The Paradox of Unknown Knowns

Phylloxera aphid

You might not know that today Texas is producing home grown award-winning world class wines that beat out others from all corners of the planet. You might not know from looking at some of the low-ball price points on faux-Texas wines in Texas grocery store wine aisles and many restaurant wine lists that these wines are made from juice produced thousands of miles away. These are the very grocery stores heavily promoting Lone Star state products in nearly every perishable item category. You might not know that Texas has been in the wine business more than 100 years longer than California. You might not know that it was Texan Thomas Volney Munson, a horticulturist and breeder of grapes, who saved France’s wine industry during the late 1800s from the vino equivalent of the black plague. The phylloxera nymph, a root louse, devastated Europe’s top wine producing countries, creating a diaspora of tens of thousands of people. Through Munson’s work, Texas supplied Europe with rootstock resistant to these hungry, destructive insects. You might not know that in 2015 with help from the Texas wine industry, the state’s tier 1 research universities found the solution to the destructive Jurassic Age fungus cotton root rot. This villain attacks a wide range of cash crops throughout the state. You might not know that the Texas Hill Country is among the nation’s most popular wine trail destinations with new wineries and tasting rooms opening almost as quickly as wildflowers in spring.

So why do you not know these things about the Texas wine industry? The state’s historic winemaking tradition has a few pot holes in the road to success. There’s been a trifecta of turmoil holding back the industry: one part extremely difficult environment, one part distributor/retail politics and, to a lesser extent now, one part religious beliefs. The 2013 harvest suffered a devastating frost five weeks into the growing season. Vineyards on the High Plains, where the majority of Texas grapes are grown, were in nearly full-bloom when a mid-May frost struck. In the case of a single grower, vineyards that should have yielded a harvest of 750,000 pounds resulted in only 800 pounds. In fact, the state’s growers haven’t been able to produce enough fruit to supply the growing demand of wineries until the phenomenal harvest of 2015. Most of the best wines produced go to wine club members who know the difference between a $9.00 retail faux-Texas wine and the real deal. The majority of Texas wineries don’t fit the mega grocer or wine and spirits distributor corporate price point of $5.00 to $9.00/bottle retail. It is only with the abundant flow of bulk juice from California or elsewhere and a Texas winery label that these players can pull off the illusion.  A Texas wine label with the words For Sale in Texas Only  is the tip off. (Many so-called Texas spirit producers play much the same game, but I’m already stepping on a lot of toes here so I’ll save that battle for a future blog post.) There’s a David and Goliath struggle between small, boutique wineries and multi-billion dollar distributors and mega-market retailers. This power couple collusion demands the Texas winemaking equivalent of a entry level, underpowered 4-cylinder vehicle with standard option trim. The distributors court the wineries with promises of greatness and happy endings, yet they’re only seeking to put another jewel in their crown for bragging rights. Once the conquest is made, the wineries are pushed to the back of the bus and shown the exit door in short order.

Texas Purple Gold
Texas Purple Gold

You see, much like Rodney Dangerfield, the Texas wine industry doesn’t get any respect. There are many within the industry who have outdated prejudices that Texas doesn’t make good wines. Like a storyteller of old, they repeat the misinformation over and over. The truth is that Texas wines are, in some venues, no longer allowed to be judged alongside their European peers in blind tastings due to their superior scoring and medals won. If this story sounds familiar, it should — just like the historic Judgement of Paris: California vs. France 1976 organized by Steven Spurrier. Spurrier, a Brit with a wine shop in Paris, conceived of blind tasting the best of California Chardonnays against the top Burgundies and the same with California Cabernet vs. Bordeaux. Spurrier, who only sold French wines, set out with the expectation that the French would easily dominate and outshine the American examples. The judges were from the upper echelon of French wine tasting. When the brown bags came off, to their shock and embarrassment, the judges had scored the California wines higher than the French wines. History repeated itself in a rematch 30 years later in 2006 with the California wines besting the French again.

Goliaths’ Game of Hold’em

Then, there are those in the Texas wine industry who aren’t listening to the naysayers. From far flung corners, the Texas Purple Gold Rush is attracting many world-class winemakers with passion and commitment. They’re making wines of exceptional quality, balance and elegance. Not beholden to a corporate commodity-level production template, these winemakers are foregoing the Parkerized high alcohol, power-palate fruit bombs. God Bob’s high scores are of little relevance in their new frontier. Though, without the internet help of Texas wine enthusiasts, you would never know the high stakes poker game that the Goliaths of large powerful family-owned distributors and large powerful family-owned grocery chains play with Texas wine. With their focus on template formulas, price points and buy-ins of $3000 lunch/$6000 dinner perks, the boy-sized Davids of Texas winery owners can’t even imagine playing in these Goliaths’ poker game.

— Cheers! Dale Blankenship
with Catherine Sansing
First published March 17, 2016

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