But the most difficult question is appropriately enough the simplest one: is Texas wine any good?
It's a hard question with multiple answers. It can be said without embellishment, however, that Texas wine is almost singularly responsible for the health of the modern wine industry. This is due to American horticulturist T.V. Munson’s salvation of the French wine industry. In the late 19th-century, phylloxera (an aphid parasite that feeds on vitis vinifera) had ravaged most of Europe’s wine industry, very nearly wiping it out. Munson recommended the grafting of French vines onto phylloxera-resistant, and natively Texan, Mustang rootstock. Once grafted, the vines gained the natural immunity of the Mustang grape to phylloxera. To save their livelihood, the overwhelming majority of French and various other European chateaux decided to uproot their original rootstock and replace it with Texan instead. So, in effect, almost all French wine (including a few very famous communes in Bordeaux) and a significant amount of other European wines are part Texan.
Yet the Mustang grape itself isn’t very good: from all accounts, it’s nearly inedible due to its acid content and produces medium-to-low quality wine on a good day. The low quality of the native grapes are just the beginning of a set of severe difficulties the winemakers have to overcome just to produce some quality wine, barring the already-problematic and mercurial nature of viticulture. Winemakers and growers have to endure a searing summer and very short winter that impedes the growing process, a growing season that’s 2-3 months shorter as a consequence, humidity that breeds regular waves of Pierce’s Disease, small microclimates that can only support very specific varietals, difficult earth that makes the process even more prohibitively expensive than it already is, and a very pronounced derision from the “wine elite” of what’s made, despite the hardships – condemning the juice even before it’s put in a bottle.
Despite all this, some very talented and dedicated winemakers have come to Texas to try their hand at one of the America’s most difficult areas to make wine. In an effort to supply Texas’ huge demand for popular American varietals (Cab, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.), they have tried to grow the same in the Lone Star State. In this regard, most have frankly failed.
This isn’t their fault, however. Texas simply isn’t California and isn’t meant to grow California grapes. This is where the debate begins, as some will invariably fault and decry Texas’ quality for this reason. I fall solidly on the other side. Blaming Texas for not being able to grow Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is like claiming Austrians are lesser-quality winemakers because they don’t make Porto, or like saying Picasso’s paintings are bad because they’re not Romantic. Apples and oranges, in shorthand.
There’s a very long and vitriolic historic thread of argument on the subject, which I’m more than happy to skip over. Instead, I’d like to focus on what Texas does best: lesser-known and recognized red varietals originating from arid and hot regions, and sweeter whites that reflect Texas’ heavily German roots.
Cabernet and Merlot are not Texas' strong suits. Tempranillo and Garnacha, however, are already used to similar Spanish climates and grow exceptionally well here. There aren't very many Bordeaux blends of repute, yet GSM Rhone blends actually compare very well (a special shoutout to Pedernales for making one that actually fooled a friend into thinking it was French). Grape Creek is perennially a placer in the San Francisco Chronicle's Wine Competition, doing so with Petite Sirah, Italian blends and port. The lesser reputed Viognier, always playing second banana to Chardonnay, become incredibly nuanced and balanced in the High Plains while Riesling, Muscat and Gewürztraminer flourish in the highly Germanic Hill Country (the 2nd largest AVA in America).
There's undeniable talent and good wine to be had in the Lone Star State. So why can't it shake this lousy reputation of being second rate?
The answer is twofold. First, these varietals and their appreciation are a relatively recent development. For a long time, Texas did try to emulate California, to poor results. It's not really until the last ten years or so that these underdog varietals have even had a chance to shine above the "stars", much less dominate. Even so, the national thirst remains the same. Cabernet is easy to market. Tempranillo isn't.
So winemakers have had to source from the Golden State for many of the "traditional" American varietal grapes. However; these often aren't the massively expensive and already- spoken-for grapes that make the greats, but rather the also-rans and leftovers. Thus begins a vicious cycle of mediocrity feeding criticism.
The second reason is partly legal and partly logistical. Laws in Texas are notoriously strict on selling alcohol, but even more so on importation and exportation. In short, it's very difficult to send wine out of the state, and yields are low as it is. In addition, Texas more often than not drinks the entirety of its own wine every year, leaving extremely little to export. Thus, not enough of the good stuff gets out, and the memory of past plonk lives on to further fuel the cycle.
In summation, is Texas wine any good? The answer is that yes, it can be. Winemakers just have to be ready and willing to overcome a nearly insurmountable hill of problems, not the least of which includes a deep identity crisis. That being said, once those are overcome, the wine produced can indeed not just be good, but great.
As ever, the wisdom is to be adventurous and to try some off-the-beaten-path stuff that no one knows about. God knows there's great stuff out there to try, and hopefully our future is filled with more. So here's to Texas: my native state, the savior of the wine industry, and to the spirit of adventure that pushes our winemakers to give us great wine from somewhere deeply challenging and different - and not just where the conventional wisdom told us it should be.
Tom Richard Santos