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GRAPE CULTURE

GRAPE CULTURE. The history of viticulture in Texas spans three centuries and precedes the introduction of wine grapes to California by almost a century. Franciscans, who in 1682 established a mission at Ysleta on the Rio Grande near El Paso, brought with them grapevines from Mexican missions. Subsequent travelers often called attention to the productive vineyards of the El Paso valley, which continued as a leading grape-growing and wine-producing area until the early twentieth century. Viticulture was almost totally foreign to the agricultural experience of most Anglo-American settlers in Texas during the 1800s. However, the influx of European immigrants from wine-producing countries brought a new interest in grape culture and wine-making. These immigrants planted quality vinifera vines from Europe, which in most cases soon failed. German immigrants to south central Texas and the Hill Country were generally acknowledged to be the most successful grape growers and wine makers. After the demise of their vines and after learning the technique of adding large amounts of sugar during fermentation, they turned to making wine from the abundant wild mustang grapes. In 1883 an Italian immigrant established the Val Verde Winery in Del Rio. Toward the end of the twentieth century it was still in operation on the same site, managed by the same family.

Interest in grape culture and wine making expanded in Texas during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1895 agricultural statistics showed about 1,800 acres in vineyards that produced more than 1.5 million pounds of grapes and nearly 1,900 barrels of wine. Thomas V. Munson of Denison, generally regarded as the "father" of Texas viticulture, was one of the nation's foremost grape breeders and viticultural authorities around the turn of the century. In the 1870s Munson and a Missouri colleague were credited with saving the wine industry of Europe by shipping carloads of phylloxera-resistant native rootstocks to France and other vineyard regions threatened by lice. More important to Texas viticulture, as a plant breeder from the late 1800s to about 1910 Munson developed more than 300 varieties of grapes better suited to the environment of Texas and the Midwest. Most were table grapes or were intended for grape-juice production, though some were said to have merit for wine making.

About 1900 state agricultural bulletins reported on experimental grape plantings all over the state. They recommended spacing, trellising, pruning, and other practices not very different from those recommended today. These bulletins prophetically proclaimed the viticultural advantages and potential of the High Plains and Trans-Pecos, especially for vinifera wine grapes. In the early 1900s a number of small wineries flourished around the state, particularly near Montague, Fredericksburg, Brenham, and El Paso. However, as the prohibition movement grew, attention turned more to table grapes and varieties suitable for making sterilized grape juice. The last wineries closed in 1919, when the state legislature voted Texas legally dry. The owners of the Val Verde Winery survived the dry years by selling table grapes and shipping grapes for home wine making. The winery reopened after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933, and for many years was the only winery operating in Texas. From the 1920s through the 1960s grape production remained small, with a number of small vineyards ranging in size from one-half to ten acres scattered around the state. From 1922 through 1946 production averaged about 1,800 tons annually, with a few carloads shipped to market each year by growers, but most grapes were used for home consumption or sold locally.

Agricultural statistics show the far-flung counties important to Texas viticulture from the mid-1800s to the 1960s in four regional groupings. The Red River valley region encompasses counties along or near the Red River from the Panhandle to the Arkansas border, including Wheeler, Wichita, Montague, Cooke, Grayson, Wise, Denton, Lamar, Red River, and Bowie counties, where grape culture may have been given the impetus for development as a result of Thomas Munson's promotional activities. The South Central Texas region consisted of counties in the strongly German region between Houston and San Antonio, including Harris, Guadalupe, Caldwell, Bastrop, Fayette, Colorado, and Gonzales counties. The Gulf Coast area included the Coastal Bend counties, San Patricio and Aransas, located near Corpus Christi. Finally, the Rio Grande and Pecos River valleys included Webb, Val Verde, and El Paso counties, located along the Rio Grande, the oldest grape and wine producing region of the state, and Reeves and Ward counties in the Pecos River valley.

Texas became caught up in the worldwide grape boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974 the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station system completed a statewide feasibility study of wine-grape production, noting especially the natural advantages of arid and semiarid West Texas. Texas vineyard acreage expanded rapidly from less than ninety acres in 1970 to 974 acres in 1978, and to more than 3,000 acres in 1982. By 1977 experimental plantings of several hundred wine-grape varieties showed that a number of vinifera cultivars could be recommended for the South Plains and Trans-Pecos Texas. Farmers in West Texas had long been interested in finding alternative crops that require less water than cotton, sorghum, and other traditional crops, and many planted small acreages with grapes as a water-conserving, high-value, supplemental crop. West Texas, with its fertile, well-drained soils, relatively level topography, relative scarcity of most common grape diseases and insect pests, and abundant available and relatively inexpensive land, has impressive advantages for wine-grape production. However, sub-zero winter temperatures, frequent hail and wind storms, and blowing sand are all climatic hazards that may be expected to cause a poor harvest every four to seven years. Rapid expansion is hindered by the high cost-about $4,000 an acre-of establishing a vineyard and bringing it into production, the lack of trained labor, the need for expensive specialized machinery, and the lack of vineyard and winery supply companies.

In 1976 the Llano Estacado Winery was established near Lubbock. In 1985 there were fifteen wineries in Texas, and several new ones were being bonded each year. Three were located west of Fort Worth in north central Texas, one in south central Texas near Bryan, seven in the Hill Country and along the margins of the Edwards Plateau in Central and Southwest Texas, two on the South Plains near Lubbock, and two in Trans-Pecos Texas. Most of these small wineries produce only a few thousand gallons a year. Most new vineyards are planted with vinifera cultivars, and the trend is away from American and French-American hybrids. Winery establishment and operation has been difficult under Texas law, which now allows wine to be produced, but not retailed, in dry precincts.

In 1981 a vineyard with the brand name Ste. Genevieve Vineyards was established on University of Texas land near Bakersfield in Pecos County. Plantings there totaled 1,000 acres of fine vinifera grapes in 1986. The university entered into a lease agreement with a Texas-French consortium that built a large winery at the site. Now the largest wine producer in the state, it accounted for 67 percent of the 1.5 million gallons of wine produced in Texas in 1992 and won eighteen wine awards that year. In 1991 Texas had only seventeen acres producing table grapes, mostly Venus or Thompson seedless varieties. Acres producing wine grapes that same year reached 2,560, with the High Plains accounting for 43 percent and the Trans-Pecos for 41.2 percent; the number of bonded wineries had increased to twenty-six. Wine production in Texas grew rapidly in the 1980s. In 1982 the state produced 50,000 gallons of wine. By 1993 it produced well over a million gallons a year and was the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the country.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Leon D. Adams, The Wines of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973; 2d ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978). Dallas Morning News, August 4, 1983. Sarah Jane English, "Val Verde Winery Celebrates a Century," Texas Highways, January 1984. Frank R. Giordano, Jr., "Texans' Venture in the Vineyards," Texas Highways, January 1984. Frank R. Giordano, Jr., "UT Project: The French Connection," Texas Homes, November 1983. Frank R. Giordano, Jr., "Val Verde Winery: Grandfather of the Texas Wine-making Fraternity," Texas Homes, June 1982. Terry G. Jordan, German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966). Sandy Sheehy, "The Wines of Texas," Ultra, March 1984.

Otis W. Templer

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Otis W. Templer, "GRAPE CULTURE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/afg02), accessed December 18, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.