Drive out on U.S. 290 into the Hill Country and you might wonder if grapes are replacing peaches as the staple of Fredericksburg farmers.
The short answer? No. Experts say both industries are thriving, even benefiting each other. But the long answer gets a little more complicated.
In Austin, most people are familiar with Fredericksburg peaches. Nationally, though, Hill Country peaches are only a blip on the peach-growing radar. The top peach-producing regions are California, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.
Not so with wine. Within the past five years, the Hill Country wine scene, which includes 60 wineries — about 30 lie between Johnson City and Fredericksburg — has drawn attention on the national and even worldwide stages.
Wine Enthusiast Magazine included the Texas Hill Country on its list of 10 Best Wine Destinations in 2014, alongside the Aegean Islands of Greece, France’s Languedoc region and Sonoma, Calif. Texas ranks as the No. 5 wine-producing state in the country, and the Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area, or grape-growing region, covers 9 million acres, making it the second largest in the nation.
Farmers here are turning to grapes, not so much because the soil is magical or the weather ideal, but because it’s a good wine-selling area, said Jim Kamas, an extension service fruit specialist in Fredericksburg and Texas A&M University assistant professor who has written a book about growing grapes and another about growing peaches.
Fredericksburg lies within a couple hours of more than 3.5 million people who live in the Austin and San Antonio metro areas. Even when the economy is down, he said, they still come to visit.
But those tourists are changing, he noted: “Twenty years ago, when we didn’t have a peach crop, we’d get 30 percent less traffic in downtown Fredericksburg.” Now, they come for the wine, too, Kamas said.
Visitors today come for what’s been dubbed agritourism. They want to see how peaches are grown and wine is made, then buy some of each to take home with them.
“They want to walk though these fields and see what we’re about, then go down there and drink (the wine),” said Bill Blackmon, 60, a local grape grower and co-owner along with Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards in Hye, which opened just east of Fredericksburg in 2010.
Hill Country wine grows up
In the 1970s, the handful of Hill Country growers focused on rieslings, which matched the area’s German heritage, and French-American hybrids such as Bordeaux, chardonnay, cabernet and merlot that were popular in California.
“The wines were horrid” early on, Kamas said. “A lot of it was because people with money would go to Bordeaux (and try to re-create that here). In Bordeaux, it gets cool at night. Here, it just gets dark at night.”
In the late 1990s, growers started looking at warmer weather grapes grown in southern Italy, Spain, Portugal and South Africa. “That was the turning point,” Kamas said. Now sangiovese, Montepulciano, syrah, tempranillo, mourvedre and even rosés are all produced around Fredericksburg.
He estimates that it costs about $25,000 an acre to establish a vineyard, not including the $12,000 to $20,000 per acre for land, plus wells and high fences to keep out deer and hogs. Among the local grape growers are former business executives, young entrepreneurs, doctors and others who already have had successful careers in other areas.
“This is not a poor man’s sport,” Kamas said.
And yet it keeps growing. According to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission records, two more wineries have applied for permits along that U.S. 290 corridor. January Wiese, executive director of Texas Hill Country Wineries, a marketing co-op with 46 members, says more than 20 additional wineries might be coming. That could be true, said Chris Porter, a TABC public information officer, but their paperwork hasn’t yet been officially filed.
Supporting businesses — such as bed and breakfasts, equipment suppliers, nurseries and transportation companies that offer bicycle, antique car, bus, van and luxury vehicle tours — are opening. And all this is in an area that’s already a popular tourist destination, with plenty of hotels, shops, museums and a growing food scene.
A thirst for more
Blackmon, the winemaker, said he gets calls every week from people who have purchased land and want him to plant a vineyard for a winery on it. “People want to sit on their back porch and look at their vineyard,” he said. “The reality is you probably won’t make it, coming from the background you come from.”
That’s because growing grapes is a tricky business. “I don’t want to say it’s the best place to grow grapes, because there are challenges here — the weather, fungus, drought, hail, freeze, frost — disease pressures are really high,” Blackmon said. “But the reason we are here is to sell the product. And how beautiful is the Hill Country?”
Less than a third of the wineries in this area actually grow their own grapes. Others buy their fruit elsewhere, including the Texas Panhandle or California. Some plant an acre or two of grapevines in front of their tasting rooms, luring in tourists who might assume all the wine is made with fruit grown on site.
Blackmon uses grapes he grows on two local vineyards, plus some that he brings in from the Lubbock area, to make his wine. The winery, which plans to expand with a new tasting pavilion, produces about 14,000 cases a year. The wine sells for between $20 and $65 a bottle.
“I think the industry has matured,” he said. “The difference between now and 20 years ago is people are serious about it now, and the savvy consumer market is here.”
Peach scene holds steady
Peaches have a longer history in Gillespie County, and they’re still here, too. It’s just that they’re getting overshadowed, at least at first glance, by the vineyards.
The first peach orchards were planted in the 1920s. During the peak years of the 1960s and 1970s, some farmers cultivated 100-acre orchards and peddled the fruit commercially. Today most orchards are smaller, in the 25-acre range, and farmers sell directly to consumers via roadside fruit stands because they can make more money — $3 a pound versus 35 or 40 cents a pound — that way.
Those farm-stand peaches are better, sellers say, because they’re picked just as they ripen, unlike grocery store peaches, which are picked when they’re still hard so they don’t bruise during shipping.
“If you eat a tree-ripened peach, the quality of fruit is head and shoulders above the rest,” Kamas said.
Customers are willing to pay for that, growers say. “It’s really hard for us to compete on the wholesale market, but we have plenty of customers from Austin and San Antonio who pay more for our peaches,” said Russ Studebaker, 54, owner of Studebaker Farm outside of Fredericksburg. “We can’t compete with quantity, so we compete with ripeness and taste.”
The boom in the wine industry has helped the peach business. “Twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t much traffic until school was out, and in August it started dying,” said Studebaker, who started his orchard in 1992 and grows 34 varieties. “Now there’s a steady stream.”
Peach orchards now cover about 1,200 acres around Fredericksburg. That’s down about 25 percent in the past 20 years, but still about twice the roughly 600 acres devoted to growing grapes.
Unlike the area’s grape growers, most of the peach growers come from families who have been growing peaches for generations. They grow dozens of varieties of peaches that ripen, depending on the type, from May through late August.
After a crop-wrecking freeze in 2011, followed by several years of drought, this year’s crop, like last year’s, is a good one. Growers like Dianne Eckhardt and Debbie Eckhardt Cox of Eckhardt Orchards say they expect to sell their entire crop and could sell more if they had it. That’s got them thinking about planting more trees.
According to Kamas, that’s probably not a bad idea. “There’s too much money to be made,” he said.