Consumer demand drives Texas wine industry

The domestic demand for wine is so great that Texas could produce twice as many wine grapes as it does and sell far more wine, said a Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association official.

“Filling this consumer demand provides a significant economic opportunity for those in the Texas wine industry,” said Dacota Julson, executive director for the association.

Texas has more than 3,700 acres of family-owned vineyards with about 3,200 acres currently producing, she said. It also has nearly 140 commercial wineries.

Unfortunately, many people who want to start a vineyard or winery are focusing on the wrong reasons or are unaware of the challenges they may face, according to Texas Cooperative Extension experts.

“I get several calls each week from people wanting to become involved in commercial wine-making,” said Penny Adams, Extension viticulture advisor in Fredericksburg. “Many of them think it will be ‘romantic’ or fun. Others are interested because they were good in chemistry or had done some wine-making at home.”

But the business of wine-grape production and wine-making is much more complicated than most people realize, said Adams.

“It’s important that people know as much as they can about what they’re into before, during and after making such a serious financial or personal commitment,” she said.

For example, the Hill Country, one of the largest wine-producing areas in the state, has its own set of challenges.

“In this region, there’s a possibility of wine-grape crop damage due to late-season freezes and hail,” Adams said. “We also have a lot of underlying rock formations that inhibit rooting, which can mean inadequate drainage for successful grape production.”

Texas has eight distinct viticultural areas and currently ranks fifth among wine-producing states, said Dr. Ed Hellman, Extension viticulture specialist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lubbock.

Hellman is program coordinator for the Texas Viticulture and Enology Extension Team, which is comprised of four regional viticulture advisors, two enology specialists and a fruit specialist. He also maintains the Texas Winegrape Network Web site,, which provides information on wine-grape growing, weather, and viticulture and enology research, along with wine industry news.

“To help current and future participants in Texas viticulture better understand its challenges, Extension has placed viticulture advisors and enology specialists in different wine-growing areas,” Hellman said. “While there are similar challenges across the state, each region has its own unique challenges, and people interested in viticulture need to be aware of them.”

Starting a vineyard or winery requires a significant investment in time and money, he said, so those interested need to do their homework before taking the plunge.

“We work like blue blazes,” said Cord Switzer, chief executive officer of Fredericksburg Winery. “We’re open seven days a week, except for Christmas and a few other major holidays. And during harvesting and processing we sometimes work 24 hours straight.”

Switzer, whose winery produces about 7,000 cases per year, added that one of the industry’s main challenges is that it is one of the most regulated in the country.

“We have to get a variety of permits just to produce and sell our wine,” he said. “Plus, we’re accountable to the state and county health department, the FDA and even the Department of Homeland Security.”

“In my area, the geography ranges from river lands to desert to the arid High Plains and Panhandle,” said Teresa Burns, viticulture advisor for West Texas.

Most of the about 75 vineyards in Burns’ region range from 30 to 100 acres, making them some of the largest wine-grape producing operations in the state, she said.

“The primary concerns I’m addressing in my region are damage to vines from phenoxy herbicide drift, irrigation scheduling, and encouraging producers to use nematode-resistant rootstock when they plant new vines,” she said.

“For some wine-grape growers in my region, the grape berry moth is a problem,” said Fritz Westover, Extension’s viticulture advisor for the Gulf Coast area. “There are also problems with fungal pathogens that vineyards in drier areas of the state may not experience. The hot, humid climate of Southeast Texas makes wine grape production challenging due to increased disease pressure.”

Jerry Watson, owner of Austin County Vineyards, has about 4 acres of vineyard in Cat Spring, about 70 miles west of Houston. He has provided grapes for the Texas wine industry for 20 years.

“A lot of people associate owning a vineyard with some kind of Napa Valley lifestyle, but it’s not for the faint of heart, especially while you’re getting through the start-up period.” he said. “Anyone getting into this business needs to realize it’s the ultimate hands-on farming operation. There’s a lot of work to do in the field, plus you have to be aware of weather, plant disease and many other factors beyond your control.”

The eclectic mix of growing environments in the North Texas region pose greater challenges than other areas of the state, added Fran Pontasch, Extension viticulture advisor for that area.

“Every limiting factor (to wine-grape production) can be found in the region,” she said. “Low pH, high pH, heat. It pretty much depends on where you are. That’s why site selection is so important.”

Pontasch counsels newcomers to viticulture to have their soil and water tested before planting, she said.

But by far, the greatest single threat to viticulture anywhere is Pierce’s disease, a bacterial pathogen transmitted by insect vectors, the experts said. Its symptoms include leaf scorch, leaf drop, cluster collapse, and blackened, shriveled fruit.

“Pierce’s disease has attacked vineyards in almost every region of Texas, and vineyard survival depends greatly on reducing the risk of contracting this disease,” according to Jim Kamas, Extension fruit specialist and a member of the viticulture and enology team.

Kamas, who is involved Pierce’s disease research and various viticultural education outreach, oversees research efforts at the 1-acre test vineyard at the new Texas Pierce’s Disease Research and Extension Program facility in Fredericksburg. There, researchers from several scientific disciplines are working together to learn more about the disease so effective best-management practices can be established and shared throughout the industry.

“The facility provides us an infrastructure for developing a better understanding of the disease and what factors influence its spread and control,” Kamas said. “And while our efforts are primarily on behalf of the Texas wine industry, what we learn here should have a positive impact on the U.S. wine industry as a whole.”

Along with Pierce’s disease, vineyards are susceptible to several fungal diseases, as well as strong winds, hail, freezing temperatures and humidity, he added.

“You can’t just grow wine grapes anywhere and expect them to succeed,” Kamas said.

Another problem is finding enough labor at harvest time, he said.

To help spread the word on the pros and cons of grape growing, the viticulture and enology team holds field days and workshops in different wine-grape growing areas of the state, Hellman said. For the past three years, it also presented the Texas Viticulture Short Course - an intensive three-day course on wine-grape production principles and practices taught by viticulture experts and specialists from Texas A&M, Texas Tech University and the University of Houston-Downtown.

The short course has been replaced with the new Certificate Program in Viticulture, which will offer 14 continuing education units and 144 hours of non-degree credit through traditional and online instruction, Hellman said.

Though this combination of efforts, these experts hope to provide the Texas wine industry with useful, research-based information for making well-informed financial and operational management decisions, Hellman said.

“We’re not trying to take the fun and romance out of viticulture,” he said. “But having a vineyard or winery isn’t for everyone and people should know what they’re up against. But for those who are suited to it, we can provide practical and useful information to help them succeed.”

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