Texas Winegrowers are on the “Eraser's Edge”

Texas Winegrowers are on the “Eraser’s Edge”

You may recall the book “Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham published in 1944. It quotes, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” This quote was taken from a verse in the Katha-Upanishad, a Sutra period Vedic Sanskrit text from India.

Right about now, you are likely asking, “What the hell does this all have to do with growing wine grapes in Texas?”  Well, I’ve followed the situation in Texas this year and the fear of crop loss from the late-Spring freeze is running high. It has created a situation akin to the “Razor’s Edge”.

It is important to understand that the last few years were tough with huge losses by Texas winegrowers. In 2009, things were particularly bad as a result of a sequence of events that resulted in wide spread devastation of the Texas grape crop. First, a they had a very warm mid-March period with temperatures across the central and northern part of Texas approaching eighty degrees. This summer-like weather was followed by the cold slap in the face of temperatures in the low twenties and desiccating forty mile per hour winds that occurred in the last week of the month. This produced an unprecedented shortage of Texas grapes requiring importation of grapes from other states to sustain last year’s Texas winemaking.

This is why, in some manner of speaking, growing wine grapes in Texas seems akin to the Razor’s Edge and a manifestation of the religious philosophy of the hard path to salvation.

Most of the Texas winegrowers have thus far dodged the bullet of the late-Spring freeze this year. But, it has been close, very close. To use the title from an email string from growers went around the state this weekend, it was “white knuckles” close.

Reports from early this morning indicated that temperatures on the Texas high plains were in the twenties with most of the state skirting the freezing mark. As one grower emailed, “Dear God, this was close, well under 25 degrees in many vineyards; but after last year, few of them were pruned. All buds on these vineyards are in play and we are still looking at a big crop.”

There are at least two important reasons why these buds are still in play. The first reason is noted above, that most growers in northern Texas have learned not to prune their vine as early as in other wine producing regions. Normally, this takes place in January or February. However, it can stimulate bud break too early making them susceptible to the late-Spring freeze that is all too common here in what is generally acknowledged as a “warm-weather growing region”.

Secondly, the temperatures this winter and through the spring have been consistently cold. It has been like putting nature’s halter on bud break. We have been under the influence of the El Nino that has increased wintertime precipitation and also kept a lid on the temperatures, keeping them consistently cool.

However, it’s now crunch time, a time of hopeful salvation.

If the weather can help us out for about another week, the Texas winegrowers should be off to a banner year and its something that is needed by the whole Texas wine industry.  If not, the growers may have to ERASE most of the Texas grape crop again this year, and some may decide that it is just not worth it. This is why I feel it’s perhaps more fitting to refer to the winegrowers situation in Texas as the “Eraser’s Edge” more than calling it the “Razor’s Edge”.

I witnessed first hand last year’s Spring freeze on the high plains (http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=652) and it wasn’t pretty. However, it was a testament to the grit and determination of Texas winegrowers. It did make them seek salvation and pray for Mother Nature to put her eraser back in her pocket for at least another year. Well, it’s another year, the growers are back for another season, and their fate will be told.

Check out: Texas Winegrower’s Lament: http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=669

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3 Comments

  1. Read an email this morning from a grower that really puts it into perspective:

    On the other hand, we still have to worry about hail,
    deer, coons and the guys with a spray rig and a tank of
    2-4-D. And if we get past all that we still gotta worry
    about rain at harvest. And if it doesn’t rain we gotta
    worry about getting labor and/or machinery to pick the
    crop at the same time everybody else needs them owing to
    the large crop.

    Maybe my vineyard would be better as a melon patch….

    There’s always something out there hanging over your head. I guess you just have to love to your bones it to stay with it.

  2. I have allot of respect for the growers around the state, especially the growers out in the high plains. But the issues you discuss is not much different than what many growers all around the world have to deal with. I have even read that In some regions of France the growers there are trying to get government approval to plant other varietals outside of the AVA designations blaming it on global warming. In 2008 Bordeaux got hit with a huge hail storm that destroyed allot of the vintage. And also in the same year California got hit with a late freeze.
    If the growers in Texas are looking for sympathy and a reason to jack the price of their grapes up they do not realize that they are loosing a war.
    Many of the wineries in Texas do not always chose Imported grapes over Texas grapes because there is none to get, some choose to import because the price for the quality can not match that of California. Not to mention who wants to buy a 40.00 bottle of Texas wine that is really not worth the price. Not to mention wineries that go to these growers and say stuff like “I will pay your 500.00 a ton extra than ____ if you will sell them to me.” Then they take those grape and make a sweet wine out of it and sell it for 25.00! I think the problem is more that people are depending on Newsome, Reddy and Bingham to produce all the grapes for Texas yet what if these guys decide they want to control the market and start their own wineries and refuse to sell to anyone. Texas would be up a creek. There are way too many wineries in Texas so many people want to make wine but only the few want to grow.
    It seems like the growers you are talking about are more or less whining about how hard it is because there is so much pressure on them to produce. Which is totally wrong. There is not enough competition in the viticulture business… Competition will bring out new ways to take care of these issues. I have already talked to several growers who have discovered ways around the late freeze yet no ones listens to them because they only grow about 10-20 acres.
    I was out in Lubbock yesterday and went by Pheasant Ridge, none of the vines have bud break yet many of their vines are 30 yrs old, but does anyone ever ask what they do? Or how about Red Caboose who beat the late freeze last year and is growing everything almost organic, does anyone ask them what they are doing? What about Enoch Stomp out in East Texas. They have had some great years with some amazing quantity per acre, but no one ask them what they are doing.
    There needs to be some competition to motivate some of these growers before they get tired of all the pressure and start keeping all the grapes for themselves. Might I add that Newsome already has a crush pad built on his property.

  3. I think that you missed my points and they weren’t that the growers were whining.

    The point is that Texas needs to move from a Bordeaux or Burgundy lookalike and needs to move on to discover what it really is.

    Texas is in a tough position – Its a warm growing region that needs variatals and vineyard practices that will minimize the late spring freezes which are actually one of our biggest limitations. These are specifications that are not easy to attain.

    I agree that some are making the move and progressing, but there is a lot of resistance once an investment is made in the “classic” varietals and fear of the unknown in the marketplace if a switch is made.

    Another point is that we have had several mad weather years in a row which has made this year critical.

    The only path forward is with the teamwork of growers, winemakers and consumers.

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