Drink Up

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In addition to an unforgiving climate, the Texas winemaking and grape-growing bench--those with the skill and experience to contend with Texas' climate and its grapes--is shallow. And it does little good to tap into the knowledge base of more established winegrowing areas. Grapes grown in Texas have different chemistries than those of the same variety grown in other regions, varying in acidity, calcium and potassium levels. A lack of a four-year accredited viticulture and enology degree program, such as the one found at the University of California, Davis, keeps that talent bench lean (though Grayson County College in Denison offers an associate degree in viticulture and enology).

Then there is the shallow history. Texas has devoted precious little time to teasing fine wine from its dirt. Though winemaking here stretches back to the days of Spanish colonialism, it was fed mostly with native wild grapes. American varieties and French-American hybrids, which generally make poor wines, comprised the bulk of the industry for most of the 20th century. The modern Texas wine industry with its cultivation of fine wine grapes didn't even wet its feet until the late 1970s. "If you go to Europe...they've been making wine for almost two millennia," Bruni says. "You go to California, it's two centuries. You come to Texas...it's not even two generations. We're not even 40 years into this thing yet."

More than a dearth of history and experience, what has been choking the wine industry for at least a generation is regulation. Some of the best wine-growing areas in Texas are dry for alcohol. Grapes could be grown and wine produced, but wineries were barred from offering free tastings, and bottles couldn't be sold out of the winery or shipped directly to consumers. This was debilitating for most Texas wineries, which sell much if not most of their production through tasting rooms. Between 1985 and 2000, the number of Texas wineries bobbed between 18 and 40 as a handful of upstarts bubbled up and others drowned.

Then somehow, after years of political naiveté, the industry grew in public policy sophistication. In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed a measure permitting wineries in dry areas to offer tastings and retail sales. But the law was susceptible to constitutional challenge, so in 2003, Proposition 11 was slapped on the ballot--a constitutional amendment that limited community preferences by allowing wineries to offer tastings and retail sales from anywhere in the state. The amendment passed resoundingly. "Legislative changes have been an enormous growth factor in the state," says winemaker Caris Turpen of LightCatcher Winery, which produces some 4,000 cases of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a dry orange Muscat in Fort Worth. "In the last two legislative sessions the entire state was essentially made wet for wine."

Example: This past May, Governor Rick Perry signed a bill that made the entire state "wet" for direct wine shipments to consumers. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission had declared the state open for direct shipments in late 2003 but ruled that all wineries must comply with existing wet/dry regulations, an almost insurmountable hurdle as the distinction could not be delineated by ZIP codes or other standard geographic boundaries. Legislation passed in the last session also permits Texas wineries to have more flexibility in setting retail operating hours and to share equipment and winery space for cooperative production. Consequently, many small vineyards in dry areas have turned into wineries, more than doubling the total number of Texas wineries.

"It's the law. It's the law," drills wine consultant Bobby Cox, former owner and winemaker of Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock. "Texas winegrowers have not been able to reach out and touch their consumers. The law changed. It's pent-up demand from the restrictive regulations of the past 75 years."

Hence the winery bloom in Dallas.

Karen and Steve Eubanks didn't know much about wine before Karen bought her husband a home winemaking kit as a gift. When she met her husband, he only sipped beer, but that kit proved pivotal. "We made it, entered it in a competition, won a gold medal, and here we are," she says.

The here is Nashwood Winery in the Preston Forest Village strip mall in North Dallas. Nashwood became the first operating winery within Dallas city limits when it opened in the spring of 2004. It's a long, narrow space with a storefront jammed with wine gewgaws and stacks of home winemaking equipment, tables and shelves holding wine stoppers, glassware, wine totes, wine-tasting kits and cookbooks, wine racks stocked with bottles and a tasting bar. Just beyond the wine paraphernalia, six massive 555-gallon stainless steel tanks threaten to overrun this quaint gift shop. The juxtaposition is jarring.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz