I was recently in New York to help organize a trade tasting of Texas wines.
When I was asked to work on this, I was intrigued. I knew they made wine in Texas but had not yet tried one. But I was also curious. I was curious in the same way many of us who live in California might react. Texas wine? Really?
I am aware that wine is made in almost every state in the U.S. But when I think about climate challenges, I wonder why a winemaker would be drawn to making wine in a lesser-known region that is not already known for wine and faces humidity, frost and disease as a regular occurrence.
When I was introduced to Virginia wines, I had had that reaction. But in my visits to various wineries in Virginia, I began to understand when I found dedicated people, some who had previously worked in California and other well-known wine regions, who found a home in a developing region.
As I sat down to dinner with the Texas winemakers in New York the night before the event, I was able to learn more about Texas wine.
Less than one percent of Texas land is suitable for grapes. The Texas High Plains AVA, where more than 75 percent of Texas grapes are grown, covers slightly less than 9 million acres (larger than the vine-planted acreage of Spain, France, Italy and China combined according to Dallas-based wine writer Andrew Chalk.)
There are currently between 5,000 and 6,000 acres under vine, and they sit at an altitude of 2,500-4,000 feet above sea level. The Texas High Plains AVA, the second largest AVA in Texas, is a continental climate with low humidity and a large diurnal range.
There is also the Texas Hill Country AVA, the largest AVA in the state. This area is the center of the winemaking and the visitor center of Texas wines. With more than 60 producing wineries and its proximity to major population centers, Texas Hill Country AVA is considered the Texas wine industry’s showroom. But with its continental climate with a humid growing season, a small diurnal range and issues with Pierce’s Disease and wild animals, it is not necessarily where the best grapes are grown.
According to Greg Bruni, executive vice president for winemaking and production of Llano Estacado Winery, it is an exciting time for Texas wines. “The best wines of Texas have not been made yet. It is about generations; it is about people who can spread the word.”
Bruni was raised in California in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His family owned a winery, and his first vintage was in 1974. He finished his studies at UC Davis in 1977 and continued to work as a winemaker in California until 1993. Bruni recalled the pioneer spirit of the early 1970s in California. “Back in my day, it was easy to play. California was an open world.”
I asked Bruni how he ended up making wine in Texas, and he explained that after living in the mountains for years, Bruni wanted to live somewhere flat. Texas was perfect. He saw the potential in Texas wine. “I like being a pioneer,” he said.
Bruni arrived in Texas in 1993 and his first vintage was 1994. He has now been a winemaker in Texas for more time than he was in California. Over the two-plus decades that Bruni has been making wine in Texas, he has seen great development.
“It used to be embarrassing but now it is exciting,” he said.
The quality of Texas wine has been improving over the last decade, and this quality is being recognized as the number of medals at out-of-state wine competitions won by Texas wines has grown exponentially between 1984 and 2016, with 142 medals received in 2016.
In addition, Texas is one of the most popular wine regions for visitors with 1,609 average monthly visitors, behind Virginia (2,075 monthly visitors) and New York (2,051 monthly visitors) and ahead of Napa (1,497 monthly visitors, according to Robert McMillan, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division.
The Texas wine industry is on its way, and I am looking forward to adding Texas wines to the list of wines to taste and regions to explore.