A framed menu hangs on the wall at the Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, Texas, boasting about two wines served at a major White House dinner in Washington, D.C., in 1996.
The event hosted by President George W. Bush included the winery’s 1994 Texas Cloud and 1993 Texas Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
The Llano Estacado Winery, established in 1976 and the largest premium winery in Texas today, was a stop on a High Plains planting tour this spring. The tour, developed for journalists and sponsored by the Texas Department of Agriculture, featured stops in the greater Lubbock area.
“The best wines we make are from Texas grapes,” said Greg Bruni, Llano Estacado’s vice-president and executive winemaker and a former California winemaker. “The best wines in Texas haven’t been made yet; they will be produced by future generations.”
Bruni says the key to producing superior wines is working side-by-side with wine grape growers to develop a sharper understanding of grapes for fine-wine production, plus utilizing quality wine-making equipment.
“Better understanding the grower side makes it easier for us to hit the range of flavor that we want to achieve at the winery,” Bruni said.
In 1983, Llano Estacado purchased new state-of-the-art tanks, crushers, and related equipment. The winery’s 2007 expansion increased the bottling capacity to more than 100,000 cases of wine annually.
The winery’s two vineyards grow about 100 acres of wine grapes, far less than 1 percent of the grapes needed to create Llano Estacado wines.
The winery requires 3,000 tons of grapes annually and purchases one-third from Texas wine grape growers. California’s Napa Valley and Central Coast regions, Washington and New Mexico supply the other two-thirds.
Texas has 280 commercial vineyards with 3,100 acres in wine grapes. While the Texas wine industry remains in its infancy, the goal is to turn baby steps into Texas-sized strides over the long-term amid a highly competitive world wine business.
Good soils and climate plus motivated Texas wine industry leaders and grape growers speak of an industry anxious to make inroads against the wine industry’s elite.
Texas’ wine-growing regions don’t compare to California’s Napa Valley — far from it. While Napa vineyards are planted almost on top of each other, Texas vineyards are few and far between; some are planted adjacent to cotton, peanut, or grain fields. Yet the Western wine grape industry should take a quick glimpse of the Texas-sized blip on the radar screen.
According to the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), the Lone Star State is the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the United States and the seventh largest wine-grape producer. About 2.4 million gallons of Texas wine are produced annually for purchase through wineries, grocery stores, liquor stores, and restaurants.
Texas-grown wine grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Blanc du Bois, Riesling, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Viognier.
A push is underway to expand Texas grape-growing acreage to supply more local grapes to the wineries. The TDA’s Wine Grape Investment Pilot Grant Program awarded $245,000 in state-funded grants to 10 Texas growers to start or expand vineyards to increase acreage by 141 acres.
The 10 recipients, seven from the Texas High Plains American Viticultural Area (AVA) include: Red Caboose, Bosque County, 5.1 acres; Brennan Vineyard, Comanche County, 5.5 acres; Delaney Vineyards, Dawson County, 1.8 acres; Bell Mountain Vineyards, Gillespie County, 19.5 acres; AA Martin Partners, Hockley County, 5 acres; Mesa Vineyards, Pecos County, 40.8 acres; and three recipients in Terry County including Cliff Bingham, 15 acres; Clint Bingham, 5 acres; and John Francis Oswald, 15 acres. Most of the new vineyard costs are paid by the growers.
Texas is spending $4.5 million to expand its wine industry through viticulture education and research, vineyard management through grape-growing and wine-making programs, Cooperative Extension knowledge and resources, and marketing.
The Texas wine industry generates about 9,000 jobs and attracts more than 950,000 tourists annually.
The Texas High Plains AVA, established in 1993, encompasses about 9 million acres, the second largest AVA statewide and the third largest nationally. About 700 acres of vineyards produce fruit with another 200 non-bearing acres in the ground. Five wineries are located in the AVA.
Ed Hellman, viticulture professor and Extension specialist with Texas Tech University and Texas AgriLife Extension, Lubbock, says growing degree-days vary across the High Plains AVA with the average daily temperature from 75 to 80 degrees.
Elevation rises from the southeast AVA boundary at 3,000 feet above sea level to almost 4,200 feet at the northwest quadrant. Nighttime temperatures cool off due to the elevation and lower relative humidity, which enriches the grape-ripening process in the fall, Hellman says.
Annual precipitation ranges from about 16 inches at the eastern AVA side to 25 inches on the west end. Irrigation is necessary.
“Irrigation is an important tool that allows us to manage grapevine vigor,” Hellman says.
The mostly red soils are sand-based with more clay towards the AVA’s northeast boundary. “The Amarillo, Brownfield, and Patricia soils found in the AVA are fine, sandy loams or loamy fine sands that are deep, well drained, provide good permeability, yet have enough clay for water-holding capacity.”
Abundant sunshine offers multiple benefits, especially for red wine grape varieties. Sunshine on the red soil creates red wavelengths reflected to the plant resulting in improved fruit color development and vine fruitfulness.
As part of Texas’ commitment to develop the state’s wine industry, Texas Tech University and Texas AgriLife Extension are launching a two-year Professional Certificate in Viticulture program this fall in Lubbock, Hellman says.
The curriculum will include: grapevine biology, site assessment and vineyard development, vine nutrition and water management, and canopy and crop load management. Also on the list are disease, insect, and weed management and vineyard practices. The program is limited to 40 students.
In addition to the High Plains AVA, Texas has seven other AVAs including Bell Mountain, Davis Mountain, Escondido Valley, Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, Mesilla Valley (Texas and New Mexico), Texas Hill Country, and Texoma.