Ten years ago the idea of Texas becoming a major player in the wine industry would have garnered a few laughs, but since 2001 the Texas wine industry has grown from a mere 46 to more than 250 wineries, and a multi-billion dollar industry that ranks fifth in the nation in wine production. The wine industry also brings in more than $500 million in tourism to the state of Texas.
"This is a vibrant, growing industry that plays a very significant role in the diversification of Texas agriculture." Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said. "Our winemakers have achieved extraordinary success in identifying the varietals and techniques best suited to our region's climate and terrain. The quality is outstanding. Committed people have put us in the spotlight, and the recent awards and growing popularity are evidence of just how far we've come."
And it's not just the state of Texas that has become a major player in the wine industry. East Texas is making strides as an area that has fertile grape-growing soil and a number of award-winning wineries.
"Across East Texas, we have wineries transforming themselves into multi-faceted destinations with offerings like live music, shopping, fine food, theme dinners, festivals and lodging. Combine that with some extraordinary Texas wines and you can understand why our wineries have become such a popular option with tourists," Commissioner Staples said.
The Go Texan organization and Texas Department of Agriculture have designated October as Texas Wine Month. And Texas winemakers from all over the state are eager to share their story of how they've been successful at making wine in a state that many in the wine industry believe is ‘no good for wine.'
Dawn Leatherwood, owner and ‘head honcho' of Pelle Legna has recently emerged on the growing East Texas wine scene, particularly Tyler, and has establishing a well-respected and sought after label.
Her 2010 Bilancia, 2012 Allegro and 2013 Vivace are popular choices on a handful of East Texas, Dallas and Houston restaurant wine lists and can also be found on the shelves at FRESH by Brookshire's, The Blue Store in Noonday and Harley's in Longview. You can also order wine from pellelegna.com or inquire about joining the Pelle Legna wine club.
The Bilancia, which means balance in Italian, is a red blend that is made with 66 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 25 percent syrah and 9 percent merlot, sangiovese and zinfandel. This estate wine is aged for 20 months in French and American oak to create a harmonious fusion of black cherry and violet, from the cab as well as cracked black pepper, licorice and crushed blueberries from the syrah. Some warm spice notes from the other varietals round out the wine.
Allegro is a white wine that is a light and crisp blend of sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. Together these grapes create a bouquet that is floral with notes of vibrant citrus, apple and honey. The refreshing combination of flavors is further enhanced and balanced with just enough acid tingle. It can be enjoyed year round by itself or paired with hearty cheeses, seafood or barbecue.
To round out the selection, Mrs. Leatherwood released a ros￩ in May that is called Vivace — meaning playful in Italian. This ros￩ is made in a classic French handcrafted style that pairs well with any type of food for any occasion. Vivace is estate grown with 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes creating a refined taste of red berries, toasty herbs and smoked pepper notes.
Mrs. Leatherwood didn't just name some of her wines after favorite Italian words, a language she studied in college, she also gave her vineyard and brand an Italian name. Pelle Legna means ‘leather wood' in Italian and the letters P and L are creatively incorporated into her logo as a silhouette of a wine glass.
Although her wines and label are somewhat new on the Texas wine scene, she has been working tirelessly for many years to understand the soil, climate and idiosyncrasies that are specific to the location of her vineyard.
Situated 12 miles west of Tyler Pounds Regional Airport off of Highway 64 on County Road 418, Mrs. Leatherwood planted seven acres of vines on the 1,500 acre cattle ranch — Rio Neches Ranch — that she and her husband, Harry, call home.
Planted in 2007, she has since expanded to nine acres, and had her first harvest in 2008 with one barrel of cabernet sauvignon.
"We all start small and then learn along the way," she said.
In 2009 the vineyard had a problem with the birds getting to the grapes before they could be harvested, so much of that year's crop was a loss.
When she decided to begin this venture into ‘growing wine' she studied with Texas A&M. Of course, University of California at Davis is more prestigious, but she wanted to understand how to be a vintner in Texas — under Texas conditions, climate and soil.
Pierre de Wet of Kiepersol Estates, and his daughter, Marnelle, became mentors and close friends as she tried to navigate what she wanted to grow, how she would do it and how it could all turn into a great wine.
"At the beginning, Pierre told me — ‘do what you want to do, figure it out on your own and don't listen to anyone else,'" Mrs. Leatherwood said.
She realized that it didn't matter what people said about Texas' harsh climate, difficult soil, lack of breeze or varied landscapes. What happens with your vines is specific to your soil, your climate, plant diseases and pests that are unique to your own acreage. And each acre can vary.
Some acres are clay, others are sandy — and then there are different breezes and pests that vary from year to year.
"I just kept my head down, worked hard and did what I needed to do," she said.
In 2009 she fought the birds, but then after netting the vines in 2010 she hasn't had to do it since. Then there were the raccoons who would climb up the vines and reach down through the top and grab bunches of grapes.
Like ladies picking through a bunch of grapes while at a cocktail party, the raccoons feasted until the loyal coon dogs arrived.
"What is a problem at Kiepersol, is not a problem here, and then I hear the opposite from other vineyards. It's really all about what works on your own property," she said.
When it comes to the question of what type of grapes to plant, the climate, terrain and weather vary, so, it's difficult to define which varietals are successful in Texas.
After expanding the vineyard to nine acres she is now growing cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, zinfandel, sanviogese, malbec, grenache, cabernet franc, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and moscato.
She doesn't have enough of each to do an individual label for each varietal, but uses the various red grapes in a blend with her cabernet sauvignon and creates a white blend from sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio.
In 2015 she hopes to release a cabernet sauvignon, a reserve cabernet sauvignon, syrah, ros￩ and blends of both red and white.
She began growing moscato to help meet the demands of sweet wine drinkers and hopes to have that ready in 2015.
She's also perfecting a petite syrah because it is her husband's favorite wine.
Her red wines age for 18 months in American oak barrels and in 2015 she plans to release a reserve cabernet sauvignon that has been aged for the same amount of time in French oak barrels.
French oak barrels add a broad spectrum of flavors to the wine and give it layers of spice, subtly and depth that are quite different than American barrels.
But wine making, from season to season, is an unpredictable variable.
"People tell me they love my cab, but will they really like next year's cab?" she said.
Those are the thoughts that run through the mind of a vinter as they try to create the perfect equation of climate, soil, harvest time, brix (natural sugar content), pressing, aging, filtering and, finally, bottling.
Some other plans for 2015 include a tasting room and wine club dinners.
"Wine-making is the perfect mix of chemistry, biology, math and art," she said. "And when you consider the conversations and stories you share over a glass of wine, it's priceless."