Texas has nearly 300 wineries – but only on paper. Only about half that number are actually producing. Some wines come with Hill Country poets on the front label, “For Sale In Texas Only” on the back label, and California jug wine inside the bottle. Some wines with “Go Texan” on the front label come all the way from California as well. Some wineries have tiny back labels that look like they were printed on Aunt Mable’s ink jet printer and declare the origin of the grapes in tiny type. The front label says nothing about origin. This apparent violation of Federal labeling law is defended with the statement that the tiny ink jet label on the back is in fact the front label!
Amazingly, there are some Texas wineries that think these kind of tricks and sharp practices are perfectly OK. With this kind of ethos, can a quality restaurant stock and serve Texas wine?
The answer is that the tricksters are in retreat. Confined to fewer and fewer offenders who are being crowded out by the verdant modern Texas quality wine industry. These wineries are like artisan food producers and restaurants who practice full transparency as a matter of course and refuse to exploit gaps in the law that allow for less than fully honest dealing. They set their own standards of conduct that far exceed legal minimums.
These wineries are producing better and better Texas wine each year. They now beat California wines in blind tastings by professionals. They win medals against global competition. Smart buyers are snapping them up. When Inwood Estates released a Chardonnay grown in a vineyard within the City of Dallas that was on a par with comparatively priced ($50/bottle) California Chardonnays, all 14 cases were sold in 10 days.
Such a level of achievement was inconceivable just 10 years ago.
So what is the standing of Texas wine with consumers? I decided to examine that question by looking at that zone of high quality wine consumption, the restaurant wine list, and find out how often Texas wines make the lists at top Dallas restaurants.
I sent a survey to the members of the Dallas Sommelier Society (DSS), the professional organization of wine servers and wine directors in Dallas. I asked them how many Texas wines they had on their list, and which ones.
Sommeliers were essential in this study. They work with the customer hundreds of times each week. They know what sells like hotcakes and what needs, as they say, a “hand sell” (to some extent the sommelier has to use their knowledge and skill to convince the customer to order that wine).
The results below reflect those sommeliers that replied, so if your favorite restaurant isn’t here, the sommelier may simply not have responded.
The responses may also reflect over-favorably on the prevalence of Texas wine. Members of the DSS, as of any professional group, represent the most enthusiastic and best trained people in the industry.
I narrowed my choice to the Dallas area, as that was where I had most of my contacts, but I would love it if a media colleague were to repeat this examination in Houston, Austin or the emerging gourmet town of San Antonio.
Also, bear in mind that some restaurant lists are confined to the country of the food of the restaurant. For example, established Italian restaurant Arcodoro & Pomodoro serves only Italian wines, and the new Spanish restaurant Casa Rubia serves only wines of the Iberian Peninsula (not just Spanish wines, as some media outlets erroneously reported).
With these caveats, the results astonished me. Texas wine is a fixture on just about every list. There are even restaurants where customers routinely ask for Texas wine. To them ‘local’ doesn’t stop at the rim of the plate, it extends to the glass as well. I might mention, in passing, that the same kind of enthusiasm extends to locally-brewed beer. It is no longer unsophisticated to order to order a local, artisanal beer in a white tablecloth restaurant (as member number 138 of the Campaign for Real Ale I regard that as a thoroughly good thing). Texas spirits, especially whiskey, are seeing the same trend.
The presence of Texas wine isn’t universal, however. More on that below.
The Tourist Customer
Devin Turney is the sommelier at Bob’s Steak and Chop House in Plano. Their location at The Shops at Legacy puts them at the heart of dozens of corporate headquarters in West Plano and Frisco. They serve a lot of out-of-town executives meeting colleagues. He told me that it is commonplace for these out-of-town visitors to ask for Texas wine. They have heard of it, can’t obtain it in New York, or California and approach it with an air of fascination tinged with skepticism. Little wonder that the restaurant has 12-15 Texas wines on rotation at any one time. Popular names are Becker Vineyards Tempranillo, Cap Rock Winery Viognier, Fall Creek Vineyards Muscat and Llano Estacado 1836. Also popular is TX whiskey (distilled in Fort Worth) and Balcones whiskey (distilled in Waco).
At Sēr, at the Hilton Anatole Hotel, they have five Texas wines. One from Fall Creek, two from McPherson and two from Pedernales. They confirm tourists seek out Texas wines.
At the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, sommelier Jeremy King has six Texas wines: Becker Chardonnay and Merlot, Fall Creek ‘Meritus’ (Cabernet Sauvignon), Llano Estacado Viviano (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese blend), McPherson Viognier and Tranquilo Cellars Red Blend,
The Steakhouse Customer
At Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in north Dallas, Wine Director Jeffrey Andrus has 10-12 Texas wines. They include wines from Becker, Duchman Family Winery and Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay-Palomino.
At Del Frisco’s Grille in Uptown, sommelier Courtney Keeling reports that they have Becker Tempranillo, Duchman Sangiovese, Tranquilo Tempranillo and ‘Come and Drink It’ white blend.
Dallas largest wine list is at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse where sommelier Jason Huerta carries 10 Texas wines including Inwood Estates Tempranillo-Cabernet, Kiepersol Estates Merlot, La Cruz de Comal Wines Troubadour (Lenoir), McPherson Viognier, Roussanne and Syrah/Mourvedre and Sandstone Cellars Touriga.
At the Dallas Country Club, Wine Director Aaron Benson has Brennan Vineyards Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon, Duchman Vermentino, McPherson Cellars Roussanne, several Fall Creek wines, a Texas Fuqua Winery wine, Inwood Estates ‘Magellan’ (a Bordeaux blend) and Pedernales Cellars Tempranillo.
Royal Oak Country Club has no Texas wines due to a lack of demand according to sommelier Zsholt Vager.
Popular restaurants are also going local. Kristin Wisniewski, Managing Partner and Wine Buyer at Fireside Pies has no fewer than four Texas wines at the four original locations. 2010 Armadillo’s Leap Red Blend, 2012 Duchman Trebbiano, 2012 McPherson ‘Les Copains’ White Blend and 2011 Pedernales Tempranillo. She sums up the market thus “Texas wines have gained traction over the last year. The resurgence of the local craft beer scene and several reputable Texas spirits across the metroplex have gained the curiosity of our customers. Texas wines seem to be that next step to the ‘drink local’ movement for our customers. All of the Texas wines that have been placed on our lists have received an overwhelmingly positive response. We are converting New World and Old World drinkers one glass at a time.”
The Upmarket Chains
Chris Morgan is Divisional Beverage Manager for Landry’s, which owns Oceanaire and Morton’s. He explains “We have not mandated any Texas wines to our core lists for Morton’s or Oceanaire. However, we are looking at how to incorporate local products (beer, wine, and spirits) into our national program. The craft segment of both beer and spirits is on fire and we believe that local wines, when quality dictates, will follow suit.” This likely means Texas wines at both these establishments in 2014 at Texas locations. Arizona wines at Arizona locations, etc.
George Miliotes, who holds a similar position to Morgan at Darden’s Capital Grille/Seasons 52, is considering a similar local program there.
The New Boys
I did not hear from any of the new restaurants in town. But I took a look at their lists online. There is a disappointing selection among some: Lark On The Park has only McPherson Viognier despite the restaurant’s attraction to out-of-town visitors. At LUCK you have slightly more luck. There are only two wines available at that beer-centric temple and they are both from Duchman (Vermentino and Montepulciano). Others do better. Resto Gastro Bistro has McPherson Roussanne, Pedernales Viognier (misspelled as ‘Pendernales’ online) and Kiepersol Syrah. Kitchen LTO has 3 Texas wines and Stampede 66 has one of the largest selections in town: 14 wines.
What Should a Sommelier Do?
Wine directors and somms. who are wondering what to add to their lists without too lengthy a search process could do worse that using these crib sheets: Viognier and Roussanne are, in my opinion, the two best grapes in the state. Tempranillo is the best red.
What Should a Customer Do?
If you like a restaurant but they don’t have any Texas wines on the list, ask the sommelier (or, if they do not have one, the manager) why not. Most restaurants want to know what their customers want and stock their lists based on demand.