August 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

Texas Wine Industry Debates Labeling Law

by Andrew Adams

Austin, Texas—If a proposed law had been passed by Texas state lawmakers in the most recent legislative session, all wines bearing a Texas appellation would have been required to use 100% Texas grapes.

While the federal government requires that wineries use just 75% appellation grapes for state labeling, California and Oregon require 100%, and Washington state mandates 95%. Texas requires just 75%, but lawmakers had introduced legislation that would have changed that to 100% effective Sept. 1.

The bill never made it out of committee, but it did ignite a contentious debate about labeling laws in a state that is home to a fast-growing industry but one that has struggled with grape shortages.

The proposed legislation was submitted by lawmakers, but changing the labeling requirement is an issue championed by Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett, the owners of William Chris Vineyards in Hye, Texas. The winery launched a petition on about the issue and has since rallied a group of eight other wineries to form an organization and commit to using nothing but Texas grapes. The group’s mission is “to promote and protect the integrity of Texas wine by making wines solely from grapes grown in the terroir of Texas.”

In a blog post on their winery’s website, Brundrett and Blackmon also announced they had pulled their winery out of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) because of the labeling dispute.

Paul Mitchell Bonarrigo, CEO of the Messina Hof winery founded by his mother and father, said he and the rest of the industry in the state were “blindsided” by the proposal.

Bonarrigo, who is a TWGGA board member, told Wines & Vines he only learned of the bill after it had been introduced to the legislature. “First of all, my winery makes more 100% Texas wine than anyone else in the state,” he said, adding he is a firm believer in the sanctity of using grapes of a specific origin and place.

He pointed out, however, that the TWGGA holds a series of regional meetings with growers and vintners to determine what are the most important issues for the industry to focus on during the legislative session. While the labeling issue did come up, it wasn’t of enough concern from members to warrant TWGGA’s attention.

Instead the bill was introduced with a Sept. 1 deadline, which surprised Bonarrigo and others in the Texas wine industry. “It needs to be a conversation we have as an industry with a timeline,” he said. “It was really done in poor taste in my opinion.”

TWGGA now has assigned a committee to focus on the issue, and Bonarrigo is confident they’ll have a fully vetted proposal for the next legislative session in 2019. “We now have a nice year and a half to come up with a plan,” he said.

Total acreage uncertain
A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service found the state had around 5,000 total vineyard acres and 3,800 bearing acres. The region with the most bearing acres is the Texas High Plains and Panhandle with 1,650 acres. The 2015 state harvest totaled 11,400 tons with an average yield of 3 tons per acre.

Bonarrigo said the USDA figures don’t have the complete picture, and based on his knowledge of Texas vineyards, there are probably around 3,800 acres of bearing vineyards in just the High Plains AVA. Another challenge in Texas, Bonarrigo said, is that there is little reliable and accurate data on the size of the industry. “We’ve come to the realization that without data we’re really hurting ourselves.”

Part of the problem is that many wineries in Texas aren’t located near those vineyards. This coming harvest, Bonarrigo said his company arranged for a truck to haul grapes from the High Plains, and 30 other companies will have fruit on that truck.

But even if logistical challenges were solved, the state’s vineyards probably wouldn’t be able to support the demand for Texas grapes. Add a serious frost or hail event, and the supply is even more constrained. Some growers in the state put Texas’ capacity at closer to 15,000 tons in a good vintage and say that’s more than enough for the state’s wineries. 

In what was widely reported as a contentious and heated session, the two sides expressed their support or opposition to the bill in a hearing this spring.

Opponents said the bill was a shrewd marketing move by a small group of wineries and growers who are ignoring the realities of growing wine grapes in Texas. Proponents of the bill argued using non-Texas fruit is an insult to the growing industry and the real resistance to stricter labeling is from wineries that use cheaper and widely available out-of-state grapes to pad their programs and keep prices artificially low.

At the hearing, Bonarrigo said labeling grew to be the most “divisive and damaging” issue the state’s industry has faced in a decade.

Brundrett said he and the other members of the new Texas Wine Growers were surprised by how much opposition they received from others in the Texas wine industry but remain committed to their vision. “We want to continue to grow the Texas wine industry and want our consumers to know that if we put Texas on the label, it means as much as Washington or California,” he said in an email. “We respect the wineries in our state. They have incredible businesses, but we want to do it differently. Opposition and difference of opinion is good sometimes as it drives the industry.”

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