History of Texas Wine - Part 2
(Go to Part 1.) Prohibition knocked the Texas wine industry out, but it did not kill it. The early 70s was the low point for the Texas wine industry. The Texas Department of Agriculture reported less than 90 acres under production in 1970, but American interest in wine was on the upswing and the world was in for a surprise. In the 1970s, California was well on its way to establishing a powerful wine industry, but it was considered second class when compared to European wine.
French vs. American wine in a blind taste test
In 1976, a British wine merchant named Steve Spurrier staged a blind tasting of French and Californian wines with a panel of French wine experts. Spurrier, who dealt in French wines, expected the French wines to win, but they did not. At the now famous “Judgment of Paris”, two Californian wines, Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, won first prize. The results stunned the wine world and helped ignite American interest in wines produced in America. It was not long before the effects of the Judgment in Paris were felt in Texas.
Universities in Texas restart the wine industry
By 1978, Texas had almost 1,000 acres planted with wine grapes. The agricultural departments of several colleges and universities were studying grapevines and experimenting with different vineyard management practices. By the end of the decade, researchers had identified several species of Vitis vinifera that were suited for planting in the High Plains and the Trans-Pecos regions of Texas. The climate and soils found in these regions are suited for grapevines. These regions also have fewer of the pests found in other parts of the state.
Llano Estacado Winery was bonded in 1976. The winery is located just outside of Lubbock on FM 1585. The first year after opening, Lllano Estacado shipped 1,300 cases of wine. Production at Llano continued to increase, reaching 5,000 cases per year in the early 90s. In 1981, The University of Texas established a vineyard on land it owned between Fort Stockton and Bakersfield. In 1986, there were more than 1,000 acres planted when the University entered into an agreement with a Texas-French consortium to produce St Genevieve wines. Today, St Genevieve Winery is the largest wine producer in the State.
The eight AVAs in Texas
West Texas was not the only part of the state where wineries were getting started. In 1979, outside Fredericksburg, the Oberhelman family founded Bell Mountain Winery. In 1986, Bell Mountain was designated as an American Viticulture Area or AVA, the first of eight in Texas. An AVA is a wine grape growing region that has been defined by the United States Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau.
There are three general requirements for an area to be designated an AVA; first, there must be evidence that the proposed name for the area is known locally or nationally to represent the area; second, there must be historical or current evidence that the proposed boundaries for the AVA are legitimate; and third, there must be evidence that growing conditions such as climate, soil, or elevation are unique. The seven other AVAs currently designated in Texas are Escondido Valley, Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, Mesilla Valley, Texas Davis Mountains, Texas High Plains, Texas Hill Country, and Taxoma.
The growth of the Texas wine industry in the 90s
By 1982, total wine production in the state of Texas had risen to about 50,000 gallons or a little more than 250,000 bottles. By 1992, production had increased to more than 1 million gallons. Throughout the rest of the decade the Texas wine industry saw steady growth. A study by Texas Tech University estimated that by 1997 the economic impact of the Texas wine industry had grown to $104 million.
At that time, there were 27 wineries in the state, many of the new arrivals were located either in the Texas Hill Country or in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. These wineries tended to be smaller than the wineries in the High Plains or Trans-Pecos regions. These smaller wineries relied on direct wine sales to people visiting the vineyard/winery.
Growth throughout the rest of the 90s was steady. In 2000, there were 40 bonded wineries in the state and the much touted economic impact had risen to $200 million. Then things really started to take-off. By 2007, the economic impact had reached $1 billion and there were more than 110 wineries in the state. By early 2008, the number of wineries bonded in the state had risen to 158.
What fueled the growth of the wine industry in Texas?
What is driving this amazing growth? Much of the growth can be attributed to the hard work of Texas vintners, winemakers, and industry proponents, but as usual the courts and the tax-man also played a role. The first thing to happen was a US Supreme Court Decision. The Court ruled on May 16, 2005, that states could not prohibit the shipment of wine to consumers in their state. This meant that small wineries did not have to rely on the so-called three-tier system to distribute their wines. Wineries could sell and ship directly to the wine drinker, increasing the gross margin that wineries earned from wine sales.
The second boost came from the Texas Legislature on September 11, 2007, when it passed Proposition 11. Prop 11 allowed wineries in “dry counties” to sell wine at the winery with a couple of restrictions: the wine must be made in Texas, and the wine must contain at least 75% fermented grape juice or other fruit grown in Texas. Prop 11 also allowed wineries in dry counties to provide samples of wine to taste. Further, the proposition allowed Texas wineries to ship wine outside the state. The full effect of Proposition 11 will not be realized for many years, however, the sharp increase in bonded wineries in the last two years may be an indication of things to come.
While there has been a lot of progress since the dark ages of the 1970s, there is still a lot of work to be done. Texas wine has an exciting future and it will be fascinating to watch, after all the history of Texas wine is just getting started.
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