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Special Report: Grape Growing on The Texas High Plains

By Andrew Chalk |
Ground Control to Major Tom: We've spied grapes growing on the moon.

This photo may appear to be a lunar landing in a vineyard of another galaxy, but in reality this shot was taken at Newsom Vineyards in Yoakum Co., Texas. That’s in the high plains as in 3,600 feet above sea level. It may not look like the luscious Napa Valley, but this region of Texas produces most of the bed red wines in Texas. I’m sure some Hill Country grape growers will take issue with that statement, but many of them use Texas High Plains AVA (American Viticultural Area) fruit in their wine. Recently, I was a guest on a press tour led by the Texas Department of Agriculture’s GO TEXAN program. We got a behind-the-scene look at of some of the best vineyards in the High Plains.

Jump for the whole story.

Let’s look at the reasons why grapes do well in this region and some of the major risks involved.

On the way to Brownfield the wind whips up the dust

The climate of the Texas High Plains has several characteristics that make it a propitious region to grow grapes. It is characterized by many hot summer days that assist the essential process of ripening. On the other hand, the altitude (3,600+ ft.) implies cold nights. So cold, in fact, that you have to wear a jacket to be comfortable outside. This allows the juice of each grape to cool down, a process  which slows down the pace of ripening. The net effect is that the grapes have long enough to get physiologically mature over the growing season, which produces better juice for wine making. The region is also incredibly windy. When I was there the wind blew at 40 mph for hours all day. This wind reduces grape-growing problems due to humidity such as mildew. If the grapes get wet in this wind, they dry off fast. However, the area is prone to late frosts, a danger to a budding vines. The Texas Agrilife Extension is conducting research on how to delay bud break as the effect on the state’s wine industry (and ultimately the prices that consumers pay) would be considerable. Another other climatic risk is hail which, due to higher winds, sweeps through these vineyards almost sideways.  The Agrilife Extension is developing physical barriers to mitigate the effects of this. The tough part is protecting the vines and not interfering with the rest of the farming process (e.g. harvesting).

The soil is sandy clay over a bed of caliche. This means good drainage down to the rock layer. One of the global constants of grape growing is that vines like well-drained soils. This is also an area with relatively few insect problems.

The vistas here are flat and emptiness  or emptiness and cotton. As you drive southwest from Lubbock, the die-straight roads take you past field after field of this staple crop of the region. The journey is punctuated with fields of nodding donkeys which pump a few hundred dollars of oil a day. A sulphurous odor fills the air. Giant irrigation systems disperse water from the Edwards-Trinity aquifer on the crops below. Water, not an issue here in the past, is becoming one.

Without warning on County Road 160, a patch of green vines appears on the horizon. Their height makes them stand out from the other crops around, an effect that will be become even more pronounced as the growing season ensues. This is Newsom Vineyards, one of the best known,  award-winning, vineyards in Texas.  The family farm originally grew cotton, melons, and milo at the time Neal Newsom went to college at Texas Tech. When he returned home to work the farm he decided to diversify the crop basis. At Tech he’d met a chemistry professor, Dr. Roy Mitchell, who suggested he grow grapes. So in 1986 Newsom started with three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon from a nursery in California. The rest is history. Now there are 97 acres best known for Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Sangiovese, and Syrah to round out the reds. White varietals include Albariño, Pinot Grigio, and Orange Muscat. Wineries that use Newsom grapes include Bar Z Winery, Barking Rocks Winery, Becker Vineyards, Bending Branch Winery, Fredericksburg Winery, Inwood Estates Winery, Lightcatcher Winery, Llano Estacado Winery, San Martino Winery, Sunset Winery, and Texas Hills Vineyard.

Harvesting at Newsom Vineyards, as at most High Plains vineyards, is done mechanically by specialized machines. They harvest at night in order to get cool grapes. These are packed into refrigerated trucks and trucked to the destination winery for pressing. The machines leave a fair number of grapes still on the vines and in the past Newsom has invited budding winemakers to come and scavenge everything they can get. Benjamin Calais of Calais Winery and Tiberia of Barking Rocks Winery have been serious enough to do this (the latter sleeping in the vineyards in a sleeping bag, it is rumored). Although winemakers typically truck the grapes to their wineries for crushing, one exception is Inwood Estates. Dan Gatlin crushes at Newsom, minutes after picking. He says “I am adamant that this is very important to control quality.  Specifically, we de-stem there, and transport must while on cold soak. Most people don’t want to do this because of the difficulty in transferring stiff must from tank to tank, which requires LOTS of shoveling by people with very strong backs.”

Dr. Vijay Reddy of Reddy Vineyards farms over 20 varieties of grapes

Nearby, just outside Brownfield, is another A-team grape supplier to the Texas wine industry, Reddy Vineyards. Take one look at Dr. Vijay Reddy and it is immediately obvious that he has a Ph.D. in soil science. What might be less recognizable is that he is an Indian American who happens to have a love for grape growing and wine. He first decided to grow grapes after meeting and becoming friends with Neal Newsom. His first vineyard, planted in 1997, was five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Now he has 105 acres and might be considered the ‘Mr. Grape Experimentation’ of the High Plains. His varieties consist of Syrah, Monastrell, Garnache, Viognier, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Muscat Canelli, Orange Muscat, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Petit Verdot, Barbera, Roussanne, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Tannat, and Cinsault. I am going to add Shiraz to the list because, although it is botanically the same as Syrah, 3 or 4 different clones were planted on two different roots by Bobby Cox, a founding father of the modern Texas wine industry. With over 200 wineries now in the state and the number growing each year Dr. Reddy has found (bad pun ahead) a ready market for these commercially risky varieties. On SideDish, I have talked about Duchman Montepulciano and Aglianico, but other wineries that use his fruit are Bar Z Winery, Becker Vineyards, Brennan Vineyards, Brushy Creek Vineyards, Grape Creek Vineyards, Haak Winery, Llano Estacado, Pedernales Cellars, Pleasant Hill Winery, and Texas Hills Vineyards.

At Bingham Family Vineyards every one of the 11 children is required to learn an instrment as part of their education. At lunch they seranaded us with Pachelbel's Canon when we arrived.

Bingham Family Vineyards in Meadow, TX, was the last of these three growers in this area to plant grapes but has planted the largest vineyard. They started with 5 acres of Viognier and Gewürztraminer in 2004 and have planted larger amounts every year through 2010, at which point they had over 132 acres. Varieties include the white varietals such as Albariño, Moscato Giallo, Orange Muscat, Roussanne, Semillon, Trebbiano, and Vermentino. Reds include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dolcetto, Merlot, Monastrell, and Tempranillo. Wineries that use Bingham grapes include Becker Vineyards, Brennan Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, Fredericksburg Winery, Homestead Winery, Landon Winery, Lone Oak Winery, McPherson Cellars, Pedernales Cellars, Perissos Vineyard and Winery, Valley Mills Winery, William Chris Vineyards, and Woodrose Winery.

I urge you to check out this blog post on McKinney-based Landon Winery’s 2008 Tempranillo, Bingham Family Vineyards. There is a video that shows the process of wine making from the harvesting of the grapes in The High Plains late at night, to their transportation to the winery in “East Texas” (McKinney?) for arrival before dawn, then the crush, fermentation and pressing (to remove the skins and pips).

These are just three of the most important grape growers in the High Plains of Texas, but the trend is clear: each growing season, more acreage is devoted to grapes  and the level of expertise and local knowledge increases. I think we can realistically expect to see High Plains grapes become an export item to other states’ wines on a serious scale within a decade. In the interim, wine makers across the state get improved fruit, the key to making better wine.

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