Texas Vintage: Drought But Not Out

Despite record heat and diminished funding, wine industry flourishes

by Jane Firstenfeld
redding vineyards caprock winery
Sarah Anderson shows off ripe winegrapes July 15 at Redding Vineyards in Texas' High Plains, where harvest began early. Source: CapRock Winery blog by Phil Anderson
Lubbock, Texas—Almost a year of drought, more than a month of triple-digit heat, and reduced state funding for viticulture and enology extension are not enough to discourage the Texas wine industry. Following a record grape harvest last year that left wineries full, “I’m still amazed. Despite the economy, our industry continues to grow,” said Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture and extension specialist at Texas Tech University and Texas A & M.

Although he doesn’t expect 2011’s sweltering summer to produce another bumper crop, “I don’t think it’s going to be a hardship or limiting factor,” Hellman told Wines & Vines. According to WinesVinesDATA, Texas now has 191 licensed wineries (bonded and virtual); six of these have been added since March 1. Although the Lone Star State ranks fifth in U.S. wine production, Texas wines are not well known outside state borders: “Easily 90%-95% are sold within the state,” Hellman said.

In contrast to West Coast viticultural regions, subjected this year to a cold, wet and enduring winter and a spring that never seemed to end, Texas has been “hot, hot hot,” Hellman said. “It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before in terms of drought. Our last significant rainfall in West Texas was last September.” Texas is usually dry in winter, but this year, there were no spring or summer rains to fill reservoirs. Combined with, so far, no hurricanes, “It’s been a very different season.”

Harvest in progress
Although most Texas growers draw from wells supplied by subsurface aquifers, “Irrigation is intended to supplement rainfall, not provide 100% of water” to crops, Hellman noted. The torrid temperatures have hastened harvest throughout the state. Even in the typically cooler High Plains, harvest began in early August. Hellman said that near Lubbock it’s not uncommon for the crush to continue into mid-September; in 2010, it extended until early October. This year, he said, “I don’t think we’ll be finished in August, but probably in early September.” The compressed season could, he predicted, cause logistical problems as wineries juggle equipment, and space. All but the smallest Texas vineyards are machine-harvested, so the state does not experience the labor shortages faced by many agricultural areas.

Lubbock vineyards are now picking their white varieties, especially Viognier and Muscat (“a good fit for us”) and early-ripening red Tempranillo.

A winemaker reports
Greg Bruni, winemaker for Llano Estacado Winery, Lubbock, confirmed Hellman’s observations. “It’s been an unusual year,” he said dryly. “In the High Plains, we’ve seen growers who expect to get anywhere from 80% to 90% of an average crop, while others have lost up to 60%.”

The almost record cold winter, two spring frost events in April, a couple of hailstorms in July, plus persistent wind combined with hot weather during bloom, he said, resulted in poor crop set, and physiological changes in vines. “I don’t want to sound like everyone is having a tragic year. We’re doing surprisingly well, and based on what we’ve seen, the quality is good.”

Llano Estacado remains Texas’ second largest winery, although Bruni predicted that production would be reduced 10% this year to about 180,000 cases. The winery only has about three acres of vineyards, and sources grapes from vineyards in Texas and California. Bruni expects the Texas harvest to wrap up the first week of September, in contrast to normal years, when it continues into early October. “The lighter crop will mature faster,” Bruni observed.

Reprieve for extension
Viticulture and enology research, education and extension in Texas were threatened with an untimely demise earlier this year, when the state legislature threatened to eliminate funding to the industry. “Total disaster was diverted for a little while,” when the agriculture commissioner came up with $200,000 to help support the viticulture extension team through June 2013, Hellman reported.

“Although the Department of Agriculture took a huge budget cut, they recognized how important we are,” Hellman said gratefully. “We’re still working on finding funding for research, and I’m especially concerned about supporting our faculty.”

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