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The History of Texas Wine: From Spanish Roots to Rising Star

The History of Texas Wine: From Spanish Roots to Rising Star

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The History of Texas Wine: From Spanish Roots to Rising Star

228 pages
2 hours
Apr 23, 2013


Texas's 350-year wine story is still reaching its savory peak. Spanish colonists may have come to the state to spread Christianity, but under visionary Father Fray Garcia, they stayed and raised grapes. Later immigrants brought their own burgundy tastes of home, creating a unique wine country. When a North American pest threatened European vines, it was Texan scientist T.V. Munson who helped save the industry overseas. When Prohibition loomed stateside, Frank Qualia's Val Verde Winery in Del Rio survived by selling communion wine and is now the longest-operating bonded winery in the state. Today, tourists flock to Texas vineyards, and the state sells more wine every year. Join local experts Kathy and Neil Crain and sample the untold story of Texas's wine industry.
Apr 23, 2013

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Neil Crain is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a wine enthusiast and founder of the popular web site WineEnabler.com. Crain is an extremely active member of the wine blogging community. Katherine Crain works as a paralegal for the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners.

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The History of Texas Wine - Katherine Crain



The Texas wine industry is a hot topic these days, and not just because of the weather. The Texas wine country is the second most visited wine region in the nation. Texas wines are receiving more accolades and awards than ever before, and the state gets almost $2 billion of economic activity from the industry each year. These are impressive facts, but they tell only the most recent part of the story. Wine has been produced and consumed in Texas for almost 350 years. Wine played an important role in Spanish colonial Texas, and the desire for their own vineyards led many German immigrants to Texas in search of a vine land. After the Civil War, Texas grapevines—in particular, their roots—played an important role in saving the European wine industry. Following Prohibition, Texas wine fought its way back from near extinction, and today it is creating an opportunity for Texas farmers and entrepreneurs. How all of this happened is a great story and one that is intimately connected to the history of Texas and the Southwest.

It has been a pleasure to revisit Texas history for this book. Like all Texans who attend public schools, we had been told the story of Texas but had forgotten most of it and apparently misremembered the rest. Relearning the story of Texas was rewarding. This time, however, we also had access to lots of wonderful side stories that did not make it into state-approved history books. Of course, we are referring to the Internet and all the information that it makes available. Sites such as the Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online) and Google Books (http://books.google.com/) help to make history come alive by making available stories of the not-so-famous but still important people and places that are history.

When we started working on the part of the story about the modern Texas wine industry, we thought we already knew quite a lot. We have been collecting wine for more than twenty years and had visited many Texas wineries, particularly in the Texas Hill Country near our home in Austin. While we enjoyed our earlier visits, many of the wines we tasted in years gone by had not yet found their voice. Most wineries were trying to follow California’s lead and plant famous European grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The results we tasted were often disappointing. At that time, many winemakers were making generous use of oak. A big California Cab or Chardonnay might be able to stand up to lots of oak, but the subtle nuances of many Texas wines were lost in the forest of oak in each glass. Finally, the surprising cost of starting and operating a vineyard forced many wineries to charge top dollar for their wine.

So when we started this project, we had relatively low expectations about the wines we were going to find, and we were almost immediately surprised. Many of the wines we tasted showed very well. Gone were most of the thin, oaky Cabs and grassy, oaky Chardonnays. Increasingly, wineries were offering warm-weather grapes such as Shiraz, Tempranillo and Vermentino. Oak was certainly still there but in judicial amounts, and prices at many wineries were more in line with the current international market. This is not to say that the journey for Texas wine is over; it is not. But as a whole, the Texas wine industry has made huge strides and redoubled its efforts to produce good wines at affordable prices. We believe the future for Texas wine is bright, and we are looking forward to watching it grow and mature.

The story that follows starts in the late sixteenth century and ends in 2012. Every attempt has been made to be sure that the people and places that are part of this story have been included in these pages, but Texas is a big place, and its wine industry is rapidly changing. Despite several attempts with state agencies and industrial groups, we were unable to get a complete list of the wineries in Texas. As we have driven around the state (almost two thousand miles in the last three months alone), we have discovered wineries that were not on any of our lists. We are sure that there are wineries that we did not discover, but driving around Texas looking for them is not very efficient. If we have left out your favorite wine story or missed some wineries or did not know a winery closed, we apologize. Learning about Texas wine has been great fun, and we wish the wine community of Texas good luck!


Kathy and Neil Crain


In the Beginning

Beginning with the Spanish explorers and continuing to the present day, the story of Texas is both remarkable and unique. Men such as René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle; Stephen F. Austin; Jim Bowie; and Davy Crockett explored, settled and defended a land unlike any other. Their story is one that folks, particularly Texans, never get tired of telling or hearing. This book is devoted to a very small part of that great story: the history of Texas wine. As this is a rather narrow slice of a greater story, we will not spend much time on some of the big events that are part of Texas history. That is not to say that we think the story of La Salle’s failed expedition or the Alamo or the faithful Battle of San Jacinto are not important. They are. Instead, we will focus on how these events shaped immigration, population centers, agricultural practices and even international relations and how, in turn, these things affected Texas wine.


Before Europeans arrived in the New World, there wasn’t any place in Texas to get a good glass of wine or even a glass of wine at all. The native people of North America did not produce a drink from the numerous types of grapes that grew wild in the area that is now known as Texas. Given the hundreds of grape varietals that flourished here, it must have surprised the Europeans that none of the native people made anything like wine. After all, Europeans considered wine a part of their heritage going back thousands of years. From the European perspective, this must have supported the notion that Native Americans were primitive. In retrospect, the absence of an alcoholic grape-based drink is not so surprising. There were plenty of plants that offered natural intoxicants that did not require the manipulation needed to make wine from grapes. Tobacco, marijuana, several types of mushrooms and peyote grew wild in Texas. These plants required little manipulation to produce intoxicating results. Furthermore, most of the tribes that inhabited Texas were nomadic peoples without the agrarian practices or the physical infrastructure required to produce wine.

This is not to say that there were no fermented drinks in the New World. It is well documented that native peoples of South America and Mexico used maize to make fermented drinks such as chicha. The inhabitants of the pueblos of New Mexico also grew maize, so it seems reasonable to assume that the inhabitants of New Mexico made alcoholic beverages from maize. Researchers at Sandia Laboratories have recently examined vessels excavated from New Mexico for trace chemicals associated with the production of drinks similar to chicha. Their findings suggest that the inhabitants of the pueblos did turn maize into a fermented beverage.

The nomadic peoples of the Southwest also produced alcoholic drinks. For example, the Apaches produced a drink called tizwin or tiswin. Tizwin was made from the fermented heart of the mescal plant. It was a labor-intensive product and spoiled quickly, limiting its use to ceremonial events.


So while there were some alcoholic beverages for most of the early sixteenth century in Texas, if you wanted an alcoholic drink you had to bring it with you. Which is what the explorers, missionaries, adventurers and conquistadores did. Of course, the early explorers did not come to the New World to find alcohol or wine. They came to explore the New World for its wealth, for a route to the wealth of the Orient, to expand the power of the European nation from which they came and to convert the native peoples to Christianity. In the American Southwest, Mexico and South America, most of the explorers came from Spain. Spain was certainly interested in the wealth that was to be had in the silver and gold they found in the New World, but they, more than any other European power, were also interested in converting the native people to Catholicism. The effects of the mission system on the native peoples of the Americas are well beyond the scope of this book, except for this: the mission churches had a sacred responsibility to offer the Eucharist. Logistical lines from Spain to the New World were very long. Sailing across the Atlantic took a month or more. If the mission system were to work, the missions would have to be more or less self-sufficient in all things, including wine.

Shortly after the Spanish discovered the New World, they began to systematically explore and lay claim to vast portions of North and South America. Beginning with the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés in 1521, Spain displaced the ruling native peoples and replaced them with colonial governors supported by the military and missionaries. Spain sought to pay for its ambitious plans by exploiting the mineral resources that existed in the New World. The discovery of vast quantities of silver and, to a lesser extent, gold in both South America and later Mexico convinced Spain that exploration of the New World could both pay for itself and send money back to the royal coffers. Parts of the New World that did not offer the promise of valuable natural resources were bypassed. Early Spanish explorers of modern-day Texas found a land populated by nomadic hunter-gathers. The native peoples did not live in permanent structures; they did not practice agriculture, nor did they possess precious metals in significant quantities. This led the Spanish explorers and their royal patrons to assume that the native people of Texas were not as advanced as their counterparts in Mexico or New Mexico. Further, they reasoned that there was little or no gold or silver in Texas, and therefore the expense of conquering Texas would have to come from outside of Texas.

The Catholic Church, however, was still interested in converting the native people of Texas and the surrounding areas. Early missionaries in West Texas were, therefore, somewhat different from the missionaries in the rest of the Southwest. Missionaries in Texas were essentially on their own. They did not get much support from the royal governor or military. Their activities were guided more or less by the church and the direct interaction of the priests with the native peoples. The native people may have, at least in small part, requested early missionary work. The Jumanos tribe of West Texas told a story of a Woman in Blue who came to them in a vision. The spirit is said to have spoken their language and encouraged them to seek the spiritual guidance of the Catholic missionaries. Some modern scholars think that the Woman in Blue was a hoax. They argue it was the encroachment of the Apaches that led the Jumanos to seek the help of the Spanish. Whatever the cause, the historical evidence suggests that the Jumanos asked for the Franciscan monks to come to their aid.

In 1629, a mission was established to work with the Jumanos tribe. There is some disagreement about the actual location of the mission. Some researchers say it was located near the confluence of the Colorado and Concho Rivers. Other researchers suggest that the mission was located to the north, possibly near Palo Duro Canyon. The exact location aside, the mission was short lived. There was another brief attempt to develop a mission among the Jumanos in 1632, near modern-day San Angelo. This mission also failed. There is no historical evidence that grapevines were planted at either location.

In the mid-1650s, Franciscan missionaries led by Father Fray Garcia de San Francisco began to work with three tribes of native people in and around the area of modern-day El Paso. Father Fray Garcia, who was the resident priest at the Socorro Mission in New Mexico, accompanied by several friars, traveled to Texas to establish a mission. The mission served the Mansos, Sumas and Janos. Once the mission was established, Father Fray Garcia returned to Socorro and left the friars to continue their work. It was not long before the Mansos attempted to kill the friars and forced them to retreat to Santa Fe. In 1659, Father Fray Garcia returned to the area and constructed Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) near the banks of the Rio Grande. Perhaps as a sign of his commitment, or maybe simply out of necessity, that same year, the good father also planted grapevines. The vineyard was located just outside modern-day Juarez, Mexico. The vineyard was intended to supply the mission with sacramental wine, as well as wine and brandy for the priests, friars and soldiers. It takes a grapevine two to three years to begin to produce fruit, so it is likely that Father Garcia’s first wine was produced in 1661 or 1662. There is no record of the event, but I am sure that Father Fray Garcia considered it to be an important moment. The wine would have made the missionaries feel more at home, but more importantly, it enabled the priests to offer the Eucharist with wine that they produced.

What type of grape did Garcia plant? Most historians refer to the grape as Spanish Black and then they go on to say that the grape is also known as the Lenoir. While the Lenoir grape is frequently referred to as Spanish Black, was the Spanish Black grape planted outside Juarez a Lenoir? Some researchers point to correspondence between nineteenth-century viticulturists Thomas Volnay (T.V.) Munson and Gougie Bourquin. The correspondence suggests that the modern Lenoir grape (or at least one of its parent grapevines) appears to have been brought to America by French Huguenots who settled in and around Savannah, Georgia, in the early part of the eighteenth century. The grapevines of Savannah appeared quite similar to the Lenoir and showed a resistance to the pests of North America that is not commonly found in European grapevines. If these vines were the source of the modern-day Lenoir grape, they would not have been

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