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In South Texas Plains: Wine grapes take root, prosper

Anyone looking for a good place to grow wine grapes in Texas will hardly go wrong buying acreage in Dawson County.

“This is an ideal place to raise wine grapes,” says Ronnie Wilson, manager of the Delaney Vineyards just outside Lamesa. The West Texas Plains, he says, provides four distinct seasons that give wine grapes the range of temperatures necessary to produce quality wines. An early spring that adds a week or two to growing seasons, hot summer days and cool nights accompanied by frequent wind, a temperate fall that transitions into winter that gets cold enough to allow vines to go into dormancy is an almost ideal climate for a winery, Wilson says.

The dormancy period helps with disease control. “As the sap goes down (during dormancy) any disease organism goes down and out the root system.”

He says temperatures in the Texas Hill Country don't get as cold as they do in the Dawson County area. “That's why wine grapes have so much more disease pressure further south. We have winter here. North of Lamesa winters are sometimes too harsh. Our growing season is often two weeks longer at each end of the season than it is further north. Bud break here is usually in March and we typically get no hard freeze after April 1.”

It took a lot of irrigation water to make the crop. “We use above-ground drip irrigation systems. A lot of vineyards use underground systems but I like lines where I can see them and monitor water. I can tell when a line is stopped up.”

Irrigation lines last about 20 years, he says.

He has emitters set to provide 1 gallon per hour for 72-hour intervals. “Sometimes we apply 72 gallons per plant. But a grapevine needs water and then it needs to stay dry for ten days or so during the growing season (June through July). It's hands-on then. We watch the crop and make certain vines have plenty of water. If they wilt in the heat of the day and color is a bit off, they need water.”

He says with heat topping 105 during the day and a constant wind, soils dry out quickly. “I hold leaves in the palm of my hand and if they feel cool, they have plenty of water. The plants and the soil tells me a lot about moisture needs.”

He stays on a 14-day spray schedule to control powdery mildew and other diseases. “We use preventive sprays. If we see a disease it's already too late.”

He uses mostly Sevin for inset control, primarily for leafhoppers.

Delaney Vineyards produces mostly Chardonnay and also grows Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. “Those are our three main white wines,” Wilson says.

Reds include Zinfandel Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “We have seven red wine varieties in all,” Wilson says.

“Chardonnay is the big money crop. A lot of vineyards in Texas can't grow Chardonnay but it is in high demand.”

They make wine on site and ship most of it to the home winery in Grapevine, Texas. Benedicte Rhyne, who learned her trade in her native France, is the wine maker. “Making wine in Texas is a challenge,” Rhyne says. “It's more like wine production in the Mediterranean growing areas.”

She predicts Texas winery numbers will double in the next two years. “We had only 50 in 2002,” she says. “We have more than 100 now.”

She says the climate around Lamesa is good for growing grapes but that wineries do best when they are situated near a metropolitan area. “But grapes travel well.”

“Our wines go from here to Grapevine,” Wilson says. “We bottle 98 percent of the company's wine here and we grow 98 percent of the grapes.”

The Grapevine location has 10 acres, along with a winery and retail center.

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