Texas Wine: the Conundrum for Media and Sommeliers
After growing grapes for 34 years (in 8 vineyards with 43 varieties), one of the things I find most difficult to accept as I become a cranky old man is reading wine blogs that propagate blatantly non-factual information. One can say about me, and/or my work, whatever you please (and there’s certainly no shortage of opinions out there), but I am, nevertheless, a walking treasure trove of hard data. There are not many people working in Texas with as much raw data collection under their belts, given all those years, vineyards, varieties, etc. There are a few, but not very many.
So it’s really hard to watch bloggers, sommeliers, academics, educators, buyers and all the rest jump into the arena of ideas with declarations I know to be provably false. Now, I’ve been around this business my whole life, having grown up in the beverage industry (as a merchant). I understand full well how important it is to all those who love holding themselves out as wine experts to one-up their peers and impress the universe with their glib and acerbic commentaries since it’s an indigenous part of the wine culture, especially in the distribution channel. However, more and more we see outrageous claims and declarations made which are disguised as “serious” debate. The online world provides great communication tools but no checks and balances, and just enough anonymity to let these baseless declarations go into the permanent record as fact, unless those of us with clear heads speak up and return the discussion to something more earthbound. A clear head, you say? Hey, when you have your money in the game, you tend to get a clear head real fast.
The Texas wine industry has made tremendous progress in the last 5-8 years. Everybody around it can feel the energy and excitement as new products are unveiled which break down barriers once thought insurmountable. Likewise, we have seen an explosion of books, articles, guides, blogs and websites seeking to chronicle the history of this in real time. Some of these “experts” have also increasingly held themselves out as “prophets”, thinking mistakenly that the future is coming just clear enough now to start making prophesies written in stone. However, the future is a very dangerous place, as we shall see, and doing this requires the assumption of many facts not yet in evidence.
One such scribe recently asserted that the Texas wine industry has gone sideways in recent years due to the loss of (a miniscule amount of) public money from the State. And that such cutbacks were made to further Rick Perry’s political ambitions. As we shall see, this is an outrageous claim which is flatly embarrassing due to it’s lack of any logical connection to the actual causes and effects of Texas winemaking, which are most often flawed in the vineyards by humans and not by the climate or any politician. Likewise, there continues to be great misunderstanding about the Texas heat and it’s true role in the winemaking process. I see one declaration after another that blames the Texas heat for every problem in Texas wine and, again, a more accurate assessment would place the direct affects of the heat at about 30% with the 70% balance of the problems attributed again to human error. By making these faulty assumptions, though, respected writers and educators are urging the industry down a poorly conceived path toward (1) abandoning efforts to make fine wines, and (2) the creation of a bulk wine industry. As we shall see, these directives are not well justified by the data when all other variables have been accounted for.
You Can’t Judge by The Many…You Have to Look at The Few
So here’s the take-away: You cannot make any predictions about the future of the Texas wine industry based on the wines you find on your store shelves today. How can that be? Well, this is a little technical, but stay with me: I say often, “Making a great wine is like a long string of falling dominoes. If one domino falls out of place, the process is lost at that point and the result is some fraction of what the final wine should have been.” At least 85% of all Texas wines made today are screwed up, meaning that they are flawed before they get to the bottle, often in the field. On the other side, of course, it doesn’t take much for a domino to fall sideways, which is why we have to be very, very specific and apply our best critical thinking skills when we talk about Texas wines.
Great wines are, and always have been, made from great grapes. But the vast majority of Texas vineyards are poorly situated, planted to the wrong varietals, planted to the wrong clones of the wrong varietals, have the wrong trellis systems, have poorly managed canopies (common in warmer areas where vigor is high), have bad water management, excessive pesticide programs, are not, or are incorrectly, netted, where loss of the highest value fruit is devastating, and are incorrectly evaluated at harvest. That doesn’t even address the elephant in the room which is ridiculously excessive crop loads.
The ever-present shortage of Texas grapes tempts growers to wildly over-produce their vineyards knowing they can get ridiculous prices for fruit, which in California, would sell for $500 per ton ($5/bottle) due to it’s poor quality, and which in turn, leads to Texas wines that are seen as too expensive for what they are. In many cases, just reducing crop yields to a normal 2-3 tons per acre will increase fruit quality enough to justify the higher price the winery desires. This is a major problem in the High Plains, since the lower elevations usually yield lower amounts anyway.
Furthermore, all of the foregoing taken together is not even 25% of the total problem: The vast majority of Texas vineyard owners and even wineries either don’t care about, or have little to no understanding of, the phenolic ripening process including but not limited to, the production of anthocyanins, the degradation of tannins, the proper retention of anti-oxidants and how these items are matrixed with plant stress. On top of all that, I have not even started into winery operations…I will not even dare to go there.
Now, back to those store shelves…when you solve for all of the variables I have listed above, (and many more which I alluded to), THEN and ONLY THEN, can you draw accurate conclusions about a Texas wine. So here’s what usually happens: your average Joe Consumer pushing his shopping cart in your big-box store buys a Texas wine (or, a wine from any other undeveloped wine region, like say, Uruguay for example, where there is not widespread knowledge about local quality), takes it home and has a ho-hum experience. From that he ASSUMES (wrongly) that his wine is a representative slice of the quality of Texas (or other) wines, which it is not true since we know there is an 85% chance it is screwed up as explained above. But all too often he just thinks, “Well, I guess it’s just too hot in Texas for good wine” because that’s what the Californians have programmed him to believe. Here’s the really sad part: at least half of the Texas Sommeliers believe the same thing(!), and are completely unaware that the wine could be and probably was derailed and flawed before it was ever made due to reasons which have absolutely nothing to do with climate. They are unwilling to ask the real questions like, “Who grew these grapes?” and, “Did they ever bother to manage this canopy?” and, “What kind of tonnage were they pulling out of this place anyway?” and “Did they net them, or did they just try to make wine out of the crap the birds left?” Those, and questions like them, will usually reveal the truth about why the wine tastes like it does. Unfortunately, it’s easier just to agree with the conventional wisdom about climate and keep the Californians happy.
Now what happens when a Texas winery actually makes a good wine in the other 15%? They can sell it at their Tasting Room in a heartbeat. It probably never sees distribution unless (like Inwood) they want to allocate a small portion for brand building. That’s why you cannot draw any conclusions from wines on shelves today (assuming they are even Texas grapes). Furthermore, the prices of those wines (in the 15%) can and do rise to whatever competitive level they justify compared to any major wine region in the world, proving that we can make and sell fine wines at any price necessary IF they’re in the 15% where every step was properly executed.
The Common Misunderstanding About the Heat
So why is it so hard to execute every step properly in Texas? Now we’re asking the million dollar questions. Even one look at an average Napa Valley vineyard reveals meticulous care, exacting canopy management, modern trellising and overall excellence in their work. I have great respect for how well the Californians manage and execute their growing seasons and it is a shocking contrast to the marginal quality of how poorly most Texas vineyards are cared for. I mean really, is it any wonder their wines are as good as they are when their fruit has been so carefully guided to ripeness?
But that’s not the whole answer…a major reason it’s so much harder in Texas is how fast we move through our growing season, (talking here about the lower elevation vineyards). This may be a small exaggeration, but in some varieties, and especially in the lower elevations, we have to perform an entire season’s work in 4 months versus 6 or 7 months for parts of California! No wonder it’s so easy to miss something here when we’re moving through our season at lightspeed. And remember, it only takes one lost detail to derail the entire process and compromise the whole year. Likewise, no wonder it’s a lot easier in California: hey, if something comes up and you can’t get in the field this week, no problem! Next week will be just fine. But not in Texas.
In Texas, operations in the vineyards must be carried out with military-like precision. For example, we learned the hard way that the Chardonnay we produce in Dallas County must be harvested in one perfect 20 hour window. A few hours before and the wine is green. A few hours after and the wine is alcohol hot. Zero room for error. Likewise, for everything else all season long. Budbreak in April, Harvest in August. The work never stops. Don’t blink or you’ll blow it.
To make matters worse, as a byproduct of the extra heat in lower elevations, vines grow 2-3 times larger and 2-3 times faster. Ground covers grow 2-3 times faster too. All of that has to be cut and managed. The workload is exhausting. Texas vineyards require far more labor resources, albeit for a shorter length of time. Things like this are a good example of why advice from academics (both Calif and Texas schools) are mostly useless for us: their research is based on California data which uses more generous assumptions than the reality of Texas. Granted, The High Plains offers more lenient season lengths, sometimes as long as anywhere in California, but overproduction often cancels their best efforts.
At any rate, one can easily see by now that all of this mess is certainly not Rick Perry’s fault. It not Barack Obama’s fault either. It’s not any politicians fault that some guy has a poorly situated vineyard planted to the wrong varieties. Nor is any government bureaucrat with a fistful of dollars going to come around and fix somebody’s bad trellis or manage their canopy like some kind of vineyard angel. Such declarations are completely absurd.
The Future is Very Tricky…and Very Exciting
Hopefully now you’re starting to get the picture and can see why the disparities between the 85% and 15% are so wide. It also explains why consumers’ experience with Texas product is so unequal and inconsistent. Somebody has a neighbor down the street who is raving about a Texas wine they had, so they go to the store a try a few and conclude their neighbor is a nut. Of course, the Texas wine section at the store is a minefield and does not offer the generalized consistency of the world’s other sections where wines are made to fairly homogenous industry standards.
Texas may end up being the TRICKIEST place in the world to make wine. I could envision it becoming the World’s Capitol of “Wine Craft Brews” or “Craft Wines”. We have physical conditions which, properly managed, can produce very fine, top end product, but risk factors which always keep those products in short supply. This is supported by the data we have so far.
Of course, others have the opposite idea: make Texas a high volume producer of everyday wines. My heart is with these people and I wish them Godspeed. However, I’m afraid the data is not with them, to wit: the one thing a bulk wine industry needs more than anything is consistency. By my count, the California Bulk Wine Industry has had 31 successful vintages in the last 33. That’s terrific. But by contrast, we’ve had 3 small crops here in the last four! Granted, those small crops have yielded some extraordinary wines, but that kind of volume record is death for a volume driven industry. Every time a crop is small, the costs of the bad year will have to be amortized over the coming years and eventually the grape prices will be too high for everyday wine. Again, I wish them all the luck in the world.
In the end, making predictions about the future is very dangerous. So far, our best data supports a Texas wine environment where consumers and enthusiasts will fan out across Texas Tasting Rooms to discover the latest cutting edge wines that are often one-of-a-kinds. It will be a highly creative adventure full of energy and surprises that will force people to question their beliefs against the background of the safe but monochromatic wine knowledge mass marketed in other regions.
That is, of course, until 20 years from now when genome sequencing will allow everyone to drink a perfect molecular replica of ’61 Latour every night for $2 a bottle. Better save that for the next article.