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The Rise Of Texas Wines

Vineyards Are Making Wines That Suit the Lone Star State

Stroll into a North Texas tasting room these days, and you’ll likely find a range of unexpected pours ready for a swirl and sip. Among the chardonnays, cabernets and merlots, you’ll discover a tannat at Eden Hill Winery and Vineyard in Celina, a roussanne at Landon Winery in McKinney, an albarino at San Martino Winery & Vineyards in Rockwall, and a tempranillo at 4R Ranch Vineyards and Winery, also in McKinney. 

There’s a distinctive energy behind this shift. Show any interest in the wines, and you’re likely to draw attention. Someone will sit down with you — often the winemaker him or herself — and explain where the grapes were grown, how the vines were tended and how the soil and weather influenced the textures. They might even push a small dish of chocolate-covered coffee beans next to your glass of a teroldego blend. They’ll invite you to chew on one or two to taste how the complexity of the wine is altered over the canvas of these intense flavors. 

“Way back in the 1980s, when you made a presentation, you needed a flak jacket,” says Paul Bonarrigo, who, with his wife, Merrill Bonarrigo, founded Messina Hof Winery in Bryan in 1977. “The good news is that people who thought Texas wine was horrible back in the ’80s, they’re dead. When you talk to a newly minted A&M graduate, they will say their favorite [wines] are Texas wines.”

Gestures and varietals such as these represent a slow-rolling revolution in the Texas wine industry that’s been unfolding over the last 15 years, if not longer. Gone is the emphasis on traditional French varietals like merlot, chardonnay and pinot noir, grapes that don’t necessarily grow well in the often-brutal Texas climate. These wines are slowly being replaced with bottlings crafted from warm-weather varietals native to Italy, southern France and Spain. Texas winemakers diligently work with these less-familiar grapes to produce extraordinary results that far surpass what has come before.

But it isn’t only the intensifying winegrowing and winemaking prowess that is transforming the Texas wine industry. The Texas consumer is also driving change. Wine drinkers have become more adventurous, more willing to try pours crafted from varietals they may never have heard of or may be unable to effectually pronounce. This is especially true among the millennial and zoomer generations. 

It was a study by a Texas A&M graduate student on the feasibility of grape cultivation in the state that seeded the Messina Hof empire, now one of the largest wine producers in Texas with four locations. Armed with this research, the Bonarrigos planted a one-acre experimental vineyard sown with fifty varietals, including chenin blanc, cabernet sauvignon and lenoir or black Spanish, an American hybrid used in Texas port-style wines. It’s this penchant for freewheeling experimentation that is driving a surge in the quality and diversity of Texas wines. 

“There are these grapes that we call Chateau de Cash Flow,” says Chris Hornbaker, the winemaker at Eden Hill Vineyard, referring to traditional grapes like chardonnay and merlot. “If you’re going to get your winery off the ground in a brand-new wine region … you have to have some grapes that people have heard of. But over time, you can introduce those grapes that people haven’t heard of.“


It may surprise many Texans that the first vineyard ever to take root in North America was established by Spanish missionaries in 1682 near what is now El Paso. By the 1740s, vineyards and orchards were flourishing in the area.

Having begun operations in 1883, Val Verde Winery near Del Rio is the oldest continuously operating winery in Texas. When founder Frank Qualia arrived near Del Rio that year, he discovered lenoir grapes thriving on the western edge of Texas Hill Country. Today, the Qualia family-owned winery has earned wide acclaim for its Don Luis Tawny Port, crafted from the lenoir grape.

What may surprise Texans even more is that the most productive wine-producing area in the state rests on the Texas High Plains and the Panhandle, where some 85 percent of the Lone Star State’s wine grapes are grown. They thrive in the area’s deep sandy loam perched over the Ogallala Aquifer, a shallow water table surrounded by sand, silt, clay and gravel. Reaching up to 4,000 feet above sea level, this flat terrain is characterized by long hot, dry summers and cool evenings, making it amenable to wine grape cultivation. The region’s arid conditions are remedied by drip irrigation systems fed by the Ogallala.

But this richly productive region makes for an oddity in the Texas winemaking landscape. While many of the world’s winegrowing regions feature wineries huddled close to their vineyard sources, most Texas wineries lie elsewhere.

“Where I wanted to put the winery, the soil was horrible,“ says Emilio Ramos of San Martino Winery in Rockwall, nestled on the southern edge of Collin County. “And where the soil was great, there weren’t enough people to sell the wine to. The market wasn’t there. So, we had to put the vineyards seven hours away and the winery here in the Metroplex.”

Ramos sources most of his wine grapes from the Texas High Plains, though he does source some grapes from east Texas and maintains a two-and-a-half-acre vineyard on the winery estate. There, he cultivates blanc du bois, a white hybrid grape, and muscat of Alexandria, a white grape that is among the oldest genetically unmodified grapes still in existence. 

In addition to cabernet sauvignon, San Martino produces some remarkable bottlings, including albarino (a white from northern Spain), roussanne (a white from the Rhone region of France), and aglianico (a red from southern Italy). Along with his wife, Maria Ramos, Emilio Ramos sells virtually all of his 4,000-case annual production through wine clubs and out of the tasting room.

“This is a tasting room state,” says Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars in Lubbock. “And whenever you get [consumers] in your tasting room and you have a tempranillo or you have a mourvedre or a carignan, you can go one-on-one with them and sell it better.”

McPherson produces a wide range of wines from relatively obscure grapes, including alicante bouschet (a French hybrid red), viognier (a white grape from the Rhone Valley), and sangiovese (a red grape from Tuscany).

“Viognier is like the statewide grape,” says McPherson. “I’ll do 1,800 cases of viognier. My sangiovese, I used to have to wrap a paper bag around it when I went out to restaurants and tried to sell it. That was a long hard climb.”

You could say that Kim McPherson has Texas wine flowing through his blood. He’s the son of the late Clinton “Doc” McPherson, a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University who set out to revolutionize Texas viticulture. In 1966, Doc McPherson planted a 140-acre experimental vineyard in the Texas High Plains with his partner, Bob Reed. They wanted to determine which wine grapes worked best in the area’s climate and soils. 

What they discovered was that it wasn’t the most popular varieties that produced the best fruit. It was the lesser-known varieties that thrived, like grenache, muscat, tempranillo and viura from Spain. In 1976, McPherson and Reed founded Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, which is one of the largest wine producers in the state today. By the time Llano Estacado was established, most of the vines in that experimental vineyard had been ripped out and replaced by more well-known varietals.

“What happened was, 30 or 40 years ago, when Texas restarted its wine industry, all of the consultants at that time said you needed to focus on the brands that people know: merlot, cabernet, pinot and chardonnay,” says Eden Hill’s Hornbaker. “People were afraid that if we tried grapes — even though they grew well in our climate — like tempranillo, tannat or sangiovese, people would struggle to adopt them because they hadn’t drunk those wines or knew about them. So, there was a huge fear that the Texas wine industry would not get a lot of momentum going if we didn’t first try the name-brand grapes.” 

But that experimental spirit embraced by Doc McPherson has been enjoying a slow but vigorous revival over the last few years. Kim McPherson has been working with piquepoul, a white variety from the Languedoc region of France, and counoise, a little-known red wine grape from the Rhone Valley. 

If McPherson were to show up for a sales call and present a Texas merlot, cabernet or chardonnay, he says, customers wouldn’t give him the time of day. But if he were to introduce a lesser-known varietal like mourvedre, uniquely crafted from Texas soil, now he would have their attention. “I brought three bottles of my counoise to the East Coast to see how it would do,” he says. “It was a home run everywhere I took it. And I’m going, golly, this is better than a gold medal.”


Though Texas might very well be on the cusp of greatness in the winemaking realm, it’s still a relatively small producer, even though the number of wineries in the state is exploding. According to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s 2022 assessment, there are 987 bonded wineries in the state, ranking it third in that category after California (6,295) and Washington (1,414). (According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, 811 permitted wineries were operating in the state as of January 2024.) There are 37 wineries doing business in North Texas alone, a number that includes multiple locations for some of these operations. That’s in an area that had almost no winemaking culture just a couple of decades ago.

“[Years ago], if a person was interested in wine and wanted to experience the wine country, you had to go to Europe or California or maybe the Finger Lakes of New York,” says Messina Hof’s Bonarrigo. “Now, with the proliferation of all the wineries in the state of Texas, you can drive ten miles and visit a winery … When you see what happens in Fredericksburg on the weekends, it is Napa.”

Yet with all these wineries, Texas still lags in total wine production, and virtually all of its wine is sold and consumed within the state. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau states that Texas produced 2.9 million gallons in 2022, ranking it 10th in the country, behind Florida and Kentucky. 

By contrast, number one, California, produces 600 million gallons, followed by Washington at 42 million gallons. Yahoo Finance, using 2022 data from the World Population Review, ranks Texas 11th in total wine production, pegging it at 1.9 million gallons, behind Virginia and Vermont. As of 2015, Texas stood as the fifth-largest wine producer in America after California, Washington, New York and Oregon. 

Perhaps a significant blow to Texas wine production was rendered by the demise of Ste. Genevieve Winery in Fort Stockton in 2022. Once the largest winery in the state, Ste. Genevieve produced its own wines, bottled wines for smaller wineries and furnished house wines for many restaurants on the East Coast.

In the early 1980s, Ste. Genevieve emerged from 1,300 acres owned by the University of Texas on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. The operation was the result of a partnership between the university and French winery Domaine Cordier. In 2005, Ste. Genevieve was purchased by a group dubbed Mesa Vineyards, headed by E & J Gallo Winery alum Pat Prendergast, who became its owner and president. At its peak, Ste. Genevieve ranked among the 25 largest wineries in the U.S., producing some 600,000 cases annually. 

But it was felled by a cascade of catastrophic events, including a late-April freeze in 2014 that ruined the entire grape harvest that year and the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered the failure of many of the restaurants the winery had been supplying. It all crescendoed with bankruptcy and an online auction in 2022 that liquidated the winery’s assets. 

Yet Texas faces still more formidable challenges on the wine-production playing field. While the state’s warm climate is closely aligned with that of winegrowing regions in Italy, Spain, Portugal and southern France, extreme heat is not the biggest impediment to Texas winegrowing. Rather, it’s climatic challenges like frost, hail and a lack of water, along with herbicide drift from cotton fields and destructive pathogens like Pierce’s disease and cotton root rot.

Still more stumbling blocks had to be overcome. Under Texas law, Texas wineries were not able to ship directly to consumers, either in or out of state, until 2005. Students under the age of 21 were not permitted to taste wine when enrolled in viticulture and enology programs at institutions such as Texas A&M or Texas Tech until 2015. That’s when the Texas legislature passed measures modifying the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code. 

“There was a raft of issues that Texas had to solve,” concludes Hornbaker, who insists rose is an emerging secret weapon in Texas. “One was growing the right grapes. The second was having the right training for winemakers. The third was having the state be open to people buying wine direct from wineries. Texas is only now just over its biggest hurdles.”

The time is ripe. The future is bright. Come taste the change.

This article was originally published in Local Profile's latest magazine

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