Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Texas Wine Conundrum According To Me/Problems With the Enchanted Trail

The topic of Texas wine has inspired a lot of thought and a lively conversation in the comments for the previous post, and since there is much to discuss, I'd like to clarify my own goal in this segment.

As one reader said, if you look at the overall business picture---percentages, per capita production, trade magazine and wine competition feedback---you might get the idea that Texas wine is doing just fine. From many angles, it is. As I said, we're the fifth largest producing state. That's nothing to sneeze at.

But every very one of the other states in the top five seems to have every healthy tier of wine being produced. There is the inexpensive stuff, like Gallo; then the tourist circuit, semi-sweet wine; the nationally distributed wine of various price points, and then finally, the high quality, distinctive wine (which is still probably overpriced, but what're ya gonna do). Currently, Texas has produces a mazillion gallons of the first, pallets-full of the second, but none of the third and so precious little of the last that it makes me weep into my Lone Star Longneck.

My angle is this: I would like to see Texas distinguish itself in the national market in that last category in particular, and to do so consistently. Furthermore, and here's the kicker: I want ALL the fruit for these wines to come from Texas, and bear the distinct mark of appellation. As I go out and talk to current winemakers, I am trying to ask questions around this little personal fantasy of mine, to see where their heads are and what role they want to play in the Texas market.
*****

My Backyard

The wineries around me are part of what is called the 'Enchanted Trail', which is in the Western part of the Hill Country. It is a tourist circuit, and the wines are mostly geared towards that market, which craves semi-sweet wine and lots of cute doo-dads for sale in the tasting room. Some of these wines are quite nice. I've sipped many a tasty, aromatic orange muscat on a hot summer day. And occassionally, a relatively dry red wine will come out of the pack, but not often or consistently.

The challenges to vineyards grown in this area are so daunting, however, that there are few acres that escape it, and the majority of these wineries source their fruit from wherever they can get it: California bulk, New Mexico, Arizona. Pierce's disease, a bacteria spread by sharpshooters that slowly destroys vines over a period of one to three years, is a vicious culprit, and unfortunately, this part of the Hill Country is Sharpshooter Central. It is almost inevitable that vineyards around here suffer and are often completely destroyed by this blight. Other diseases and fungus such as bunch rot are also a problem.

Weather's another enemy sometimes. Long, hot summers can shut vines down, and frequent rain spells from the gulf halt sugar levels before harvest.

In sum, grape Shangri-La, it ain't. But there are AVAs in Texas that are more appropriate for vitis vinifera: the Texas High Plains and the Davis Mountains. The fruit from the High Plains around Lubbock is consistently good. There's just not enough of it to go around.

What the Enchanted Trail does have, though, is tourist pull. Apart from wineries, there are scads of peach and produce stands. Johnson City, home of LBJ, has a state historical park on his homestead. The area is a favorite with bikers with the famous beer and live music venue "town" of Lukenbach as well as a couple of other biker-friendly stops. Finally, Highway 290 takes you to Fredericksberg, a crowded but quaint shopping destination for the family.

So I'm thinking this: High Plains fruit + Hill Country Charm = opportunity to make kickass wine and get it out there.

This, obviously, would require lots of things to happen. More growers, more money, more marketing, and some more money. And also a lot of money.

Does anyone have twenty million bucks I can borrow?

Up next: Mike Guilete of Woodrose Winery, and Jeffery Ivy of Dry Comal Creek talk more about the challenges of the Hill Country.

Clinkies.

14 Comments:

Blogger Zin-Gal said...

Taj... Do you ever "host" folks on an informal basis on a tour of the Enchanted Trail? I am up in Dallas and as I learn more about wine, I become more and more intrigued with the possibilities of Texas Wine. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and for the great informative web site.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Christian Cox said...

Jeff Ivy is at Dry Comal Creek, huh? I'm glad to see he's already found your site, Taj. I hope that he's planning on shifting to actual Texas wines, rather than "Texas style" wines. 2006 is a short first vintage to start looking for fruit, but there are good growers willing and waiting if he wants to line up fruit sources for the future.

I agree with your breakdown of the Texas wine on the market today. I think you probably need to refine the third category a little though. I think the category should be wine of a quality and quantity that it could compete in the national market, not whether it is actually nationally distributed. There really are very few Texas wines of sufficient quantity to justify out of state distribution. There are also some very small US wineries with 'national' distribution, because their wines or their regions have generated a national market.

Are there some Texas wines that COULD make a splash in any market in the country? Yes. But no one "nationally" knows about them. Sometimes they're not even well known in Texas.

How do you fix that problem? Marketing, distribution, and press. When good wines are made in Texas, they have to be sold to the people who are buying the national market stuff, not just the tourists, not just the Texas wine crowd. They need to be sold to the gal looking for a $15 red, or the guy ordering a glass of white with dinner. They need to be displayed and promoted in the places where Texan wine lovers buy wine. There are countless passionate, unbiased, wine merchants in this state and others who would gladly sell these wines, if they tasted them and were taught about them.

Just like the growing issue, it all comes down to people. Passionate, hardworking winemakers need to find passionate, hardworking wine sellers to carry there products to market.

8:51 PM  
Blogger taj said...

ZIN GAL: I haven't hosted an informal tour like that before (it would certainly be fun). But please come visit the Hill Country wine trails any how. There's loads of info, maps and such at texaswinetrails.com.

Christian: I agree about wine retailers leading people to the Texas section to promote them...just as soon as there are Texas wines that are priced competitively according to their quality.
This is one of my main irritants about the Texas market: the price tags on the "good" stuff. Why should I ask someone to spend $17 on a Pinot Grigio when there are scads of them cheaper and better from Italy? Same with the Super Texan ($20) or the Fall Creek Meritus that comes in at a jaw dropping $32 (yikes!)

People might pay that once, and usually if they went to the winery, but they're not necessarily going to return to the Texas section to try other wines or want to spend that much again in the face of so many other choices. Somebody (think it was Don) was talking about the right for TX wineries to ask "super premium" prices for their "super premium" wines, but I think the proof will always be in the pudding.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Christian said...

The wines I'm thinking of are the Becker Claret and Merlot, Haak Reddy Vineyards (THP) Cab, Brennan Viognier (which I wholesale, BTW), even the Peregrine Hill wines from Ste. Gen. These wines need to be sold right along with their counterparts from all over the world. There are a few retailers that put them with other like varietals, but they usually have fewer Texas wines that shops with sections. Ideally, retailers could cherry pick the best, most competitive wines, and place them in BOTH sections, but the double shelf spot is a hard thing to justify. Maybe Texas pride can twist a few arms.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Christophe Hedges said...

Great site. Interesting articles.
Keep up the good work. By the way, I just starting selling my wine through Prestige distribution and finally found a reason to visit Texas. Glazers is terrible. Your state is a fantastic market for Indy wines.(anything not traded publicly)

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Jack said...

For Texas to have world class wines, wouldn't they have to produce something other than the two most popular drinkin varietals, Cab and Chard? Wouldn't they have to figure out what the actual best varietals to plant would be and then plant them? When is this happening? I don't think they'll ever get to second base focusing on Cab and Chard.

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