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Sunshine on the vine

By Jennifer M. Latzke

Lubbock, Texas, is known far and wide as the "Texas Cotton Patch."

But, if a group of growers and vintners have their way, it'll soon get a new reputation--Texas's Napa Valley.

Lubbock sits in the second largest American Viticulture Area in Texas, in the middle of about 8 million acres of prime grape-growing real estate.

Wine grapes have been grown in this region, bounded on the east by the Caprock Escarpment and the Texas-New Mexico border on the west, for more than 30 years. In the mid-1970s, a couple of professors at Texas Tech University planted the first vines. Since then, the region's wine culture has grown. Today several wineries are located in and around Lubbock, and farmers are looking to grapes as a complementary crop to their irrigated cotton acres.

Llano Estacado Winery is a trailblazer in the Lubbock wine industry. It was created in 1976 by a Texas Tech horticulturist and chemist, with a group of Texas investors, who all believed West Texas had the potential for quality wine grapes. Its first release was 1,300 cases of wine. As a statement of their belief, the Llano Estacado group built its original winemaking facility to attract new grape growers and vineyards in the High Plains. Greg Bruni, vice president of winemaking at Llano, explained wine quality is nothing without good grapes, and that's why Llano was established in Lubbock. Prime grapes and growers willing to learn the trade are essential to the emerging industry.

Bruni explains to visitors about Llano Estacado's technical achievements in winemaking. Bruni hails from California, and moved to Texas to use his California winemaking expertise in an emerging industry. "We apply science to what we do here, using a test tube rather than guessing," Bruni said. It's important to balance the art of creating a bottle of wine with quality control, such as checking the wines for aging properties, bottling quality, and ultimately making a decision on the next step in a wine's life.

Today, Llano Estacado is a state-of-the-art production facility that can crush and process grapes from around the state. In 1986, Llano reached a pinnacle of the winemaking industry--it took a Double Gold award at the San Francisco Fair Wine Competition with its 1984 Chardonnay. The awards have continued ever since. In 1993, Llano Estacado's production was a little more than 50,000 cases of wine.

The Bogar Cox Vineyard, in Terry County, Texas, is a collaborative effort between Dr. Mark Bogar and Bobby Cox. The Cox family began the vineyard in 1972. Cox is a leader in the Texas wine industry, and was key to securing the Texas High Plains appellation, as well as bringing new grape varieties to the region. Today, Cox designs, plants and manages vineyards and consults on site selection and vineyard establishment.

The Bogars, here Dr. Bogar and his daughter Analise, allied with the Cox family and purchased a 162-acre vineyard in the Texas High Plains AVA. Of the 162 acres, 35 are currently planted with 21,000 plants, making it one of the largest in the state. Grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chennin Blanc, Orange Muscat, Muscat Blanc, Marsanne, Syrah and Nebbiolo. Many growers begin their vineyards by planting the dryland corners of their circle pivots to grapes, while still growing cotton on the irrigated portion. Texas is also ideal as a test plot for new grape varieties from around the world.

A late March cold snap had growers like Bogar and Cox worried about the emerging grape buds. The elevation of the area, from 3,000 feet along the Caprock, to about 4,100 feet along the northwest portion, along with mild winters, hot summers and an annual precipitation of 17 to 21 inches contribute to successful yields. The semi-arid climate isn't conducive to fungal diseases, and the sunlight found in the region not only increases the quantity of grapes, but their color development as well.

Here a row of vines at the Reddy Vineyards, Brownfield, is marked with an "M" for Merlot. Dr. Vijay Reddy and his wife, Subada, have grown grapes since 1997. He grew his operation from five acres to 105,000 plants on 105 acres, producing about 400 tons of grapes in a year. Grape production is a capital- and labor-intensive enterprise, according to the TDA. It costs about $11,000 to $15,000 per acre to plant grapes. Growers can expect about $1,500 to $2,000 per ton for their crop, based on variety and quality. With good management, consistent yields and favorable markets, a vineyard may break even in five to nine years.

A crew begins planting vines at Clint Bingham's vineyard near Meadow, Texas. The furrows are watered before planting to settle the dirt and to give the grapes moisture. They're set 8 feet apart. After these vine starts are planted, the crew will use a modified disk lister to throw a bed of dirt over the grapes for protection. Using mechanization, the crew can plant 10 acres of grapes in one day.

The crew uses another tractor with a special post drilling attachment that takes some of the manual labor out of setting the posts for the support trellises for the vines. The two-man crew, using a GPS for precision, set a post under the mechanism that pushes it into the ground. The crew can set 2 to 2.5 acres of support posts in a morning.

Clint is a fifth-generation farmer, but second-generation vineyard grower. In 2008, Clint received a Wine Grant from TDA's Wine Grape Investment Pilot Grant Program to expand his acres in wine grapes. This is his first five acres of Viognier grapes with the grant.

At the Bingham Family Vineyards and Farm, Cliff Bingham's son, Kyle, operates a mechanical pruner. The machine does double-duty as a grape harvester as well. Driving the machine down the row, its blades grab and pre-prune about 70 to 80 percent of the vines' mass. Workers will follow and hand-prune the vines even more to allow sun and nutrients to reach the grapes during the season. The machinery isn't familiar to most equipment dealers in the Lubbock area, and so the Binghams worked with a custom grape harvester to find the machine out-of-state, and to trouble-shoot any equipment problems.

The Bingham Family operates a large-scale organic farm, growing traditional crops like cotton, peanuts, sesame, wheat, and hay grazer. In 2004, Clint, right, and his father, Cliff Bingham, left, planted five acres to grapes, and have grown their vineyard to 50 acres. As certified organic farmers, the Bingham family fertilizes with compost of cotton burrs and manure and waters with drip tape irrigation to efficiently use their land resources.

The familiar red soil of West Texas is ideal for grapes. Here, vines at Martin's Vineyards near Ropesville benefit from the moderate fertility, great drainage and adequate water-holding capacity. Relatively low annual precipitation allows for grapevines to be managed through irrigation. By controlling water, vineyard owners can control the leaf canopy produced by the vines, and thus fruit quality. Andy and Anndel Martin are pioneers in using Partial Rootzone Drying (PRD), an irrigation system developed by plant scientists that halves agricultural water use while creating a tastier grape. PRD is popular in Europe and Australia. Essentially, vines have their roots split between wet and dry soil, with only half of the roots irrigated at any one time. Yield isn't reduced, water efficiency is doubled, and the grapes have a better flavor and color.

A bud is checked for development at Martin's Vineyards, near Ropesville, Texas. The Martins began in 1975 with a half-acre each of red and white hybrids. Those original vines are still producing grapes, making them some of Texas's oldest vines in production. Here, Edward Hellman, professor of viticulture and Extension specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Tech, shows some of the pruning of the vines.

In the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, Texas Tech will kick off its new academic program for the wine and grape industry. Courses will cover winemaking, principles of viticulture, and wine tourism as well as other essentials to future careers in the wine and grape industry and wine retail. A new degree option--Viticulture and Enology--will be available to students majoring in the Horticultural and Turfgrass Sciences program beginning this fall.

The Texas wine, wine grape and related industries produced more than $1 billion of economic value for the state in 2007, according to the TDA. The sate has invested more than $4.5 million to support and grow the Texas wine industry through viticulture education and research, vineyard management, grape growing and wine making programs, as well as Extension expertise and marketing and promotion efforts. Texas is the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the nation, with more than 170 wineries from Lubbock to Del Rio. And, according to the TDA and the Adams Handbook, consumption of wine in Texas continues to grow, from less than 10 million 9-liter cases in 1995, to nearly 14 million 9-liter cases in 2007.

All of which adds up to a tasty future for Lubbock growers and wine makers.

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