By Lynn Ashby 7 Sept. 2015
THE HILL COUNTRY – For years in late summer, peaches were the purchase of choice here. Tourists, headed to the shops in Fredericksburg to buy the latest instant antiques from China, would stop at these shacks along the road and buy bags of peaches, peach jams, peach pies and probably peach antiques from China. Today the peach parade is still here, but more and more there are official looking road signs announcing the presence of vineyards, wineries and big barn-like structures packed with – one guess — wine. Yes, after many false starts, overcoming drought, storms, hide-bound Anglo settlers who thought alcohol was the devil’s drink and more than a decade of Prohibition, Texas wine is coming on strong here in the Booze Belt.
How strong? According to the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association (yes, there is one), in 2013 the industry in Texas produced 1.3 million cases of wine, up from 944,000 in 2005, with a retail value of $134 million, an increase from $92 million in 2005. Those are huge increases for any industry. In that 8-year period, the number of wineries jumped from 200 to 389. Remember, this was a time of the Great Recession, when many other industries were shrinking.
But grapes, like marijuana, are an agricultural product, subject to the whims of nature. For instance, 2013 saw a late freeze, which badly hurt the vineyards. The number of grape growing acres deceased by 5 percent and vineyard revenue was down 18 percent. Grape growers have another problem: Unlike some crops and livestock, when there is a stretch of drought, floods or bugs, you can’t just move a vineyard to the next ZIP code or time zone. Vineyards are literally rooted here, good times and bad. But 2015 should be a good time. Grape growers across Central Texas say this year’s harvest will be one of the best in recent memory. So stock up on vintage 2015.
It is not generally known, but viticulture in Texas is older than in California or Virginia, by almost a century. We can credit the Franciscan friars coming up from Mexico back in1682, who brought with them grapevines for a mission near El Paso. The area became known for its fine wines, not that there was much competition, but by the 20th Century the industry had petered out. The Anglo settlers who came along in the 1800s didn’t know much about wine and didn’t care. But the German pioneers did, and vineyards started appearing around Central Texas in small numbers. Most failed. It took a while for Hans to figure out he wasn’t in Old Braunfels anymore.
In 1895, Texas had about 1,800 acres in vineyards that produced more than 1.5 million pounds of grapes and nearly 1,900 barrels of wine. Then the wine industry slowed down. From the 1920s through the 1960s grape production remained small, with a number of small vineyards ranging in size from one-half to 10 acres scattered around the state. From 1922 through 1946 production averaged about 1,800 tons annually, possibly because wine was not part of Texans’ culture. My parents never had wine with their dinners, although my father almost singlehandedly supported the bourbon industry. Restaurants didn’t push wine, some had BYOB, and private clubs sprung up to sell booze to the hypocrites who kept voting dry. (I remember one time in Tyler, I joined a restaurant’s private club for $1.50, then could order the bar.)
For some reason, in the 1960s Texas took to wine. Maybe my father got tired of Maker’s Mark. Today Texas is the nation’s Number 5 (some claim Number 4) wine producer, and Number 7 wine grape producer. Go into any liquor store and most likely you will see signs proclaiming wines from such exotic lands as Chile, South Africa, Australia — and Texas. When the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has a wine judging event (“Billy Joe, do you prefer the Syrah or the Muscat Canelli? Both are wet.”) you know vino has arrived.
If you want to help The University of Texas, and don’t we all, buy a case of Ste. Genevieve. In 1981 a vineyard with that brand name was established on UT land in Pecos County. By 1986 plantings there totaled 1,000 acres of fine grapes. The university entered into a lease agreement with a Texas-French consortium that built a large winery at the site. By 1992 it was the largest wine producer in the state, accounting for 67 percent of the 1.5 million gallons of Texas wine, and won 18 wine awards that year. The Longhorns are going to start selling booze at sporting events this term, so we can only hope it’s Ste. Genevieve. And Aggies, who can grow moss on a rolling stone, think they are the green thumbs of the Lone Star State?
Now a true story on how Texas Saved French Wines: In the 1870s the European wine industry, and especially in France, were devastated by lice. More than 6 million acres of vineyards were destroyed in France, Germany, and other regions of Europe. The French, who knew about the viticulture work of Thomas Munson of Denison (vineyards are all over the state), asked for help. Munson and a Missouri colleague shipped carloads of phylloxera-resistant native rootstocks to France and other vineyard regions, and saved the crops. The grateful French heaped awards and medals on Munson.
Back in the Hill Country, I see more signs directing visitors to more wineries. And here’s a good idea: you can take mini-bus wine tours so you don’t have to drive around the countryside with map in hand missing most of the scenery, and you can sample more without the DPS pulling you over. One last point: Texas wines generate money for us. State and local taxes from our wine industry reached $85 million in 2013, a 117 percent increase in eight years. So keep your money in Texas.
Ashby is sipping at email@example.com