tomorrow's texas tea Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Tomorrow's Texas Tea

Wine Writer Extols the Virtues of a Burgeoning Industry in the Lone Star State
— An Interview with Russell Kane, PhD, Publisher of Vintage Texas

I first met Russ Kane during last year's North American Wine Bloggers Conference, held in California's Napa and Sonoma counties.  Being part of a gathering of wine-enthusiastic writers, it was par for the course to have met a number of people with unique perspectives on the wine industry, hailing from different areas of the country.  Immediately, however, Russ struck me as different from much of the pack of attendees in that he was visiting from an unlikely wine-producing region: Texas.  In and of itself, it might have not elicited much more than a raised eyebrow and a mild, though fleeting, sense of curiosity on my part.  But because of his avid involvement with its local industry, coupled with a deep sense of pride for his home state, Russ readily demonstrated a great deal of knowledge about the wines of Texas, which immediately caught and held my interest.  I spoke with the writer and publisher of the wine blog Vintage Texas to get a deeper sense of his perspective on how the Texas wine industry has progressed in the last few years, where he sees it going, and what it all means for the wine consumer.

NM:  Californians, especially when it comes to wine, are very California-centric.  And so, at least from my perspective, it's always interesting to learn as much as possible from people hailing from regions that are viably producing wines quite far from the domestic wine world's center of gravity on the west coast.  Texas definitely fits that bill, so I thought you'd be a great person to talk to in more detail.  Plus, the fact that you have a deep familiarity with Texas wines really piqued my interest.

RK: Well, I try to be a fair and balanced kind of a guy.  I'm often the best friend and sometimes the worst enemy of my friends in the Texas wine industry.  I personally tend to drink globally, so I always put people to the test here to help them really understand what they're tasting in Texas versus maybe what the same price point might bring from other places like Spain or Australia or wherever.

NM: Can you tell me what first got you interested in Texas wines?

"The Texas government has gotten behind the industry, and established regional viticulturists and a state enologist — plus we already have a state of pretty good farmers."

RK: I've been in and around the Texas wine industry for about twelve years now.  For many years had my own technology company here in Houston, and did a lot of traveling.  Cooking has always been one of my hobbies — as a matter of fact my father was in the restaurant business and he taught me to cook.  When I started traveling, I began to learn a lot from experience, just tasting wines.  So it's been a hobby.  In about 1996, my wife and I got to talking and we agreed that we needed something else [in our lives].  Now, she's from a restaurant family, too, so we knew we didn't want to be in the restaurant business; but we really love our food, love our wine, so we figured we really needed to do something with food and wine.  When I looked around for what's in Houston, there was a new group starting up in Texas called the Wine Society of Texas; they were a Dallas-based group.  And so we decided to join that.  But from there we realized they didn't have a Houston chapter, so we started one and soon built it up to about 150 members.  Around that time, the statewide society has a schism, and they wanted me to rescue it, so I jumped in with both feet, and got totally immersed in it: I became their executive director and then started doing a lot of wine education, on which I had to bone up a lot.

Fall Creek WineryRK: (con'd) Now, as a PhD, I did the deep dive: I went out and bought myself an extensive library of books, went through the whole history of wine, going through all the California books, the French books, the Spanish books.  It really became much more than a hobby; it was taking over a good deal of my life.  And so that's how I got started [in wine].  Now, when I sold my company, they wanted me to be totally consumed with this venture I was selling them for two and half years.  It was only in January of this year that I retired from that, started to get back into the wine industry again, and wanted to write.  So I started the blog as an exercise to write more or less on a daily basis.  I reestablished my contacts, found out what the current issues were, and worked on a book proposal in and around the wine industry.

NM: So it sounds like you got involved very quickly and intensely, to the point where you're now in the thick of it.  From your perspective and understanding, then, what are some of the broad strokes in the picture that has developed into the Texas wine industry today, and how do you see that changing in the future?

RK: It's a new and emerging wine-producing region.  Now, there's not a whole lot of Texans who are experienced in drinking wine — this used to be bourbon and beer state.  But what's happened over the past fifteen years is that it's become one of the top wine-consuming states in the U.S.  It's had some amazing growth, year over year.  From a consumer standpoint, there's been a real interest in wine.  Now, you were saying that California is kind of the center of the U.S. wine universe, but there was a point when that wasn't the case.  Back in the '60s and '70s, all the big names you hear today were only just starting out as pioneers.  We're going through that same kind of evolution right here now.  And it's some pretty amazing growth we are going through.  So, the combination between wine, growing in consumer interest and consumption and the local wine industry getting more experience, and frankly making better wines.  The most recent of  'broad strokes' that I can talk about are literally within the last two to three years.  The State of Texas is following what I call the Washington State model, where the government has gotten behind the industry, and established regional viticulturists and a state enologist — plus we already have a state of pretty good farmers.  That has been doing tremendous things over the short term here to increase production and quality, and to figure out which varietals we should be growing.  We're now going from what I call Phase One, which was making wine out of varietals that people recognize (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc), to now going through Phase Two, which is an experimental state to see which varietals do well, vineyard-wise, and finding out that Texas is actually more like the Mediterranean.  So, consequently, we're getting a lot more traction from the growers, winemakers, and consumers on wines similar to what one might find in the Southern Rhone, and some of the warmer regions of Spain and Italy.  Those are the kind of trends I see taking place, all very good from the standpoint of increasing our productivity and quality, particularly at a price point that's competitive with the global market.

NM: One thing you mentioned that I'm finding particularly interesting is that the Texas government is getting involved, not only organizing the state's wine industry but also investing resources in time, energy, and money to build it up.  I think, more than anything else, that's where the industry's success is going to hinge upon, during these initial, formative years.  Where are those resources going, how are they being allocated, and how long has the state's campaign of sponsorship and support been going on?

"Texas has become one of the top wine-consuming states in the U.S. It's had some amazing growth, year over year."

RK: If you look at where the industry has been over the past, I would say, five years, we've gone from 60 to over 160 wineries.  A lot of these are small, family-run operations.  They're not able to fund research and development.  And, likewise, they don't have large marketing budgets, either.  So, what the state of Texas began doing, starting in about 2003, was the beginning of an amazing evolution.  First off, they started by allocating a quarter of a million dollars in funds, through the Texas wine-marketing program, just to help consumers know what's out here.  Much of this has been focused within the state, with sponsored festivals, advertising, and billboards.  But it's also been outside the state — they've bought full-page ads in national magazines like Food & Wine.  This was all to help the image of Texas wines move up a notch or two.  Secondly — and what I think is the most fundamental and important structural change, because Texas still has dry counties and municipalities — is that the government changed the state constitution.  They had an amendment vote (that passed), which said that as long as you were producing with at least 75% Texas grapes, you could open a winery anywhere in the state, whether it was wet or dry, and you could sell wine out of your tasting room, even if it was in a totally dry area.  That was a tremendous cultural change.

Texan RancherRK: (con'd) A lot of this came by the fortitude of our previous commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Susan Coombs, who's a rancher at heart and whose roots are very much in rural Texas.  She saw grapes as being an answer to two main problems that Texas has as an agricultural state.  The first problem concerns jobs in rural areas; anything that can support jobs in those regions is good for Texas.  The second thing is that, based on a cash crop, grapes are better than many things that farmers are spending a lot of effort on — cotton, corn, soybeans — and can fortify farmers' incomes.  The most recent thing I've heard in support of this view is that grapes are one of the few crops that, once they're established, they can subsist on the 12-14 inches of rain that west Texas gets; they're water neutral.  So, just from an agri-business standpoint, the wine industry offers tremendous benefits to the future of Texas.

[What's more,] the state of Texas has dedicated more than $4.5 million to support the wine industry through university-based viticultural research and education programs, in order to show people how to grow grapes of better quality and which varietals to use for their particular climate and soil type.  And then also it put efforts into fortifying degree programs in enology, and having a state enologist.  They just started a pilot grant program now, where they will underwrite a portion of the conversion of fields from some other kind of crop to grapes.  The idea is that this will probably be a model for the future.  We've got a tremendous wealth of agricultural people who have many generations of history in rural Texas and who are good farmers.  If we can just educate them on wine grapes — along with another crop (Texas will always have cotton, corn, and soybeans) — so as to add something to the mix… what a difference that will make!

NM: This sounds truly significant: the Texas government is not only validating the wine industry, but supporting and financing it as well.  I think that's going to make all the difference for the industry's success, in addition to the fact that you have an entire population of agrarian Texans who already have the background and knowledge in farming that can be honed into viticultural training.  Now, from what you've been able to gather, is the industry far enough at this point to have already begun differentiating features of the wine growing regions within the state, and if so, can you speak to some of the differences?

RK: Sure.  We have five regions that have been identified in Texas.  Now, whether that was done based on unique terroir, I don't think it's quite that well thought-out yet.  But we do have a few things that they've been looking at, to set up these viticultural regions.  First off, as you go from east to west, the first thing you notice is a decrease in rainfall.  If you go from Beaumont (on the Gulf Coast) to San Antonio, rainfall decreases by about half: from 50 to about 25 inches per year.  And if you go from San Antonio to Lubbock (in the northwest), it decreases even further, down to about 12 inches per year.  Secondly, as the land decreases in rainfall, it increases in elevation, from sea level to about 3500 feet.  All that has a great effect on what type of grapes can grow in those areas.  Lastly, there's the issue of Pierce's Disease: there's an imaginary line through Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio [bisecting the state, essentially along Interstate 10], below which this virus becomes a problem, like in the warmer regions of California.  So, these three factors determine what kind of grapes people plant, and where.

"Texas has dedicated more than $4.5 million to support the wine industry through university-based viticultural research and education programs."

Below this line I just mentioned [on and near the Gulf Coast], the only thing you can possibly grow for any length of time is French-American hybrids.  Above that line, farther north and west, people are now starting to acknowledge our premium wine-growing area.  I'll call it our Western region; some people call it the High Plains.  Around Lubbock it's a big, flat plateau that's dry and has very few critters to eat things.  And there's a lot of farmers.  What we're finding is that you can grow almost anything there.  It even puts out some good Cabernet and some decent Chardonnay.  Now, in and around the San Antonio and Austin area, in Central Texas, you have what's called the Hill Country, where there's the tourist-oriented-winery, Napa-Sonoma kind of experience.  Although, it is a harder place for growing grapes, there's a great, burgeoning wine tourism business going on there, the second fastest-growing in the U.S.  One other notable region is in the northeast, going towards Oklahoma, with a brand new AVA called Texoma.  With its red dirt, it's wonderful for growing things, but it's a little more challenging because there's more critters and higher humidity. So, that's the lay of the land in Texas.  To me, though, the one region that has the best chance of establishing a true Texas terroir, on a large scale, is the High Plains.  It has hot, dry days and cool, sometimes cold nights, even in the summer time.  It's dry as a bone.  Some of our best, award-winning wines have come from that region.

Spicewood VineyardsNM: Yes, in general, that wider diurnal range is a major factor in producing good wines.  Regions that have it tend to produce fruit with a greater degree of ripening but that still retains a high enough level of acidity to make for naturally balanced wines.  Now, speaking of the wines themselves, what's your overall assessment of the Texas wines you've tasted, focusing specifically then on those from the region you've described as showing the best potential, the High Plains?  Also, can you make any comparisons between these wines with those made from the same varietals in regions elsewhere here in the States and also internationally?

RK: Let's talk about the High Plains first off.  If we rewind back about 20 years, a winery up in Lubbock called Llano Estacado won the San Francisco International Wine Competition with a Double Gold medal for their Chardonnay.  It was grown up in the Texas High Plains.  That says to me that grapes from that region — even the classic varietals — can be quite good.  Although that's probably the only place in the state Texas that I can say that for Chardonnay.  Some other people have had some success in different regions, even with Cabernet or Cabernet blends.  But I can't think of any place else in the state that I would want to search for a Chardonnay.  And again, I think it's because the fact is they get this great diurnal shift in temperatures.  When I do wine classes, the thing I try to explain to people is that most premium wine producing regions have a cool body of water to their west — it gives them added cooling, as with fog rolling in, or evening temperatures dropping — like with Calfornia, France, Chile, or New Zealand, you always have some kind of body of cool water.  In Texas, we don't have that.  But what we do have is this elevation and lack of humidity in the northwest quadrant of the state, which make for hot, dry days and cool-to-cold nights — all of which give us premium grapes.

Varietal-wise, what we're learning is that Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre are the ones that people are finding they can so much with here.  Also, Tempranillo and Sangiovese.  They all just tend to take the heat and keep on going.

NM: Yes, very much like their respective regions of origin — southern France, central Spain, and Italy — which all have very warm, often hot and dry climates.  Now, what about white varietals?  You mentioned the occasional Chardonnay — are there any others?

RK: Probably the one single varietal that has really come on strong in Texas, like it has in a few other areas, is Viognier — it just loves the weather, it loves the soil, it's been grown in a variety of different settings in the High Plains, and even the Hill Country.  It loves the heat, it ripens very nicely in those areas.  One that I just had last week was from McPherson Cellars in Lubbock, which makes a High Plains Viognier.  There's also a relatively new winery called Brennan Vineyards in the northern part of the Hill Country, which won the grand champion award for their Viognier last year at an international wine competition that's done around the Texas Rodeo & Livestock show.  So, to me, that's a great example of a grape that really does well in Texas.  It can handle a lot of different environments like we have — we're about the size of France, so we have a lot of different terroirs.

Another interesting thing is that there's been several experimental plots grown of Italian varietals, where even in areas that are not like the Texas High Plains that have the cool nights, they still retain a lot of acidity.  That's one of the things typical of varietals from Italy; they make good food-wines because they have this good acid bite going.  So, we're finding that some of these red and white grapes from Italy — either as single varietal wines or blends ('Rosso' or 'Bianco') — are doing very well.

"There's an elevation and lack of humidity in the northwest quadrant of the state, which make for hot, dry days and cool-to-cold nights — all of which give us premium grapes."

As a matter of fact, I had one very good experience.  One winery actually makes a Pinot Grigio with grapes grown up there [in the High Plains].  Now, that's pretty tricky.  Because, if you've ever seen Pinot Grigio, they're not totally yellow-green; the riper they get, the more they turn kind of a pinkish color.  And the sun is so strong at that elevation, that if they're not careful with their canopy management, then they can actually get a blush or a rosé Pinot Grigio.  But it's got an intense fruit and a good acidity that carries it.  One thing that I do a lot of time is that I give people blind tastings between Texas and some other region.  A few years ago I did a tasting for the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce.  And one of the wines that I picked was a Messina Hof Pinot Grigio and they had that blind with another Pinot Grigio from Italy.  And when I took off the wrappers, the wine they had actually picked was the Messina Hof!  It just blew everybody's mind that you can actually do Pinot Grigio in Texas.  And that's how I tend to break down a lot of barriers, with these side-by-side tastings.  I love to do comparative tastings.

Texan RancherNM: So it sounds like you're quite the ambassador for Texas wines.  You're being very proactive in educating people to the fact that Texas wines are, in some cases, increasingly able to stand side by side with wines from some of the more established regions.  In fact, let's be honest: that's precisely how all of the existing American wine regions really garnered attention and respect to begin with — Oregon and Washington, definitely, but even starting with California.  Before the now legendary 1976 Judgment of Paris, when they were compared to those of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the wines of California hadn't really gotten any attention or respect.  By doing these comparative blind tastings, I think you're tapping into the most effective way to increase awareness and potentially overturn prejudice on wines from a lesser-known region that has yet to gain not only domestic but international attention.

RK: I do use the Judgment of Paris as a model, because it really puts it right up front.  Again, that's why I say that I'm either the best friend or the harshest critic of the Texas wine industry.  Comparisons are the only way these wines are going to gain credibility [in the industry], but it's also the only way that consumers themselves are going to take them seriously, especially since they have a lot of options in the marketplace.  There are two things that drive the consumer market: quality and price-point.  And I personally saw that from around 2000 to 2003, the industry had done a really good job implementing quality improvements.  So, while maybe not every wine in Texas is fantastic, we have some really, really good ones.  But even during that time, our price points were still mixed up.  Now, what I've seen since 2003 is that we're getting enough wineries with high enough production that they can actually be not only quality-competitive but price-competitive.  With budget wines — those less than, say, $20 — we've got some really good offerings now: the winery I just mentioned, Llano EstacadoBecker Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country; Messina Hof, just northwest of Houston, though they buy grapes from all over the state; and last, but not least, Fall Creek Vineyards, who was one of the first to plant vinifera grapes in the Texas Hill Country back in the 1970s.

I was really glad to see something, recently.  I went to a wine educational function in Austin, where they were doing what was called a 'Texas Two-Sip': four blind tastings, of two wines each, where in each case it was the same varietal being compared — one made in Texas, the other made in another region.  It was great!  I said, "I finally got it through to somebody!  The state's jumping in on this."  I was so pleased to see them do that.  And they were pouring for a bunch of sommeliers from around the state — what better way to promote and educate the wine market, than by going through the sommeliers who work at some of the better restaurants?

NM: Absolutely!  Clearly, opinions are beginning to change.  And with a shift in attitude comes further incentive for growth and improvement in the future.  Given that, what do you see lying ahead for Texas wines, specifically with the varietals being grown and the styles being made, but also generally for the industry as a whole?

RK: There's a few wineries that put in pretty extensive experimental vineyards with all sorts of varietals from around the world.  Some of them have maybe as much as five or ten worth of experience on them now, others perhaps three to five.  If you combine that with the state viticulturists in the different regions, I think we're poised to really move forward tremendously over the next five years in improving our production and quality, and honing in on what Texas is, in terms of what our wine identity is.  It's driven by what grows well in each region, but you also have to put that together with the types of food people eat in Texas.  It's a food and wine experience that most people are after.  We have a lot of spicy food and a lot of meat.  We're going to find that a lot of the styles of wine that we're talking about are actually very good food wines, particularly if you have a little heat or spice.  You really have to think about what types of wines are going to compliment the Texas palate.

NM: Great point!  Let's be honest, ours is historically not much of a food culture.  The fact that many of these producers are considering the local cuisine shows a tremendous amount of foresight and sensitivity to what's best for the local market.

RK: That's how I became this accidental blogger.  I'm trying to put together a proposal for the next book that the Texas wine industry needs.  The story I want to tell involves a sense of place.  What we've had so far are some typical books on wine roads or trails — travel kind of books — and a couple of foodie books that have a bunch of recipes.  But there hasn't been anything telling the story of what's Texas terroir.  The fun part of what I'm doing here is that I'm trying to organize my thoughts by blogging on a regular basis.  With this book I'm proposing, I want to tell the story about the land, the people, the climate, the farmers, the folklore, the cuisine — and weave it all together into something not only educational but fun to read.

Vineyard in Wimberley, TexasRK: (con'd) As far as the wine blogging, I think it's important to focus on a niche.  We don't have to be a reproduction of all the other [more established] wine resources.  We don't have to be another [Robert] Parker or another Wine Spectator.  Instead, I think we need to find a topic we can be passionate about, something that has a niche that may not be covered in the mainstream [wine] media.  Now, certainly, [my wine blog about] Texas fits that bill.  I was amazed at how many readers I have — I've only been doing this now for three months, since August.  I've actually reached 6,000 readers per month with a total number of page views per month of about 24,000.  To me, that's much bigger after three months than I ever expected it was going to be, so it tells me that people are looking for information about Texas wines, and they're not finding it in the mainstream media.

NM: And I get a strong sense that that's also a major factor in the industry's growth: with the state government's support and sponsorship, plus the growers' efforts on growing specific varietals according to regional climates and soils, I think that key to the Texas wine industry's growth will be its resolve to carve out a niche for itself in the larger wine world.  Clearly, that'll be done by focusing on further discovering and then manifesting its unique identity.  It sounds like that's already happening, but will become even more nuanced and diversified.

RK: Yes, now it's a matter of honing and refining things to become even more specialized, just as California has been doing for a while now with its own regions and varietals.

NM: Speaking of which, I think that Texas has the advantage of learning from many of the lessons already learned in California, and even Oregon and Washington, during their respective periods of discovery and growth.  I suspect that will allow Texas the advantage of not having to pioneer as much as these other regions, but can focus on other factors that will directly contribute to its rapid growth and maturity.  After speaking with you, I have to say I'm honestly very excited for Texas!  I can only imagine the magnitude of what's in store for its wine industry in the future.

To find out more about Texas wines and their producers, as well as current happenings in the industry, visit Russell Kane's wine blog, Vintage Texas, and the Texas state-sponsored website on wine, Go Texan Wine. v