wineHands on Texas Wine

Here at Intown, we love wine and we love Texas maybe even more. So this topic seemed a natural fit. What we didn’t know is that there is an entire industry—an entire Texan industry, to be sure, devoted to wine. And it’s been around since 1650. That’s right, before there was Texas there was Texas wine.

The earliest recorded Texas wine producers were Spanish missionaries in the 1650s (more than 100 years before the industry evolved in California). Their mission was to enlighten the natives, and that mission included the necessary wine so pertinent to communion rites. Texas and wine drinking, or vineyards for that matter—the pairing often seems an unnatural occurrence to current natives, but let me assure you, it’s been around for quite a while. And I’m not talking Franciscan monks in burlap or the purveyors of gas station bargains. The Texas wine industry has a deep-seeded (pardon the pun) place in the industry, and is competition to both the Californian and European wine markets. Here’s why: Texas, as we know, offers a diverse array of climates. The sunny and dry weather of some of the state are akin to those seen in Portugal. And these are not just imports we are speaking of—the state is home to over 36 members of the Vitis grape family, with 15 being native to the state, more than any other region on earth.

So what is the big deal, you ask, if it has been going on for 360 years? First of all, the industry experienced a sizeable detriment, to put it sweetly, with the advent of prohibition. Bathtub gin is one thing, but a bootleg vineyard is quite another. The industry was not able to fully recover from this obstacle until about the 1970s. Here we see a flourish. And rather than expound on what we’ve discovered via cyberspace, we went to an actual human being—Paul Bonnariggo of Messina Hof, a leader in the field and a seasoned doughboy in the trenches of the industry.

This is what he has to say, and if you’ve perused the wine sections, from Spec’s to Kroger’s, you know this name—and for that reason, you know Paul knows what he is doing. Here we go:

Paul: These are the golden years of the Texas wine industry. After doing this for 33 years, we’re being discovered. We’ve had tremendous success and kind of an international awareness that we are producing great wines in Texas and we’re getting more and more people from around the country and abroad coming into our winery and visiting us because of our reputation for quality wine, so it’s good. And probably this will be the record crop in Texas history. Excellent growing conditions, a very cold winter, a great spring with rain, and now in most of the growing regions of Texas, there has been no rain in a month, which allows for no fungus or mold or anything to harm the crop. So it’s all good.

Hey Paul, what’s the deal with wine being more popular lately than the girl I should have asked out in high school? I was looking at the numbers the other day, and about 85% of all women consume wine on a regular basis and about 60% of men now consume wine regularly, so it’s a far cry from the beginnings of our industry in the 1970s, when probably 40% of women and 30% of men drank wine. You can look at our tasting room on a weekend and see as diverse a crowd as you can imagine come through the winery. The college students from A&M come out to the wine bar. They sit and talk and taste and compare. It’s a wonderful thing to see – the growth of wine interest in Texas. I see, the younger generation is into it, but what about the health aspect, has that made a difference?

The health benefits have made a huge difference. In 1990 was the 60 Minutes show on the “French Paradox,” and from that moment on, wine became a health food. Suddenly wine was almost a recommendation by almost every physician, every intern, every cardiovascular surgeon-- because of the fact that it would lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, and so I think that was a tremendous boon. Back in the 1970s, if you went to any restaurant you never got a wine list. You’d walk into a restaurant and the first thing they’d say is, ‘can I get you a cocktail?’ It was normal to walk into a restaurant and have a shot of whiskey before your meal.

So what is so appealing about Texas wine? A couple things. Texans are extremely loyal, probably more so than any other state I’ve ever seen. Second, the movement of buy-itlocal has spread all over the country. Now you see farmers markets springing up everywhere. Grow it local, consume it local. Help your community business because it stimulates the local economy, that kind of spirit is very strong in Texas. The next thing is that if you produce a quality product for a Texan they become more than an advocate, they become a fanatic. Not only that, but they are proud. Go back to the fact that Texas is the only state in the union that was once a country. I think that spirit still exists, so there’s that sense of ‘we’re very proud of our chefs that produce food that is reminiscent of the South and the West,’ and the same thing is happening with our wine.

The reputation of our wine has gotten so widespread that, for the first time in history, we are being asked to speak at the Portuguese and European wine meeting in Oporto, Portugal, in January. We are going to be speaking on how to create tourism because we are so far ahead of the European industry. For years if you went to Europe you could never visit a winery because their feeling is that it is a production facility—not intended for tourism. Conversely, America developed the concept of winery visitation. Here’s an example: if I wanted to go to Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, I would have to get a letter of introduction. It’s very different there. They sell virtually nothing through their retail operations, so we’re going to go over there and talk about our winery. We have a restaurant, we have tastings, we have a bed and breakfast, we have tours. We see 250,000 visitors every year come through our winery. The Bush Presidential Library sees less than 150,000. We now have 200 of those wineries all reaching out to the public and telling their story. And it’s a very compelling story, because all of us are typically family-owned, there’s a heart to the wineries. We’re not a large faceless corporate entity.

We are also the poster child of agriculture in the state of Texas because we are one of the only products that you can grow here, make here and sell here. It’s perfect because we’re producing it and selling it retail, we’re producing it and selling it wholesale, a lot of the retailers have jumped on supporting the industry by giving us Texas wine sections. You go to Spec’s on Smith St. and the Texas wine section is the closest wine section to the registers. We have over 20 of just our wines in that section alone. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t have 120 wines from across Texas in that store.

Where do you see the industry going from here? We wineries now have banded together and I believe we now have about 20 trails. We have seven wineries; soon we’ll have nine. We’re growing wineries like weeds. The seven of us have four trails a year we promote. October is Texas wine month, it’s a Go Texan restaurant roundup. What we’re trying to do collectively as an industry is drive traffic to those restaurants that are supporting and featuring Texas wine in the first week of the month of October. The Texas Hill Country Wine Trail touts itself as second only to Napa in breadth and number of visitors, but perhaps that is an understatement. As Paul said, Texas wineries offer something you can’t get in California or Europe, hands-on interaction with the growers and their families. It’s not just about tasting, it’s about getting to know the people and their stories. Suffice to say Texas wine has personality. Visit gotexanwine.org for more information.

by Tess Regan