While producing grapes in Texas pales compared to high-production and widely grown commercial crops like cotton, corn, wheat and sorghum, which dominate the state's agricultural landscape, viticulture does represent a growing niche market that many first-time farmers have discovered in recent years.
Riding a wave of popularity and rapid growth, producers of Texas grapes and wines, many of them new farming families, are taking advantage of an expanding market for Texas wine products. Growing grapes not only satisfies the need to get a hands-on farming experience by planting, growing and harvesting the fruits of the vine, but also providing the farmer with a chance to process his grapes and turn them into a regional wine that can be distributed to wholesalers and retailers.
A third possible revenue strategy for family-size vineyards is to take advantage of current farm-to-consumer trends and cash in on agritourism opportunities by offering vineyard tours, seasonal wine-related events, and annual wine festivals. Some creative producers are offering wine tastings, harvest events and live music as ways to celebrate one of the state's fastest growing specialty crops.
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Growing grapes in Texas is nothing new. The state may well have been the first place in the New World where grapes were grown with the intent of producing wine. Franciscan priests from Europe cultivated those first vines in America in the early 1600s. According to the Texas wine industry, as European settlers followed the development of mission outposts across the frontier, they brought more grapevine cuttings, further developing the industry through the late 1800s.
Four hundred years later and grapes are still being grown in Texas and bottled into wine, though the wine and grape industry has changed greatly since those early days. Diverse soils and the Texas climate offer opportunities for growing a wide variety of grape types.
Vineyards can be found in almost every region of the state.
Texas has approximately 4,400 acres of producing vineyards. The U.S. Department of Treasury, through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, officially designates American Viticulture (grape growing) Areas, or AVAs. Texas has eight AVAs, although many vineyards exist outside the specified AVA areas. "For a wine to mention an AVA on the label, 85 percent of the volume of wine must come from grapes grown in that designated region, but to bear the GoTexan logo on the bottle, 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown in Texas, but not necessarily in the same viticultural area (AVA)."
The Texas wine, winegrape and related industries produced more than $1.83 billion of economic value to the State of Texas by the end of 2011, the last year for which numbers were available. But industry officials say 2014 should prove to be the best economic year yet as a result of expanded vineyards and new labels all across the state.
In all, the wine and winegrape industry generates about 11,000 jobs in Texas, provides a $400 million wage rate and a total production of about 1.5 million cases of wine. The industry is growing. In addition, wine-related tourism produced an estimated $437.8 million in revenue to the state from an estimated 1.5 million tourists. Yet another benefit is an estimated local and state tax collected each year, amounting to nearly $92 million at last count.
Texas is ranked #5 in wine producing volume in the nation, is the second largest viticultural area in the United States, and is currently ranked the #1 Boutique Winery Vacation Destination in America.
When it comes to popular wines areas across the United States, California gets the nod for the largest number and greatest economic impact from the state's wine and winegrape industry. Other leading wine production states include New York, Washington, Oregon and Florida. However, it may surprise many that Texas has always had a surprisingly long and intriguing history with the grape, and can take credit for nearly single-handedly saving France’s wine industry.
It started in the early 1880s. France was hit with a devastating grape disease that all but destroyed the wine industry and French economy. A French scientist, Pierre Viala, was tasked by French officials with finding a cure for the plague of the grape.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, horticulturist, botanist, inventor, viticulturist, and free thinker Thomas Volney Munson was experimenting with cross pollination and rootstocks in Denison, Texas.
Munson had discovered that Texas soils and climate were similar to many of the grape growing regions of France. He also found that Texas had many of its own grape varieties with particular genetic properties, very different than the genetic makeup of the French grapes. This allowed Munson to use the Texas varieties, the wild Mustang and other domestic grapes collected mostly in and around Ingleside, Texas (near Corpus Christi), to develop phylloxera-resistant stocks.
Working with Munson, Viala grafted the Texas rootstocks with the French vines, allowing them to recover from the devastating grape disease epidemic of the late 19th Century while still growing the ancient Vitis vinifera cultivars. The grafting still continues today as researchers have discovered the wild Texas varieties have played an important role in providing genetic resistance for grape rootstocks used around the world.
Eight federally approved viticultural areas currently exist in Texas. A minimum of 85 percent of a wine labeled from an area must be made from grapes grown within the area’s boundaries. These areas generally represent unique climates and soils that make wine from that area distinct from other growing regions. Wines having a varietal designation on the label must also designate the appellation of origin (country, state, county or viticultural area) where the grapes were grown. At least 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must be of the designated variety.
But the need for more grape production is desperately needed in the Lone Star State to keep up with the demand. While grape production has grown rapidly throughout the state for several years running, Texas wines have garnered more attention and popularity in recent years than ever before, so much so that the state does not produce enough grapes to meet current demand.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” and Texas wineries have been forced to look to other grape-producing areas to find enough raw grapes to produce the volumes of wine required. In recent years California vineyards have provided most of the extra grapes needed by Texas wineries to meet production schedules.
But with a historic drought in progress on the West Coast and the resulting critical state of the California grape industry, Texas wine officials are scrambling to discover additional sources of grapes from other states and regions. Officials say the ultimate answer to the problems is to increase grape acres across Texas. While the number of acres dedicated to viticulture in the state are increasing, demand still outpaces supply, and state officials say more vineyards are needed—sooner than later.
Texas AgriLife Extension specialists say USDA funds are available to help with new farm start-up operations and other funds that might help with expanding existing orchards. They advise interested individuals and potential growers to inquire about viticulture opportunities by contacting county agents, or for more information online connect to the Texas Department of Agriculture's guide to "Starting a Vineyard in Texas."