Wine Industry Matures in Texas

Overcoming vine disease and other obstacles to become legitimate wine destination

by Paul Franson
texas wine vineyards
Jim Kamas of the AgriLife Extension of Texas A & M System is one of the world's experts in Pierce's disease.
Fredericksburg, Texas—Once dismissed by out-of-state observers, Texas wine is fast becoming a real factor in the state’s culture and economy. With nearly 200 wineries, according to WinesVinesDATA, and more added weekly, the state’s wine industry has overcome hostile diseases, pests and climate and is researching developments that could expand production to meet unsatisfied demand. Even proposed cuts in research and marketing funds aren’t likely to dim the state’s wine progress.

A decade ago, most wineries in the attractive Hill Country around Fredericksburg, the state’s top wine-tourism destination, were surrounded by native grapevines and hybrids used primarily for ambiance, while the winegrapes came from the High Plains around Lubbock. Then, most wines were mediocre, and some seriously flawed, perhaps a sign of inexperienced growers and winemakers.

On a recent trip, however, most wines were quite acceptable, and some excellent. Very few showed the bacterial contamination and other defects that once seemed routine.

And while hybrids are grown around some tasting rooms and used to make wine, most wineries and vineyards are successfully growing Vitis vinifera. They’re learning which varieties are most suitable for their climate and conditions, and how to deal with pests and the vagaries of weather.

Most of all, they’ve learned to live with Pierce’s disease, a malady that once was the most significant impediment to growing vinifera grapes.

texas wine vineyards
"We've learned to manage PD in the Hill Country," says Jim Kamas.

“We’ve learned to manage PD in the Hill Country,” says Jim Kamas of the AgriLife Extension of Texas A & M System, one of the world’s experts in Pierce’s disease. Kamas, who organizes an annual PD conference, is based at a research center in Fredericksburg, and heads the Texas Pierce’s disease program. It is partly funded through the University of California, Davis.

It’s not surprising that PD and research into it is important in the Texas Hill Country. “Xylella fastidiosa (the bacterium that causes the disease) is native here,” Kamas says. “And so is the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the insect that infects grapevines and many other plants.”

A decade of progress
Kamas said it took a long time for local growers to come to terms with PD. “They used to talk about it like a sex disease. Everyone tried to hide its presence in their vines.”

He admits that 10 years ago scientists didn’t know much about the disease that was killing vinifera grapes in California as well as Texas. That’s changed, and now growers are working together to deal with it.

Recognizing that PD can’t be eradicated, the researchers recommend a multi-pronged approach to live with it: insecticides and predators to kill the sharpshooters, new varieties of vines resistant to the bugs or bacteria and even exotic biocontrols.

The basic treatment that’s made growing practical is systemic nicotinoid insecticides like Admire or Platinum, which are injected into the plant through irrigation systems. They’re not organic, but Kamas admits, “It’s tough to be an organic grapegrower here.”

Much has been learned in the search for other treatments—or ways to avoid treatment. Penny Adams, a viticulture advisor also with Texas A & M Extension, has been planting vines including vinifera in the area since 1978 and she’s learned a lot.

Some species are tolerant to PD. These include old, probably accidental, hybrids of local vitis aestivalis like Norton and Black Spanish, as well as Blanc du Bois, a variety developed at the University of Florida. Norton, which can be affected by PD, makes a  red table wine, while Black Spanish is generally used to make port-like sweet wines.

Blanc du Bois, which some growers see as a potentially important variety, has Muscat notes, which might play into the recent demand for those wines. One example was a pleasant, light, off-dry white. Another wine from the same producer might have been picked too ripe, for it had overwhelming, pungent flavors reminiscent of Muscadine, although there is apparently none in its heritage.

A new PD-tolerant red-wine variety, Victoria, will be released this year and other vines are in development. These hybrids can show symptoms of PD without it affecting their yield or life.

One hopeful test Adams is conducting is of hybrids developed by Andy Walker at UC Davis. They are primarily vinifera with a small amount of vitis arizonica, which resists the disease.

Consumer acceptance could still be an issue. In addition to seeking familiar names, consumers may not like the flavors of new varieties. “We may be able to grow them, but they may not make good wine,” Adams admits.

Choosing vineyard sites is important, too. “Don’t plant tolerant vines like Black Spanish next to vinifera,” Adams warns, adding that pulling infected vines without treating for insects could just move them to nearby plants until you plant new vines.

Kamas says that genes from elderberry resistant to PD also show promise as a biocontrol. He says that research into area insects have determined that more than 30 species can vector PD, including cicadas.

Likewise, many plants harbor the disease, including the popular native pecans and a host of ornamentals commonly planted around vineyards like native grapevines, oaks, crepe myrtle and sunflowers. “The bugs are feeding on them all,” notes Adams, but the plants don’t necessarily show symptoms of PD.

Sharpshooters also have plenty of natural predators in the area, and the weather can decimate them. “A 7ºF freeze in February really hammered the sharpshooters,” Kamas says.
With PD under control, researchers and growers are dealing with other issues like the weather and fungal diseases.

Adams has 32 grape varieties under test, but it’s becoming clear that the area, with its hot, mostly dry climate, is not as well suited for popular varieties like Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot as for Spanish, Italian and Southern French grapes like Syrah, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Vermentino.

Late frosts pose a real threat: Most growers double prune and prune as late as they can to delay budding. White varieties seem more susceptible to frost, too. “There are few white varieties left,” says Adams, adding that Chardonnay is also particularly susceptible to Pierce’s disease. She says that more than 600 acres of grapes are planted in the area.

Models for success

Meanwhile, Texas wineries are developing their own models for success. In spite of progress growing vinifera in the Hill Country an hour west of Austin and San Antonio, most of Texas’ vineyard acreage is in the west, with special success in the High Plains of the Panhandle.

The altitude of this area is above 3,000-feet , much like Mendoza in Argentina. Texas is developing a model similar to Washington, where most grapes grow in the arid interior, and many wineries close to the population centers around Seattle in the wet west have grapes or must trucked in for production and their tasting rooms.

Most wineries in the Hill Country are also event centers, with delis, restaurants, concerts, B&Bs and the inevitable and highly profitable weddings. Many are as attractive and modern as anything you’ll see in Napa Valley.

Fredericksburg, a historic German-founded tourist magnet, is planning an ambitious—but realistic—wine and culinary center to both attract tourists and support the needs of local businesses for staff.

The area bills itself as “America’s second most popular wine destination,” and if it’s a long way from Napa Valley, it’s clearly working for the local wine community—and for the hordes of tourists who crowd the tasting rooms.

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