About two hours’ drive southwest of Fort Worth, Comanche (pop. 4,214) has never experienced a boom of much of anything. Not unless you count the gunshots fired in the town’s saloon in 1874, when outlaw John Wesley Hardin killed the deputy sheriff.
Between the High Plains and the Hill Country, the land here is more rock than dirt. Limestone, mostly. The landscape is otherwise grassy, shrubby and dotted with wild mesquite and pecan trees that grow near the creeks. At one time, acres of cotton and peanuts were harvested here, but not anymore.
Today what’s growing here is something far more hopeful. About a half-mile south of the courthouse square, the landmark of the still economically struggling town, nine acres of vineyards planted with grapes of French, Italian and Spanish origin are being transformed into award-winning wines.
Brennan Vineyards is one of the state’s leaders and a success story in an industry that historically has not been taken seriously.
Chances are, if you tasted a wine from Texas more than a decade ago, you might have sworn off them forever. Back then, people bought Texas wines for white elephant gifts. Texas wines were a joke. The reason was simple. First-generation Texas winemakers were growing grapes that weren’t appropriate for the state’s brutal, hot-one-day, cold-the-next climate.
“[Winemakers] said everybody needs to drink cabernet, chardonnay and merlot, and they tried to copy California, but that’s not what grows best here,” says Debbie Reynolds, executive director of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. “It took trial and error and thinking about what’s best for our climate. [Texas] is comparable to the Mediterranean region, the Spanish region, and winemakers started looking at varietals that grew well in those climates.”
It worked. According to Reynolds, in 2005, there were about 100 winemakers in Texas, and today, there are more than 400. The economic impact has grown, too, from $1 billion 12 years ago to $2.72 billion today.
Texas wineries have found their footing, and the quality of the wines has steadily increased. Texas wines are winning awards. And, perhaps most telling, savvy Texans are buying them, and then buying some more. The Texas section of Central Market Fort Worth’s wine department has exploded.
THERE’S A TEXAS WINE FOR EVERYBODY . I DON’T BELIEVE YOU CAN BRING ME ANYBODY I DON’T HAVE A TEXAS WINE FOR.
Central Market beer and wine manager Jonathan “J.R.” Clark
“Since I got here 10 years ago, we’ve tripled the number of Texas wines we carry,” says the store’s beer and wine manager, Jonathan “J.R.” Clark. “Right now, I have about 100 Texas wines.”
Clark says about one-third of his customers come in to buy Texas wines (there are several Facebook pages devoted to Texas wine drinkers). Another third fall into the tried-it-once, never-again category, and still another third might be open to them if they gave them a try, he says.
“There’s a Texas wine for everybody,” says Clark. “I don’t believe you can bring me anybody I don’t have a Texas wine for.”
In 1997, Pat Brennan, a retired physician who’d practiced for 30 years as a kidney disease specialist in Fort Worth, bought a house on 4 acres in Comanche for his family to enjoy on the weekends. The idea was to spend half the year there and the other half at their beach house in Charleston, S.C., where he’s from. A year later, when 33 acres adjacent to the property became available for a good price, he bought that, too, even though it was, by anyone’s definition, a nightmare, and hardly the ocean view his wife had dreamed of — they sold the beach house, in fact, to pay for the additional acreage.
“It was the unofficial city dump, filled with everything from old tires to refrigerators and washing machines,” says Brennan. “We had no concrete plans for the land, and certainly not for a vineyard.”
But Brennan and his wife of 50 years, Trellise, loved wine, and their vacations were often wine-centric. They traveled to Napa Valley, where they shared a bottle of a 1975 Mondavi Cabernet that he still talks about today; Verona, Italy, for the Amarone della Valpolicella; and Provence, for the chilly rosés.
He was friends with Richard Becker, also a retired physician, who’d started Becker Vineyards in Fredericksburg 10 years before, and who already had been winning awards for his viognier wines. Says Brennan, “I was talking to him about how he got started, and he said, ‘We had this property in Fredericksburg and didn’t know what to do with it,’ and I thought that sounded sort of familiar.”
Brennan decided to learn how to grow grapes. He signed up for viticulture classes at Grayson College in Denison, home of Thomas V. Munson, the famous viticulturist credited with saving the French wine industry in the 19th century. When an epidemic of microscopic vine- and leaf-eating insects known as phylloxera wiped out the country’s vineyards, Munson provided them with phylloxera-resistant, wild Texas grapes to reboot the industry. The limey soil in France, it turns out, wasn’t that different from what’s found in Texas. “So today, 99 percent of grapes grown in Europe are basically from Texas root stock,” says Brennan.
WE FIGURED IF WE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT WE WERE DOING AND COULD MAKE A DECENT WINE, [WE SHOULD BUILD A WINERY].
Winemaker Pat Brennan
In 2002, Brennan planted 5 acres with 5,400 vines of three grape varietals — viognier, syrah, and cabernet (malbec was added later, in 2004), not really knowing if they’d grow well. “The reason we chose those three was because the viognier and syrah were from the southern part of France, and cabernet because it was our favorite grape and we wanted to grow it,” he says.
His first viognier and syrah harvest was in 2003. “It was 111 degrees that day,” he says. “We did it all by hand, put the grapes in buckets, then we’d dump them in bins. We sold all of those [grapes] to Becker Vineyards.” He kept the cabernet grapes for himself, signed up for oenology classes, and made his first bottles of wine — drinkable, but no medal-winner — in the garage of a friend who’d already bought basic winemaking equipment. “We figured if we didn’t know what we were doing and could make a decent wine, [we should build a winery].”
Brennan bought a secondhand grape harvester from France and hired a company with a special bulldozer to come in and rip into the earth three or four feet down in order to break up the rocks. A tractor cleared the land of debris and he had the mesquite trees removed. Fencing was installed around the property to keep the deer out. Trellises and irrigation completed the makeover. The grapes grew, and so did the wine business. In 2006, he signed a lease on property in Newburg, 11 miles south, to grow more viognier and cabernet grapes and added nero d’Avola, tempranillo and mourvèdre.
Brennan now grows 11 types of grapes and makes 13 different wines, producing about 9,000 cases annually under two different labels: Brennan Vineyards, which sell at $14 to $25 per bottle, and his lower-priced Austin Street line, for $11 to $15. Today, Brennan Vineyards is one of the most esteemed winemakers in the state, and Brennan’s wines consistently win awards — routinely beating out California, Oregon and Washington wines.
Most recently, Brennan Vineyards picked up the best of class for his 2015 Reserve Viognier and gold for the 2015 Roussanne and 2014 Tempranillo at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. And at the TexSom International Wine Awards, a blind tasting of more than 3,500 wines by sommeliers, Brennan picked up Top Texas Red for his 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon and Top Texas White for his 2015 Roussanne.
“It’s terrifically rewarding and we’re very proud of [the awards], but to be honest with you, wine competitions are a crap shoot,” says Brennan. “You may win a double gold in one, a bronze in one, and nothing in a third, but we love it when we do well. It’s rewarding when you see a consistent pattern for a wine that does well. Our roussanne has been the best this year, but historically, it’s been the viognier.”
Most Texas winemakers and vineyards are concentrated in a handful of designated regions around the state, called American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, for short. The Hill Country has the highest concentration and is the second largest AVA in the country. Grapes also are grown in the High Plains, Fredericksburg, Davis Mountains, Mesilla Valley, Texoma, Bell Mountain, and Escondido. Nationwide, the state ranks as the fifth-largest wine producer and seventh-largest grape producer.
Even so, not all of the grapes used in Texas wines may be from the state. The law requires that only 75 percent of the grapes be Texas-grown (85 percent in AVAs), so you might be drinking part of a California wine, after all. Labels aren’t required to say how much of the wine is Texas-grown.
“I try not to push the wines that aren’t 100 percent Texas because it’s not indicative of what we are,” says Central Market’s Clark.
Brennan’s wines are made with all Texas-grown grapes; the most successful is one of the three that he started with, the French viognier. “I can’t keep Brennan’s viognier on the shelves,” says Clark. “It has the weight of a chardonnay, but isn’t buttery.”
But if high-quality Texas wines are selling so well to consumers, why aren’t there more on restaurant wine lists? It’s a matter of economics — for both the vineyard and the restaurant. Moving wine across the state requires a distributor, which only the larger wineries can afford, and restaurants need to be able to be mark up the wine’s price substantially, so it needs to be priced accordingly.
“If you go to a nice steakhouse, look at a bottle of wine and see how much it costs and Google it — and check the price on Amazon or Specs — it would blow your mind,” says Reynolds. “Sometimes it’s a 100 percent markup.”
Distributors can strike deals with restaurants on a per-case basis and can make quick deliveries if needed, which a small winery in the middle of the state can’t do. “Small wineries don’t have a lot of success getting into restaurants, but they try,” Reynolds says. “If the restaurant’s not a chain and it’s in the same community, they probably can get into the door.”
It’s mid-April at Brennan, and orderly rows of grapevines have been pruned back to encourage growth. Chances are, the warm weather will hold. A late freeze could be devastating.
“I’m looking right now out of the front door and the shoots we have are 12 to 18 inches long,” says Brennan. “We had a warm winter, so this’ll be a growing season unlike any we’ve seen. You need to have a certain number of cold nights, and this year we haven’t had many, so this is somewhat uncharted territory.
“So far, what we see coming out looks good, but the ripening, the flavor, all of that is to be determined. Every year is different. You have to deal with what Mother Nature gives you.
“It does provoke a little anxiety.”
Ten Texas wines to try now
LOCATIONS TX, $24.99
Tastes like: raspberry and boysenberry compote
Serve with: ribs or burnt bacon ends
DUCHMAN FAMILY AGLIANICO, $16.49
Tastes like: blackberry preserves (with a whiff of cobbler crust)
Serve with: brisket tacos
Great for: Sunday lunch with the in-laws
BECKER CABERNET, $23.78
Tastes: peppery, meaty, full-bodied
Serve with: rib-eye
PEDERNALES GSM (GRENACHE, SYRAH, MOURVÈDRE), $19.99
Tastes like: beef and bacon stew, rich, earthy.
Serve with: aged cheeses, like a smoked English cheddar, or a smoked New York strip
PONTOTOC SAN FERNANDO ACADEMY, $24.99
Tastes like: Smoke, maple and vanilla
Serve with: Texas mix grill/lamb loin chops and grilled quail and cheddar grits
Great for: dinner with friends
TRANQUILO TEXAS RED, $14.99
Tastes like: blueberry cobbler, but not overly sugared
Serve with: fried-fish tacos
Great for: dinner on the patio
Pro tip: slight chill doesn’t hurt
DUCHMAN VERMENTINO, $13.49
Tastes like: lemons and crisp apples
Serve with: summer pasta salads
BRENNAN VIOGNIER, $16.99
Tastes like: mango and mandarin oranges
Serve with: cold fried chicken
LOST OAK DRY ROSÉ, $17.99
Tastes like: strawberries, raspberries, and cherry skin
Serve with: spicy Thai dishes
LOST OAK VIOGNIER, $19.99
Tastes like: peaches and nectarines (with a whiff of Froot Loops)
Great for: Outdoor concerts
Source: J.R. Clark, Central Market