by Andrew Chalk
Following their surprise decision to open a second comment period on changing the Go Texan rule that 0% of the grapes in a wine marked ‘Go Texan’ must come from Texas, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) published what they call ‘clarifying comments’ on my rules change proposal to make the Go Texan mark on a wine require 100% Texas grapes in the bottle.
Far from clarifying, the TDA’s comments might be better described as ‘muddying’ as they confuse the revenues coming in to the Go Texan program with revenues coming in to the Texas wine industry. The TDA staff comments are not signed by one individual (the attorney’s name at the end is a procedural requirement), so they represent the department’s view. In other words, responsibility for changing the 0% rule ultimately goes up the chain of responsibility to Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Todd Staples.
The full text of the TDA comments is here, and I urge you to read it. It brings into sharp relief the outdated way of thinking about the Texas wine industry and the New Texas Wine Industry.
If you wanted a write a Go Texan rule that made it as easy as possible for people to push bulk out-of-state wine as Texas wine. Neither growing the grapes, nor making the wine in Texas, you would not change a single word of the current rule.
It discourages grape growers. It makes it harder for winemakers to compete with 0% wine in the market.
The outdated way of thinking about the Texas wine industry goes back 20+ years when there were just a few dozen wineries making wine in the state, and virtually no grape growers. At that time, there were people who shipped tankers of California jug wine into the state, mixed it, and sold it with Texas symbology all over the label. Frequently, they used “For Sale In Texas Only” on small print on the back label. This exempted them from having to comply with the Federal Law that grape origin to be on all labels of wine “placed into interstate commerce”. They could put pictures of brooding Texas Hill Country artists, or statements about “Texas Style”, on their labels that mislead consumers to believe that this was, in fact, a Texas wine.
Vineyard at Square Cloud Winery, Parker County
An important point is that, 20 years ago, the Texas wine industry was so small that such misrepresentation did not harm many producers. It was morally indefensible to mislead consumers, but there were not many grape growers or Texas winemakers on the producing side to be damaged.
Wind forward to 2014. There are now almost 300 wineries approved in the state of Texas. Although fewer than half are producing at the current time, the trend is clear. Texas is the fifth largest wine grape growing state. Texas wines routinely win medals in national and international wine competitions. This situation was inconceivable to most people 20 years ago.
These new wineries are the New Texas Wine Industry. To see if your favorite winery is part of it, ask these questions:
- Do they make their own wine, rather than buy tankers of bulk wine from California (or elsewhere)?
- Do they make wine from Texas grapes? Either grapes they grow, or from the hundreds of independent vineyards around the state.
- If they make wine from out-of-state grapes, do they label it with the the legal geographical place of origin (e.g. “American”) or do they put “For Sale In Texas Only” in tiny type on the back label? If the latter, run a mile. This winery is not just selling out of state wine, they are trying to hide the fact. They almost certainly did not make it either (they just bought bulk wine and had it shipped in a tanker truck).
- If they make some wine from out-of-state grapes and some from Texas grapes, do they have a separate label for each source? They should. This is the a very clear way of delimiting origin.
- If they make some wine from out-of-state grapes, is this a short-term measure until their own, or their grape suppliers’, vineyards produce enough to supply 100% of their anticipated needs? If they say it is, ask them how they are going about that.
- Are they committed to transparency about the origin of their grapes and their winemaking? The outdated school regards questions about this as an impertinent intrusion. The New Texas Wine Industry “gets it” (just like craft beer, spirit and food producers do) that people simply care more than they used to about where their food and beverages come from.
Newsom Vineyards, Texas High Plains
If you want to see the New Texas Wine Industry as a fact on the ground, spend a day driving down U.S. 290 from Dripping Springs to Fredericksburg and then down U.S. 87 to Comfort. You won’t see every good Texas winery (and you will see some places just pushing bulk juice to passing party buses at the weekend) but you will take in a concentration of over a dozen examples of the New Texas Wine Industry in action.
Just as it seemed inconceivable that this could exist 20 years ago, it is hard to conceive today that we may have seen “nothing yet”. To paraphrase the words of Texas wine consultant Bobby Cox “of course we have a grape supply problem, we only have five million acres in the High Plains”. That statement exemplifies how colossal the Texas wine industry could grow and that the industry may well still be in its infancy.
There are lots of problems to be tackled on the way. One is the Go Texan 0% rule. In its opinion, disingenuously described as ‘clarifying comments’, the TDA sides with the outdated model of the Texas wine industry as California juice brokers. This is a big mistake for Texas wine. I have no doubt that there are staffers at the TDA who disagree with the department’s stand, but at the present time they don’t have the prevailing influence. The TDA needs to get out in front of the New Texas Wine Industry the way that state governments in other emerging states like Oregon and Virginia do. The first thing they should do is put Texas back in Go Texan.
If you have not expressed your opposition to the 0% rule, send your comments here before February 10th.