The Texas wine industry has quite a storied past.
In the 1860s Spanish missionaries began cultivating grapes near present day El Paso. In 1883, Frank Qualia founded the Val Verde Winery in Del Rio, the oldest bonded winery still in operation today.
Texas viticulturist Thomas Munson is credited with saving the European wine industry. Munson developed and delivered a Texas-grown resistant rootstock to European vineyards to help rebuild vineyards struck by the disease phylloxera. The French government presented Munson with the French Legion of Honor Chevalier du Mérite Agricole Award in 1888.
Munson later published Foundations of American Grape Culture, a handbook for U.S. grape growers.
Twenty-five wineries dotted the Texas landscape in 1900 but were closed in 1919 due to the federal prohibition of alcohol. Wineries reopened in 1933 when prohibition was repealed.
In 2005 the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing the shipment of Texas wines within the state.
Texas’ modern day commercial wine grape industry took root in the 1970s. The wineries Llano Estacado in Lubbock and Fall Creek in Austin are credited with pioneering today’s wine industry.
The wine industry remains in its infancy with many novices entering the field. The industry needs time to become more successful, says Edward Hellman, viticulture professor and Extension specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Tech University.
“The Texas wine industry has great potential,” Hellman said. “We’ve only scratched the surface in what the wine industry can achieve.”
The wine industry is the fifth largest in the nation with a $1.35 billion economic contribution to Texas coffers.
“It’s a steep learning curve in a highly-technical business,” Hellman said during a High Plains Planting Tour this past spring. “It’s difficult for a small operation with a vineyard and winery to do well. A new person to grapes must learn the grape and wine business simultaneously. People are learning it, but it’s a struggle.”
In 1986, row crop farmers Neal and Janice Newsom diversified their cotton, milo, and peanut operation in Plains, Texas with five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The couple slowly increased the grape plantings over the past two decades. Grapes are now the only crop the Newsom’s grow.
“It’s a big switch to move to from row crop production to wine grapes,” Hellman said. “Those who have successfully done it have studied grapes and visited other vineyards. It’s not easy.”
Texas’ wine grape industry faces another challenge in bringing the supply and demand of fruit into balance, Hellman says. Texas has 280 commercial wineries with 3,100 acres of vineyards. The acreage represents about 10 percent of the grapes required by the wineries. The other 90 percent is purchased out-of-state, mostly from California.
Most Texas-grown grapes are grown for premium wines priced at $20/bottle and above. Texas lacks the larger acreages of higher-yielding varieties for lower price-point wines.
Texas-grown wine grapes on average sell for $1,500 to $2,000 per ton, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Hellman fields phone calls and e-mails from people interested in the wine business. He helped implement the Prospective Winegrower Workshop, a one-day educational program from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. The workshop provides an overview of the requirements and risks associated with the establishment and operation of a commercial vineyard in Texas.
“It’s really designed to open people’s eyes to what this business is all about,” Hellman said. The upfront investment to start a vineyard is $10,000 or more per acre; not including land, well drilling, and equipment costs.
The workshop is a prerequisite for the two-year, Texas viticulture certificate program to be launched this fall by Texas Tech University and AgriLife Extension. The course delves into grape vine biology; site assessment and vineyard development; vine nutrition and water management; canopy and crop load management; plus disease, insect, and weed management. The $2,400 program is limited to 40 participants.
Can the Texas wine industry compete with the larger wine-grape growing states?
“They already are and produce good grapes,” Hellman said. “We have good wine makers and wines that compete favorably. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the Texas wine industry in the past five years.”