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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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The GrapeState of Texas

The Grape State of Texas

Texas A&M University pours resources, research and love into winemaking, determined to put Texas wines on the map.

Bill Bledsoe ’71 poured a splash of white wine in a glass and beamed. “This is a very nice pinot grigio,” he said. "The grapes are Texas grown. There’s a lot of citrus in it, a lot of different flavors.”

Bledsoe confided that he hoped the wine would win gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, the nation’s largest wine competition. “I’ve won bronzes and silvers before, but never a gold,” he added. “I would love to see the word ‘Texas’ posted as a gold winner.”

As the owner and winemaker at Texas Legato Winery, Bledsoe takes enormous pride in his own wine, grown on 40 acres of bottom land outside of Lampasas, and in Texas wine overall. He’s had a lot to be proud of since 2002, when he and his wife, Sulynn, planted their first crop of grapes. Today, they bottle up to 1,500 cases of wine per year, 90% of which they sell to the winery’s visitors. Hung on the winery’s tasting room wall are plaques and frames filled with medals of various colors, but the golds displayed here are from wine competitions in the state and the region. Not from California, which is why the winemaker is so hopeful to change that with his pinot grigio.

Bledsoe’s first planting coincided with a spectacular growth in the Texas wine industry. In 2001, there were 40 wineries in the state; today, there are 5,552. Currently, 4,000 acres of Texas farmland are planted in grapes, making Texas the fifth largest producer of wine in the country. The economic impact of the wine industry in Texas is $13 billion, largely from agritourism—when the public visits vineyards and wineries and buys wine and related goods on site.

Aggies like Bledsoe are at the forefront of the Texas wine boom, and with grapes and wine becoming such important commodities in the state, it’s only fitting that Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences take a leading role in the industry. Today, the college is beefing up its enology and viticulture programs to increase its outreach to growers and winemakers.

At the forefront of those efforts is a new certificate in grape growing and winemaking, open to students of any discipline. The 15-hour program, which seeks to train Aggies for careers in the wine industry, gives students a solid understanding of the scientific principles of wine production, grape growing, pre- and post-fermentation winemaking processes, and wine etiquette.

“Texas A&M is well positioned to help the industry grow,” said Dr. Dan Lineberger, head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences. “There’s a science and art to winemaking.” With recent improvements to the department and big plans for the program’s future, Lineberger predicts that Aggies are poised to become experts in both aspects.

Talent in a Bottle

A look at some of the Aggie-led vineyards and wineries across the country.

L'Ecole No. 41

Stave and Stone

ROCO Winery

Thompson31Fifty

Wedding Oak

Texas Legato

William Chris

Frio Canyon

Messina Hof

C.L. Butaud

EIEIO

Parmeson

Hye Meadows

Sandy Road Vineyards

Talent in a bottle

A look at some of the Aggie-led vineyards and wineries across the country.

Texas

Texas Winerys

California

California Winerys

Oregon

Oregon Winerys

Washington

Washington Winerys

The Texas Grapevine

If you don’t count grapes cultivated by Spanish missionaries centuries ago, the first wineries in Texas were started in the late 1800s. Prohibition nipped the industry in the bud, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that grapes and wine re-emerged. In 2015, when the Texas State Legislature passed a bill that provided funding for the hire of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service regional specialists, Texas A&M became more integrated in the state’s wine industry. The extension service has specialists in some of Texas’ main grape growing regions: Fredericksburg, Denton, Lubbock and College Station. “Specialists visit vineyards, help the growers and conduct educational programs,” said Lineberger. “These individuals have been key in ramping up our professional resources to help the industry.”

Bledsoe credits Jim Kamas ’77, a Texas A&M viticulture specialist in Fredericksburg, with helping him develop a pruning schedule to mitigate the impact of a late freeze, if one were to come. Another Aggie who has partnered with the extension network is Tim Leach ’82, CEO of Concho Energy and the owner of Frio Canyon Vineyard in Leakey, Texas. “We sought advice on where to locate our vineyard and, after testing the soil, we planted it in the right place on the mountain,” he said. “We also picked varieties conducive to the climate. We took advice from every Aggie we could.”

The extension service runs 30 to 40 educational programs per year, including Grape Camp, a two-day event filled with informative sessions, vendor demonstrations and lots of tastings. “We hope to educate individuals who are starting vineyards and wineries before they go into business,” said Justin Scheiner ’07, an assistant professor and extension viticulture specialist who teaches a survey course in grape growing at Texas A&M. “It’s important to get growers started on the right track to avoid serious pitfalls that can literally cost thousands of dollars.”

Mesilla Valley

Texas High Plains

Texoma

Texas Davis Mountains

Escondido Valley

Texas Hill Country

Bell Mountain

Fredericksburg

Sweet Grapes

If you’re a wine drinker, you’ve seen the names Sonoma Valley and Russian River Valley on wine labels. Those California regions are designated American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). Texas has eight of its own AVAs. The designation indicates that grapes grown in that particular geographic district have a certain quality, reputation or other characteristic of note.

Texas

Texas AVAs

grapes

All About the Fruit

For one, choosing the right grapes is key. Viticulture in Texas is challenging—unlike in California, which has near perfect conditions for grapes. “We try to steer clear of varieties with compact clusters because they are more prone to rot,” said Scheiner. “And those that bud early, such as chardonnay, are at greater risk of damage from a late spring freeze.” Popular varieties in Texas are cabernets, which bud relatively late, and Italian and Spanish grapes, because the Texas climate is similar to these regions.

Another major factor in grape selection is whether or not the variety is resistant to Pierce’s Disease, a bacterium that infects the water-conducting tissues of grapes and causes a fairly rapid collapse of the vines. Two varieties that tolerate the disease are Blanc Du Bois and Black Spanish, but unfortunately, they haven’t yet produced the highest quality wines.

Dr. Andreea Botezatu, a Texas A&M assistant professor and extension enology specialist, is determined to change that. With a Ph.D. in wine science from Brock University in Canada and experience as a winemaker in both Europe and Canada, she is helping the horticulture department engage in some bona fide winemaking research. Two of her initial research projects are to study the pH and acidity levels of different varieties and identify the aroma compounds in the Black Spanish grape.

“While this grape tolerates Pierce’s Disease, it has an unpleasant smell we call the Black Spanish funk,” Botezatu explained. She is exploring how the winemaking process can be adapted to eliminate it, which would allow growers of these grapes to make more palatable and profitable wines.

In addition to her role as a researcher, Botezatu also leads a winemaking class inside the newly christened Arthur & Gaye Platt Wine Fermentation Laboratory. In the class, students pair off in teams of three and make their own vintages—doing everything from squeezing grapes to bottling and creating labels. “The students use different yeasts, nutrients and techniques,” said Botezatu. “Then we compare the wines at the end of the semester with a tasting.” Professional winemakers are invited to give the students feedback.

Cultivating the Perfect Glass

Texas wines haven’t traditionally been known for their quality, but the reputation is slowly improving. “We’re competing against Europeans, who have been making wine for 5,000 years— maybe more,” said Lineberger. But through the college’s efforts, from research to extension outreach, and the work of individual Aggies at vineyards around the state, Lineberger is confident Texas wine popularity will continue to grow.

“In 2005, several friends and I were discussing why Texas could produce so much good fruit, from citrus to strawberries, but it hadn’t been able to make a really good wine,” Leach said. “Our group of Aggies decided that if there was going to be great wines made from grapes grown in Texas, we’d have to do it ourselves.” Leach’s Frio Canyon Vineyard has produced award-winning Syrahs and Grenaches. His focus is not on producing a certain quantity of wine, but on the quality and cultivating a distinctive terroir—the impact of a growing region’s environmental factors on taste and other properties.

“We want to encourage the development of a uniquely special character in Texas wines,” added Lineberger. “It’s the idea that grapes grown in a specific area have a sense of character that makes them better than similar grapes grown in other places.”

Fortunately, the impact of Aggies in the wine industry extends beyond Texas. Former students are also making a mark in the enological hotbeds of California, Oregon and Washington. Rollin Soles ’78, owner and winemaker at ROCO winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, has been named one of the “20 Most Admired Winemakers in North America” by Vineyard & Winery Management. His wines have been honored on the Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of the World list 13 times.

Soles got his start in the wine industry as a microbiology major at Texas A&M. Upon hearing he was traveling to Europe for summer break, a professor set him up with a job at a Swiss winery, and Soles was hooked. “The beauty of the Swiss vineyards, the culture of sustainable grape farming and the spirit of winegrowers across Switzerland were the key influencers that got this Aggie into the wine and vine game,” said Soles. “Aggies’ sense of camaraderie, humor and manners seem to go over well in the wine industry.”

Another West Coast Aggie, Mike Thompson ’76 ’82, owner of Thompson 31Fifty Wines in Healdsburg, California, is optimistic about what Aggie smarts will add to the wine industry. “Texas A&M has huge potential to evolve as a major research and educational institution for the wine industry,” he said. “We have changed the world of crop and food production and—it will take time—but I know we can do it with wine too.”

Be Part of the Aggie Wine Club

To build Texas A&M’s presence and reputation in the wine industry, there are several key funding opportunities for the viticulture and enology programs:

Endowed Chairs in Viticulture and Enology ($2 million each)

Through two endowed chair positions, the horticulture department will increase faculty talent, which in turn enriches the academic environment and attracts the brightest students.

Graduate Fellowships ($1.5 million)

Fellowships will allow Texas A&M to recruit exceptional graduate students from across the United States and around the world.

Capital Improvements ($1 million)

Funds will support updates to the viticulture and enology laboratories, including cutting-edge, high-quality equipment.

Endowed Scholarships ($25,000+)

Scholarships for viticulture and enology students are direct opportunities to have a powerful impact on Aggies and ease their financial burdens.

Viticulture and Enology Excellence Fund (any amount toward the $3 million goal)

The Excellence Fund supports the education and training mission of the program through student scholarships, travel to meetings, legislative experiences and enhanced internship opportunities.

Contact Trace Roller ’00, senior director of development for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, below if you are interested in supporting Texas A&M’s viticulture and enology programs.

Contact:

Trace Roller '00

Senior Director of Development
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences