Austin, Texas—The issue might not be that contentious if it was just a little easier to grow grapes in Texas.
On June 13, the Texas Department of Agriculture announced a proposal to limit the promotional use of the “Go Texan” logo only on labels of wines made with at least 75% Texas grapes.
The proposed change is in line with TTB regulations and came about after Texas wine blogger Andrew Chalk launched a campaign last year to change the regulations and allow only wineries using 100% Texas fruit the privilege of using the Go Texan logo, which resembles a branding iron shaped like the state. In several posts at CraveDFW.com, Chalk argued that some Texas wineries were using the logo to convince consumers they were buying a Texas product when in fact the wine was made with bulk wine or grapes from out of the state. Such “juice mixers,” as Chalk called them, had an unfair advantage over estate wineries or those committed to using Texas fruit and were also undermining the efforts of Texan grapegrowers.
Other bloggers in the state picked up on the issue and they succesfully petitioned the TDA to solicit public comments on Chalk’s initial proposal to require a Go Texan wine to be made with 100% Texas fruit.
That proposal drew an outpouring of support and criticism, as some Texas winemakers argued it was too restrictive in a state with challenging growing conditions and insufficient vineyard acreage to support the ever-growing number of wineries. The TDA settled on the 75% requirement because it's in line with federal appellation of origin standards.
Grape demand and supply unbalanced
Texas wineries produce 1.8 million gallons of wine each year, making Texas the fifth-largest wine producing state, according to the Wines Vines Analytics winery database. That production total, however, doesn’t exclude wine made with out-of-state grapes or bulk wine. While Texas may be home to more than 200 wineries, the state only has about 4,000 acres of vineyards planted to wine grapes.
That total number of vineyard acres is the best current estimate, according to growers and other experts in the state. A 2010 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service and Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute found the state had 3,000 acres. According to that report, Texas vineyards averaged 2 tons per acre over the past nine harvests. The largest state crop came in 2005 when growers produced 9,700 tons from 2,900 acres of vineyards.
If one assumes a ton of fruit equals 70 cases of wine, that bumper crop in 2005 would have produced about 680,000 cases of wine. The average yield in 2005 was 3.34 tons per acre. Applying that average yield figure to 4,000 acres equals 935,200 cases of wine or about half of the state’s total current production.
(Update and clarification: A 2012 census by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Texas’ total grape acreage had grown to 7,092, but of that 3,040 were nonbearing acres leaving the productive acreage at 4,052. Some of those new vineyards are likely to yield grapes this year, but the exact total is unclear. The TDA is compiling another survey of grape growing acreage that should be available this summer.)
It’s an imbalanced market—and one that some in the industry argued didn’t need more bureaucratic red tape. “I don’t think it’s something that the TDA needs to spend its time dealing with,” said Patrick Whitehead, co-owner of Blue Ostrich Winery, which produces about 3,000 cases per year and is located north of Dallas in Saint Jo, Texas. “As a consumer, I never thought the Go Texan logo was a vigorous test of authenticity.”
He said consumers can find the logo on a variety of goods such as pickles, honey and tortillas, and he’s never thought that the ingredients all came from within the state. In those cases, the Go Texan logo demonstrates it’s a Texas company producing and packaging the goods while paying Texas taxes.
Whitehead gets most of his fruit from his own 7-acre vineyard of vinifera grapes and other Texas growers, yet he still has to buy some of the grapes he needs from California and New Mexico.
The Go Texan program is intended to provide marketing support for Texas companies. Wineries opt in with fees based on their level of participation. A basic membership for $100 grants the company the right to use the logo and some marketing support. Higher membership tiers cost more but come with more publicity and perks.
Les Constable, owner and winemaker of Brushy Creek Vineyards & Winery, which produces around 2,000 cases of wine per year in the north Texas town of Alvord, said he’s long used the Go Texan logo on his label and believes it has helped his sales.
He thinks the 75% proposal is a fair compromise to make the logo more meaningful and prevent any confusion on the part of the consumer. “It wasn’t something I wanted to go to war over, but at the same time the public might be misled, and I don’t want the public to feel misled,” he said.
‘Make the logo mean something’
Constable said requiring wineries to use Texas fruit would “make the logo mean something,” and that’s something he supports. Yet, he also understands that some wineries need to use out-of-state fruit—either because they lost their crop to the weather or they just can’t find a Texas supplier for the grapes they want. “Good wine is good wine; I don’t care where it comes from,” he said.
Texas wineries aren’ t just hampered by a small number of producing vineyards; the state can be ravaged by freezing frosts or hailstorms. By most estimates, about 90% of the 2013 crop in the High Plains AVA was lost in a late freeze. These challenges are partly why the proposed change received complaints from wineries, and even state lawmakers who criticized the TDA for overstepping its authority and interfering with businesses in compliance with existing regulations.
In an email to Wines & Vines, Chalk argues he doesn’t care about wineries bringing in out-of-state product, he just doesn’t want to see it labeled in a way to convince consumers it’s a Texas wine made with Texas grapes. “I have no problem with someone making wine from out-of-state fruit when the origin is clearly stated—however, there is never any excuse in representing out-of-state wine as Texas wine. It is an honesty and authenticity issue.”
In a July 2013 post, Chalk contends that some wineries have used the phrase “for sale in Texas only” to dodge federal labeling laws and simply not state where the wine or grapes were from at all. These wines also sported the Go Texan logo, which he argues only further misled consumers into thinking they were buying a Texas product.
The TDA‘s rule change would take effect July 13. According to the proposal, published in the Texas Register and online at the secretary of state’s website, the TDA will evaluate the effectiveness of the change after the first year by checking if Texas grape prices have increased and consumers are drinking more Texas wine and are less confused as to what the Go Texan logo means on a bottle of wine. The TDA expects the change to have “no fiscal implications” for state government or for business participating in the program.
Part of the reason the issue became so contested is that consumers in Texas can’t seem to get enough Texas wine. It’s the bigger, positive trend that has helped the industry take root in Texas but also triggered the debate about how to use, and who can use the Go Texan logo.
Whitehead said Blue Ostrich’s tasting room has been open for about two years, and business has been fantastic. He said being located about an hour and half from Dallas has helped make the winery a destination. Now about all of its production is sold through the tasting room or to wine club members with the rest going to a few restaurant accounts. “May was our best month ever,” he says. “We absolutely killed it.”
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