But just saying Texas wine is better is like saying that a company where sales went from one to two items saw a 100 percent increase. That's an impressive number, but the company wasn't starting from much of a base. And that's the case with Texas wine. Until this decade, Texas wines were uneven at best -- so to say that they're better now is almost damning with faint praise.
The difference this time, as we celebrate Regional Wine Week, is that Texas wines continue to get better, and that hasn't always been the case. What this means, and what remains to be done, is after the jump:
The Wine Curmudgeon is a worrier by nature, and our DrinkLocalWine.com conference in August gave me plenty of opportunities to worry. One of the things that I most worried about was whether Texas' wines would stand up to criticism from wine types from elsewhere. Turned out that all my worrying was for naught, for the wines we tasted impressed most everyone -- even the ones that I was most worried about.And that's because Texas' producers are not just better than they have ever been, but are more professional in their approach to winemaking. This is probably the most important difference between today and the late 1980s, when I started writing about Texas wine. In those days, most everyone assumed that they would make great wine because they wanted to make great wine, and their lack of experience and unfamiliarity with winemaking was not a handicap. Which, obviously, was not true.
What's worse is that too many producers made sub-par wine and didn't realize it. During one of my first trips to the Texas Hill Country 20 years ago, I had three or four versions of orange muscat, a dessert wine that is supposed to smell and taste like oranges with enough acid to balance the sweetness and maybe even have a bit of orange pith. None of the wines tasted like that, and only one of them was close to being what it should have been. But in each case, the winemaker was convinced that their wine deserved 100 points from Robert Parker.
For the most part, that attitude is gone. I make sure to ask every Texas winemaker I interview: "What about winemaking has surprised you the most?" And, almost to a person, they tell me that it is more difficult to make quality wine than they thought.
That realization has revolutionized Texas winemaking. I can actually talk to most Texas winemakers about their wines without worrying whether they will sulk if I don't like them. They have learned that it's not about making quality wine. It's about improving the quality in the next vintage.
It's also why we're getting wines made with grapes that thrive in Texas' hot, dry climate, like syrah, sangiovese, viognier, and tempranillo, as well as a host of lesser known Spanish, Italian and French varietals. Texas' quality sangioveses are among the best made in the U.S., and our top syrahs have found a terroir-driven niche between the dark, inky Australian shiraz and the earthiness of French Rhones.
Wines made with these grapes are a vast improvement over the acidic, stemmy cabernet sauvignons and merlots and the thin and over-oaked chardonnays of years past. And, to be fair, this approach has also improved the quality of wines made with the better-known grapes, as winemakers and growers have learned how to work with the 100-degree temperatures that cabernet and its ilk don't like.
Not all is perfect, of course. There are still too many wines that are flawed and poorly made, and some winemakers still don't understand that making quality wine requires more than good intentions. All wine, even the sweet stuff made for tasting room sales, should be made with honesty and integrity, and that is still not always the case.
There are also a host of supply- and winemaking-related problems that won't go away anytime soon. We don't have enough grapes in Texas to go around, distribution is a nightmare for even the largest wineries, and prices are still too high. And that more Texas restaurants don't sell Texas wine is a subject that deserves a rant of its own.
There also remains, though I shouldn't be surprised by this, an unhealthy desire to be taken seriously by the Mainstream Wine Media. Somehow, all will be well in Texas if Parker or the Wine Spectator gives a Texas wine a 90. This is as fruitless as it is unproductive, and it's just not because I don't care about scores. First, a Texas wine will never get that kind of score, because the system is rigged against it (as it is rigged against all wine that isn't from California, Australia and Europe). Second, it doesn't make any difference whether a Texas wine gets a 90 or not. We shouldn't be trying to make 90-point wines, whatever those are. We should be trying to make Texas wines.