Category:Texas wine

For Sale in Texas Only: The lawyers strike back

fsoLawyers may know law, but they don’t necessarily know regional wine – and the FSO rule changes are good for regional wine.

When the federal government proposed rules to stop wineries from confusing customers by using the For Sale in Texas Only dodge, those of us who care about regional wine wrote glowing reviews of the regulations. Finally, producers would have to call a non-local wine a non-local wine, instead of using some fine print on the back label to get around appellation laws.

Now, though, the lawyers for the other side are taking shots at the proposal, and you’d think those of us who want Texas wine to be from Texas – or Virginia wine to be from Virginia, Missouri wine to be from Missouri, and so forth – were Commie pinkos trying to undermine the American way of life.

“… [C]onsumers right to know where the grapes in their wine come from is compromised,” says the blog post describing the proposal, written by two attorneys from the prestigious Hinman & Carmichael law firm in San Francisco, well known in liquor law circles (and who are not related to me, though one is named Siegel). The post says the rules are unfair and will penalize hard-working winemakers who genuinely want to make great wine using out-of-state grapes.

It also defends “small wineries in remote states” who “won’t be able to provide their consumers with truthful and accurate information about the wine they are drinking locally” if the rules are accepted. Which may be the first time in more than 25 years writing about regional wine that I’ve seen anyone in California take up the cause of small wineries in remote states.

The proposed regulations require wine that doesn’t meet appellation laws for local labeling to be labeled American, or else not list the vintage and the grapes the wine is made to be allowed to a For Sale in Only, or FSO, label. There is nothing onerous about that, and especially for producers who aren’t trying to pull a fast one by using the FSO rules to make wine drinkers think the wine is local. Because FSO rules allow wine that can be mostly out-of-state grapes to carry a label that makes it look like the grapes are all local. As I have written, “This is unfortunately common in regional wine, and has been an especial problem in Texas for the past decade or so.”

I would never try to explain law to a lawyer, and there may be something legal in the Hinman post that I’m missing. But I do know regional wine, maybe better than all but two or three people in the country. And to argue that this law penalizes well-intentioned winemakers is specious. Well-intentioned winemakers are already labeling their wine American, so this law won’t hurt them at all. It will hurt everyone who wants consumers to think a wine is local when it isn’t, and what’s wrong with that?

The Texas wine revolution

Texas wineTexas wine has changed so much in the past 25 years – and yes, usually for the better – that it’s sometimes difficult to believe how far we’ve come.

This story, The Vine Frontier, ran in the July/August issue of Texas Journey magazine, and it neatly sums my 25 years tasting and writing about Texas wine. As I wrote:

“What is a new, especially in the past 10 years, is the acceptance that Texas wine is not California wine or French wine or Italian wine. It is, as Greg Bruni, Llano’s long-time winemaker, says, ‘Texas wine. And Texas makes the best Texas wine in the world.’ … This has been a surprisingly difficult concept for many in Texas to understand.”

The first generation of Texas producers thought we had to be the next Napa Valley, and didn’t realize it was enough to be the next Texas and produce distinctively Texas wine. The current generation of winemakers has a better grasp of this, and we’re seeing better quality wine made with grapes better suited to the Texas terroir – grapes from Europe’s warmest regions, like the southern Rhone in France, Rioja and Rias Baixas in Spain, and central and southern Italy. That means tempranillo, a red grape famous in Spain; viognier, a white from the southern Rhone; sangiovese, the red used to make Chianti; and vermentino, a white best known along Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

All is still not perfect, of course. Quality can improve and prices are too high, as producers struggle with economies of scale and limited distribution. And we’re still fighting the battle over Texas grapes; that is, that the industry can only flourish if we make Texas wine with Texas grapes, and not wine in Texas with grapes from California.

Finally, I got a number of emails from wine drinkers saying the story was welcome news, given how much they didn’t like the Texas labels they had tried. Several of the emails came from Californians who had moved to Texas, and didn’t understand why the wine here didn’t taste like it did there. Now, they wrote, they did.

More about Texas wine:
Kerrville 2015: We don’t need no stinkin’ brose
Texas wine at the crossroads, one year later

Is this the end of For Sale in Texas Only?

For sale in Texas onlyA proposed change to federal wine label laws could mean the end for wine that says For Sale in Texas Only – a term that implies that a wine is local when it might be made with grapes from anywhere in the world.

The Treasury department’s tax and trade bureau announced this week that it wants to revise the regulations that allow a wine to carry For Sale in Only designation. In Texas, we call it FSTO – which stands for For Sale in Texas Only – but you’ll see FSO labels in every state: For Sale in Colorado Only, For Sale in Pennsylvania Only, and so forth.

Under the new rules, wines labeled FSO won’t be allowed to list the vintage or the grape it is made with, like cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. Currently, FSO wines can list both and look local in almost every respect, save that they don’t have a state name or other appellation on the front label. The only clue that they aren’t local is a line in small type on the back label that says FSO, and that only wine writers, wine geeks, and winemakers understand.

FSO is sometimes used to circumvent appellation laws when the wine isn’t made with enough local fruit for it to have a state name. This is unfortunately common in regional wine, and has been an especial problem in Texas for the past decade or so, as the number of wineries has almost doubled and grape acreage hasn’t kept up.

That’s because appellation laws require that 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that state for it to labeled Texas (or whatever). If a wine is made with less than 75 percent local grapes, it must use the word American on the front label, something producers don’t like to do because it’s obvious that the wine isn’t local. And what’s the point of local wine that isn’t local?

Hence the FSO label.

It’s important to note that FSO isn’t illegal and that many producers use it legitimately. The problem comes when it’s used to disguise non-local wine as local. That, apparently, was the impetus for the rules change – a Georgia winery selling an FSO wine made with Napa Valley grapes in North Carolina, and which caught the attention of a key Napa trade group and the Napa Valley’s U.S. congressman.

In fact, a spokeswoman for U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif)., who chairs the Congressional wine caucus, emailed me to say that FSO in the Georgia case was “a TTB labeling loophole” and “works against strict and rigorous labeling rules to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.”

The actual rules proposal is almost indecipherable unless you practice liquor law. My thanks to Austin attorney Kimberly Frost, who did her usual brilliant job in explaining it to me. The new rules will limit FSO wines to terms like red wine or white wine on the front label, in the hope that producers will use the more accurate American appellation so they can list the grapes and the vintage..

One irony to all this? The new FSO rules may give regional producers incentive to buy California bulk wine and put their label on it. That means  we could see more California wine sold by wineries in the other 47 — Texas-bottled Russian River pinot noir, anyone? That’s because the revisions will allow producers to use grape names and vintage on California bulk wine, which they couldn’t do if they bought California grapes or grape juice and combined them with local grapes to make FSO wine.

The tax and trade bureau is taking comments until Aug. 22, but there’s no time frame on when the rules will take effect. My guess, given how slowly the agency works, is that we won’t see anything until the middle of next year, and it could be even later than that.

 

Texas and the Walmart lawsuit

Walmart Texas lawsuitThree things are certain in Texas – the Cowboys, brutal summers, and the god-like power of the Texas Package Stores Association, the trade group that represents the state’s liquor store owners. The package store lobby is why liquor stores are closed on Sunday, why we have unbelievably restrictive laws on liquor store ownership, and why we have a fourth tier in the three-tier system.

All that may be about to change.

Later this year, a federal judge could overturn the ownership laws, and once that happens, many of the other restrictions could end, too. We might be able to buy wine in the grocery store before noon on Sunday or even – God forbid – spirits. And yes, that would be like a 72-degree day here in August, and where it gets chilly enough at night to need a jacket.

I never thought this would happen, but after talking to a variety of people who follow Texas liquor law, it looks like the unthinkable will take place. The package store owners, who have pretty much vetted the state’s liquor laws since the early 1970s, will have to compromise or lose all of the advantages they’ve written for themselves.

More, after the jump: Continue reading

Texas wine developments: 2015

texas wineSome thoughts after driving some 900 miles through the Texas High Plains in search of Texas wine:

• It’s not so much that this year’s harvest was plentiful, or that quality looks to be good. Rather, it’s that growers who normally had a couple of tons of grapes to sell have six or eight. Or 10. That means wineries may have more grapes than they know what to do with — something that could only happen in Texas, where short harvests have been the norm for a decade. Hence, there may not be anywhere to store the extra crushed grapes, and I don’t even want to think about what it will do to grape prices over the next couple of years. The good news? That there will be almost no excuse to sell Texas wine that doesn’t carry a Texas appellation, a practice long common here and which has generated huge controversy.

• Even I get tired of ragging on Dallas restaurants that don’t carry Texas wine, but after eating in three Lubbock restaurants that do Texas wine justice — the Pecan Grill at the Overton Hotel, La Diosa, and West Table — Dallas restaurants have no excuse for not carrying Texas wine. If they can do it in Lubbock, why can’t we do it here? We are supposed to be more cosmopolitan than Lubbock, aren’t we?

• Neal Newsom, a west Texas cotton farmer who planted his first grapes 30 years ago and today grows only grapes, says his fellow cotton farmers used to heckle him — literally — over that decision. Because what kind of self-respecting cotton farmer would grow something as silly as grapes in a part of the country where cotton is king? Today, though, says Newsom, they’re practically jealous, given his success. “I got more people asking me about growing grapes last year than I did in the previous 29 years put together,” he says.

• The less said about my experiences in Post, about 50 miles southwest of Lubbock, the better. Who knew driving through a small town, no bigger than five minutes from north to south, could cause so much aggravation, and both times I went through it?

• The best wines I tasted? A tempranillo from Llano Estacado (which I’ll use in my American Wine Society seminar about Texas wine in November) and the McPherson rose. The former had varietal character — some earthiness, a bit of orange peel — but tasted of Texas, with more red fruit than a Rioja and more balanced acidity. It’s about $15 for people lucky enough to have an HEB in their town. The rose, about $10, is sold out in much of the state, but a couple of restaurants in Lubbock still had it. That it sold out so quickly speaks to how well it’s made — juicy strawberry fruit and a crispness that makes me smile when I write about it — as well as how much Texas wine drinkers have changed. Just a couple of years ago, to paraphrase my pal John Bratcher, you couldn’t sell rose here if you left it outside the liquor store with a sign that said free for the taking.

Kerrville 2015: We don’t need no stinkin’ brose

Kerrville 2015What happens when you taste two Texas roses — two terrific Texas roses — at Kerrville 2015, the annual Texas wine panel at the event’s fall music festival? You understand cool in a way that the hipsters who run around Brooklyn drinking pink wine and inventing words like brose never will. Or, as I noted on Saturday: “Cool is not Brooklyn. Cool is drinking rose listening to live music at Kerrville.” Because the Wine Curmudgeon knows hip when he sees it.

The other highlights from Saturday’s seminar included:

? The roses — from McPherson and Brennan — demonstrate just how far Texas wine has come since I started writing about it when one of the panelists was in junior high school. First, these are dry roses, a concept unthinkable to Texas producers 20 years ago. Second, they’re made with the Rhone grapes that Texas winemakers have embraced over the past decade, and not leftover merlot that someone wanted to get rid of. Third, there is an audience for it, something else missing 20 years ago when Texas wine drinkers thought pink was for old ladies with cats.

? Texas farmers in the High Plains, who have been at best ambivalent about growing grapes, seem to have changed their minds. Lost Draw Cellars’ Andrew Sides, whose uncle Andy Timmons is one of the state’s top growers, said the difference between then and now is amazing. When Timmons planted his first five acres of merlot (when Sides was in junior high school), the cotton farmers thought they were crazy. Now, says Sides, they’re asking he and his uncle how they can take out cotton to plant grapes.

? Tim Drake, the winemaker at Flat Creek Estates in the Hill Country, came to Texas from Washington state, hardly the obvious career choice. But, he told the audience, Texas offers him the opportunity to make more interesting wine with different grapes, something not always possible in the cabernet sauvingon- and chardonnay-driven industry in Washington.

? Why is so much Texas wine still comparatively expensive? Once again, the Kerrville audience asked a good question, and we had a fine discussion about economies of scale; that is, how a million case winery might pay $1 for the same glass bottle that costs a Texas winery $7 or $8. In addition, since grapes are in short supply in Texas, they’re relatively more expensive than they would be in California, further raising the price of the wine.

For more on Kerrville and Texas wine:
? Kerrville 2014: They really like Texas wine
? Once more on the wine trail in Texas
? Kerrville 2012

 

The Wine Curmudgeon’s fall 2015 wine education extravaganza

wine education

Have Curmudgeon-mobile, will travel.

Take your pick. All provide wine education as only the Wine Curmudgeon can — which means that if you’re stuffy, hung up on scores, or think wine is not supposed to be fun, you should probably look elsewhere:

? My wine class, also open to non-credit students, at Dallas’ El Centro College. We’ll cover the basics, including how to spit, the three-tier system, restaurant wine, and how wine is made, plus at least 10 tastings focusing on the world’s wine regions. Cost is $177, which is a great deal if only for the tastings. But you also get my incisive commentary and occasional rant, which means the school is practically giving the class away. We’ll meet 7-8:50 p.m. on Thursday between Sept. 3 and Dec. 17. Click the link for registration information.

? The annual Texas wine panel at the Kerrville fall food and wine festival, 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 5. This is always one of my favorite events, not just because I hear some terrific folk music, but because the audience appreciates Texas wine and wants it to be better.

? The southwest chapter meeting of the American Wine Society in Arizona, on the last weekend of October, where I’ll talk about U.S. regional wine.

?The American Wine Society’s national meeting Nov. 5-7 in suburban Washington, D.C., where I’ll give two seminars. Not coincidentally, conference registration begins this week. I’m doing “The Texas Revolution: How the Lone Star state learned to love grapes that weren ?t chardonnay, cabernet, and merlot” at 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 6, and “Five U.S. wine regions you probably don ?t know, but should,” at 11 a.m. Nov. 7. The latter will look at wine regions, including one in California, that deserve more attention than they get.

And, perhaps the most fun part of all — the Wine Curmudgeon’s latest marketing effort, which will allow me to spread the gospel of cheap wine anywhere I drive. Yes, a personalized Texas license plate that says 10 WINE.