Day Trips

Bacterial assault on Hill Country wineries.

Grapes under siege
Grapes under siege (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Hill Country wineries are under siege by a deadly bacteria that threatens their very survival. It is the kind of scenario that plays on bad, late-night television movies. The plot is about a killer virus that sucks the life out of the grape-bearing plants and leaves the vine gasping for water.

The Texas wine industry is being attacked by Pierce's Disease. The fatal sickness is caused by a bacterium spread by leafhopper insects. Once infected, the insect spreads the bacteria to other plants when it feeds on the fluid of the grape leaves. As the disease multiplies it inhibits the water uptake of the plant. Without nutrients the vine dies. The bacteria does not affect humans. Currently, there is no known cure, but research developments are looking promising.

The bacteria is believed to be indigenous to the Gulf Coast states and mid-Atlantic states where the humidity is high and the winters mild. Different strands of the disease also attack citrus plants, the oleander bush, and other plants. In the 1880s a strand of the disease decimated the wine industry in Southern California. More recently, it has wiped out thousands of acres of vineyards in California since 1990.

Pierce's Disease is one of the reasons Texas doesn't have 100-year-old commercial grapevines brought by early settlers. While the native grapes are immune to the disease, grapes from Europe, the most popular commercial varieties, are susceptible to the disease.

Since the modern Texas wine industry began in the 1970s there had not been a major outbreak until the latest outbreak entered the Central Texas vineyards in 1996. The disease has shown up as far north as Denton County, west to the Fort Davis area, and even in vineyards in Mexico. East Texas and the Hill Country have seen the worst infestations.

One of the hardest-hit was Grape Creek Vineyards between Johnson City and Stonewall. In 1996, the small vineyard produced 40 tons of grapes. The next year the yield was zero. All 17 acres of plants were destroyed. Ten years of vine growth were gone in less than a year. Ned Simes, the owner of Grape Creek, has faced the crop loss with the resolve needed by anyone in agriculture. "We still think we can grow a better-than-average grape," he says.

The vineyard has already replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese grapes. While they wait for the vines to reach commercial production, Simes is importing grapes from Arizona to continue their wine production.

Ed Auler's Fall Creek Vineyard on Lake Buchanan was hit by Pierce's Disease, but not devastated. As the third-largest winery in the state according to sales, Fall Creek processes about 300 tons of grapes each year. "The disease ravaged some people, damaged some, and some vineyards were unscathed," he says.

While a portion of his vines have shown signs of the disease, several of Auler's neighbor vineyards haven't been touched. He is currently going through an aggressive pruning program to try to save what he can. Thus far he was hit harder by a freeze in 1991.

"If you had asked me a year ago I wouldn't have been optimistic about finding a cure," Auler says. The common wisdom is that there is no cure for the disease and no resistant varieties of commercial grapes. (Black Spanish grapes used to make port wine and some table grapes do seem to resist the disease.)

The news that is giving Auler hope is research in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Auler says researchers are developing a harmless strand of the bacteria that would act like a flu shot for the vines and make them immune to the deadly virus.

"It's amazing the action that was taken to find a cure once California was infected," Auler says. When the disease threatened the $2.7 billion grape industry on the West Coast, dollars started rolling. Since 1998, industry and government have mobilized more than $4.7 million in assistance and research. In Texas, by comparison, a minuscule amount of research funds have been dedicated to the problem.

"If it's not cotton, corn, cattle, or pecans, [Texas A&M] isn't interested in researching the problem," Simes says. When the disease first hit his vineyards he tried to get the university to diagnose the problem. He eventually had to send samples to a private lab in Indiana to identify what was killing his plants.

"Without a cure, [no vineyard] is going to be around for very long," Auler says. "It's too fundamental of a problem. What they need to do now is find a way to inoculate the plants." He hopes that a remedy will be two or three years away.

In 1999, the Texas wine industry contributed an estimated $35 million to the economy and produced 1.1 million gallons of wine, down from a peak of 1.7 million gallons in 1997. Despite the setbacks of natural disasters, Auler and Simes are still optimistic about the wine industry's future in Texas.

"I see a real bright future for Hill Country wineries," Auler says. "We have proven that we can produce a good product." He anticipates very little change in the type of wines that he will be making.

At Grape Creek Vineyards, Ned Simes will be shying away from the white grapes, but will still be producing white wines with grapes purchased from other vineyards. The Sangiovese grape is an Italian grape that is used to make Chianti wine. The Cabernet Sauvignon is a versatile grape that will be used to make four or five types of wine.

"Basically, I think Hill Country wineries are in good shape if the owner is personally involved," Simes says. "The area has shown that it is conducive to growing good grapes."

"This spring will be the time to visit the Hill Country," Sims continued. "The wildflowers are going to be outstanding."

There are 18 wineries in the Austin area out of 32 statewide. For more information, call the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech at 806/742-3077 or go to In April, the Hill Country wineries will be sponsoring the Wildflowers and Wine Trail. Grape Creek Vineyards can be reached at 830/644-2710, Fall Creek Vineyards at 915/379-5361.

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