This Wednesday, the Texas Wine and Grape Grower’s Association (TWGGA) meets in Austin to hold their ‘Legislative Forum’. It’s a meeting to discuss all things legislative relating to the Texas wine industry. By a remarkable coincidence, I had a dream the other night in which Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, appeared and proceeded to replace the TWGGA President’s opening address with a speech of his own. I reached into the back of his rental car and glimpsed this text.
“Fellow Texas grape growers and winemakers. This year, the Texas wine industry stands at a crossroads. We know that we have regions that can grow grapes as well as anywhere in the world. We know that we have viticulturalists as expert as those in other regions. We know that we can make world class wines from those grapes, witness the success of TWGGA member wineries in the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition (a competition that is, in the view of many informed observers, the most competitive in the United States).
We know, that we have more expertise with each year that goes by. We may not be as knowledgeable about grape growing and winemaking in our state as, for example, Californians are with theirs, but there is now a core of expertise. We have learned, for example, more about which grapes grow well in Texas (for example, Viognier among the whites and Tempranillo among the reds).
There is hope that Pierce’s disease, a bain across a broad swath of the southeast of our state, may be beaten by modern insecticides and vine genetic research.
Vineyard acreage in the state continues to grow and, perhaps more importantly, its location in the state continues to diversify. This reduces the chance that bad weather can have a devastating effect on the state’s grape supply.
All the above are pluses TWGGA members. However, we also have some minuses and some of those are amenable to legislative changes. Why don’t Texas wines fill more than a few percent of the wines drunk in Texas? Why are there essentially no sales outside the state? I have already indicated that it isn’t a quality deficit. Also, prices aren’t out of line. Look, for example, at the prices of these Viognier wines. To me, they look lower than the prices of equivalent quality California Viognier.
No, the biggest minus is a lack of credibility because so many wines that are sold as Texas wines are in fact imported from California. I am talking, of course, about the practice of labeling California wines as “For Sale In Texas Only” (FSiTO). I once came across a Texas grape grower and winemaker who said that he had to resell California wine because there simply weren’t enough Texas grapes. It turned out he had been in business over twenty years. What has he been doing all that time? He could have plastered every square inch of the state with grapes. He isn’t short of Texas grapes because of an unanticipated bad harvest, he is short of Texas grapes by design. His business model is to grow a few grapes in Texas but to be a broker of California wine sold under the name of his Texas winery.
It is true that California produces great grapes but is a costly and overregulated place to do business. Texas, by contrast, continues to win polls of the best states to do business. So why not use California fruit but put the winery in Texas. This would produce wines that would be labelled ‘American’ but would sell based on the quality of the brand. Much like the ‘Super Tuscans’ of Italy. The back labels of the bottles and the winery’s web site could explain the process. Nobody would object to this as concealing the origin of the grapes. None of these bottles would have ‘Go Texan’, or Texas symbology plastered on the front label. This is California wine made in Texas, plain and simple.
The problem is that that isn’t how FSiTO works. You and I know the dirty little secret that 99% of the FSiTO wine is not Harlan Estate or Screaming Eagle. It is California jug wine. In the same category as Two Buck Chuck. It is bought in bulk to be put onto supermarket shelves in the Texas section hoping that consumers will think that it is Texas wine. This isn’t Texas wine making in any sense. This is a business model of the ‘winery’ as broker. The result of it is that consumers discover the deceit and just go and by ‘real’ California wine. The market for real Texas wine is killed by the fake stuff. You know, a guy named George Akerlof won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing how this happened. He called it ‘The Market for Lemons’ in reference to the used car market. If bad used cars are not distinguishable from ‘cream puff’ used cars, the cream puff used cars disappear from the market and you have ‘A Market of Lemons’. This is what FSiTO does to Texas grape growers and Texas wineries. Why grow grapes here or make quality wine here if someone can import plonk from California and masquerade it as Texas wine? Why grow grapes here if there is no market for Texas wine? The California crutch of FSiTO is a canker in our midst.
Of course, there is a fledgling Texas wine industry due to the hard work and skills of, typically, families that grind through many tough years as they sell one customer at a time to build up a following. My point is that it is much, much smaller than it would be if we got rid of FSiTO. I honestly see the Texas wine industry as being comfortably ten times its current size with corresponding increases in grape acreage if we get rid of FSiTO once and for all.
TWGGA should not be the mouthpiece of the wineries using FSiTO as their business model. It should not defend the indefensible status quo, which dates from an era when there was no Texas wine industry worth defending. Have you ever heard of ‘For Sale in California Only’ or ‘For Sale in Bordeaux Only’? The Texas wine needs to be a grown up wine industry and TWGGA should be the leader in setting the quality bar unambiguously higher than anywhere else.
So this legislative session, TWGGA should press for state law changes that would requires FSiTO wines to be labeled ‘American’ and state the source of the grapes on the back label. They should also ban Texas symbology on the labels and prevent other tricks and artifices like calling back labels front labels to trick the system.
Go Texan should be reserved for wine that are 100% from Texas grapes. It would cease being the meaningless mark that it is now on a bottle of wine (last week, I heard of one ‘Go Texan’ wine that was 90% California fruit) and become a ‘gold standard’ that would provide consumers with a unified and uniform front label symbol of authenticity. Of course, a wine is not inherently good just because it is made with Texas grapes – that is the result of hard work in the vineyard and the winery and nature’s cooperation, but fixing the authenticity issue will help raise quality standards.
If we get the legislature to make those changes, the Texas wine industry will be on a new trajectory. One on which it can grow larger, with higher quality products, than on the present course. The days when consumers did not care where their meat, their fish – and their wine came from are over for good. Let’s adjust.”