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.

20 comments on “The Problem With Texas Wine Makers

  1. If Texas is not on the front label, I get concerned. If this is a Texas wine, why not put it on the front label.

    When I was at Bending Branch, I found the labels, while wordy, easily to navigated. The wines that are not Texas grown all show correct appellations. I thought that they were actually trying to be fair and honest.

    What gives me the most grief is wineries that hide under an appellationless label and then use the words “For Sale in Texas Only” which most times means that there are little to no Texas fruit in the bottle so as to not make it Texas Appellation.

    That said,we are really at the point of crises here in Texas regarding state funding for TDA quality, research and marketing programs. See more at:

    http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=4214

    This is going to require some major news coverage before it gets resolved.

    Thanks for covering Texas wines and key issues that occur here.

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  3. It’s not like these wineries wouldn’t love to use Texas grapes for all their wines. The fact of the matter is that there just simply aren’t enough Texas grapes to make that possible. So could it be that the real solution to the problem you are suggesting is that Texas needs more planted acres of grapes? The wineries don’t really have any option unless they are an estate operation.

    I am not suggesting that it is good practice to try to deceive the consumer (which I am not sure many of them are actually doing), but how is this technically all that different than so many of the low priced California wineries that blend bulk wines from all over the state and call them California wines? It is obvious that the consumers want to buy Texas wine otherwise wineries would not be able to even sell the wines that are made with California fruit. If they are trying to trick the customer then that is a big problem, but if they are clear about their practices, then what does it matter if the grapes came from California or Texas?

  4. When you go to a wine shop and ask for Texas wines most of the wine stewards are not educated enough to tell you what REAL Texas wine is and what is not. I have had to educate a few on how to tell. See they think Texas is like the rest of the wine producing world where the wines that are made come from the region.
    I honestly think the state needs to make it fair to all the wineries in the state and make them abide by the mandates required for dry counties (75% local juice on hand at all times with variations for bad years)
    Regarding the issue about not enough grapes…. Then why are they in business?
    If you have a business and can not get raw materials they why? If your business model is to buy grapes from California in the first place then you should be making wine somewhere else.

    Even in lesser states like Missouri 95% of all their wines produced are from Grapes grown in the state.
    I am pretty hard nosed about this as I have found many more just like me.

    The real problem I see is where the uneducated who do not know how to read the labels or ask the right questions feel that its understood that the wine is from Texas when its not.
    And many wineries capitalize off the lax wine laws in the state.
    The more educated Texas wine drinkers become the more this is going to be a problem.

  5. @cp – The state does have a law, where you must put “For Sale in Texas Only” on the back label if it is juice from outside Texas. Most of the non-Texas juice is from California. This practice also occurs in California/Oregon/Washington where many wineries there use fruit from outside their state.

    @James – I understand and agree with your points, but I think we need to understand what those types of laws (95%, etc.) are really saying to the industry. If we are going to say that wine produced in Texas must have Texas fruit, then we are essentially saying they are unlike many other businesses. Let’s take for example a Texas brand of salsa, that is a GoTexan member and the whole caboodle. There are local brands that say Texas on the label and so forth just like wineries do. These salsa brands could purchase some of the ingredients from New Mexico(chiles) or Mexico(tomatoes) and nobody really sees a problem with that.

    So, in effect we are holding wine to a different standard than we are many other products if we say they can’t use the words “Texas” and doesn’t contain Texas fruit. If that is the standard that the general public would like to hold them to, then I don’t have a problem with it. But, we can’t rip the wineries for playing by the current rules and regs because we think the rules are bad. That means it is a rules problem and not a winery deception problem.

    I BTW am all for tighter regulation and clearer labeling of Texas wine with non-Texas fruit. But, I think that if a winery in Texas wants to use California fruit, then they should be able to. It just needs to be clear so the consumer can decide what wine they prefer.

  6. Daniel- wine is different than salsa and SHOULD be held to a different standard. The terroir of Texas is as distinct and unique as every other terroir in the world. It’s not a branding something with the “go Texan” logo.

    And, I don’t care if there “aren’t enough Texas grapes” to make authentic Texas wine. Nobody if forcing people to open wine shops in Texas, it’s a choice. These carpetbagger wineries are here for one reason and only one reason- money. It’s far cheaper to buy land in Texas than anywhere in California. I get completely disgusted when I visit a new winery in a a brand new expensive tasting room/ranch/house/guesthouse combo on 100 acres with axis deer and Buffalo (farm tax credits) and two rows of grapes. I’ve been a Texas wine enthusiast for close to 20 years, and I remember when there were only a score or so of wineries in this State and I have sadly watched some of the truly good ones close. The ones who have endured and been successful over the years, they are the people on whose backs these carpetbaggers are standing, for they have made all the sacrifices.

  7. Daniel: No one is contending that wine made in Texas must come from Texas fruit. They are just saying that the origins of the fruit should be truthfully labelled.

    The “For Sale In Texas Only..” category indicates my point. Wine is labelled “For Sale In Texas Only..” to evade Federal labelling law. This allows Texas law to apply, which does not require the source of the grapes to be disclosed. Invariably, the “For Sale In Texas Only..” designation is used to sell California wine without having to label it as such. Usually the wine is low quality.

    It would be a great step forward for the Texas wine industry and Texas consumers if the “For Sale In Texas Only..” designation was abolished.

  8. Bending Branch, being a new winery, is just getting started in the Texas Wine industry and needs a few years before they are scrutinized for not having wines with 100% Texas grown grapes. To be fair, it does seem that they plan to plant and buy more Texas grapes and it seems from their response that all of their wines will be Texas grown in the future. The nature of the business is that you need wine to sell while you wait for your grapes to mature. They are on the right track with the grapes that they planted, it just takes several years for these grapes to fully produce.

    Texas can grow enough grapes for the Texas Wine industry, the growers need the support and investment from the state and individual wineries to make it happen. At Duchman Family Winery, we started with all new grape contracts, with the goal to produce 20,000+ cases of all Texas Wine annually. While we were not all Texas grown from the very beginning, we have been since the 2008 harvest. In 2008 we made 10,000 cases, 2009 13,000 cases and for 2010 (a great year for quality AND quantity) we will make around 23,000 cases from over 330 tons from 15 varietals of all Texas fruit. It can be done. Wineries need to commit to Texas grape growers. The expansion of The Bingham Family Vineyards, http://www.binghamfamilyvineyards.com is a remarkable testament to how the grape growers of the High Plains are increasing production to meet the needs of the industry. They are a great model to follow.

    I have yet to come across a credible wine-making region that allows the outsourcing of other wines/grapes/juice for the production of local wine. It doesn’t exist. If someone from Burgundy was caught supplementing their wine with juice purchased from Southern Rhone they would be jailed. I strongly feel that if you are a Texas Winery, then you should be making wine from Texas fruit, or in the process of getting to that point. Sure there will be vintages that are worse than others, but it is the wine industry and I’ve never heard anyone claim that it was easy.

  9. CP you are so right… and the word “carpetbagger” fits perfectly for many of the wineries that have no intention of making Texas wines. They have over the years stood on the backs of many of the Texas wine Pioneers.

    Someone mentioned the GoTexan program and I have brought up several issues I have seen with the TDA regarding violations. One winery in particular used the GoTexan labeling on their wines however none of their wines were currently being sold were from Texas. They were sold out of Texas wines and because of the bad year had no Texas fruit. (thats what they said) I mentioned to Bobby Champion that no matter what the issue was if they were not selling Texas products they had no right using the labeling.
    The Gotexan site even advertised an event for them.
    I called up Bobby Champion told him about it and guess what NOTHING was done.
    I later met him in person at a local Texas wine event and he basically told me to settle down. I realized that me speaking up was making his job that much harder. And shedding light on allot of issues he did not want to address. (at least thats how I perceived it)
    No one polices the GoTexas products and as Elsey commented, no one in the rest of the wine world is going to take note unless we use grapes from Texas.
    To quote the GoTexan Website in explaining who is eligible: “Companies with products grown and processed in Texas are eligible to apply for the GO TEXAN program as a Product Member. Agricultural-product categories include food, wine, horticulture, fiber, livestock, wildlife, forestry and beef”
    Somehow the Texas Coffee Roasters can use this stamp as well. Yet no coffee is grown in Texas.
    So Daniel If your salsa had NM Chilis in it, it should not be allowed to use the GoTexan trademark.
    No one polices this stuff and because of that people take advantage of it.
    And honestly because of the issues that we speak of here on this post I honestly see why the state wants to cut their funding to the Texas wine industry. Because many using their resources are not from Texas Ag. But the ones who are going to end up being hurt by this are the legit folks.

    Landon winery is one winery that comes to mind when we talk about Carpetbaggers. They are using Kit wines to finish off many of their wines. Only Texas allows such nonsense.
    I know thats going to offend a few folks but I know its the truth. They are a business not a winery.

  10. Considering the quality of so many wines from California, Oregon, France, Italy, Spain, Argentina,and Chile, and the many disappointments offered by so many Texas/Texas style wines, Texas has a very long way to go before they make my wine shopping lists.

  11. @cp – You are exactly right and that is why I am saying the regulations should be amended to increase transparency and clarity. But I think it is unfair to label entities “carpetbaggers” for doing what is perfectly legal. This is why the Texas Wine industry has been so adamant about improving regulations so those that are “barely” within the rules can no longer operate in those bounds.

    @Andrew – I agree with you and technically “FSITO” is designation that they are not Texas grapes. But the consumer doesn’t readily understand that and it needs to be changed. The wineries though can’t be evading labeling laws if the labels they use are approved by the TTB (which they have to do every time they use a new label). This means that they are in compliance or they wouldn’t be approved. Right?

    @Bill – You are absolutely correct that the Binghams’, Newsoms’, Tallents’, etc., are all great models for following. But we still need more of them to overcome the next set of hurdles. Even some of the best wineries, i.e. Becker, Duchman, use some non-Texas fruit or need to at certain times right now. Not for a lack of wanting, but for a lack of Binghams’ and Newsoms’ and Tallents’ and yes, from a financial standpoint as well.

    @James – Actually to be a GoTexan Member, you only have to add value to a product in Texas. Take a look at the actual code:
    “(10) Texas agricultural product–An agricultural, apicultural, horticultural, silvicultural, viticultural, or vegetable product, either in its natural or processed state, that has been produced, processed, or otherwise had value added to the product in this state, including:”
    http://info.sos.state.tx.us/pls/pub/readtac$ext.TacPage?sl=R&app=9&p_dir=&p_rloc=&p_tloc=&p_ploc=&pg=1&p_tac=&ti=4&pt=1&ch=17&rl=301

    That means salsa or wine or whatever, can take raw products from outside Texas and add value in Texas (by whatever means), and viola, you can be a GoTexan Member.

    Since 2000, there have been several VERY BAD years for Texas fruit because of hail and late frosts. So that Bobby Champion answer has legit merit.

    The funding is a separate issue. The Texas Wine Industry pushed through a bill that added an excise tax to wine (taxing themselves) so they could have money for research. Thus, this funding should not be touched when looking to cut costs for state budget issues. They created it, pushed it through, and honor it for their own benefit. Case closed.

    A winery has to be a business otherwise they won’t be long for this world.

    Everyone’s comments are exactly the point I am trying to make. Yes, these “carpetbagging” wineries are directly affecting the perception of the Texas Wine industry. But it isn’t because they are “scum”, it is because the Texas laws allow them to directly hurt the reputation. Therefore, we have to change the laws because we can’t change their business model. AND not buy the wines that we consider “fakes” and tell our friends to do the same and their friends.

    BUT, if we call so many Texas Wineries “carpetbaggers”, by extension we are hurting the image of the good ones as well because that is what all the marginal consumers perceive us as saying. It doesn’t do any good just to say the suck, we need to amend the laws and say we want Texas wine to have only Texas grapes.

  12. Bobby never addressed this with me, he just blew me off… which is I should say is what his job is….after all who writes his paycheck.
    Your going even deeper down the rabbit hole and shedding light on an even larger issue.
    Go Texan means NOTHING!
    I cold buy something from wal-mart and add “value” to it and sell it. As long as I pay the fee I can be a Go Texan Member. How ridiculous!
    Yeah Things need to change.
    Im kinda pissed that Bobby when I talked to him did not tell me this.
    I am just a consumer trying to understand the crazy laws and someone could have pointed me into the right direction.

  13. @James- Yep… this is not a simple topic, whether we are talking about GoTexan or “fake” Texas wine. It may seem like Bobby blew you off, but if more people would take your example and let it be known that the “gray” area is much larger than advertised then I am sure he would hear loud and clear. People need to complain to the people in charge and those who we cast votes for. Good for you letting him know!

  14. In the current issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, there is an article about undiscovered wine regions and it lists Texas Hill Country. It goes on to say that the Hill Country is the second-most visited wine in the US, behind Napa. So, of all the other wine regions in California, Oregon and Washington, the Texas Hill Country is beating them in terms of visits from (presumably) tourists. No, they re NOT asking the right questions and people who come into Texas and set up shop as a Texas winery and proceed to buy grapes from California (or anywhere else for that mater, I really don’t care) are in fact being just a little bit more than disingenuous.

    Yes, we need stronger labeling laws but the problem with that is the only ally Texas vinters have is the Dept. of Ag. If we want lobbyists for the cause, it’s usually the winemakers themselves doing all the research and lobbying and they just don’t have the time to do it, and the carpetbagger wineries don’t have an interest in making it harder for them to make wine.

  15. Just keep in mind that wine labels are under jurisdiction of fed regs and not the state. Even FSITO on the label is allowed by the feds and it’s not the state.

    The issues with G0TEXAN usage is a different matter. It is an opt in marketing program and not looked at in the same light as labeling laws. I agree that it would be nice to administer GOTEXAN in a consistent manner. But its hard when they are also tasked with promoting the TXwine industry. They are likely hoping that the problem goes away as more acres are planted and production increases.

    Oh, for the days when TX will have 10000 acres under vines.

    Russ

  16. Just keep in mind that wine labels are under jurisdiction of fed regs and not the state. Even FSITO on the label is allowed by the feds and it’s not the state.

    The issues with G0TEXAN usage is a different matter. It is an opt in marketing program and not looked at in the same light as labeling laws. I agree that it would be nice to administer GOTEXAN in a consistent manner. But its hard when they are also tasked with promoting the TXwine industry. They are likely hoping that the problem goes away as more acres are planted and production increases.

    Oh, for the days when TX will have 10000 acres under vines.

    Russ