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Report From 19th Annual Gulf Coast Grape Growers Field Day: Gulf Grape Growers Face a Big Challenges

Glassy-winged sharpshooter. In the Gulf Coast wine region, this dude is called 'Boss.'

Last Friday I attended the 19th Annual Gulf Coast Grape Growers Field Day in Cat Spring, Texas which is located about an hour west of Houston. Most of the 165 plus attendees were growers, winemakers, or suppliers to the wine industry. The first thing I learned is that the Texas wine industry has a lot going on in this region. The general trajectory of viniculture and viticulture in the Gulf region is up. There are now over 50 wineries and vineyard acreage has increased by 100% since 2007 (although it is still small compared with other parts of Texas). The grower’s conference has had higher attendance each year. This year they actually exceeded their attendance expectations by so many they ran out of conference binders!

JUMP for the bug news.

There is no doubt who the bad boss is in the Texas Gulf Coast wine industry. It is the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The leafhopper insect is the principal spreader of Pierce’s disease, a fatal disease to vinifera vines (the vines used worldwide for almost all quality wines). While most of Texas is afflicted with the disease to some extent, the southeast region (roughly the area from Lufkin down to the Gulf and from Beaumont to almost San Antonio) is widely affected. If there was a way to make vinifera vines completely resistant to Pierce’s disease, the vine acreage in southeast Texas would be much larger, the growers much better off economically, and the range of suitable grapes to grow far more diverse. Little wonder that at the 19th Annual Grape Growers Field Day, organized by the AgriLIFE Extension of the Texas A&M System in Cat Spring last week, information on the research into Pierce’s disease was front and center.

In California and Texas, work continues in making vinifera grapes resistant to the disease. Work also goes on to educate growers on how to create the least hospitable environment to the glassy-winged sharpshooter. In the interim, growers must plant vines that are resistant to Pierce’s disease. For Gulf Coast grape growers that means mainly planting Black Spanish (aka Lenoir) and Blanc du Bois. The latter is showing clear progress in making interesting white wines. Haak Vineyards and Winery is one of the longest established and successful winemakers in the region. They are using the grape to produce three types of table wine: Dry, Semi-Sweet, and Sweet. The dry variant, in particular, can stand in whenever you might otherwise choose a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio that pairs well with fish, shellfish, chicken, or spicy Asian food. Haak’s most interesting wine however is a sweet dessert wine made from Blanc du Bois. The 2007 Blanc du Bois Madeira is a complex and aromatic dessert wine best sipped after the meal. This wine is the highest expression of the grape that I have tasted and stands in its own right as a quality dessert wine.

I spoke to Raymond Haak, owner and winemaker at Haak Vineyards, about the grape and he says that he sees it having even more potential. In fact, even if vinifera grapes could be grown in the region he would still make Blanc du Bois wine. Given his openness to innovation in ‘inventing’ Texas Madeira I tried to persuade him to make a table wine in the style of a massively oaky California Chardonnay (I came across this process a few years ago at a wine fair.  Famous California winemaker Richard Arrowood blended oaky Chardonnay with Viognier. It was spectacular. The 30-odd California Viognier wines at the show were dull and alike – except for his). Haak did not make any promises, but he didn’t rule it out.

At the end of Friday’s meetings, some of the 50 wineries donated their wines for a giant collective tasting and shared stories. One novel development I learned about is a “shared crush” facility in Houston named Vintners Own. This is similar to such facilities in the northern California wine country where embryonic winemakers share costs and experiences. One tenant, Caldwell Family Winery & Vineyards, through winemaker Chris Caldwell, told me that it would have taken them a lot longer to realize their dreams of a working winery without such a facility. For a list of all wineries in the region that are members of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association go here. The conference was funded in part by the AgriLIFE Extension of the Texas A&M System and around 20 private sponsors.

SideDish paid all of its own costs for this event.

2 comments on “Report From 19th Annual Gulf Coast Grape Growers Field Day: Gulf Grape Growers Face a Big Challenges

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  2. Andrew: This is a nice article about the exciting Gulf coast wine industry and how it has grown so rapidly. Blanc du Bois is a special Texas wine varietal and especially the Gulf Coast. By the way, Andrew, try our 2010 Reserve Blanc du Bois. It is barrel fermented and aged sur lie on new American Oak for approximately 2 1/2 to 3 months. Most folks that taste it for the first time usually have to pull up their socks!
    Raymond Haak