Texas: Rainstorms, Then Good News

Flooding follows torrential rains on Memorial Day; Texas legislature passes wine and viticulture research funding

by Linda Jones McKee
Guests at Becker Vineyards in Stonewall, Texas, took shelter in the cellar during a tornado warning Monday. The High Plains area of Texas has experienced heavy rains and storms in recent days.
Austin,Texas—In the past few days, the national news has been full of stories about heavy rains and flooding in Texas. While vineyards are usually planted on higher elevations, the rain has impacted both vineyards and wineries. “It’s crazy,” Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture at Texas Tech University and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension told Wines & Vines. “We’ve gone from extreme drought to flooding. Across the state, we’re way above normal rainfall. The High Plains, especially, have seen more rainfall.”

John Rivenburgh, director of winery and vineyard management at Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas, reported that their vineyards in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin received 13 inches of rain in 12 hours on May 23. According to Rivenburgh, roads and bridges are out, ranchers have lost fences, and there’s mud everywhere. May 26, however, was a beautiful, partly cloudy day with temperatures reaching 86° F. “We’re managing what Mother Nature gives us,” he said. “We have good grass cover in the vineyards, so we can get in to spray, and we haven’t had any damage yet. We’re not irrigating so far, and we may not have to.”

The Hill Country has had a mild spring with no spring frosts and moderate temperatures, but more rain is in the forecast. “We could have used a little less water,” Rivenburgh commented, “and the disease pressure is out there. But the grapegrowing year has been really good so far.”

Bret Perrenoud, vineyard manager at Becker Vineyards in Stonewall, Texas, west of Austin, echoed Rivenburgh’s assessment of the potential for the 2015 grape harvest. “I’ll take rain over three years of drought,” he told Wines & Vines. “We should have a banner crop as long as the rain cooperates. The silver lining is that we had no spring frosts. We added two sprays, and so far, everything in the vineyard is clean. With grass on the vineyard floor, we can get into the vineyard to spray two days after it rains.” If the region can dodge hailstorms, windstorms and sandstorms, he thinks the 2015 year should be a good vintage.

While the vine rows at Becker Vineyards are in reasonably good condition, the winery had to close May 23 because of the threat of severe storms in the area. On Memorial Day, Perrenoud again tracked the path of storms, and when tornadoes were spotted at the LBJ Ranch a few miles from the winery, a tornado alert was issued. Winery customers were taken to the cellar to wait out the storm. The area received a little pea-sized hail, but it was spared any damage from tornadoes.

Westcave Cellars in Round Mountain, Texas, west of Austin posted to its Facebook page at 2 p.m. Memorial Day. “We tried to make a run for it back to town between tornado warnings but ended back at the vineyard. All three roads out are flooded. Cypress Creek was at 3 feet over the road. (County Road) 301 to JC (Johnson City) was also hazardous. Power is out here, too! It looks like we are forced to take the afternoon off.”

Hellman is concerned that the rainfall in the vineyards on the High Plains near Lubbock, Texas, is resulting in more fungal diseases than usual, and he has seen quite a bit of phomopsis. Powdery mildew and black rot are also a problem. But he concurs, “If we can dodge the hail bullet and keep diseases under control, the grapes look great. We could have the largest crop we’ve ever had.” The increase in potential crop load comes partly from new vineyards coming into bearing and partly because this is the first spring since 2012 that was frost-free.

A legislative ray of sunshine

On May 26, the Texas House of Representatives approved legislation that would allocate a portion of wine sales and excise tax revenue to wine marketing, education and research programs. Filed on March 2 as Senate Bill 881, the bill passed the Texas State Senate on May 5 and was sent to the House. The House held a public hearing May 18 and voted in favor of the bill May 26 by a count of 333 in favor to 12 against. The bill now goes to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

The legislation modifies Texas’ Alcoholic Beverage Code, which provides for tax revenue allocations and exceptions for certain wine-related revenue. Two sections fund priorities for research and development of Texas wine from revenue collected from sales and excises taxes on wine sold in Texas: One section provides for the lesser of $1 million or the revenue derived from excise taxes on wine produced outside Texas—and from sales taxes collected from out-of-state winery direct shipper’s permit holders; a second section provides for the lesser of $1 million or the revenue derived from excise taxes on wine produced in Texas and the revenue from sales taxes collected from winery permit holders in Texas. The funding would be authorized for 2015 until 2025.

The bill would provide up to $2 million to be allocated in a fiscal year, according to the following:

$830,000 to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service;
$365,000 to Texas Tech University Viticulture and Enology program;
$150,000 to the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University;
$150,000 to the T.V. Munson Viticulture and Enology Center of the Grayson County Junior College District to fund educational programs.

Any remaining unappropriated revenue from sales and excise taxes on wine produced in Texas or $300,000, whichever is less, would go to the Department of Agriculture for deposit into the wine industry development fund. These funds could be used to develop technologies, strategies and practices for frost protection and grapevine pest management—and for the costs associated with administering these programs.

Needless to say, Hellman was enthusiastic about the new legislation. “We’ve been on hold for three years,” he stated. “This legislation will jumpstart the program.”

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