Mar 102010
 

Guest Blog: Powerful Wines and Powerful Thoughts for the Texas Wine Industry

by Dan Gatlin, Inwood Estates Vineyards

 This article was originally written for the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Excellence Uncorked E-Zine, Ask-the-Expert column and ran in an abbreviated form in the February 2010 issue (http://www.agr.state.tx.us/gt/channel/render/items/0,1218,1670_28589_0_0,00.html):

What is distinctive or unique about the Texas Wine industry, compared with other wine states or regions?

In reference to high-end, hand-crafted, premium Texas wines made from authentic Texas grapes, in my presentations, I often say, “If you remember one thing about Texas wine, it should be this: The extremely high amounts of minerality in Texas wine will forever define our wines as “Old-World” style, being much more similar to European products, especially Spanish, French and Italian wines than West Coast wines.  Like our European counterparts, our high-calcium soils yield earthier wines that develop their complexity over time, and we will never be known for the fat, round, fruit-bomb styles of the “New World” that typify California and Australia.  Similarly, our wines are rich in anti-oxidant material which affects the aging process by extending each step from barrel cellaring to bottle aging.

This is quite opposite of what the public expects:  Most Americans’ knowledge of wine is limited to what the California wine industry wants them to know.  The fact that the good to best European wines are so expensive for Americans today all but rules out the opportunity for our consumers to cultivate a globally experienced palate.  Therefore, as far as American consumers know, all American wines should taste like California wine.  When our wines do not, they are confused.

In the future, pockets of high-quality wine production will emerge around North America which are not on the West Coast.  Most of these wines will be characterized by higher mineralities and will, as such, be much more similar to their European counterparts than the West Coast wines we are accustomed to.  In the more distant future, 20-30 years from now, these “pockets” may form what will be a “Continental” wine industry, which will exist parallel to the “Coastal” wine industry we have now.  Additionally, the Continental industry will mostly NOT be multi-varietal:  we will see high-quality riesling from Michigan, Chardonnay from Massachusetts, Merlot from Virginia, and Tempranillo from Texas, among others.  In this regard, the Continental industry will look more like a wine map of Europe with varieties spread out North to South and East to West.  Californians think nothing of having riesling and chardonnay growing next to Cabernet and Merlot, but globally speaking, this is not the norm.

To make matters more complicated, the production techniques and procedures of high-quality, high-mineral wines are mostly unknown to American winemakers.  The Californians have never had a need for this knowledge.  The rest of the continent is just now emerging.  Very few Texas winemakers are even aware of how severely impacted their fruit is by their terroir, since they have learned from California where no such impact exists.  (Arguably, there is more change in terroir between St. Julien and St. Estephe in Bordeaux than in the entire state of California.)  Without radical, even diametrically opposite, changes in technique, the result is often thin and chalky wines more reminiscent of the Languedoc or Roussillon districts where the French produce their cheapest wines.  Having grown up in the beverage industry and been a professional wine buyer with money on the line, I learned to recognize these flavors immediately.  Likewise, these thin, chalky flavors are the same for which Texas wines have been much maligned.

So where does the change begin?  Certainly in the winery, but it has to start before that.  Certainly, better vineyard techniques are required, but it starts before that too.  I am entering my 30th growing season.  My work has been scattered over 6 vineyards with 34 grape varieties now, and spanned Texas almost 500 miles.  Tragically, the number of well-situated vineyards planted to the correct varieties for each locale in Texas are very few.  Equally tragic, almost every vineyard begins with land that people already own, then they go in search of something that will work, or survive at best, dooming the project from the start.  This process automatically eliminates “ideal” sites from consideration in favor of randomly developed sites based on convenience.  (In fact, land may be the cheapest part of starting a vineyard in Texas.)  Good business dictates the opposite:  Make a solid plan.  Decide what product you want to produce.  Start with an ideal site so that everything is in your favor from the outset.  This is the formula for success.  If you do not understand the product you are trying to produce, then you need a lot more experience before starting, or subcontract part of the process from someone who does.

Thirty-two years ago, I was a young man sitting at the breakfast table of a very famous winemaker in Napa.  I posed the question, “How much of what you do is within your control, and how much can you NOT change in the winery?”  He answered immediately, “If you compare the whole process to the alphabet, I take over at the letter “R”.  Everything else I cannot change.”  I have lived by this edict my whole life and have never found it to be untrue.  The production of great wine is a sequence of events that must line up and fall like dominoes until the last drop is in the bottle.  The state of the Texas wine industry today is a collection of efforts so randomly assimilated, that it will take decades to sort it out.  And worse, so many wineries have given up trying, that they have simply resorted to selling California wine (mostly bad California wine) often deceptively passed off as Texas wine.  More on that in Question #3.

You’ve just launched the Vineyard at Florence. With that in mind, how can Texas Wine work in partnership with other industries or projects and make both more successful?

The Vineyard at Florence was a natural.  They began with a 30-acre vineyard just 35 miles northwest of Austin.  They will easily produce 90-100 tons of fruit per year, so they had a direct stake in the Texas wine industry from the beginning.  Although it is many things with many amenities, at it’s heart The Vineyard at Florence is a serious agri-business with very committed ownership.  That’s perfect, because that’s what it takes to be good.

Inwood quietly opened at The Vineyard at Florence in October.  This season, we produced wines for both Inwood Estates and The Vineyard at Florence at the new winery on site.  The facility is beautiful and the results were, in a word, amazing.  We are now currently in the process of licensing a second winery facility so that in the future, visitors will be able to come here and visit two wineries with two tasting rooms in one stop.  This process should be completed by April to coincide with the first releases of The Vineyard at Florence estate wines, although the Inwood Estates tasting room is open now.

The question posed with regard to other industries/projects is relevant here because The Vineyard at Florence also offers a spa and a cafe, as well as luxury villas which are available for overnight stays.  Additionally, roughly 65 homesites in the hills overlooking the vineyard have been developed and construction of new luxury homes is underway even now, in spite of the economy. 

The Vineyard at Florence is a special place.  Although it offers diverse amenities, I believe that a large number of people who build there will be people who are fairly serious about food and wine.  These people often dream of living in a villa overlooking a vineyard in Italy or France someday when they are able.  But the truth is that by the time you might be able, it’s really hard to rip apart your social fabric of family and friends and move 7000 miles away.  With it’s excellent Old World architecture, stunning views of the vineyard, and proximity to Dallas, Austin and Houston so people can be just far enough (but not too far) away, it becomes the perfect place for people who would rather watch the Food Network than the Golf Channel.  Having high-quality wineries on site that produce premium wines from the real vineyards on the estate where you can know the winemaker and share the wines and experiences with your friends creates amazing opportunities for entertaining.

Developers have approached me several times over the years about combining vineyards and real estate, but I have never seen a project fully developed like The Vineyard at Florence.  Usually, the vineyard is a afterthought, is not properly cared for, and dies after a few years when they find out how hard the work is to take proper care of it.  To my knowledge, the only other fully developed projects like The Vineyard are in California and New York.

 

Obviously, tourism works extremely well with the wine industry.  Having been one of a small nucleus of retailers that introduced Napa’s famous brands to Texas (Caymus, Chappellet, Phelps, and many others) in the 1970s, I remember Napa as a very different place than it is today.  Far from the glitz and glamor it represents now, it was a land of fruit stands, tractor dealers, orchards and even cattle.  The power of the wine industry to transform an area into a tourist destination is remarkable.  However, there are some caveats:  First and foremost, to be a lasting success, it needs to be the real deal.  People will eventually demand authenticity.  To define a wine destination, the grapes need to be grown there and the wine needs to be made there.  Texas is a big place, and people are certainly willing to accept that some vineyards are far away.  But passing California wine for Texas will kill wine tourism and permanently damage the Texas wine industry as people realize how much of it is going on.

I think Fredericksburg does tourism as well as anyone.  The city, the wineries, restaurants and stores have melded beautifully into an exceptional destination.  With all the amenities that have been added now, it surely leads the state in the tourism area, although I still hear people express concerns about wine quality and especially authenticity of the wines.  Here at The Vineyard at Florence, even though we have some high-luxury in-house amenities, we will never be able to offer visitors the breadth of things to do in Fredericksburg.  However, our wines will be the reason people come here, as we will have 9 wines between the two brands that are authentic Texas Appellation estate-level wines of excellent quality ranging from $30-$80.  The Inwood wines are already served in over 150 of Texas’ top restaurants and The Vineyard’s wines will be of equal quality.  We will also have second-label wines at somewhat lower price points.  Therefore, our target market is made up of consumers who are serious about seeking out upper-echelon premium wines, plus we are much closer to Austin and only 9 miles off I-35.

Besides tourism and real estate development, the restaurant industry holds many great and creative promises for projects with wineries.  Mandola certainly seems to be a leader in this area, and I think there are opportunities out there for chefs who are willing to part with the notion that their restaurant must be in an urban setting.

What’s the next stage in the continuing development of Texas Wine as a growth industry?

Ok, it’s time to address the question I’ve been hinting at:  The ultimate vision shared by industry insiders and our fans in the public is that Texas will someday ascend to an authentic, peer-recognized, first-tier wine region similar to the other famous regions we all know and love. 

This will never happen as long as so much California wine is being sold by Texas wineries under less than open and honest pretenses.  This practice undercuts the very foundation of what a wine region is: a place where grapes are grown and wine is made.  A regional industry riddled with lack of authenticity results in a public reputation that it is phony and contrived, like a tourist-trap.  The authenticity question underlies 400 years of winemaking tradition and is the basis for the famous “Appellation” systems that people respect.  We will simply never graduate to peer acceptance in the larger wine industry without authenticity.

This is a ticking time bomb.  People are driving out to Texas wineries every weekend for the experience of Texas wine visits.  They believe they are tasting Texas wines and are generously giving their support to these businesses.  These patrons feel betrayed and deceived when they find out that so much of the wine is California wine.  Worse yet, they report over and again that the wine was bad thinking it was Texas wine, when they actually had bad California wine.  That’s even crazier.

Now, I’m well aware of all the problems.  There aren’t enough vineyards.  There certainly aren’t enough good vineyards.  The weather is bad.  Disease is a problem.  The list goes on.  But why so many wineries then?  Does it not seem odd that people are willing to start wineries with no grapes and no intention of having any?  Obviously not, if they believe that nobody in the public cares about the authenticity of Texas wineries producing Texas wine, or that they can “sell away from” this question in their presentation, and apparently this is their position.  Our position at Inwood Estates and at The Vineyard at Florence is the opposite.

I am not one to cast light on a problem without proposing a solution.  The history and traditions of the wine industry actually provide us with one and it is quite a good one for all willing to embrace it.  Historically, wineries have created what is known as “second-labels” which are wines they bottle and sell along with their “primary” label bearing their name.  These second-labels serve a variety of purposes including the disposition of odd-lots leftover from their primary wines, lots that were not good enough to go into their primary wines, as well as engage in the business of selling wines from outside their property or even their region.  Famous wineries everywhere have them:  Chateau LaFitte has one, Mouton has one, Latour has two.  In the 1970s, Stags Leap introduced Hawk Crest.   In fact, I was part of a small group that introduced Liberty School to Texas for Caymus.  There is no shame in second-labels, and there is also no risk of public backlash.  This is a much better practice than producing a line of wines with almost identical labels where some wines are Texas and some are not. (Note to Consumer:  The word “Texas” must appear on the FRONT label and mean a “place of origin” for the wine to be classed as TEXAS Appellation.)

There is, however, one important thing about second-labels: they must cost less than the primary label.  At Inwood, we have “Segundo”, which obviously means “second” in Spanish.  Our pledge to our customers is that our primary line of estate series wines which bear the name “Inwood Estates Vineyards” will always be TEXAS Appellation.  The same will be true for The Vineyard at Florence brand.  Segundo and other second-labels which we will create for The Vineyard will be part Texas and mostly not.  However, they will sell for less money and the consumer will thereby get the right product at the right price and will not be deceived.

The obvious long-term solution is to plant more well-situated, high-quality vineyards.  Wineries will be forced to do this when the authenticity question becomes insurmountable, and I suggest that if the immediate locale of the winery is not well suited, then more outpost vineyards will have to be established to good locations in higher elevations.  Some of this is already being done in Terry County, and I predict we will see a lot more in the future both there and elsewhere.

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