Drink Up

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But drawing so significantly from California poses its own hazards. For one, it limits possible future production locations to wet areas, as Texas law mandates that wineries located in dry areas must produce 75 percent of their wine by volume from Texas sources to legally retail wines from their tasting rooms. Then there is the juice. "We tasted a lot of bad wines," says winemaker Lawler, in his hunt to fill their bottles. They ultimately settled on vineyard sources in Lake County, Santa Barbara and Sonoma. Their first California bottlings will include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Riesling and Zinfandel Rosé. Still, California vintners generally keep the best stuff for themselves.

"California is dumping their crap on us," says John Armstrong, who is opening Starlight Vineyards and Winery in Marfa, not far from the Times Ten Cellars Vineyard. "That's why Texas doesn't have a great reputation."

Though Texas is the fifth-largest wine-producing state, generating some 1.5 million gallons in 2004, the Lone Star state is the disheveled stepchild among its fit and trim sister states of Oregon, Washington, New York and that 800-pound lifestyle overlord, California. At their best, Texas wines lacked crispness (acid), rich fruit and complexity--the traits that propel wine from mere beverage to philosophical treatise. At their worst, they were a deeply flawed brood crudely masked by prodigious amounts of oak (from barrel fermenting and/or aging that gives wine its structure and spice) and sugar.

Underachieving Texas wine stems from many sources: harsh climates that broil vines with unrelenting heat, pelt them with hail and bite them with frost and deep freezes at critical points in the growing season; inexperience among Texas winegrowers and winemakers; Pierce's disease, caused by a bacterium spread by bugs called leafhoppers that blocks the water-conducting vessels of the vines; and a market that demands wines from grapes (Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) that have difficulty not only developing but surviving in Texas.

"I think...that Texas can produce good beverage wines, but I personally doubt Texas can ever produce fine wine," says longtime Dallas wine importer Martin Sinkoff, who moved his operation to New York in 2002. "No amount of skill can compensate for impossible growing conditions. I have never seen a vineyard in Texas with growing conditions suitable for fine wine. The high plains are too harsh; the Hill Country too wet and too humid, the desert...is just that, a desert."

Yet Texas winemakers keep trying, buoyed by the thirsty Texas market, the fourth-largest after California, Florida and New York. Texans are also extremely loyal to their homegrown vintners, gulping some 95 percent of everything they produce, giving Texas a 5.1 percent share of the state's total wine market, according to the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute.

Texas winemakers also are convinced they can produce some of the best wines in the world if given the chance. They may be right. Two examples: Flat Creek's Super Texan from the Hill Country, a twist on Italy's Super Tuscan that blends Cabernet and Sangiovese; and Cap Rock Winery winemaker Kim McPherson's McPherson Sangiovese from the Texas High Plains. Both wines are stunning, true world-class drinks.

Winegrowers also are adapting by ripping out and replanting vineyards, in some cases nixing Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot and shifting their vines to the western part of the state where cool nights and mornings allow them to develop more fully. And like Times Ten's Lawler, many winegrowers are planting varieties from Spain, Italy and the Rhone Valley in Southern France that can adapt better to the Texas climate, including Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache. Lawler says he's even toying with the idea of planting Dolcetto--from Italy's Piedmont region--in East Texas. "Grapes are a very site-specific thing," says Alamosa Wine Cellars' Jim Johnson, who has been experimenting in the Hill Country for years with the grapes Lawler is planting. "And when you look at the places where they grow things like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they're not anything at all like Texas...If you're trying to optimize the grape and climate interaction, those probably aren't the right varieties. I've got Spain's climate. I've got Southern Italy's climate. So I grow what they grow."

Yet the challenge remains daunting. Many of these varieties have little or no general consumer acceptance. How many consumers request a glass or bottle of Tempranillo? Plus, the margin for error in Texas is perilously thin, making innovation a daring risk. "If you make a mistake in California, you lose a few vines. If you make a mistake in Texas, you could lose your whole vineyard," says Greg Bruni, winemaker of Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, Texas' second-largest producer after Ste. Genevieve Wines. "It's a little tricky out here."

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz