Write Off the Vine: Texas Wine News – February 6, 2009
By: Sen. John Cornyn
From: Texas Times Weekly Column
You’ve heard it described as medium heavy, sweet and low in sulfates. Its presence pre-dates the arrival of the first Anglo-American settlers to Texas. And today, its industry pumps millions in revenue into the Texas economy each year.
While crude oil may first come to mind, this liquid is Texas wine. More than three centuries ago—long before the first wine grapes arrived in Napa Valley— Franciscan priests brought grapevines from Mexico and planted the first North American vineyard at Ysleta, perhaps the oldest town in Texas, along the Rio Grande near present-day El Paso. These grapes provided the priests and missionaries with sacramental wine for the Eucharist.
Over the next 200 years, the El Paso Valley would be recognized by travelers for its grape-growing capabilities and wine production. The concept of viticulture did not really gain traction in the rest of the state until settlers from European countries like Spain, Italy, and Czechoslovakia brought their interest in wine and the European vinefera vines to Texas. These European vines did not take well to the Texas climate, local pests, and fungus, however, and many of these initial efforts did not survive.
After these setbacks, German immigrants who settled in the 1840s in South and Central Texas—founding Hill Country cities such as Fredericksburg and New Braunfels—learned to adapt their process and incorporate local Mustang grapes, a high-climbing vine native to Texas and well adapted to heat. By adding more sugar during fermentation, they produced commercial wine and are largely recognized as the most successful wine-makers in Texas history.
Meanwhile, back along the Texas-Mexico border, an Italian immigrant, Frank Qualia, found success with the Lenoir grape, a Spanish black grape, in Del Rio, Texas. He started the Val Verde Winery, and today, as the only Texas winery to survive the Prohibition, it remains the oldest continuously running winery in Texas and still uses the Lenoir grape.
One of Texas’ most famous grape breeders was horticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, more simply known as T.V. Munson. A native of Illinois, Munson moved to Denison, Texas in 1876. While he devoted much of his life to the study of native American grapes, his work on rootstock development would earn him international acclaim. In Denison, Munson researched and developed rootstock that was resistant to phylloxera—tiny, yellow insects that feed on roots of grapevines and had severely damaged many native American grapevines. In the late 19th century, a phylloxera epidemic devastated the French wine industry—destroying almost two-thirds of France’s vineyards. Little did they know the solution to their problem would come from an American horticulturist in Denison, Texas. Munson’s phylloxera-resistant rootstock saved the industry in France and in gratitude to his contribution, the French government named him Chevalier du Merite Agricole of the French Legion of Honor, and the city of Cognac, France became a sister city to Denison. Today, Grayson County College’s West Campus houses much of Munson’s research and work.
After the Prohibition, the Texas wine industry was slow to get back on its feet. But as the grape culture began to boom in the U.S. in the 1970s, so did the number of vineyards that began popping up across Texas—beginning with the establishment of the Llano Estacado and Pheasant Ridge wineries near Lubbock. Today, Texas is home to nearly 3,700 acres of family-owned vineyard land, including eight American Viticulture Areas—wine grape-growing regions that have been identified by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Texas is America’s fifth-leading grape and wine producer and the industry contributes more than $1.35 billion to the state’s economy.
In its February issue, Bon Appetit magazine lists Becker Vineyards in Stonewall, Texas as one of seven of its favorite wineries off the beaten path. As our state’s wineries and vintners continue to gain national and international attention, fortunately, we don’t have to travel far to enjoy the unique Texas wine culture. Wine trails through vineyards across the state occur throughout the year. In late February, the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association holds its Annual Conference & Trade Show which brings together members of the industry from every region of Texas.
The Texas wine industry is yet another hallmark in Texas’s long history of ingenuity and achievement. Let’s toast to the men and women who have built up this industry and wish them many more years of success.
Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.
More on Winemaking Starts in Texas on VintageTexas.com at: http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=458