The Problem With Texas Wine Makers

One thing I care that bother me about the wine industry is the unclear labeling of wine sold by Texas wineries. Some practices, which I will discuss below, undermine the credibility Texas wineries and hurt those who attempt to make wine from 100% Texas grapes. Educated buyers will steer clear of  a “Texas” wine if they suspect the wine was blended with grapes from elsewhere and only bottled and labeled in Texas.

The problem I see with Texas wine makers is that many of them lead you to believe their wine is made from Texas grapes when in fact it is not. Recently, I received a couple of bottles of wine for review that illustrate the problem. Take the 2008 Bending Branch Winery Petite Syrah, Shell Creek Vineyards. “Comfort, Texas” is printed on the front and back labels. The back label categorically states the winery’s Texas roots: “Bending Branch is a small family vineyard and winery operating on land first settled circa 1840.” This must be a Texas wine, right? Wrong. Look at the bottom right of the label–in small, thin type, are the words Paso Robles. Hmm. That’s in California.

Jump for the whole story.

What part of the production was done in Texas? The back label helps us. This wine was “Vinted and Bottled by…” That means, according to the Feds, that it was “subject to cellar treatment” by the winery named on the label. Before you leap to the conclusion that this is substantial practice (e.g. aging), be aware that in some cases (hah!)  it can actually be as insignificant as putting labels on the bottles. This kind of practice has boomed in Texas since the economic downturn in 2007 combined with the resulting grape surpluses in California. Of course, Bending Branch Winery could have nursed whole grape clusters back from California, under a blanket of SO2, to ferment at their winery in Comfort, TX and make into wine from scratch. I turned to their web site for answers but there was no more information there.

In fact I couldn’t tell from their web site where any of their wines came from except their Texas Tannat. It is unclear which wines they made and which they bought. Which ones are Texan and which ones are Californian? And that “Paso Robles” in the corner of the label of the Picpoul Blanc, reproduced on this page, is no longer there!

I contacted Bending Branch and received a long e-mail reply to my questions from Brooke Pozzi, their Business Coordinator. The Petite Syrah and the Picpoul Blanc are apparently made by Bending Branch’s wine maker at a crush in California where he also participates in the harvest. Once fermented, the wines are shipped by barrel back to their winery in Comfort, Texas where they are aged and bottled. That’s a totally creditable effort to make California wine. Why not put it on the label or web site? In fact, why not create a separate label (maybe Bending Branch “California Collection”) and bottle the California wines under that. Reserve the Bending Branch main label for Texas wines. This is not a Utopian suggestion. It is not even original. Inwood Estates Vineyards has been including California wine under their Segundo label, separate from the 100% Texas grape wines implied by the Inwood Estates label, for years. It is clearer for the consumer, but it is also better for the Texas wine industry.

Ms. Pozzi also said that Bending Branch is in the process of creating a new website that “will provide more information and better graphics.” What I want to know is: Will it clearly state the origin of each wine’s grapes?

She also points out that the winery is planting additional Tannat, Picpoul Blanc, and Souzao later this year. After this planting they will have 13.5 acres of estate vines, with a current goal of 20 acres. I am delighted to hear this. However, I would like to know if Bending Branch is willing to commit that their main label will be comprised exclusively of Texas grapes, the same promise that is made by Inwood Estates, Duchman Family Winery and Perissos Vineyards and Winery.

I plan on tasting their Texas Tannat in the near future. Tannat is a glorious French grape variety that, when grown in southern France, produces wines that are tannic, inky monsters of considerable character. I hope Bending Branch’s Texas rendition it is in the same genre.

Ed. Note: Hi it’s me Nancy. I tasted the Texas Tannat. I found it to be deeply delicious. The grapes are from High Plains in Texas. I thought I would add the whole e-mail from Bending Branch.

Bending Branch is focused on sustainably growing estate grapes and has planted thirteen varietals, several now in their third year of growth including Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Tempranillo, Malbec, Mouvedre, Aglianico, Grenache Noir, Bonarda, Vermentino, Roussanne and Picpoul Blanc.        The varieties were selected not solely based on their ability to produce excellent wines, but on their ability to grow well in Texas Hill Country Terroir. Characteristics sought after included late bud break, late harvest, heat tolerance and resistance to disease. Our first harvest of Bending Branch grapes will be this year and we look forward to producing estate grown wines.         The website has an example of each of our two brand labels, Bending Branch (4 wines) and 1840 (3 wines). These images were cut down to fit on the page; the origin is listed on all of our labels. We are in the process of creating a new website that will provide more information and better graphics. Bending Branch currently sources fruit from Texas when available and also from selected California Vineyards. Last year we were able to source a substantial amount of Texas grapes including Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Mouvedre. In all we sourced 24.5 tons of Texas fruit in 2010. The varietals we currently out source are the same ones we are now growing. The Petite Sirah we sent you comes from Shell Creek Vineayrds in Paso Robles, it is unique in that not only are the vines almost forty years old, but also they were not grafted but planted on their own original roots.        In regards to your question about the Petite Sirah and Picpoul Blanc, no they were not produced as shiners. They were bottled at Bending Branch after barrel aging in our cellar. When using California grapes, we do not ship the grapes to Texas, but prefer flying to the vineyards for harvest and transporting the grapes in a refrigerated truck to a small family owned winery where we crush and ferment the fruit. We feel this ensures the grapes are processed when they are freshest. After putting the wine into the barrel it is shipped to our Texas winery, where it is managed and aged in oak barrels until it is ready to bottle. There is no specific reasoning why this is not on the website, but we do like to share this process with our customers in the tasting room.         Tannat is our signature red, our Texas Tannat (Reddy Vineyards) from the Texas Hig Plains is our biggest selling wine. We have planted more Tannat on the estate than any other varietal. We will harvest estate Tannat grapes this year. If you are interested we would be happy to send you a bottle of our Texas Tannat to taste. We are planting additional Tannat and Picpoul Blanc later this year as well as an exciting Portguese varietal named Souzao. After this planting we will have 13.5 acres of estate vines. Our current goal is to plant 20 acres.

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