TWGGA Legislative Session

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Last Tuesday members of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association met in Austin to talk with their legislators about matters closest to them and to the Texas wine industry.  I visited the educational tasting room in the evening to hug friends and catch up on some important happenings in the business.  It was a joy to see Betty and Cliff Bingham and to chat with Bobby Cox, all down from Lubbock.  I also had the opportunity to meet some legends face-to-face, like Carl Money of Pontotoc Vineyards and Ed Hellman, a professor of viticulture for Texas Tech and Texas A&M programs.  And I learned a few great things:

1) The Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University and Texas AgriLife Extension are working together to devleop a Texas Viticulture Certificate Program based in Fredericksburg.  It is a two year curriculum covering grapevine biology, site assessment and vineyard development, vine nutrition and water management, disease, insect and weed management, and canopy and crop load management.  There will be hands-on vineyard practices, including planting the first test vineyard in April of this year.  Classes will be held in the ACC building just east of Fredricksburg and are now accepting students for courses starting in June: http://winegrapes.ttu.edu/viticulturecertificate.html.

2) The Binghams will be opening their own custom-crush and wine making facility.  They’ve dedicated the site and Betty received news that evening that plans to lay cement were underway.  It will be a way for the family to use any overflow of harvest and also to provide higher quality product to wineries outside of the High Plains.  They will be able to immediately select, destem and press grapes on site, then send refrigerated juice to buyers.  Much like Texas Custom Wine Works, a crush facility designed by Dusty Timmons, Mike Sipowicz, Jet Wilmeth, and Steve Talcott, the facility will be paired with a wine making operation as well.  (As a kicker- Bobby Cox will be their wine maker!)  And much like Texas Custom Wine Works, people are excited about the prospect of pressing and refrigerating juice before fermentation begins, and a fresh base for higher quality wine.  With Bending Branch Winery discussing a mobile crush unit that would provide similar opportunities to growers around the state, it’s an exciting trend for the industry overall.

3) Carl Money, owner of a series of buildings in downtown Mason, will be re-appropriating several spaces for wineries: his Pontotoc Vineyards, Don Pullum’s Sandstone Cellars, and a winery by Alphonse and Martha Dotson of Certenberg Vineyards.  That’s three great wineries in the heart of the “Sonoma of Texas,” sure to draw visitors to the area.

4) And in the vein of combining wineries, another facility is set to open in the 290 corridor.  Called Six Shooter Cellars, it is a collaboration of Cross Timbers Winery out of Grapevine, Texas, Yepez Vineyard out of southeast Texas, and four others that remain a secret.  (Could one be Arché since the man who makes ceramics from their grapevine ashes, Michael Obranovich, will be represented at Six Shooter…?)  Final approval for the business just went through, and the facility could be up and running by the end of next month.

Four very exciting announcements for the industry!  And I am happy to report that all were optimistic about their legislative visits, saying the representatives listened well and understood the proposals, a far cry from the way such meetings used to go.  A great sign as the Texas wine trail barrels on.

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TWGGA Conference 2013

The Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association meeting is coming up again next week, held in San Marcos at the Embassy Suites Conference Center and Spa.  From 8am February 14th until 11:30pm (although probably later…) on February 16th, wine makers, grape growers and interested parties are getting together to enjoy meals, discuss the industry and listen to panelists on marketing, legal issues, viticulture techniques and wine production.  It’s a meeting of the minds, but also a meeting of friends.

Last year I attended the Becker Vineyards wine dinner and was so inspired by the relationships between grape growers and wine makers.  A repost of the event and sentiment are below.

Tickets are still available.  Come join us as we enjoy what president Bobby Cox and all others involved have in store for the conference this year.

For more information, follow this link.

Annual Texas Wine and Grape Growers Associate Meeting 2013

Embassy Suites Conference Center and Spa, San Marcos

February 14-16th

Margaret Shugart

education in Texas tasting rooms

After finishing this edition’s tour of Texas wineries, I have headed to France for the summer to lead cycling trips with an active touring company.  Luckily and blissfully, this assignment starts in Provence and the Southern Rhône where we travel through Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Beames-de-Venise, as well as lesser known Rhône Villages and parts of Ventoux.

I won’t write much about France in this venue because this blog is about Texas and the people we meet with the book, but I would like to take note of my first visit to the wineries in the region and here’s why: they are not so different from Texas.  In fact, it was drinking wine at tasting rooms in Texas that helped me understand what is happening here, more so even than if I had spent this time in Napa Valley, or maybe anywhere else in the United States.  The more I learn, the more I believe Texas is, quite simply, more like Europe than anywhere else in the country (and for many more reasons than just the varieties grown).

The steward of the first tasting room I entered in Gigondas sorted through my strangely accented French to offer an English interaction, which was fortunate because his bi-lingual wine terminology was much better than mine.  I asked a lot of questions, similar to ones I ask when meeting with Texas wine makers and grape growers, and he was just as eager to talk about it as anyone.

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I was shown maps of microclimates, given explanations of terroir and blending techniques across different vineyards, enlightened on different vine training techniques that echoed what I learned at home.  For example, here in the Rhône, Mouvedre is head-trained (a Roman technique where vines are taught to grow upward with no wires, so that they look like goblets) because its cordons naturally reaches toward the sky and because the technique produces better fruit… just like Tannat, also head-trained by Bending Branch Winery.

Head trained Mourvedre in Gigondas, France

John Rivenburgh explains head trained Tannat vines and Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas

The education I received from wise Texas wine folk like Bobby Cox helped me understand why blending grapes from various microclimates adds layers of complexity to a wine.  And pioneers like Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards and Winery helped me understand why setting up a vine library is a good start to a vineyard, or even something to maintain for the entire life of someone’s estate.

And when the wine steward and I got more comfortable, he tested me on a white blend in which I identified 2 of the three grapes (Viognier and Roussane, missing Grenache Blanc) because these grapes are little rockstars in our state and I have tasted very true renderings of their character by our own wine makers.

I am not saying this to brag on myself.  Anyone could do this.  I am saying this to point out something marvelous about Texas tasting rooms: they are educational venues, opening visitors to world wines.  As the pioneering minds of the Texas wine industry are broadening their plantings past the big California three (Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay) and honing in on what this climate and soil can best support, we are being exposed to a vast array of varieties somewhat novel to the American palate, and pronunciation: Tempranillo (think Spanish- does not rhyme with armadillo), Mourvedre, Tinta Cao, Carignane, Cinsault, Vermentino, Albariño, Aliagnico, Dolcetto, etc.  They are beginning to increase in popularity and notoriety because they grow well here and show beautifully from our soil.   And because of this happy trend, Texas tasting rooms are putting them into people’s mouths, both to drink and to say.  This, I believe, is educating our visitors to a much wider world of taste and understanding, tapping Texas wine tourists into a global market, in a way I don’t think even most of California can do.

At the end of my lovely visit with this Gigondas winery, I explained that I was from Texas and interested in wine there, too.  The steward said he had actually met several Texans who visited his tasting room, and that they knew quite a bit about the Gigondas varieties.  Perhaps they studied on their own, but I like to think they had exposure to local renditions as well, and took that knowledge abroad to explore the grapes further.

So my challenge to you, good drinker, is to visit a local winery or two and go for the grape variety you’ve never heard of, then ask your wine stewardess a little about its background.  It’ll take you on a journey around the world through your taste buds.  I think you’ll be delighted at how much there is to learn here at home.

Margaret Shugart

Bobby Grape

Before we met, I was calling him the King of Texas Vines. One of the first to plant grapes since Prohibition and the first to win a medal in California with the wine he made from those grapes, he now advises on the majority of new vineyards in north Texas.  He lost his vineyard due to economic stresses from a national excise tax, and now shares his expertise with others, working hard to put Texas wine on the map. Chances are, if you’ve had a Texas wine made from delicious High Plains fruit, Bobby is the one who decided at what angle to plant that vineyard, the row spacing and advised on the varieties, then helped those vines grow into maturity.

Bobby showing a 7 foot spacing between rows.

But after spending a day with him, I now think of him more as a symphony conductor.

There are a few reasons.  One, his hands seldom stay on the steering wheel as he drives, gesturing openly instead, to make his point. His facial expressions are no less lively.  And when he laughs, he maintains eye contact with you, drawing you into the joke.  There’s no escaping Bobby’s warmth and enthusiasm.

And second, nearly every time his phone rings (playing a “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” ringtone) there is someone on the other end asking his opinion about some aspect of their planting, which he fields with the wisdom that only comes from years of experience. He took me around to visit farmers in Brownfield, Texas and throughout our conversations, they would gently ask his advice on when to add inputs, how to train the vines, and what varieties to plant, then carefully listen to his answers. I got the sense that he was orchestrating behind the scenes of the Texas wine industry, helping farmers grow the good and healthy fruit that provides the basis for our finest wines.

Cliff Bingham and Bobby discussing the vines.

He and his wife Jennifer graciously invited me for dinner in their earthen home.  We had only Texas wine, made with the grapes he helped advise on and talked about when they were picked and who made the wine.  I had never felt so close to a meal before.  Then at the end as we moved to the cheese plate, Bobby disappeared from the table and returned with a bottle of his 1983 Pheasant Ridge Cabernet, the first Texas wine to win an award in California in 1986.  I joked that he was like Jesus, saving the best wine for last.

And sure enough, it was beautiful, truly award winning.  Natural, sweet oxidation on the nose, but the color was solid garnet with very little rim variation.  Nearly 30 years old and it still looked young.  The flavors were layered and the finish held an Old World style structure; it had many, many years left to mature.  As we complimented him, my exuberant host became quiet, modest, humble.  He explained in low tones his decisions around the wine: when he chose to harvest, how he aged it and why the tannins were so outstanding.  I was touched to see someone so certain of his knowledge, as I had witnessed all day in the field, become gentle in front of his art.  The conversation continued on to their early years in the wine industry, spending time with the top California wine makers, the way Jennifer won a blind tasting against them because she was familiar with all the varieties planted in Bobby’s experimental rows, and all the characters they met; I was highly entertained, but couldn’t shake the realization that I was sipping on a real piece of Texas history, in front of its creator, and what an honor that was.

A friend of mine once told me that the way to maintain satisfaction in a skill you’ve honed is to become a consultant and pass that knowledge onto others.  I agree and I hope that is the case here.  There is an awful lot of wisdom and work going into making some of Texas’ finest wines possible, starting from the ground up.

Thank you, Bobby “Grape” Cox, for all you do.

Bobby and Vijay Reddy, standing in front of Vijay's vineyard, one of the largest in the state.

Bobby and Vijay Reddy, standing in front of Vijay's vineyard, one of the largest in the state.