Texas winemakers fight over law regulating origin of wine


Texas wineries have stepped up to make products on par with California, France and other top winemaking regions of the world. Now, with the reputation of the state’s flourishing industry secure, a small but growing group of winemakers believe the next step should be authenticity — a law establishing that wine can only be granted Texas appellation if it’s made from 100 percent Texas-grown grapes.

Others in the industry, including the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, are against House Bill 1514, which would seek to make this designation a reality. They argue that the state’s grape growers haven’t yet established they have the yields, year after year, to fully supply the winemakers, especially when vineyards are so often at the mercy of the weather.

But for Chris Brundrett, arguably the biggest proponent of the bill and the co-owner of William Chris Vineyards in Hye, a small town on the road to Fredericksburg, there’s one irrefutable reason to support what he calls greater transparency with Texas wine: He says it will lend more significance to the notion of Texas wine, especially to many of the state’s own consumers who expect their wine to have been grown here, too, not just made or processed in Texas.

“We want to grow this industry and want our consumers to know that if we put Texas on the label, it means as much as Washington or California,” Brundrett said, citing two states with more stringent labeling guidelines.

Like many other states besides California, the Texas wine industry currently follows federal labeling regulations. Wines can have an appellation of origin (a geographical indication given to certain products derived from a specific place) if they’re made with a minimum of 75 percent grapes grown in that state. The other 25 percent can come from anywhere.

HB 1514 would seek to change that: to guarantee that wines with a Texas label be made using entirely Texas-grown grapes.

The House bill is currently pending in committee and the companion Senate Bill 1833, filed by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, was never granted a hearing — one of the earliest steps in the legislative process. Both have almost no chance of passing. But the passionate feelings on either side — with winemakers on both ends of the debate — nonetheless provide insight into the state of the Texas wine industry and whether it’ll be ready in two years — the next legislative session — for a decisive labeling law.

At the moment, Texas (the fifth largest producer of wine in the U.S.) joins 46 other states in the federal 75 percent requirement, while California and Oregon, two regions that make a lot more wine than Texas, are the only two with laws stating that grapes must be grown in the same state where they are made into wine to receive appellation. Washington has a 95 percent rule.

By having a similar 100 percent rule, Texas would start to be viewed as a legitimate wine region, according to Brundrett and others who support HB 1514. It would be a place, he said, upfront with its most passionate fans about where the grapes are from.

For him, the problem isn’t that many Texas winemakers still make a lot of their wine with out-of-state grapes — it’s that they aren’t clear about it. That’s something fellow Hye winemaker Benjamin Calais, of Calais Winery and nearby distillery Hye Rum, has also noticed. Both men said their wines are made with 100 percent Texas-grown grapes and that they have loyal customers because of it.

“We’re a minority right now,” Calais said. “A lot of Texas wineries are using 25 to 30 percent of California juice to blend with Texas juice, and when you tell people that, they are unhappy about it. It’s like the craft beer movement, when breweries get sold and people decide they won’t support those breweries anymore. For wine drinkers, there’s an expectation when you’re visiting a small winery in the Hill Country that the person in front of you is being truthful, and it’s just not always the case.”

Brundrett also said that a stricter labeling law won’t disrupt anyone who still wants to produce wine with out-of-state grapes; they just won’t be able to label it as Texas wine.

“We get a lot of hailstorms and freezes and other weather situations that can damage our grapes, so Texas wineries have the choice not to take the risk of using Texas grapes. We’re not trying to take that away,” Brundrett said. “All the bill does is respect the sense of place of Texas wine.”

But other winemakers — many of them the biggest producers of Texas wine — think more regulation on the industry would stunt its growth so early in its development.

Messina Hof, the largest and one of the oldest wineries in the state, makes approximately 60,000 cases of wine a year (by comparison, William Chris Vineyards makes 25,000 cases) and tries to get as many grapes as possible from Texas. That’s just not always possible, Messina Hof CEO Paul M. Bonarrigo said, citing a loss of 25 percent of the winery’s crop last year due to hail.

Bonarrigo, the son of founders Paul V. and Merrill Bonarrigo, says he is against HB 1514 for reasons beyond the availability of Texas grapes. He sees other issues as more pressing to the Texas wine industry, including new herbicides that he fears are unintentionally killing whole vineyards in the Texas High Plains as they drift in the wind from nearby cotton fields. The region produces a significant number of grapes for wineries around the state, which makes the herbicides a real threat to Texas wine.

“Our industry is in a delicate position,” Bonarrigo said. “My concern is that if we focus our energy on something like (HB 1514), we’re going to lose support legislatively on things that are very important for us to survive.”

The Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, which represents winemakers like Messina Hof and William Chris Vineyards, ultimately opposed the bill as well and wrote a letter to the sponsoring legislator, Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, about its decision, saying it was made after “considerable discussion” about HB 1514.

“While we appreciate your interest in this issue, we feel that the regulations imposed by your bill would not benefit the industry or consumers at this time,” the letter, signed by president Dusty Timmons, says. The association “has formed an internal committee to work on this issue, and hopefully over time we will find a reasonable solution that will benefit everyone involved.”

Whether that solution will come in time for another proposed bill in the Texas Legislature in 2019 is still a big question. Brundrett, like other small winemakers who have worked to guarantee wines made only from Texas-grown grapes, is already confident the state is ready.

“Growing grapes in Texas is not easy. There are windstorms, hail and late freezes. A lot of uncontrollable variables. But there is so much technology and technique that has taken us out of the dark ages at the same time,” he said. “Now you’re seeing much more consistent crop levels. We’re growing an agriculture product with integrity, and we need this to take the industry to the next level.”



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