relationships

Yes, growing grapes is farming, and most people I have met farmed other crops before they took up a vineyard.  But there’s something very different about this sort of agriculture and its product, and certainly something special about it in Texas.  In one word: relationships.

I recently attended a grape growers meal held by Becker Vineyards.  They invited all the people who grow their grapes to dinner, then paired single vineyard wines with each course.  As the food came to the table, the grape growers from that specific vineyard were asked to stand and share something about that year’s harvest, or about that particular grape, or a story.  It was so intimate.

Jet Wilmeth with his single vineyard Lone Oak cabernet

Touring the different vineyards in Lubbock, it began to dawn on me how different growing wine grapes is from growing, say, cucumbers, which many of the farmers in that region have done.  For one, as Jet Wilmeth of Diamante Doble Vineyards described with his previous cucumbers, much of the crop (the “imperfect” fruit) is left to rot or thrown away.  The farmer has very little say in his harvest.  And second, those cucumbers (or pumpkins or cotton) go into the market and the farmer seldom sees the final product, and certainly does not receive credit for it.

But with grapes, and especially in Texas, it is very different.  The farmer, in essence, creates a paint of sorts and turns it over to the winemaker/ artist.  The winemaker then creates a piece of art and hands it back to the farmer (and sells it en masse) in the form of a bottle.  Oftentimes the vineyard is placed on the label, giving the farmer direct credit.  This became clear sharing a lunch with the Bingham Family as they served wines made soley from their grapes.  Or at a dinner with the Newsoms, Canadas and Wilmeths, each family providing a bottle of wine from their soil.  The relationships between the drink and the earth, and between the farmer and the winemaker, were clear as day.

VJ Reddy and Bobby Cox standing in front of Reddy Vineyards

My favorite moment of this Becker dinner came when VJ Reddy stood to explain the Viognier made from his grapes.  He talked about how old the vines were and how, this whole time, he had hoped for someone to make the grapes into their true expression of wine.  And how the Beckers had finally done this.  He expressed his gratitude and thanked the Beckers directly, to which they quickly and emphatically replied, “No, thank YOU.”

This doesn’t happen with peanuts or pumpkins.  I’d dare to say it’s something better.

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2,4-D

Take a quick look at these two maps, paying special attention to the Texas Panhandle:

general denotation of latitude for wine growing regions

Texas wineries

(I couldn’t find a map of Texas vineyards, but the placement of wineries gives a general idea.)

See how the Panhandle falls into the ideal latitudes for wine grape growing, but how there is only one winery in that region?  Anyone wonder why that is?

Your answer: 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a broadleaf herbicide, invented during World War II.

I met with Monty Dixon, owner of that lone winery in the Texas Panhandle, BarZ, for an interview and asked if he grew any of his own grapes.  He said he used to, but surrendered the effort after three 2,4-D attacks on his vineyards.  I had to ask a lot more questions to understand what that means and here’s what I learned (and later confirmed through further research):

– 2,4-D is used for weed control on plants like wheat, rice and corn.  The crops are cereals and remain unaffected while the herbicide kills all broadleaf plants in the field.  It’s also used in domestic lawn weed killers, since it doesn’t affect grasses.

– It has a half-life of somewhere between 2 and 16 days; it persists in the environment in measurable amounts for some 2-3 months after being sprayed.

– In cool weather, it sinks in the air and remains on the plants and the soil.

– In hotter weather (I couldn’t find exact temperature, but it seems to be in the 90’s F), it rises up, as Monty said, “Like something in a Jonny Quest episode” and floats on the wind until the air becomes cool again.  It then lands and will continue to affect any plant it settles upon.  That could be a rose plant, pecan tree, or a vineyard.

– 2,4-D affects a plant in three ways.  It increases the plasticity of cell walls, protein growth and the amount of ethylene in the plant.  In other words, the plant grows itself to death.  One can detect the presence of of 2,4-D poisoning in a vineyard by the deformed leaves, crinkled strangely, and no good fruit that year.  But the effects are deeper too.  A grapevine holds the next two years of growth in its wood and the little thoughts of those next harvests are ruined as well.  A 2,4-D attack can affect a vineyard for three years, or longer.

The top crops in the Texas Panhandle are wheat and corn and 2,4-D is used liberally.  Since it was invented in the 1940’s all its patents are expired and anyone can make it, inexpensively. As Monty, who comes from a farming and ranching family, empathetically explained, 2,4-D can be applied to a field for $2-5 an acre, whereas safer alternatives are $11-13 an acre.  In this economy, and when you are caring for hundreds or thousands of acres, this is a significant financial decision.  He convinced his father to stop using it on their wheat years ago, but there are so many farmers who still do.

If a vineyard is affected by 2,4-D, there is practically no way to know from where it came.  The Texas Department of Agriculture has tried by looking for damage trails, but with the substance being airborn, there is really no way.  Or almost no way.  Martin Vineyards, with the help of Bobby Cox, found their offending source and sued for crop damage.  It’s a long story of intrigue, illegal activities and a pecan orchard.  If you ever get the chance to ask Bobby, Martin Vineyards or Monty, I am sure they would be happy to tell you.

And Texas is certainly not the only state with this struggle.  Colorado, Illinois, and even Oregon are all fighting against its drift.  As Monty explained, the Panhandle is an optimal place to grow vines otherwise: ideal latitude, no Pierce’s disease, and no humidity/fungal problems, it could really produce beautiful fruit.  But 2,4-D makes it impossible.

Monty makes rich and powerful wines, sourcing his grapes from the lovely and well-adjusted vineyards in the High Plains, also ideal for growing vines: relatively high altitude (over 3000 feet), iron rich soil, no Pierces disease, no humidity, and surrounded by cotton fields, which are currently also affected by 2,4-D.  But Monty said there are rumors of a 2,4-D resistant cotton that has not yet been released on the market.  If it is, and is planted around Lubbock, Plains and Brownfield, this would surely mean a serious blow to, or the even death of, the Texas wine industry.

No grapes, no wine.

That’s serious business.

For more information on 2,4-D, its effects on vineyards and potential effects beyond, click on the hyperlinks above, or visit:

http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/hort2/mf2588.pdf

http://www.pesticide.org/get-the-facts/pesticide-factsheets/factsheets/24d-factsheet

http://www.txwines.org/forms/Hellman%20Testimony.pdf

Bobby Grape

Before we met, I was calling him the King of Texas Vines. One of the first to plant grapes since Prohibition and the first to win a medal in California with the wine he made from those grapes, he now advises on the majority of new vineyards in north Texas.  He lost his vineyard due to economic stresses from a national excise tax, and now shares his expertise with others, working hard to put Texas wine on the map. Chances are, if you’ve had a Texas wine made from delicious High Plains fruit, Bobby is the one who decided at what angle to plant that vineyard, the row spacing and advised on the varieties, then helped those vines grow into maturity.

Bobby showing a 7 foot spacing between rows.

But after spending a day with him, I now think of him more as a symphony conductor.

There are a few reasons.  One, his hands seldom stay on the steering wheel as he drives, gesturing openly instead, to make his point. His facial expressions are no less lively.  And when he laughs, he maintains eye contact with you, drawing you into the joke.  There’s no escaping Bobby’s warmth and enthusiasm.

And second, nearly every time his phone rings (playing a “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” ringtone) there is someone on the other end asking his opinion about some aspect of their planting, which he fields with the wisdom that only comes from years of experience. He took me around to visit farmers in Brownfield, Texas and throughout our conversations, they would gently ask his advice on when to add inputs, how to train the vines, and what varieties to plant, then carefully listen to his answers. I got the sense that he was orchestrating behind the scenes of the Texas wine industry, helping farmers grow the good and healthy fruit that provides the basis for our finest wines.

Cliff Bingham and Bobby discussing the vines.

He and his wife Jennifer graciously invited me for dinner in their earthen home.  We had only Texas wine, made with the grapes he helped advise on and talked about when they were picked and who made the wine.  I had never felt so close to a meal before.  Then at the end as we moved to the cheese plate, Bobby disappeared from the table and returned with a bottle of his 1983 Pheasant Ridge Cabernet, the first Texas wine to win an award in California in 1986.  I joked that he was like Jesus, saving the best wine for last.

And sure enough, it was beautiful, truly award winning.  Natural, sweet oxidation on the nose, but the color was solid garnet with very little rim variation.  Nearly 30 years old and it still looked young.  The flavors were layered and the finish held an Old World style structure; it had many, many years left to mature.  As we complimented him, my exuberant host became quiet, modest, humble.  He explained in low tones his decisions around the wine: when he chose to harvest, how he aged it and why the tannins were so outstanding.  I was touched to see someone so certain of his knowledge, as I had witnessed all day in the field, become gentle in front of his art.  The conversation continued on to their early years in the wine industry, spending time with the top California wine makers, the way Jennifer won a blind tasting against them because she was familiar with all the varieties planted in Bobby’s experimental rows, and all the characters they met; I was highly entertained, but couldn’t shake the realization that I was sipping on a real piece of Texas history, in front of its creator, and what an honor that was.

A friend of mine once told me that the way to maintain satisfaction in a skill you’ve honed is to become a consultant and pass that knowledge onto others.  I agree and I hope that is the case here.  There is an awful lot of wisdom and work going into making some of Texas’ finest wines possible, starting from the ground up.

Thank you, Bobby “Grape” Cox, for all you do.

Bobby and Vijay Reddy, standing in front of Vijay's vineyard, one of the largest in the state.

Bobby and Vijay Reddy, standing in front of Vijay's vineyard, one of the largest in the state.