The Grapes of Texas
With his weathered face and deep Texas twang, Russell Gillentine seems more like a guy who'd kick back with a cold longneck than linger over a nice cabernet. But he was nonetheless perfectly suited to the warm and woody Llano Estacado Winery tasting room in Lubbock, Texas, where friends and I sat at long tables with an array of wineglasses and plates of nibbles in front of us, enjoying a wine-and-food tasting.
Gillentine explained that his company adds a touch of sugar to its wines to make them appealing to the casual wine drinker. "We're in the wine bidness, but we're in the bidness of selling wine," he said with quintessentially Texas forthrightness.
"Lubbock wines" might sound like a punchline to a redneck joke, but that's exactly what we were tasting at Texas' second largest and second oldest winery. "We sell wines in 35 states and seven foreign countries," boasted Gillentine.
Yeah, I was surprised, too. I'd come to Lubbock on a pilgrimage to the Buddy Holly Center, a sleek museum and research center focusing on the short life of the rock pioneer and Lubbock native. I didn't expect to be sipping chardonnay in the panhandle town.
To say that Lubbock doesn't have the glitz or cachet of Napa or Bordeaux is an understatement. However, it has put down solid roots in Texas' burgeoning wine industry. Texas is the fifth largest wine producing state in the nation, with about 54 wineries producing more than a million gallons of wine annually. The area surrounding Lubbock produces about 40% of grapes produced for Texas wines. Although the Texas Hill Country Appellation in Central Texas is largest of the state's six appellations, with 15,000 square miles, the Texas High Plains Appellation, where Lubbock is located, is not much smaller, with about 12,000 square miles.
"Lubbock is 3,500 feet above sea level and the soil, climate and hard-freezes all make for good wine," says Bill Gipson, who manages his family's winery, Pheasant Ridge. "Plus, we have the right red, loamy, sandy soil and great drainage. The Texas High Plains is best known for red wines, especially cabernet sauvignon and merlot."
That wine-growing soil of Lubbock arranges itself into the flattest land I have ever seen. The city of about 200,000 residents (including Texas Tech University's 27,000 students) braces against the perpetual wind on a flapjack-flat stretch of West Texas. Here, the colorful collection of historic water-pumping windmills displayed at the city's American Wind Power Center is more than charming - it's a tribute to the engineering feat that made settlement possible in Lubbock, which has no ground water and lots of wind.
Lubbock still feels like the frontier town it once was. "People you meet here might be only one or two generations from the settlers," says Coy Harris, executive director of the American Wind Power Center. And even today, Lubbock hasn't quite squeezed out the critters that also stake their claim to the arid land. During a visit to the National Ranching Heritage Center, I keep my eyes open for the longlegged jackrabbits that lope among the center's collection of historic ranch buildings.
The heads of prairie dogs - millions of them - pop up everywhere you look. I am enchanted by the little fellas, but the locals are less so, since the burrowing critters can be dangerous to cattle and horses, that often break legs on prairie dog holes. (Other arguments, such as the contention that prairie dogs contaminate ground water, are hotly debated.) But the quantity of prairie dogs alone is enough to give locals headaches. "We have prairie dog 'issues' here -- just like anyone else who has prairie dogs has issues," sighs Susan Shore, education program manager of the Lubbock Lake Landmark, an active archaeological site where visitors learn about Lubbock's very ancient history of both native peoples and animals. (The attraction includes life-sized statues of the prehistoric creatures that once walked the earth here.) At the elegant Cap*Rock Winery, winemaker Kim McPherson, whose father founded the Llano Estacado Winery, says they must chase away barn owls that roost over their tanks.
For the visitor these brushes with nature are delightful, even if the locals feel like they're in constant battle with fur and feathers.
Cap*Rock is the showiest of the city's wineries, with a 23,000-square-foot Southwestern-style visitors center that includes a vast tasting room with 14-foot ceilings and a stone fireplace. (Cap*Rock also has a tasting room in Grapevine, Texas, near Dallas.) At Cap*Rock, we belly up to a marble-top tasting bar and I leave with a couple of bottles of Palo Duro Canyon White tucked under my arm, because I like both the light, spicy flavor and the very Texas name. Palo Duro Canyon - promoted as "the Grand Canyon of Texas" -- is about 120 miles from Lubbock, in Amarillo. And the names Cap*Rock and Llano Estacado both refer to geological formations of the region.
From Cap*Rock, we drive past sub-developments and cotton fields on narrow farm roads to Pheasant Ridge Winery in the city's outskirts. Unlike the area's other vineyards, which buy some of the grapes for their wines, all grapes used in Pheasant Ridge wines are grown in their own vineyards. The winery celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2004 (making it one of Texas' oldest wineries) and stretching out behind its unprepossessing buildings are acres of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, pinot noir, chardonnay, chenin blanc, and semillon vines.
Pheasant Ridge, which hand-picks all its grapes, produces only 10,000 cases of wine each year, in comparison with Cap*Rock, which produces 45,000 cases annually, and Llano Estacado, which produces 70,000 to 100,000 cases. "That makes us a mid-size Texas winery," said Gipson. "But we're tiny by California standards. Mondovani probably produces a million cases a year, Kendall-Jackson five million." Yet Pheasant Ridge's Merlot is the only Texas wine on the list at Smith & Wollensky steakhouses nationwide.
The Pheasant Ridge tasting room is cozy and unpretentious, with a tiny tasting bar overseen by an imperious black-and-white cat named Paws, who perched on a stool while we nibbled cheese and strawberries and sampled Pheasant Ridge's wines. I was partial to the winery's flagship wine, a cabernet sauvignon that Gipson described as "bright and frisky."
Can you imagine serving a Lubbock wine at your next dinner party? I can, now. But I wouldn't have believed it until I'd tasted it for myself, and had fun doing it. I came for the music but I stayed for the wine.
Lubbock Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1301 Broadway Suite 200, Lubbock, Texas, 79401; (806) 747-5232 or (800) 692-4035; www.lubbocklegends.com
Texas has 54 wineries scattered throughout the state. Here are a few other ideas for Texas wine country vacations. For information about visiting Texas, visit www.TravelTex.com.
Texas' largest winery, owned by southern France's Cordier Estates, is Ste. Genevieve Wines in wild West Texas, not far from Big Bend National Park.
The town of Grapevine, about 20 miles from both Dallas and Fort Worth, is home to several wineries, including Su Vino Winery, where they will custom-make a wine to your taste.
The Hill Country is the heart of Texas. Check out the map and events at Hill Country Wine Trail (www.texaswinetrails.com), which will lead you to wineries in some of Texas' sweetest towns, including Fredericksburg, New Braunfels and Comfort.
Just passing through? Look for La Bodega Winery in Terminal A at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where you can taste the wines of La Bodega and other Texas wineries.