The wine world is dominated by the image of a centuries-old French chateau surrounded by acres of mature vines, where wine is slowly crafted in oak barrels hidden in an underground cellar. This model is certainly accurate in the older wine-making regions of the world.
Here in America, especially in newer wine areas such as Texas, this is often not the scene where you taste and buy wine. So, to avoid disappointment, let’s examine what you can expect when you visit Texas wineries for a tasting.
While European wine-making is often done in facilities surrounded by the vines where the grapes were grown, in truth, grape-growing (viticulture), wine-making (vinification), and distribution & sales are three quite distinct and independent parts of the wine industry.
First, vineyards are located on sites that are very carefully selected because of the growing characteristics that will impact the grapes. The mineral composition and consistency of the soil, the amount and seasonality of rainfall, degree of slope and slope aspect in relation to the sun, climate, daily temperature fluctuation, etc., all impart specific qualities and characteristics on the grapes that are raised and harvested on any given site. This is a concept that the French call terroir. Grapes grown in one region will result in very different wines than grapes grown elsewhere, even if everything else is the same.
The best place in Texas to grow grapes is the Texas High Plains, the elevated flat-land around Lubbock. There you will find more than 3,000 acres of wine grape vineyards stretched across the prairie. This represents more than 80% of the grapes being produced in the state.
And although Lubbock draws almost five million visitors per year for conventions and business meetings, it has not established itself as a destination for wine tasting and wine tourism. In fact, there are only five wineries in the Lubbock area that you can visit. Most of the grapes from Texas High Plains vineyards are shipped to wineries in other parts of the state for fermentation into wine.
Second, we’ll look at wineries. Traditionally, in Europe, the winery itself would be located adjacent to the vineyard. The reason is that pulling the heavily-laden grape carts to the wine press was labor-intensive and time-consuming. The shorter the distance, the quicker you could start making wine.
In practice, the physical location where the wine is made has no impact whatsoever on the final product. You could grow your grapes in California, and make the wine in Vermont; it’s still going to be “California wine.” Today, with modern refrigerated trucks able to transport tons of grapes across the country in a matter of days, a winemaker can open a winery anywhere they see fit, and have the grapes come to them. When the grapes are grown by the winemaker, either on site or at a remote location, the resulting wines are known as “estate” wines. The vast majority of Texas wines are not estate wines.
Today, more than five million visitors annually come to the Texas Hill Country for the purpose of visiting wineries and tasting wine. There are 54 wineries located here, where the pressing and fermentation of grapes takes place. Some of these wineries have small vineyards attached to them, but with only 700+ acres of grapes being grown in the Hill Country, most of the grape supply for the locally-made wine has to be purchased from the High Plains or elsewhere. When you visit a winery for a tasting, you know that the wine is produced on-site, regardless of whether the grapes are estate-grown or not.
Finally, there are tasting rooms. Many wineries, even large ones, are located in areas not often visited by wine tourists. For example: one of the oldest, largest wineries in Texas, Messina Hof, is in Bryan. It is the only winery there, with four smaller ones located in the country outside College Station. Bryan does not attract a lot of attention as a wine destination. Therefore, in order to expose Messina Hof wines to a wider audience, and get a lot more people tasting their wine, the winery opened up tasting rooms in the Hill Country and Grapevine. Many wineries have opened up tasting rooms across the state to expand the opportunities for people to encounter their wines.
At a tasting room, there will probably not be any vines, except perhaps for ambiance, and probably no wine being made. What you will find is trained, enthusiastic professionals who can talk to you knowledgeably about the wines, where the grapes were grown, how the wine was made, and how to pair each with different foods.
There are a half-dozen different tasting rooms on Main Street in Fredericksburg, plus a few others along the Highway 290 Wine Trail. In addition to tasting rooms that are operated by specific wineries, there are some tasting rooms that are independently owned and offer a selection of wines from different wineries. This is a good way to experience multiple wineries at the same time. Vintage Cellars at Rocky Hill offers wines from three Texas vintners, including Val Verde Winery, the oldest operating winery in the state. Val Verde is located in Del Rio, 180 miles off the beaten-path of most Hill Country visitors. Vintage Cellar is located in the old Rocky Hill School, built in 1902.
Whether you visit a winery or a tasting room, you will be able to experience some of the best that Texas wine has to offer. There may even be some vineyards nearby, producing a few estate vintages. And if you’re ever in the Lubbock area, you may choose to visit some of the larger, 150+ acre vineyards. There’s a lot to explore in the world of Texas wine.