Texas Wine: Is There Really Anything Behind The HoustonPress “Cellar Door” Article
Guest Blog: by David Furer
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VintageTexas (Russ Kane):
Back in May of this year, I (Russ Kane – VintageTexas) was asked by Austin-based wine writer, wine merchant and musician, Jeremy Parzen if I would have a conversation with Katharine Shilcutt who was getting ready to write an article on Texas wines for The HoustonPress. Parzen’s idea was for me to share with Shilcutt my perspectives on the Texas wine gained from over 15 years of experience covering Texas wine industry activities. So, in preparation for the meeting, which was to take place in my home, I assembled a selection of twelve Texas wines for tasting.
The approach that I used in the tasting was to hit head-on several of the common misconceptions about Texas wines; namely, that Texas appellated wines (wines made with enough Texas grapes to bear the name “Texas” on the label) are: (a) overly expensive and (b) hard to find in the marketplace. Of the 12 wines, only one was over $20 (a Port-style wine). Most were in the price range of $11 to $15 a bottle, which in my opinion is very competitive to wines of similar quality from other regions. All were readily available from sources in downtown Houston: Spec’s, Central Market, Whole Foods, Kroger and the Houston Wine Merchant. Most importantly, all of the Texas wines included in my tasting were made to federally-mandated labeling laws as Texas Appellation wines. That is, they all contained at least 75% Texas grapes.
(Disclosure: After finding out that I had spent my own money to purchase the wines, Parzen offered to pay half of the cost for the wines, and I accepted his contribution to share the wine expense.)
On the date of the meeting, we tasted through the flight of Texas wines. As we tasted, I provided my experiences and opinions to provide context on the wines that we tasted while also providing some basic knowledge on the challenges in Texas as a new, modern wine producing region.
On June 14, 2012, the article by Shilcutt and Parzen was printed in The Houston Press. It was titled “Texas Wines: Behind the Cellar Door…Not all the Texas wine you buy is made from grapes grown in our state. In fact, most of it isn’t.”
After this article was printed, email exchanges ensued among several Texas wine writers, bloggers and Texas winery personnel, present party included. The general contents of these exchanges was that Shilcutt’s article blatantly misrepresented the situation in the Texas wine industry and marketplace especially by focusing so heavily on “natural wines”, which in the context of Texas wines, are only a fractional percentage of the total wine made in Texas – hardly relevant. Also, it was generally felt that the readership for this article would be low and that it had little effect, if any, on Texas wine consumers and sales of Texas wines. Rightly or wrongly, the consensus by those involved in the email exchange was to just let this article pass without bringing further attention to a flawed bit of journalism and its misconceptions on Texas wine.
Well readers, fast forward a few months and I was contacted by noted Austin-based wine writer David Furer who is highly accomplished with over 20 years working with wine throughout the world. His resume is lengthy and involves working on the directorates of two wine writers organizations – The Circle of Wine Writers (CWW) and the Federation Internationale des Journalistes et Ecrivains des Vins et Spiritueux (FIJEV).
David reopened the discussion of Shilcutt’s article by launching his own emails to the article’s authors and members of the Texas wine writing community. Furer called the authors of the HoustonPress article to task for both their lack of knowledge of federal regulations for appellation of origin, legal chemical adjustments and labeling of wine, and their sloppy journalistic manner and approach used in this article. Furthermore, Furer also called Texas wine writers to task for their complacency in the article’s aftermath, by not providing their own response.
Furer’s correspondence follows, edited only to focus on the major technical points of the article, while omitting some of his comments on the author’s journalistic failings. The following comments by David Furer are presented as a VintageTexas Guest Blog.
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From: David Furer…
Ms. Shilcutt and Editors,
This note is in regards to your article of June 14, 2012, attached here and brought to my attention by a colleague employed by a Texas winery not mentioned in your article.
As a member of the press in good standing and member of the wine trade for 21 years, I found your article to be not only riddled with inaccuracies but somewhat discredited due to your lack of editorial and research standards, including:
In paragraph 5, your statistics for planted acres of grapevines in Texas Hill Country and Texas High Plains, likely sourced from Wikipedia, are reversed. There are more accurate, timely stats which may easily be sourced.
The use of California grapes in Texas wine may in your opinion be “dirty”, but it is no secret. It’s also no secret that California grapes, responsible for 90-95% of total US wine grape production, are used by wineries in many states other than Texas to supplement their grape production that generally lags behind the growth in wineries. Some Texas wineries obfuscate their use of these grapes [through use of legal omission: i.e. For Sale in Texas Only], most do not [through use of American Appellation], both of which are totally legal by United States TTB regulations.
What you refer to as “chemical correction” is a derogatory term for something which is commonly-legal, accepted and without question safe. Tartaric acid is one of six key acids found in all wine grapes. The addition of it in pure form to wines is a regular occurrence in warmer climates – even in Europe and California – and doesn’t affect what is generally recognized as flavor when done in an acceptable manner. The converse of this is that in cooler climates, such as those in northern Europe or Canada, sucrose is legally added so as to increase total fermentable sugars and therefore alcohol content of the wine while adding to the wine’s richness, body, texture, and oomph. Please keep in mind that using the phrase ‘chemical correction’ with regards to winemaking is akin to ascribing a chef’s addition of salt to a sauce as a ‘chemical correction’.
You neglected to even briefly mention the hail which plagues Texas grape growers during the vegetative cycle. With the current trend to warm weather varieties of grapes being grown in Texas, it’s more worthy of mention than the sun or heat.
The ‘natural’ wine argument, no doubt fostered by your co-author Parzen, is such a niche subject discussed nearly exclusively by the wine trade and is only of remote appeal for your general interest article, yet you devote extensive text to this subject. Its importance to the average wine consumer is negligible; if you think otherwise you’ve been misled.
Using Ms. Feiring, a natural wine proponent, based in New York City, to comment upon Texas wines is without merit as she openly states “I really haven’t tasted enough wines in Texas to make any sort of educated assessment,” yet you oddly allow her to continue with “except that conventional grapes are really not the way to go.” If she hasn’t tasted enough to make an ‘educated assessment’ why allow her comment about ‘conventional grapes’ stand unchallenged? And by what standards are you or her judging grapes to be ‘conventional’?
How is it you estimate “beyond our state’s borders, where semisweet wines are considered a relic of the past and where wine enthusiasts increasingly favor dry, food-friendly wines”? Of the now-50 US states commercially producing wines which have you visited? I’ve visited and reported upon wines of Oregon, New York, Illinois, Missouri, Idaho, Michigan, Virginia, Arizona, New Mexico and, yes, Texas and even California. Whether or not semi-sweet wines suit your taste or mine, I can report with confidence that sweet wines remain popular with many people in Texas, the US and elsewhere. And, what makes semisweet wines inherently ‘unfriendly’ to food? At how many restaurants have you worked selling wine? I’ve worked as a sommelier or manager at fine dining restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago, and London (England) and sold countless bottles of ‘semisweet’ Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and even a few made with red grapes. If fine dining seems too precious then I suggest you check with ‘middle-brow’ chain operators such as the Darden Group (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) to inquire as to their sales of White Zinfandel and other ‘semisweet’ wines as a % of total sales and profit. Your position smacks of nothing more than wine snobbery.
For the record, I at no time have I accepted monies from a Texas winery or wine organization. I have, however, consulted to several European and one South American wine organization. When writing in Sommelier Journal, Decanter, Wine Business Monthly, or other wine magazines my editors and I seek the highest standards in the researching and writing of my subjects. It’s my hope for the betterment of your skills and the Texas wine industry yours will, in the future, seek to do similarly.
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VintageTexas (Russ Kane):
One of the reasons that I posted Furer’s comments was that I took to heart his comment citing that “industry folk” in any place or business will nearly always want to keep criticism hushed. On this matter, I generally agree. Then, he argued in support of open discussion of the Shilcutt article by saying:
“Isn’t the lack of open self-criticism one key part of the problem with the Texas wine production scene? I understand but am not convinced about the ‘don’t stoke the fire’ argument.”
Furer even aimed criticisms directly at me by saying:
“I’m compelled to ask why it is, presuming that you know most if not all of what I wrote, that as far as I can tell in your follow-up comments published by the HP you were only complimentary? Your credibility as ‘Mr. Texas Wine’ would go a long way in determining future debate and perhaps setting the record straight.”
An additional and important reason for dedicating space on VintageTexas to this discussion is that Furer shared with me a written response he received from Shilcutt’s HoustonPress managing editor (but for reasons of legalities and simple respect, I will not reprint them here).
I found the abovementioned response from Shilcutt’s editor to Furer’s comments to short shrift his comments and criticisms by reducing them to merely a matter of opinion. Furthermore, the response did not address the issue of whether not the article was focused on the issues relevant to the Texas wine industry in its present state of maturation or if the arguments presented in the article were supported by factual information.
In the spirit of open discussion sought by Furer, I look forward to your comments, both “Pros” or “Cons” on this subject.
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The following is my list of wines and tasting notes from my tasting and discussion with Shilcutt and Parzen:
McPherson Cellars Albariño 2011 (Texas) – Winery: Lubbock, TX. Scents of peach, pear and tropical mango with a silky soft texture and yet a crisp finish. Castaño Prado Vineyards – Terry County (Texas High Plains AVA). $11.36 at Spec’s Smith Street. 13.6% Alcohol.
Haak Vineyards Blanc Du Bois 2011 (Texas – Dry Table Wine) – Winery: Santa Fe, TX. Dry clean crisp style with citrus and stone fruit and a hint of musk (Vineyards in SE Texas & Gulf Coast). $12.41 at Spec’s. 12% Alcohol.
Duchman Family Winery Viognier 2010 (Bingham Family Vineyard – Texas High Plains AVA). Winery: Driftwood, TX. Fruit fresh with unoaked apricot, peach and citrus. $13.67 at Spec’s. 13.8% Alcohol.
Alamosa Wine Cellars Viognier 2010 (Texas Hill Country AVA) – Winery: Bend, TX. Rich old-world style carrying subtle oak from Alamosa’s estate vineyard (Tio Pancho Vineyard). The tropical fruit, white peach fruit long finish. $17.99 Houston Wine Merchant. 13.2% Alcohol
Becker Vineyards, Provençal 2011 (Texas Hill Country AVA – Dry Rosé) Winery: Fredericksburg, TX. Light bodied with salmon color from limited skin contact from Rhone varietals, yields soft stone fruit and delicate red berry nuances. $11 Central Market. 12.4% Alcohol.
Duchman Family Winery Dolcetto 2009 (Bingham Family Vineyard – Texas High Plains AVA). Winery: Driftwood, TX. Agreeable, medium-bodied red varietal wine with crisp red fruit character, hint of smokiness and tart cherry finish. $13.46 Spec’s. 13.0% Alcohol.
Alamosa Wine Cellars, Texacaia 2010 (Texas Hill Country AVA) 64% Sangiovese, 25% Tannat and 11% Petit Verdot. Winery: Bend, TX. Flavors of dark cherry, crisp, moderate tannins and crisp finish. $15.99 Houston Wine Merchant. 13.3% Alcohol.
Becker Vineyards Reserve Cabernet-Syrah 2010 (Texas Appellation) 60% Cabernet, 40% Syrah, Winery: Fredericksburg, TX. Concentrated fruit dominant red wine driven by blackberry, chocolate, vanilla, and cedar. $13.46 Spec’s. 13.7% Alcohol.
Tranquilo Cellars, “Tranquilo” Red Table Wine 2010 (Texas Appellation). Winery: Lubbock, TX. Tempranillo-dominated Spanish-style red blend gains complexity thru Grenache, Mourvèdre and other Rhone varietals includes tart cherry, dusty earth tones, and floral notes on the nose. $14.95 Central Market. 13.5% Alcohol.
Llano Estacado, Tempranillo 2010 (Newsom Vineyards – Texas High Plains AVA) Winery: Lubbock, TX. Smoke, cedar and tobacco combine with dark black cherry qualities. $15.78 Spec’s. 12.3% Alcohol.
Messina Hof Papa Paulo Port, Private Reserve 200 Messina Hof Vineyards (Texas Appellation). Winery: Bryan, TX. A “fermented” Port-style wine made from local Black Spanish Grapes. Dark mulberry flavors, sweetness and vanilla/chocolate aromas. $22.31 Spec’s. 18.5% Alcohol.