Anyone looking for a good place to grow wine grapes in Texas will hardly go wrong buying acreage in Dawson County.

“This is an ideal place to raise wine grapes,” says Ronnie Wilson, manager of the Delaney Vineyards just outside Lamesa. The West Texas Plains, he says, provides four distinct seasons that give wine grapes the range of temperatures necessary to produce quality wines. An early spring that adds a week or two to growing seasons, hot summer days and cool nights accompanied by frequent wind, a temperate fall that transitions into winter that gets cold enough to allow vines to go into dormancy is an almost ideal climate for a winery, Wilson says.

The dormancy period helps with disease control. “As the sap goes down (during dormancy) any disease organism goes down and out the root system.”

He says temperatures in the Texas Hill Country don’t get as cold as they do in the Dawson County area. “That’s why wine grapes have so much more disease pressure further south. We have winter here. North of Lamesa winters are sometimes too harsh. Our growing season is often two weeks longer at each end of the season than it is further north. Bud break here is usually in March and we typically get no hard freeze after April 1.”

Wilson says the Lamesa vineyard has suffered only one season with severe freeze damage (in 1996) since the vines were planted some 20 years ago. “After bud break the fruit for the year is set. A freeze after that means no fruit for the year.”

Fall weather is also important. “Leaves need to change color,” Wilson says. “They need six or seven heavy frosts in the fall before we get a hard freeze. The vines need to transition. November 12 is a typical first-freeze date for the area.”

Wilson said the warm days and cool nights of summer also favor good wine grape production. Typical summertime highs may push above 100 degrees and lows may drop into the high 60s or low 70s at night. “That’s ideal. And grapevines love a breeze. Breezes keep insect pests away.”

Even with an ideal climate, growing wine grapes is a tough chore.

“I’ve been managing the vineyard for 21 years,” Wilson says, “and I’m still learning. It’s a hands-on learning experience.”

Wilson came to vineyard management via cotton production so he had to develop a new skill set to grow grapes.

“I visited vineyards and wineries all over Texas, as many as we could get to in 1985 (the year before first planting). I learned from other growers, regardless of the vineyard size. That experience helped tremendously and helped eliminate mistakes before we put the vineyard in.”

He got valuable pointers on spraying, irrigation, and other practices that helped with early decisions. “I’m now happy to do the same for anyone who is getting into the business.”

Getting a uniform stand is the first critical chore, he says. “It’s hard to establish a new vine in an old vineyard. It may be shade, competition for water or nutrients or something else, but a young vine in older plantings has a hard time establishing itself. That’s why it’s important to get every vine established in the first or second year. We don’t get production until the third year and we want every vine producing by then.”

He’s currently looking after a new, 27-acre section planted three years ago. “It’s a new Chardonnay and we’re working to get a solid crop on it,” he says.

Established vineyards demand almost constant attention. “Labor demand is intense,” Wilson says. “It takes a lot of time and money to start and manage a vineyard. We start pruning in January or February. I’d like to prune everything in March but with a larger vineyard we have to start earlier.”

He prunes every year because grapes grow on new wood.

“After pruning, the vines need something done every seven days. We cut or rub off lower shoots. We tie vines, rub off shoots, and rub them off again.”

He wraps and ties so grapes form in clusters. “If we get too many, we thin.”

They replant in spring, usually in April.

A vineyard manager walks a thin line between tonnage and quality. “Managers want tonnage; wineries want quality.”

Wilson says the 2006 crop is short on tonnage but quality should be good. A hot, dry summer typically produces high quality wine grapes with high sugar content.

“We made an average crop this year,” Wilson says. “We had some freeze damage last December and again in January and March that hurt. Those weather problems affected buds and vines so we didn’t make as good a crop as we usually do in a dry year.”

He says grape skins grow tougher in a drought year. “The juice is sweeter and produces a higher quality wine.”

He says the Delaney Vineyards’ 2006 Merlot crop had “the best color I’ve ever seen in this building (the Lamesa winery). The year makes the difference.”

It took a lot of irrigation water to make the crop. “We use above-ground drip irrigation systems. A lot of vineyards use underground systems but I like lines where I can see them and monitor water. I can tell when a line is stopped up.”

Irrigation lines last about 20 years, he says.

He has emitters set to provide 1 gallon per hour for 72-hour intervals. “Sometimes we apply 72 gallons per plant. But a grapevine needs water and then it needs to stay dry for ten days or so during the growing season (June through July). It’s hands-on then. We watch the crop and make certain vines have plenty of water. If they wilt in the heat of the day and color is a bit off, they need water.”

He says with heat topping 105 during the day and a constant wind, soils dry out quickly. “I hold leaves in the palm of my hand and if they feel cool, they have plenty of water. The plants and the soil tells me a lot about moisture needs.”

He stays on a 14-day spray schedule to control powdery mildew and other diseases. “We use preventive sprays. If we see a disease it’s already too late.”

He uses mostly Sevin for inset control, primarily for leafhoppers.

Delaney Vineyards produces mostly Chardonnay and also grows Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. “Those are our three main white wines,” Wilson says.

Reds include Zinfandel Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “We have seven red wine varieties in all,” Wilson says.

“Chardonnay is the big money crop. A lot of vineyards in Texas can’t grow Chardonnay but it is in high demand.”

They make wine on site and ship most of it to the home winery in Grapevine, Texas. Benedicte Rhyne, who learned her trade in her native France, is the wine maker. “Making wine in Texas is a challenge,” Rhyne says. “It’s more like wine production in the Mediterranean growing areas.”

She predicts Texas winery numbers will double in the next two years. “We had only 50 in 2002,” she says. “We have more than 100 now.”

She says the climate around Lamesa is good for growing grapes but that wineries do best when they are situated near a metropolitan area. “But grapes travel well.”

“Our wines go from here to Grapevine,” Wilson says. “We bottle 98 percent of the company’s wine here and we grow 98 percent of the grapes.”

The Grapevine location has 10 acres, along with a winery and retail center.

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com