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October 2008

No Sour Grapes Here

Texas Wine Industry Blossoms

by Bruce Wright

When people ask Ed Auler why he got into the wine business, he gives them a three-word answer: “low cattle prices.” But what started as an interest in diversifying his ranching business ended with him becoming one of the founders of a modern Texas industry.

Wine has a long history in Texas – very long, dating back to the late seventeenth century, with vines planted at the Ysleta mission near present-day El Paso. For the next two centuries, European settlers planted grapes, often beginning with varieties from home but switching to hardier native plants.

But Prohibition wiped out all but one Texas winery, and wine and wine grape production didn’t return until the 1970s.

Ed and Susan Auler of Auler's Fall Creek Vineyard.  Photo courtesy of Auler's Fall Creek Vineyard

Today, however, the state’s wine industry is booming, and Auler’s Fall Creek Vineyards is one of the jewels of the Texas Hill Country.

The Wine Boom

In the past three decades, Texas has risen to become the nation’s fifth-largest wine producer, behind California, New York, Washington and Oregon.

In all, the state has about 220 family-owned vineyards covering 3,700 acres. These lands produce an average annual harvest of 11,100 tons of grapes worth $10.6 million – all of it devoted to wine.

Exponential Growth

Number of Texas Wineries 1975-2008

Since 1975, the number of commercial wineries in Texas has risen by a staggering 8,050 percent.

In 1975, there were 2 wineries in Texas. In 1995 there were 30. In 2005 there were 101 wineries and in 2006 there were 117. In 2007 there were 136 wineries in Texas, and as of 2008 there are 163.

Source: WineAmerica and the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association

Nothing illustrates the boom in Texas wine quite as well as the rapid growth in the number of wineries established here. The Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) reports that the state now has 163 wineries, and that more than half of them (85) have been established since 2004.

And this growth has been a boon for communities throughout the state. According to TWGGA, the industry contributes more than $1 billion annually to the Texas economy, including about 8,000 jobs contributing yearly wages of about $234.6 million.

Living History in Del Rio

Val Verde Winery, established in 1883, is Texas’ oldest continuously operating winery and vineyard and, indeed, one of the oldest in the nation. Founded in 1883 by Italian immigrant Frank Qualia, Val Verde is still owned and operated by his descendants.

During the dry years of Prohibition, Val Verde remained open, converting its operations to the production of table grapes. Winemaking resumed after Repeal. From the late 1950s until the 1970s, Val Verde Winery was the state’s only winemaker, and it continues production today, with a variety of reds and whites as well as an award-winning port. Now in its 125th year, the winery can be toured each week from Monday through Saturday.

From Cows to Cuvées

Poor returns on cattle in the early 1970s prompted Auler to begin “looking for something else to do, not in lieu of livestock, but in addition,” he says. “We thought about peaches, pecans and apples.

“Until a trip to France in ‘73, I frankly didn’t know anything about wine,” says Auler. “We’d been crossbreeding our Angus cattle with some French cattle, and I went over to look at some of them first hand. My wife wanted to take a wine tour. We spent three days on French cattle ranches and three weeks in French chateaus, and fell in love with wine. From that point on, I’ve been a wine aficionado.”

Auler first planted grapes on his land near Tow in 1975, and opened Fall Creek Vineyards in 1979. Today, it’s the state’s third-oldest and third-largest winery, and the largest in the Hill Country, which has emerged as the state’s premier wine region.

Wet/Dry No More

Auler was a pioneer of Texas wine – and, until recently, a fairly lonely one. As late as 1995, Texas had just 30 wineries. A few years later, however, the Texas Legislature gave Texas winemakers a big hand up, with legislation many credit with kick-starting the state’s wine boom.

Before 2001, winemakers could not sell wine directly to customers if their places of business were situated in dry counties, as many were. In that year, state law began allowing Texas wineries to sell wine from their own tasting rooms and to ship wine anywhere in the state, regardless of the wet/dry status of their home counties.

“The tasting room is a very important part of our operation,” Auler says. “A lot of [the smaller wineries], though, that’s the only place they sell.”

Grape Vacations

Those tasting rooms benefit greatly from the increasing popularity of wine tourism. TWGGA estimates that 869,000 tourists visit Texas wineries each year, spending nearly $222 million.

Many local wineries host food and wine classes to attract visitors, and some have banded together to increase their tourist draw. The Hill Country Wine Trail, for instance, involves 22 wineries (including Fall Creek) that offer visitors special events and incentives. In 2007, the online travel company Orbitz ranked the Hill Country second among U.S. wine tourism destinations in terms of its growth in travel bookings, behind only California’s Napa Valley.

T.V. Munson, the Man who Saved Wine

Texas’ most important contribution to the world of wine – so far, at least – came in the 19th century, when a horticulturalist from Denison helped keep France from becoming a beer-drinking nation.

Thomas Volney Munson came to Texas in 1876, seeking mild winters for his plantings. Travels throughout the state and elsewhere prompted him to begin experimenting with wild grapes. He quickly found that native plants were much hardier and more disease-resistant than traditional European varieties. Munson became an international authority on grapes, and ultimately developed more than 300 successful varieties from wild specimens he found along the Red River.

His biggest mark on history, however, came when he helped European wine producers recover from a plant louse called phylloxera, which had destroyed more than 6 million acres of vineyards by the early 1880s. French winemakers asked Munson for a phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The cuttings he supplied, when grafted to traditional grape vines, halted the destruction and helped save the industry.

France recognized Munson’s contribution with the Legion of Honor in 1888, and dedicated several statues to the unlikely savior of European wine.

Wine tourism “is very positive for us, obviously,” says Auler. “For the smaller wineries, it’s their lifeblood in terms of sales, and for the larger ones it’s very beneficial. You hope you create a customer who will go find your wine in the store or their favorite restaurant.”

Critical Mass

The expansion of Texas winemaking has brought the kind of support structures that producers need to succeed.

“We’re getting to be a more serious industry by the day,” Auler says.

“One of our difficulties when we first started out was the cost of freight, because if we bought a wine barrel or a wine tank or a wine anything, the closest we were going to get it was California. And if we bought it from Europe, the freight charges were just off the charts.”

Today, however, suppliers to the industry call regularly, and some are opening regional offices. Supplies such as cork and labels and trellis posts have become more readily available.

“Now we’re getting bottles from Monterrey, Mexico, which is a huge help. And I look forward to the day when we have oak barrel makers here, and I don’t think it’s too far down the road,” says Auler.

Texas Wine, Texas Weather

Despite a growing national reputation, most Texas wines are consumed here. According to Texas Tech’s Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute, 95 percent of all Texas wine sold in 2006 was purchased within the state.

“We have some distribution outside Texas, but it’s rather small,” Auler says. “We haven’t really saturated the state yet. We need more volume, and the biggest impediment to that is the inconsistency of Texas weather.

“We and others have proven that we’ve got some wonderful soils for growing grapes, and wonderful climates, but the weather’s erratic,” he says. “It can be our best friend or our worst enemy.

“We came our pretty good this year,” Auler says. “But 2006 and 2007 were very difficult years for us – and everybody else in the state. We had late freezes, hailstorms, untimely rains and floods before harvest. Last year, the Hill Country got three times its normal annual rainfall in just 60 days, and part of that was at harvest time.

“When we’ve got the volume of wine to go out of state, I think we will,” says Auler. “But it won’t happen overnight. We need a few more good years under our belt, and some more vineyards going into the ground.” FN


For more information on Texas wine and winemakers, visit www.texaswine.com. To learn more about Fall Creek Vineyards, visit www.fcv.com.

For more information on the life and work of T.V. Munson, visit www.tvmunson.org.

For more information on Val Verde Winery, visit www.valverdewinery.com.

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