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Trouble Ahead for Texas Wine?

Proposed state cuts would eliminate support to vineyards and wineries; Oklahoma vintners fight changes there

by Jane Firstenfeld
becker farms winery texas
Speaking of possible funding cuts in the Texas state budget, Bret Perrenoud of Becker Farms (above) said, "Our grassroots effort is the only thing we have."
Austin, Texas—Progress for the growing Texas grape and wine industry is imperiled by a proposed state budget that would eliminate the entire $4.3 million fund used to train winemakers, conduct research on grapegrowing, establish much-needed vineyards and market Texas winegrapes. Texas’ grape and wine industry—currently 189 wineries, according to WinesVinesDATA—is estimated to pump some $1.7 billion into the state economy each year.

The Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association and individual members are vigorously fighting to maintain at least some of the funding—although significant reductions remain likely, given economic realities.

“The cornerstone of our legislative activities has always been grassroots,” Dacota Haselwood, TWGGA’s chief governmental affairs officer, told Wines & Vines. “That machine is going to be very active, and already has been. We’ve hosted two legislative advocacy days this year to make sure that legislators know vineyards and wineries exist in their districts. From 2007 to 2009, while other industries shrunk, ours grew in both gallons and number of wineries.”

The proposed cuts, she added, “Are devastating to the industry.” Haselwood pointed out that if all funding is eliminated, Texas’ viticulture extension agents would be out of work. In a state that’s perpetually short of homegrown winegrapes, they have played a key role in attempting to balance out the grapegrowing and winegrowing sides of the industry, helping existing and novice grapegrowers to add much-needed local vineyard acreage.

“Protecting the all-important viticulture advisors is a top priority,” she said. “All the programs would fall by the wayside. Overcoming this issue is vital.” Texas has also been in the vanguard of research into grape varieties and pest/disease control, including Pierce’s disease. Many if not all of these programs would suffer from the cuts.

Bret Perrenoud, general manager and vineyard manager at 65,000-case Becker Farms, Stonewall, Texas, conceded there “very likely will be significant cuts, it’s just a matter of where and how much. This will impact people. Our grassroots effort is the only thing we have.” If the $4.3 million goes to zero, he pointed out, it will also eliminate the state’s “huge” marketing budget, including brochure printing and similar efforts.

Perrenoud recently visited the capital in Austin twice, testifying in favor of a bill that would benefit wineries like Becker Farms. Senate Bill 411/House Bill 1366 would raise the cap on off-premise tasting room wine sales from 35,000 to 50,000 gallons. Becker Farms, he said, expects to exceed that limit on direct-to-consumer sales this fall. “More than likely, that will go through,” he said hopefully.

As to when the state budget—whatever it includes—will be passed, “Cuts are going to come. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out.”

“Will they pass a budget?” Haselwood pondered. “Nobody knows the answer. That’s the $64,000 question.”

Oklahoma changes: Later, not sooner
The wine industry in Texas’ northern neighbor dodged a bullet, at least for now. There, following protests from industry members, State Bill 659 has been postponed until the 2012 legislative session. The bill would have made winery owners responsible for employees who serve minors (“vicarious responsibility”); restricted sample sizes at festivals and trade shows to 1-ounce; required use of only Oklahoma-grown grapes, and closed wineries on Sundays.

Gene Clifton, who owns 4,000-case Canadian River Vineyards & Winery LLC in Lexington, Okla., and who serves as president of the newly formed Oklahoma Grape Industry Council, told Wines & Vines that his organization will seek a seat or two on a committee of industry stakeholders and legislators, now being formed to examine and negotiate about all aspects of the bill.

He pointed out that, if passed, the bill would have to be validated by a popular vote, since all Oklahoma wine laws are part of the state’s constitution.

Clifton estimated that now only about 20%-30% of Oklahoma wines are produced with state-grown grapes. (WinesVinesDATA currently lists 58 operating wineries.) “We will never have enough grapes,” Clifton said. “There are many small vineyards, but it’s a new industry.” If approved, the OK-only grapes provision would put many small wineries out of business, he said. “I don’t think that will ever fly. I’m not too worried about that. It would be insane.”

Operating wineries, he said, paid just $75 for their state licenses. The legislators would like to raise that to $625 for wineries that import grapes from elsewhere.

Although Canadian River already closes on Sunday (it’s open six days per week), Clifton also noted that, as in most wine regions, many wineries do most of their business on weekends.

As long as constitutional issues are on the negotiating table, he said, he’d like to get wine sales in grocery stores. “If they put that on the ballot, it will pass,” he said.

The Oklaho ma Grape Industry Council, which already has 20 winery members, will hold an open organizational meeting at 10:30 a.m. March 29 at the Noble Public Library, just south of Oklahoma City. Clifton invited all interested parties to attend. “We’re facing serious issues,” he emphasized.

Posted on 03.24.2011 - 22:20:13 PST
Surprising there are no comments on this as yet so I'll light the fuse and get away. The USA faces a myriad of challenges to Empire. In the realm of agriculture subsidies and government support - the pervasive thinking that this model is not only the envy of the world, but that American agricultural practice must of course be exported around the globe is suicidal. The empire is crumbling fast. Stand on your own strengths.

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