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Texas Grants Will Grow Industry

Ag Department gives $250,000 to subsidize vineyard expansion

by Jane Firstenfeld
Brennan Vineyards, Texas Wine
With the help of a state grant, Pat Brennan plans to add 5.5 acres to the 22 acres of vines he now cultivates at Brennan Vineyards in Texas.
Austin, Texas -- A quarter-million dollars in grants from the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) will help fund much-needed growth in the state's winegrape industry. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples announced awards of 2:1 matching grants to 10 vineyards through the TDA's Wine Grape Investment Pilot Grant Program.

Grants were awarded in maximum amounts of $25,000 to qualified applicants who agreed to plant at least five new or additional acres of winegrapes for commercial production purposes, according to the TDA's website:

Costs for land or capital improvements of more than $5,000 are not included in the funding, which will reimburse recipients for one-third of qualified expenditures reported through December 2009.

The successful applicants represent a fraction of the 39 who had sought the grants, according to Pat Brennan, president of Brennan Vineyards in Comanche. Brennan was one of the lucky 10, and he plans to add 5.5 acres of Tempranillo and Mourvèdre vines to his existing 22 acres of producing vineyards.

Brennan first began growing winegrapes on five acres in 2002, and in 2005 he opened his 5,000-case winery. Starting with "zero experience," he told Wines & Vines, "I've learned a lot since then." He credits his successful bid for funding on that experience. "I think they wanted people who knew what they are doing," rather than rank amateurs in the field.

Brennan said that he'll be planting on a good site that, once mature, should produce about 4 tons per acre, adding more than 20 tons to Texas' perpetual short supply of local product. His own acreage produces about 85% of his needs every year, he said, and the balance he purchases from neighboring growers in his region, located about 85 miles southeast of Abilene.

Gary McKibben, owner/winemaker at Red Caboose Winery in Meridian, is also a relative newcomer to viticulture and enology. The oldest vines in his 9-acre vineyard are 5 years old, and he's only been making wine for two years. He expects to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, "maybe some more Tempranillo," and perhaps some Muscat Canelli with his grant funding. Texas consumers, he noted, have a big appetite for sweet, dessert-style wines.

The winery is also growing. Last year Red Caboose's production was about 1,000 cases. "This year, we'll do 2,000," he said, "and next year, 3,000." He's been purchasing "a few" grapes to feed his presses, networking with small, nearby vineyards, many with just two or three producing acres.

All Red Caboose wines are sold direct-to-consumer, and, McKibben said, "We keep raising our prices." His red wines now command a healthy $29 per bottle, and the whites sell for $15 to $17. A transplant from San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast, McKibben is an architect, and he designed Brennan's winery and his own.

McKibben suggested, hopefully, that Red Caboose was awarded the grant, "because we are the most sustainable winery in Texas." The winery uses 100% geothermal energy for cooling. When installation is complete this fall of a rooftop photovoltaic system, "We will leave no carbon footprint," McKibben said. He designed and had built a geothermal loop to cold stabilize his white wines, and said that the engineering department from Southern Methodist University will be visiting next week to view his "green" operation.

While McKibben and Brennan are relative novices, Dr. Andrew Martin, owner of Martin's Vineyard in the Texas High Plains appellation, is proud owner of the oldest commercially producing vineyard in Texas. "We have 35-year-old Chenin Blanc vines with trunks as thick as my thigh," he said. Since he planted those first vines, his operation has expanded to 20 acres including Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscat Alexandria, Viognier, Sangiovese, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignane and Pinot Gris.

He said he may use his grant as seed money for as many as 10 new vineyard acres. At least five will be Mourvèdre, which he sells to Becker Vineyards and Winery to blend with Grenache and Carignane for its Rhône-style "Prairie Roti." The Rhône varieties, Martin commented, generally do well in his area, and can stand up to the drought and heat that often hammer the High Plains. A psychologist by profession, he credited his skilled, long-time vineyard manager, Bobby Cox, for his contributions to the thriving operation.

Other grant recipients include Bell Mountain Vineyards, Cliff Bingham and Clint Bingham, Delaney Vineyards, Mesa Vineyards (the state's largest winery), Oswald Vineyard and The Family Vineyard. According to the TDA, Texas is currently the nation's fifth-largest wine-producing state, with 163 wineries and 280 commercial vineyards planted on 3,100 acres. As reported in Wines & Vines' June 2008 issue ("Grape Supply Dilemma"), Texas wineries face a perennial shortage of state-grown grapes, and in some years, many must resort to sourcing from as far away as California to meet customer demand.

According to an MKF Research 2005 Executive Report on the Economic Impact of Texas Wine and Grapes, development costs for vinifera winegrapes in the state average $10,000 to $30,000 per acre, not including land acquisition, although Martin suggested the actual costs for grapes, trellising, irrigation and labor would actually run about $7,500 to $10,000. According to the TDA, "Reports provided by grant recipients will also provide valuable information about the costs of winegrape production and indicators of success in growing winegrapes."

Commissioner Staples, who took office in 2007, has demonstrated staunch support for the grape and wine industry, which contributes an estimated $1.3 billion to the state's economy each year. In a statement announcing the grants, he said, "The greater the investment in our grape vineyards, the greater the potential for a profitable return."
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