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New Grape Region : Texas Wine: Taste It and Believe It

June 01, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

LUBBOCK, Tex. — Napa Valley take note: Chateau de Bubba, vin du Lone Star, has arrived.

Up north of Lubbock, along a rutted dirt road, is a winery. As far as the eye can see around it--and that's forever on the Texas high plains--there's nothing but cotton fields and towns like New Deal and Idalou and Shallowater, but this is where a Texan named Bobby Cox is producing wine that would make Bacchus do back flips.

Drive south out of Lubbock and there's another winery, called Llano Estacado, which has, besides a high-sounding name, a passel of medals for excellence in its tasting room. These folks' Chardonnay won a double gold award (the highest) last year at the San Francisco Fair and Wine Competition. Only 11 such awards were given out in a comparison of 1,955 wines, including a bunch from California.

Bobby Cox's Pheasant Ridge label Cabernet Sauvignon won a gold medal in that same competition, and his Chardonnay is on the wine list at Spago in Los Angeles.

Chateau de Whom?

No winery is actually called Chateau de Bubba. That's just the Texans' way of acknowledging the humble surroundings of their highfalutin product. After all, this is wine from a place where hailstones come the size of golf balls and sandstorms can peel the paint off a car. It is also, however, a place of fine, sandy soil, hot days and cool nights--grape country.

"If this region had been settled by the Portuguese or Italians, there would be 500,000 acres of grapes and it would be a world-famous region," Cox said.

The region was settled by God-fearing teetotalers, and the imbibing citizens of dry Lubbock have to drive out the Tahoka Highway to buy their booze, but that has not stopped the wine makers here--and there are more on the way. The same is true in other parts of the state as well, around Tow, Driftwood and Fredericksburg. In 1975, there was one winery in Texas. Today there are 22.

Wine Maker's View

"The sky's the limit," said Don Brady, Llano Estacado's 25-year-old wine maker.

Leon Adams, generally considered America's preeminent wine historian, concurs effusively:

"There's no question the high plains is a viticulture miracle. No one realized this area could produce world-class wines. It is an amazing story."

Not that California's wine barons need to fret just yet about Texas or the 38 other wine-producing states. Roughly 90% of the wines produced in the United States still come from California, where about half the country's 1,200 wineries are located.

Still, there is growing interest in regional wines, as witnessed by the success of some Pacific Northwest vineyards. Adams is also high on wines from New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Virginia. Larry Walker, managing editor of Wines and Vines magazine, which reports on the grape and wine industry, said that wineries recently were started in two other unlikely parts of the country: Kansas and Montana.

"There's a lot of interest in places where you wouldn't expect to see it," he said.

New Use for Land

Surely there is interest in Texas, where a bleak oil and farm economy is making converts of some who wouldn't ordinarily be lured by the grape. On the high plains, farmers who once grew only cotton are planting vineyards. Agriculture specialists are conducting seminars on the basics of viticulture, and about 4,000 acres of Texas is planted in wine grapes.

Start-up costs are high. The vines must be tended lovingly for at least five years before they produce wine-quality fruit. Cox, for one, was forced to sell 20% of his winery to raise cash. The largest Texas winery, Ste. Genevieve in Fort Stockton, was repossessed last year but continues to operate as new investors are sought.

Jim Hightower, the state agriculture commissioner, is convinced that Texas wine is here to stay and that it will be a major industry.

"In only a single decade, Texas wine producers have gone from being giggled at to winning gold medals," he said. "When it's fully uncorked, the Texas wine industry will mean $3 billion a year to our state's economy."

'Texas Blush' Ridiculed

Certainly "giggled at" is an understatement. The Chicago Tribune's Mike Royko fairly hooted in his column only last year, when the Ste. Genevieve winery introduced a new variety.

"I am taking it upon myself to declare the macho image of Texas as being stone-cold dead," Royko wrote. "Let Billy Bob and Bubba keep on wearing their snakeskin boots and Stetson hats, cooking whole steers on spits, bellowing for blood at football games, singing about Willie and Waylon and the boys and remembering the Alamo.

"But it's all over. I have conclusive evidence before me of the wimping of Texas. It's a breathless announcement about a new wine called--get this pardners--'Texas First Blush.' "

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