off their Texas wines with California grapes, or just making the wine 100% from West Coast fruit. Then there's the problem with image. When I first started writing about Texas wine more than 15 years ago, there were a lot of puerile curmudgeons out there claiming all Texas wines were inherently inferior. It would be ridiculous to claim there aren't any bad wines in Texas, but it would be even sillier to dismiss all the world-class wines in Texas just because they are from here.

Traditionally, one of the primary solutions to the image problem has been for wineries to band together in geographical groups and offer events with wine, food, and prizes for folks visiting on the weekend. Susan Auler, co-owner of Fall Creek Vineyards with her husband Ed, was there in the early days. "In the mid-Seventies when Ed and I started Fall Creek Vineyards, there were only about six wineries in the state, and we realized the need to create a sense of place for growing grapes in the Hill Country," she explained. "So, we joined with the two other Hill Country wineries, and I created the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, and Ed did the work to create the Texas Hill Country American Viticulture Appellation. By joining the other wineries, we could create critical mass for promotion. When a winery chooses to promote themselves with a group of other wineries, the group effort does help to generate attention and to defray costs of promotion." While creating these groups did defray costs, they didn't automatically solve the image problem. Auler: "Oh, absolutely. The most important ingredient was making good wine. Our individual wines are what ultimately built our brand."

These geographically connected winery groups are called wine trails, but they can have their own problems. The primary one is the numerous "wineries" managed by rapscallions who cut their expenses down to the point that they just have a single barrel of cheap wine sitting in the corner of a tasting room. This barrel of swill allows them to call themselves a winery, and then they just operate like a wine bar, selling other Texas wines, often at prices that bear zero resemblance to the quality of what they are serving. In some cases, creating a wine trail is a defensive move on the part of the legitimate winemakers so they can try to exclude the reprobates.

But now we have a different kind of collaboration emerging. Four wineries that have all won big awards on the national and international stages have banded together as Texas Fine Wine. This could be so much marketing gobbledygook were it not for the serious quality of the wineries involved. If you take a look at my list of Texas' 10 best wines of 2013, you'll find these four wineries accounted for half of the winners, an amazing result. Pedernales Cellars, Duch­man Family Winery, Brennan Vineyards, and Bending Branch Winery boast a dozen national medals among them in the current vintage. Pedernales Cellars even took home the Grand Gold award for their 2012 Viognier Reserve ($40) at last year's Lyon International Wine Competition in France. That's quite an accomplishment when you take into account the fact that Condrieu, the area reputed to have the greatest Viognier on Earth, is just 25 miles south of where the judges were sitting. Despite Condrieu's proximity, the judges still chose a Texas wine as the winner.

Jeff Ogle of Duchman Family Winery believes this group of wineries has something to offer Texas residents. "The four partner wineries in the Texas Fine Wine group share a similar philosophy about Texas wine," he said. "We all believe – and are proving – that wines from Texas can be competitive on a world stage. Together we represent a wide variety of styles and varieties that we think highlights the very best of Texas appellation wines and winemaking. We make great wines, and we want people to know about it. Of course, we are a marketing group, not a cooperative winery, so we differ from one another quite a bit as well." Truth is, that's an understatement; their diversity is really an asset. "We are a group of like-minded wineries dedicated to making the best wines possible," Bob Young of Bending Branch told us. "Our wines have won awards at some of the most prestigious wine competitions in the world. [Texas Fine Wine] wants to set the standard for what customers should expect from a Texas wine."

Over the next year, you might find yourself face-to-face with more quality Texas wines than ever before. Fredrik Osterberg of Pedernales Cellars has set the targets on folks who can influence others. "Our main focus will be promoting our wines to influencers – such as wine buyers at retail stores and restaurants, and sommeliers. We want to see more Texas wines in restaurants across the state, and eventually, nationally. We want consumers to have confidence that if they buy a bottle from any of our wineries, they won't be disappointed." Bob Young agrees: "We want to set the standard for what customers should expect from a Texas wine."

If these were subpar wineries, they wouldn't have had the prestige and reputation to grab our attention. However, Duchman has already become quite famous for its $16 Vermentino, as has Bending Branch for its powerful Tannat ($60). Both Pedernales Cellars and Brennan Vineyards make world-class Viognier. As if Pedernales' win at last year's Lyon competition wasn't enough, Brennan won a much smaller contest that might even be more important. Several of us went to New York City to talk to wine journalists about Texas wines. I refused to go unless we could take bottles of ringer wines along and then bag everything that so no one, us included, knew what we were drinking. From the world of Texas Viognier, we took Pat Brennan's $18 version. We set it beside a bottle of very high-end Guigal Condrieu at just south of $100 a bottle. The writers who had the courage to taste blind (some from a very famous magazine would not) almost unanimously picked the Brennan Viognier.

Obviously, these are not the only great wineries in Texas – far from it. They certainly don't have a monopoly on quality. But the information that's useful for wine consumers is that, at least for now, several good winemakers have found each other, and by their membership in Texas Fine Wine, each is saying that they give their word that their partners are making brilliant wines. And I have no doubt that if any of their group started producing inferior wines, the other three would kick them out. Therefore trust one, then trust them all. Given the rapid changes in the Texas wine business, this kind of corroboration and validation is not just another marketing gimmick. These quality-based partnerships may be one of our most reliable indicators of where to find our best wines.

A dozen favorites from Texas Fine Wine

Whites Reds
Bending Branch Winery Picpoul Blanc Estate Tannat, Petite Sirah 1840
Brennan Vineyards Viognier, Lily Tempranillo
Duchman Family Winery Vermentino Aglianico, Dolcetto
Pedernales Cellars Viognier Reserve, Viognier Texas Tempranillo

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