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The Eater Austin Guide to Texas Wine Country


A celebration of the who, what, where, and why of Central Texas wine

Imagine sitting outside, surrounded by gentle rolling hills covered by acres of twisting grapevines, dramatic cloudscapes, and sweeping vistas. Tall grasses flutter lazily in the breeze, as if the world is sighing with contentment. At hand, reflecting long, dancing prisms of sunlight onto the wrought-iron table, are all sorts of glasses, full of a beautiful and tasty range of 3-ounce wine pours in varying flavors, hues, and aromas. There’s the opaqueness of a red mourvedre, the crispness of an albarino the color of fading morning sunlight, the bubbly effervescence of a poppy-pink pétillant naturel, the minerality of a jeweled-amber chenin blanc, the smoothness of a bold-purple tannat, the tart, creamy unfilteredness of a malvasia bianca. These wines are luscious and wonderful and unique, and even better, every single one was made right here in Texas. Yes, you’re drinking Texas grapes — and, in fact, Texas wine is great, and there’s never been a better time in history to drink it.

It’s true, people outside of Texas don’t really know how amazing Texas wine is. In particular, the greater Central Texas area — comprising the Hill Country wine region — deserves mentions in the same conversations as those other revered wine destinations in America (ahem, California, Washington, and Oregon). Texas is the fifth-largest wine producer in the United States, with more than 400 wineries and 5,000 vineyard acres. There’s great respect for the wines of Texas, which have been recognized in big-time wine competitions around the world. But the thirst for Texas wines exists outside of the industry: Whole Foods Market shared that Texas wine sales in its Central Texas stores were up by 15.39 percent in 2020. Texas labels are popping up in wine shops and bars across the country, too, from New York to California.

Now, even California wineries are eyeing expansions to the Lone Star State. Sonoma winery Foyt Family Wines and Paso Robles winery Halter Ranch plan on opening Hill Country tasting rooms, which were in the works before the pandemic. These moves indicate that West Coast wineries understand the significance of Texas wine and its potential for growth in the coming years.

Texas wine dates back to the 1600s, when Franciscan priests planted vineyards and produced wine in El Paso, as Jessica Dupuy chronicles in her thorough book The Wines of Southwest U.S.A. Prohibition winnowed down the state’s wineries to just one: Val Verde Winery in Del Rio, the oldest in Texas. The wine resurgence began in the 1970s, starting with Clinton “Doc” McPherson in West Texas through Llano Estacado Winery.

The budding industry’s reach only grew from there, thanks to groundbreakers such as Fall Creek Vineyards, which planted its first test vines in Tow in 1975. Those winemakers understood the potential of the Texas terroir and went to work establishing new roots for the industry while also inspiring others, including Becker Vineyards and Pedernales Cellars, both established in Fredericksburg in the 1990s. Newer-school wineries, such as Kuhlman Cellars in Stonewall and Southold Farm + Cellar in Fredericksburg, expanded upon those classic practices over the last decade, bringing funkier approaches like low-intervention styles of winemaking, from fermenting in concrete tanks to experimenting with wild local yeasts.

Even in the middle of a pandemic, the industry keeps growing. In the past three years, the region welcomed up-and-coming wineries such as Spring Branch’s Kai-Simone Winery, one of only a handful of Black-owned wine labels in the state; Kalasi Cellars in Fredericksburg, a reds-focused winery with an auto-rickshaw (a nod to the co-owner’s roots) and a guard llama protecting a flock of sheep; collaborative wineries like Slate Mill Collective, where winemaker Rae Wilson creates the blends for her Wine for the People label; and flourishing small production wineries like Lightsome Wines.

And all of that barely scratches the surface of the Central Texas wine ecosystem.

Today, the state is split up into eight American Viticultural Areas, also known as grape-growing regions. From these regions, Central Texas wineries source a range of grapes from areas like the High Plains and Hill Country, resulting in a broad spectrum of wine types from red to white, skin-contact to pet-nat, sparkling to still, dry to sweet.

The Texas wine industry doesn’t exist in a bubble, either: It’s expansive, affecting the state’s farming, tourism, and restaurant industries. Its total economic impact was $13.1 billion in 2017, according to a study commissioned by WineAmerica (by comparison, Oregon’s was $6.5 billion; Washington’s was $9.6 billion), and Texas wine tourism brought in $716.6 million that same year. Since then, more wineries have opened in the Hill Country, and its influence has grown on local wine lists at destinations such as the Austin butcher shop and restaurant Dai Due, as well as New Texan destination Foreign & Domestic, both of which are heavy with Lone Star State bottles.

Texas’s emergence as a major player in the North American wine industry has also pushed vintners to double down on locally grown grapes. Members of Texas Wine Growers, for example, are dedicated to exclusively using grapes that have been grown and processed in the state. This fall, the long push to require that officially designated “Texas wines” consist of 100 percent Texas grapes crystallized in a new labeling law that went into effect on September 1. (Previously, wines had to use only 75 percent Texas grapes to be considered a “Texas wine,” which is the federal standard.)

But while Texas wine was coming fully into its own over the last several years, the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered that progress in a way that hasn’t been seen since Prohibition, testing the creativity and resilience of vintners and altering the story of the state’s wine industry. In the last 19 months, Texas winemakers have been forced to confront a deeply philosophical question: “What is a winery?”

The March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown in Texas coincided with one of Central Texas’s busiest times for tourism: spring wildflower season. That’s when Hill Country-area wineries and tasting rooms, which usually see about 1 million visitors every year, typically experience a high volume of sales as people venture out among fields filled with jutting spikes of bluebonnets. Stay-at-home orders kept those flower enthusiasts and their wine-tasting money at home, leading to a steep decline in revenue from bottle and tasting-room sales. In seasons prior to 2020, 90 percent of sales at Hye winery William Chris Vineyards were direct to consumer, and the tasting room typically saw about 1,500 visitors a week. “I don’t even want to think about how much money we lost,” co-owner Chris Brundrett told Eater when the winery closed ahead of the initial state order. “We scraped almost a million dollars out of our budget last year,” he says, “and focused on our people and focused on surviving.”

Winemaking is a lifestyle that requires enormous planning, time investment, and patience to cultivate land, grow grapes, and turn them into delicious boozy juice, especially in Texas’s harsh and unforgiving climate. Yet, the pandemic forced Central Texas wineries to make fast decisions about how to make money while keeping their staffers employed and safe. There were no tasting-room visits. Events were suspended, weddings postponed, and restaurant dining rooms — many of which sold Texas wines by the glass — closed. Speaking over the phone in April 2020, Southold Farm + Cellar co-owner Regan Meador wondered out loud: “When the wheels fall off, how do you sell wine?”

One of the obvious answers is online sales. Pre-pandemic, Crowson Wines were sold almost entirely in the tasting room; roughly 99 percent of its sales came from on-site visits. But when owner Henry Crowson had to close his tasting room, he pushed to launch his already in-the-works online store selling bottles of tannat, mourvedre, montepulciano, and blends for shipping.

Curbside pickups (one of those terms forever enshrined in the 2020 lexicon) became the new system for wineries selling to-go bottles. It was an unnatural and strange way of both selling and buying wine in Hill Country, which pre-pandemic so often hinged on experiences with face-to-face tasting-room interactions and convivial sampling before purchasing a case. And the new methods were, at best, unreliable streams of income. It requires time and effort to travel to these wineries; it’s a four-hour round-trip drive to a Hill Country winery from Austin proper, for instance. Early sales at Fredericksburg winery and wine incubator Slate Mill Collective were so slow — one or two pickups a day — that they barely covered the salary of the sole employee handling the exchanges.

Gradually, wineries figured out how to offer virtual tastings, while others ramped up wine club memberships. But it was hard to connect with people online in the same way you do when they might linger for another pour over the bar beside a sprawling vineyard. “You weren’t able to build that rapport with the people that you wanted,” says Tommy Wellford, general manager of Driftwood’s Duchman Family Winery. “You’re not able to sit there and talk with them and be a friend, versus just [saying], ‘Hey, what kind of bottle do you want? Okay, goodbye.’”

Likewise, the fervor of helping keep small businesses going by buying as much as possible didn’t last. “It pretty quickly died out for us,” Wine for the People’s Wilson said in September 2020. Many wineries reported that 2021’s online sales fell short of the previous year’s. “The numbers are not the same,” she said of the new retail model for wine.

To some wine professionals in Texas, it also felt as if the state government simply didn’t care about their industry, despite its economic significance. A winery really isn’t a bar, but in Texas, the two were deemed the same when a premature reopening in May 2020 led to the state’s first real surge in COVID cases. In an attempt to do something, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott chose to shutter only alcohol-driven businesses — bars and wine-tasting rooms alike — in late June, just prior to Fourth of July weekend and ahead of harvest season. Wineries were put in a difficult position, but there wasn’t much they could do except go back to selling to-go wines. A month later, many wineries took advantage of loopholes created by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to allow bars, wineries, and breweries to operate under the guise of operating as “restaurants” by expanding their food offerings in order to make less than 51 percent in alcohol sales.

While the pandemic might have spelled the end of boom times for Hill Country wineries, Crowson saw some of the coronavirus regulations, like seating requirements, as ultimately bettering the industry, because it put an emphasis on the educational aspects instead of just pouring wines. Since guests had to sit down with their glasses, they were able to learn about what they were drinking and where it comes from. “People are going to better understand what we’re trying to do,” he says, “and therefore appreciate it more and drink more of it,” rather than seeing wine tours as an opportunity to get drunk. “It’s going to make Texas wine better overall,” Crowson added.

Since public health experts recommended al fresco gatherings over indoor get-togethers, Duchman expanded with more outdoor events and even hired a new events coordinator. At one point, the employee asked Wellford about what the winery did before, and he told her it didn’t matter because “we’re in a whole new era now,” he says. “There’s no ‘what we used to do.’ It’s like we’re a brand-new winery and we’re trying to find our way again.”

Luck has also served Central Texas wineries well during the pandemic. Although they were left with a backlog of 2019 wines in their stores, a destructive freeze in early fall 2019 in the High Plains region, which is responsible for more than 70 percent of the state’s wine grape production, led to a lower-than-anticipated harvest of high-quality grapes intended for their 2020 wines. This resulted in a smaller-than-average production of 2020 vintages that went on sale in 2021. So, in a way, the pandemic helped wineries maintain their inventory through a period of low production. Those remaining stocks are being used and sold in 2021. “We’re in a place right now where we’re running out of wine,” says Meador. “The quality is good; we’re happy with what we produced. We just don’t have a whole lot of it.”

At this moment, it’s hard to predict exactly how the industry will shake out due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the extreme weather events that marked the first half of 2021 in Texas. Wineries and tasting rooms have adapted well to practicing social distancing and utilizing more of their outdoor spaces, as have customers by donning masks, participating in virtual tastings, and taking advantage of new reservation-only bookings. And, as of August, sales and visits have at least been steadier than last year’s.

What is clear is that nothing is going to stop Hill Country wineries from doing what they do best. What will make Texas wines sustainable through the hardships — not unlike during Prohibition — is the belief in the quality. And the wines are damn great.

It’s true. Being in Texas means supporting Texas which means drinking Texas, and there are so many Texas wineries using straight-up grown-in-Texas grapes highlighting the best of what a combination of Texas soil, climate, and a healthy, ​​can-do attitude can accomplish. “People want to taste Texas wine,” Brundrett says. “They want to discover all the cool things that they’ve been hearing about.”

Right now is truly the best time to drink Texas wine. You don’t have to fly to France, take a trip to Napa Valley, or purchase imported bottles to experience really thoughtful wines. Magical wines are just a hop, skip, and a comparatively short drive away out in the Hill Country.

Texas wine country is producing a dizzying amount of ridiculously exceptional wines, something for every taste and situation. The ever-growing number of wineries are doing what they do best, making use of homegrown grapes and contributing their voices to the tapestry of Texas wine. Established winemakers keep perfecting their methods as newer ones shake things up in fun ways. The future of Texas wine is bright and tart and rich and dry.

Texas wine forever. — Nadia Chaudhury

Faces of Texas Wine

What makes Central Texas wineries so good (besides the wine, of course)? It’s the faces of these wineries, the winemakers and founders who always believed in the true value of Texas terroir.

Credits

  • Editorial lead Nadia Chaudhury
  • Editors Brenna Houck, Jesse Sparks
  • Developer Graham Yan MacAree
  • Designers Alyssa Nassner, Tiffany Brice
  • Contributors Erin RussellVeronica Meewes, Gabrielle Pharms, Tom Thornton
  • Photographer Chloe Hope Gilstrap
  • Illustrator Lucia Vinti
  • Copy editors Rachel P. Kreiter, Kelli Pate
  • Fact checker Andrea López Cruzado
  • Engagement Esra Erol
  • Special Thanks to Brittany Holloway-Brown, Patty Diez, Ellie Krupnick, and Lesley Suter



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