Texas is a grape paradise? Yes, insist many Texas wine growers. And considering that the state currently produces over 50% of the known species of grape in the world, they may be right.
When Spanish missionaries arrived in Texas in the 1600’s, wild grapes were flourishing in the Texas countryside. By 1650, Father Garcia de San Fancisco y Zuniga, the father of present day El Paso, had begun cultivating Spanish black grape (Lenoir) into sacramental wine. During the next hundred years, the wine industry surrounding El Paso expanded as a result of irrigation projects developed by the Franciscan's. However, the Texas wine industry deteriorated in the early 1800’s because of the failure to increase the wine’s quality and the outbreak of the war with Mexico. In the late 1800’s the region received a large influx of European immigrants who brought with them wine making skills handed down by distant generations. These immigrants then started to vinify the local grapes that inhabited the region. One of these grapes still cultivated today is the Mustang grape.
The Mustang Grape belongs to the Vitis Mustangensis species of grape and grows wild throughout Texas and can also be found in northern Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Mustang grapes are very acidic, tart and according to Mustang expert Jack Keller, “almost impossible to eat with any degree of enjoyment.” Because of these characteristics, making wine from Mustang grapes is extremely challenging. Many are surprised that it is even possible to produce quality wine from this grape.
As European immigrants entered Texas in larger numbers, wine making expanded throughout the state. At the same time, T.V. Munson, a horticulturist from Illinois arrived in Texas, an event which changed wine history. Mr. Munson was a renowned expert on grape species and he developed numerous grape hybrids suitable for the Texas environment. After phylloxera destroyed more than 6 million acres of vineyards, the French wine industry requested Munson to send rootstock developed during his studies, where it was grafted with European vinifera. Munson's work along with another horticulturist, Hermann Jaeger, helped to save the European wine industry.
As the end of the 19th century approached, wine making was succeeding in most Texas regions. In 1883, the Qualia family established Val Verde Winery, growing Spanish black grape. The winery is the oldest continuing operating winery in Texas today. At the same time the wine industry was slowly perishing in El Paso. Nature played a part with numerous extended wet and dry periods. Economics also had a part; it became more profitable to raise truck crop produce than viticulture. Finally, the great flood of 1897 washed away a majority of the vineyards in the El Paso area, forcing many to give up the struggle. Though grapes would continue as a crop into the 20th century, this area would never regain its viticulture prominence.
During the early 20th century the Texas wine industry rose and fell depending on economic and weather conditions. However, Prohibition sent Texas wineries into extinction. Val Verde Winery was the only winery to survive this period, subsisting by growing table grapes. From the end of Prohibition until the mid 1970’s the wine industry never recovered with Val Verde Winery the sole commercial producer. In the late 1970's vineyards at A&M's Experimental Station in Lubbock began showing promising results for growing vinifera in Texas. This encouraged the emergence of a new generation of wineries, such as Guadalupe Valley Winery and Fall Creek Vineyards. In the 1980’s the Texas Legislature supported this trend by easing the rules required to establish small wineries. During the next two decades, the law of “Creative Destruction” exerted itself on the Teas wine industry as some wineries failed at the same time that new wineries were succeeding. Currently there are over 80 bonded Texas wineries, making Texas the 5th largest wine producing state. With many wineries awaiting permits and the increased number of Texas wineries winning international quality awards, the Texas wine industry appears extremely healthy.
The Mustang grape was also able to survive prohibition. Currently two Texas wineries vinify the grape: Lehm Berg Winery and Poteet Country Winery. Lehm Berg Winery is located in the central Texan town of Giddings and originated after father and son, Carl and Ben Droemer, collected wild mustang grapes and made 42 gallons of mustang grape wine from an old family recipe. After sharing their wine with friends and neighbors they were persuaded to open a commercial winery, which they finally completed in 2001. Today the winery sells three types of Mustang wine - Weiss, Rosa, and Rot – still using wild Mustang grapes and the old family recipe. They hope to encourage more people to use wild mustang grapes, which is quite possible – since the general public has responded positively to their Mustang offerings. Poteet Country Winery is located 30 minutes south of San Antonio. The winery currently produces a Mustang blend and a vintage White Mustang wine.