How Texas Is Texas Wine?

What “Truth in Labeling” means for Texas winemakers and vineyards

At the beginning of this month, over 30 Texas winemakers congregated with wine lovers at Featherstone Ranch in Stonewall for the second annual Texas Wine Revolution. The aptly named festival was started not only to celebrate rosé made from 100% Texas-grown grapes, but to shed light on our state's rapidly growing wine industry. Through interactive panels, tastings, and discussions, consumers were also educated on a certain (pink) elephant in the room that has garnered increasing awareness in the past two years: Less than half of over 400 Texas wineries are making their wine from locally grown grapes.

Currently, federal standards require that bottles labeled "Texas wine" must contain a minimum of 75% Texas-grown fruit, but state bills put forth by Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) could soon require that, over a phase-in period of five years, 100% of a wine's volume come from Texas-grown fruit in order to claim the state as an appellation of origin. House Bill 1514 and Senate Bill 1833, the "Truth in Labeling Act," were filed in February and are currently making their way through the 85th Legislature.

"If we can pass this bill and make that Texas appellation truly mean that when you pour a glass of Texas wine, you are drinking Texas fruit, from Texas soil, grown by Texas farmers, we feel it will ultimately help preserve and grow our Texas wine industry," says Rep. Isaac, who says the legislation came as a result of talking with several wineries and listening to consumers who were shocked to learn that a Texas wine label means, more often than not, that a wine was merely bottled in Texas using mostly local grapes.

"Texans are proud of our state, and most people I know would be disappointed to know something labeled Texan is only partly Texan – particularly if it's also from California, forgive my language," Rep. Isaac explained to council members in a public hearing this past Monday, April 24. "You cannot go Texan with Texafornia wine."

If HB 1514 passes, no Texas wineries would be required to change their current business model, which could include sourcing grapes from outside the state. Their labels would simply need to state the source of the wine, and by 2021 anything made from less than 100% Texas grapes couldn't be labeled as such. Such a ruling would place Texas in the ranks of 20 respected winemaking regions across the globe that have committed to protecting the reputation of their products through appellation.

"Every wine region in the world, emerging or established, has to build trust with the consumer, and that trust starts with the place of origin stated on the label," says Rae Wilson, wine consultant and founder of Wine for the People. "If the Texas industry wants to build a reputation as a serious emerging wine region – within or beyond its own borders – truth in labeling is a fundamental step."

In Good Times and Bad

According to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations, Texas winemakers can currently supplement their Texas juice with bulk juice purchased from other regions (usually California, where grapes are available at lower rates thanks to higher yields and less chance of frost). Opponents to HB 1514 argue that our state's unpredictable and extreme weather renders this a necessary allowance.

"Texas is simply not yet ready for this to happen," says Mark Hyman, president and CEO of Lubbock's Llano Estacado, one of the largest and oldest wineries in Texas, producing 170,000 cases a year. "The state has not demonstrated that we have long-term, sustainable, quality yields consistently, year after year, in an abundant enough supply to put this into effect just yet."

Hyman firmly contends that Texas should remain one of the 46 states abiding by the 75% federal minimum required to carry a state appellation.

"The TTB's federal ruling wasn't arbitrarily thought up," he says. "It was put into place because so many states have the same problem as us with inclement weather, late spring frosts, supply and demand issues, and more."

Winemakers in favor of the bill maintain that weather challenges are simply par for the course with winemaking.

"We have volatile weather to say the least, but necessity breeds innovation," says Chris Brundrett, owner of William Chris Vineyards in Hye. WCV grows their own grapes in addition to working with 14 farmers from the High Plains to West Texas. They produce 25,000 cases a year, and they're still the largest 100% Texas-grown winery in the state.

"Half of the winegrowers and wineries are all about helping each other, all putting pressure on each other to get better every year," says Brundrett. "The conversations we had this year versus what we were talking about three or five years ago are totally different. [We] are talking about water management and sun exposure and pressure bombs. Every year we're getting better at making wine and better at growing grapes … we have wind machines that have effectively saved two crops now."

Doug Lewis, owner of Lewis Wines in Johnson City, has also been committed to using 100% Texas-grown grapes since making his first vintage in 2010. And that's not going to change, come frost or drought.

"The idea that you should get enough grapes every year to make your wines the way you want to … there's nowhere on Earth like that," says Lewis. "In any place where you have challenging vintages, you'll see that those producers make hay when the sun shines, so to speak. They buy a lot of grapes in good years and make a lot of wine, and in bad years you should have enough wine in the cellar to make it through to the next year."

Additionally, the current statute allows the commissioner of agriculture the power to adjust the percentage in the event of a natural disaster depleting the supply of Texas grapes, and HB 1514 would preserve that allowance.

"The bill does maintain the commissioner of agriculture's authority to reduce the percentage in the event of an environmental catastrophe that devastates the supply of Texas grapes and makes meeting the 100 percent threshold truly impossible," says Rep. Isaac. "That was no change to the current statute – at 75 percent – that can continue to be scaled back if the need arises."

Brundrett points out that the changing elements are just as important as terroir in telling the story of each bottle. "In the end, does weather really affect whether we're going to be truthful or not?" he asks. He looks to Hilmy Cellars in Fredericksburg, who turned the lackluster bounty of a rough year (2014) into a new 50% California and 50% Texas red blend called Politics & Religion.

"They're a wonderful example of how truth in labeling can lead to great success," says Brundrett.

Variety is the Spice

In addition to adapting grape growing methods to withstand fluctuating climates, more and more Texas growers are wising up to the types of grapes which are more likely to prove outstanding in the field.

"In the Eighties, people planted varieties that were common to the consumer and household names," says Andy Timmons, who grows 350 acres of grapes for 15 different wineries, including his own label, Lost Draw Cellars. "Sometimes these varieties just didn't fit our climate. Several years of spring freezes and the investors were done with vineyards, especially if they didn't get paid for the grapes they did produce."

Three years ago, when the government stripped away cotton subsidies, career farmers such as Timmons (who started growing grapes in 2006) turned to growing wine grapes instead.

"Tens of millions of dollars of vineyards have been planted to help the tax base of this little county, which is very rural and very poor," he says. "I'm able to pay people more than what I could if they were just doing cotton. Plus, we're teaching them skills and it's marketable down the road."

Timmons works with winemakers to plant varietals derived from regions similar in climate to Texas, such as Portugal, Spain, central Italy, and France's Rhône Valley. Timmons has grown lesser-known varietals like Cinsault, Sangiovese, Picpoul, Vermentino, and Mourvedre with great success in the High Plains.

"Only working with Texas grapes really forced us to take a hard look at what really does and doesn't work here, and to embrace what is working here as opposed to trying to make something that can only be done once every four or five years," says Lewis. "If I have to wait on Winery X to be able to buy Chardonnay from West Texas [for HB 1514 to pass], I'll die before it happens because Chardonnay is never going to grow well in West Texas – not consistently."

"Saying we have to grow what sells is ludicrous," says Brundrett. "Every day we spend talking about Texas Pinot Noir is a day we lose talking about Texas Mourvedre."

Brundrett, Timmons, and Lewis are among the Texas winemakers who have found the late-budding Rhône grape varietal to be a huge success in West Texas. Lewis recalls growers losing 80-100% of their Viognier and Chardonnay crops to freezes and hail storms in 2013, while those growing Mourvedre were left with above-average yields.

Chris Brundrett (l) and William Blackmon of William Chris Vineyards (Photo by John Anderson)
“Every day we spend talking about Texas Pinot Noir is a day we lose talking about Texas Mourvedre.” – Chris Brundrett, William Chris Vineyards

"The general public doesn't know what Mourvedre is," says Brundrett. "But one of the many amazing things about Texas is we have 1,000 people a week come through our wineries who we get to educate about all these different varieties that are not as common."

Patrick Whitehead, owner of Blue Ostrich Winery in St. Jo, is one of the opponents who believes the current 75% law is necessary to allow winemakers the flexibility and creative freedom needed to craft blends.

"Many times we're looking for something to enhance the color or character of a wine, so we turn to deep-colored varietals like Malbec, Petite Sirah, or Petit Verdot," says Whitehead. "Most of the time Texas fruit does just fine on its own, but a winemaker always likes having a few options in his or her toolbox. We don't want to lose that option."

Those for the bill argue that blends of varying origin are exactly what's depreciating Texas wine. "If you ask any professional wine buyers what's wrong with Texas, one of the things they'll tell you, if they're being candid, is that they can't ever tell if it is a Texas wine or not," says Lewis. "People come to recognize the quality and characteristics of products that distinguish them from other ones and there's value in those products."

Wilson, who teaches classes, offers wine support for restaurants and bars, and provides an array of wine consulting services for producers and importers through Wine for the People, also stresses the utmost importance place of origin plays in the wine world.

"Place of origin, when we're talking about wine, is very different than even the variety," says Wilson. "Chardonnay is a variety, but it's grown all over the world. What makes it unique is when it's grown in a place like Burgundy or Texas …. The greatest regions in the world are great because you can trust what that label says."

Julie Kuhlken, co-owner of Pedernales Cellars, says they've used almost entirely Texas-grown grapes since opening in 2006, and the 2016 vintage does use 100% state-grown fruit. Bringing small percentages of other fruit in previously was not only helpful to creating flavor profiles, but in getting to know the limits and complexities of various varieties.

"It is important to remember that Texas is so young as a wine region, we are still discovering what these grape varieties are capable of," says Kuhlken. "Being able to make comparisons to what it is like to ferment fruit from other states is part of the learning curve …. Going to 100 percent Texas was a natural evolution of our winemaking once we had learned more about the grape varieties."

All Politics is Local

Opponents of HB 1514 also insist that Texas, now with over 4,000 acres of vines, simply doesn't produce the amount of grapes needed to require 100% local juice be used for state appellation.

"Our state grape production is substantially less than the states from which we occasionally source wines for blending," says Whitehead. "For example, Monterey County, California – just one county – cultivates 40,000 acres of grapes."

But supporters are quick to point out that Oregon only had 1,100 acres of vines when they passed the same law in 1978. And though Washington got a slower start (due to Concord grape growers lobbying to keep wine grapes from being grown) and didn't pass a 95% law until 2009, the state's wine industry has exploded as a result, growing by 40% in the past eight years.

“Why not all Texas grapes? We can’t get what we want or need in the quantities necessary.” – Brian Heath, Grape Creek Vineyards

"Washington state grew faster [than Oregon] in the same window of time operating with the federal standard of 75 percent until they were mature enough as an industry to pass the law in 2009," points out Brian Heath, owner of Grape Creek Vineyards in Fredericksburg. "There is no doubt it will retard growth or possibly reverse the growth we are having. It is like giving a 12-year-old a driver's license and sitting them on top of a stack of books to drive a car."

Heath says he has struggled to source Texas grapes since he first bought Grape Creek in 2006. In addition to the 15 acres planted on the estate they farm, Heath says they have 120 acres contracted in West Texas and purchase additional Texas grapes when available. But each year he inevitably turns to California and New Mexico to supplement with varietals that are in thin supply in Texas (such as Grenache) or in high demand but with unpredictable yields (like Cabernet Sauvignon).

"Why not all Texas grapes? We can't get what we want or need in the quantities necessary," says Heath. "Many varietals are not available for purchase. Also, there is a quality issue for what is left. We have almost never been able to contract producing vineyards. We have to contract when planted and wait three to four years to receive grapes. The industry is nascent and it shows up in many ways."

When Timmons entered the business as a grower in 2006, there were 40 wineries, and Texas harvested 8,400 tons of fruit. He says the lack of Texas grapes was stressed at every meeting he attended.

"It was such as issue that the state funded grants to help people establish new vineyards," he says. "I took that to heart. My brother and I have personally helped neighbors and friends plant 1,500 acres in the last few years."

Today, Timmons says there are over 400 wineries and 14,000 tons of fruit produced in Texas during a year with no major weather events, but he estimates that the High Plains alone has the potential to produce 20,000 tons. Timmons and other supporters of HB 1514 assure that there are plenty of uncontracted grapes going to waste across a state that is bigger than France. Some Texas winemakers are even taking it upon themselves to play matchmaker between wineries and growers.

"There are currently hundreds of uncontracted acres – 600 or more, as far as I know – of Texas grapes," agrees Benjamin Calais, owner of Calais Winery in Hye. He facilitated grape purchase and drop-off for three wineries besides his own last year and says he would be glad to do so again.

There's so much excess, Timmons says, that members of the High Plains Grape Growers Association have been working with Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) on another bill, HB 2844, which would allow growers to process and store their unsold fruit without having to obtain a full winery permit.

"I have been discouraging friends and neighbors from planting big acres in the last couple years because I can't promise them they could sell the fruit," he says. "There really is no limit to what we could plant. All we need is a functioning, transparent market and a clear demand for the product."

But the opposite is being foreshadowed by opponents of the bill, who have been discouraging growers to stand in its favor, lest they lose business from some of the biggest wineries in the state.

"It would be sad to see wineries in Texas give up on the state's growers out of frustration on an issue like this," says Whitehead. "Why wouldn't I source all the fruit from California anyway since I wouldn't get to appellate as Texas and I can pay $1,100 a ton instead of $1,900 a ton?"

Nikhila Narra, owner of Narra Family Vineyards in Brownfield, has 140 acres of grapes planted, and 60 of those acres are currently uncontracted.

"Some of those acres were contracted, but when people found out that we were for this bill, they pulled out," she says. "So not only does this hurt us as a grower, but economically [as a state]. That's about $600,000 just from my family alone that might not get to be produced and put back into the Texas industry."

Carl Money, owner of Pontotoc Winery in Fredericksburg, thinks these tactics are being used to bully growers into submission. "[Wineries] will inevitably buy more Texas grapes as a consequence of this bill," he assures. "Texans are buying Texas wine, in part, because they believe the grapes are grown in Texas. This bill will ensure that that is the case."

Seth Martin, the owner of Perissos Vineyard in Burnet, thinks phasing this bill in over the next five years would actually attract much needed capital investment into the planting of new vineyards. And David Kuhlken, winemaker at Pedernales Cellars, points out that the passing of a bill like this could be the push needed to develop Texas' (thus far nonexistent) bulk market.

"By staging in an increase of Texas appellation requirements, it will start to prime more demand for bulk in Texas and help to build this part of the Texas wine industry keeping these dollars in-state," says Kuhlken. "It is fundamental to having a scalable and viable Texas wine industry and could have incredible positive economic impact for the state. My goal and hope is that Texas wine, made from Texas grapes, is something that can be available on menus and shelves across the state and beyond."

Grapes of Wrath

The contrasting viewpoints from vintners across the state are splitting an industry that has grown tenfold in the past decade.

"The old companies have had 30 years to change the industry, and there are new companies coming in who want to share Texas-grown wine," says Brundrett. "The opposition is trying to make as much money as they can today. And the people who are for this bill – we're thinking about our kids and the longevity of this industry."

"Basically, it comes down to bigger wineries who have a business model where they have wine shipped in from California in big tanker trucks, and that's just easier for them to do that and pull the wool over the eyes of the consumer," says Money.

Hyman argues that the current 25% out-of-state allowance is necessary for bigger wineries like Llano Estacado, which does the bulk of its sales through distribution at grocery store chains, to keep its prices competitively low.

"This doesn't impact a small winery, most of which are fighting for this, because they do a bulk of their business inside their tasting rooms to a captive audience," says Hyman. "We're trying to compete with the industry giants out there – with Kendall-Jackson, Clos du Bois, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Robert Mondavi, Barefoot. There's thousands upon thousands of brands in one of the most highly competitive industries in the world, all entering the state of Texas and trying to do business. And here we are already starting off at a pricing disadvantage."

Dave Clink, who's been growing grapes in Gillespie County since 2004, compares this heated issue to predatory practices in the U.S. steel industry.

"Evidently, the big wineries can buy grapes out of California for 740 bucks a ton and the Texas price is 1,600 bucks a ton," says Clink. "So they're bringing $700 a ton grapes into Texas to compete with us. If they did that in the steel industry, if they were bringing cheap China steel in to compete with the U.S. mills, put the U.S. mills out of business, they call that dumping."

Meanwhile, the bill's biggest opponents insist that HB 1514 is a self-serving piece of legislation created by the smaller wineries trying to push their approach to business on the rest of the industry.

"This isn't about truth in labeling," insists Heath. "It is about a small group trying to legislate their approach to business onto everyone else."

"It is disappointing and frankly a little embarrassing that a small group of winery operators have seen fit to take their agenda directly to the Legislature rather than allowing our industry, as a whole, to debate the merits of making such a change at this time," says Whitehead. "I think we should really let the 350-plus wineries in the state of Texas take the next two years to sort it out through meaningful discussion and dialogue."

But Brundrett says his many efforts to discuss the issue properly in Hill Country Wineries Association meetings have been continuously shut down. "It's definitely been difficult to navigate through fairly because of a bit of bias, which I find disappointing," he says.

Duncan McNabb (l) and Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines (Photo by John Anderson)

"The main thing that's really frustrating to me is that the people working day and night, fighting tooth and nail, to keep this from happening won't come to the table and have an open conversation about how we can make this bill work for them," says Lewis, also a member of HCWA.

Incidentally, the association's president, Paul Bonarrigo, is a vocal opponent to the bill and the owner of Messina Hof, one of the state's first and largest wineries.

"It is unfortunate that a small group of small wineries are using Legislature, media, and public forum to push their marketing through as law and slander the rest of the industry in the process," Bonarrigo said at Monday's hearing. "This has been the most divisive and damaging issue that has faced our industry in at least the past decade."

After two hours of 31 impassioned testimonies, Kyle Frazier, committee chair of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, was the last to speak.

"Like most intra-industry fights, this is about market share and money and business models and competition," said Frazier. "The good news is this is a fiercely competitive business …. This industry has grown by leaps and bounds."

At press time, the bill was still in committee awaiting a vote. But no matter the legislative outcome, change is inevitably on the horizon for an industry with a projected economic impact of $2.27 billion.

"I think the lines in the sand are drawn to where people are either staying in these wine organizations or moving on to develop a new organization that's actually about farming grapes and making wine," says Brundrett. "So it's going to be interesting to see."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle