Hippo Manchester
September 15, 2005

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Deep in the heart of Texas

The Lone Star state is set to be the next big thing in wine

By Tim Protzman 

One of the few bright spots in the disaster on the Gulf Coast is the kindness of Texas. The Lone Star State has opened its doors and hearts to the survivors. I think we all appreciate their generosity and, in honor of their ongoing efforts, this weekís column is about Texas wines.

Wine is one of the last things that comes to mind when you think about Texas. Itís true you can grow wine anywhere, but the best wine comes from places where the growers understand the soil. They know through centuries and often millennia of tradition what kind of grapes to plant to perfectly capture the minerals, the spirit and the climate of their gardens. California and its plump chardonnays, the lean greyhound-like cabernet sauvignons of Bordeaux and the zesty fruit-filled shiraz of Australia all represent the epitome of wine and years of trial and error in getting just such a mix. Texas isnít there yet. They arenít producing enough wine to make it economical to export and they havenít found their signature grape. But the wines arenít bad. Just scarce, a bit pricey and very Californian.

If I were a rich man, like the Fiddler on the Roof song goes, Iíd travel the world tasting wines at their source. But Iím not, so I have to negotiate the marketplace, sorting out the great wines from the less interesting ones. And an interesting wine has a lot to do with personal taste. Iím not a great fan of Cabernet Franc, whether itís from the Loire or Long Island or the Niagara Peninsula. And the marketplace further complicates things by looking for vineyards that are able to produce a steady stream of product, rather than a few thousand cases of a well-crafted wine. This is why you can get Lone Star Beer much easier than Pillar Bluff White Merlot, it just isnít as profitable to import such a small amount. And sometimes itís more difficult to import wines from another state than it is from another country. All this keeps most new, low-output American appellations off the shelves.

I would love to see the wines of Long Island, North Carolina, Virginia, the Finger Lakes, Missouri and Texas side by side on the wine shop shelves. And I think itíll happen in the near future. One of my current haunts recently added a section of wines from Moldavia, but that doesnít guarantee quality. I once tried a Bullís Blood from Hungary. The price was under $10 and it seemed a sure thing. Wrong. Later I heard the best Bullís Bloods werenít for export and America got a mediocre wine from a vineyard thatís number-one mission was to produce a large enough quantity to make exportation profitable. The same situation is facing Texas. No one winery is big enough to meet the demand. Everybodyís looking for the next White Zinfandel or Yellow Tail. It makes economic sense; would McDonaldís be McDonaldís if they ran out of hamburgers in June and you had to wait until next year? Probably not.

So how do the Texas wineries compete? Partly with tourism. Texas has eight Wine Trails located in some of the most beautiful areas of the state. Wine lovers come from all over to visit pristine vineyards and buy a 10-gallon hat. A lot of tourists are European, who have a thing for Wild West Culture. And the trails are Texas-sized, too ó the Brazos Trail stretches for 200 miles from the Louisiana border down to Houston and Galveston and out on the Plain towards Austin. Unlike Napa, the wineries could be 50 miles apart.

The only Texas wine I ever tasted was Llano Estacado Chardonnay. Llano Estacado means ďstaked plainĒ and refers to the mileage markers that the Spanish Conquistadors put in on their way to find El Dorado. The fertile plain with its hot summers and cold winters is home to three wineries including Llano Estacado, around the city of Lubbock. Lubbock is the birthplace of rock and roll legend Buddy Holly. Theyíre located in the Panhandle and the trailís called Palo Duro in honor of the nearby Palo Duro Canyon.

The Llano Estacado Chardonnay 2002 was juicy and Californian in taste with a tiny bit too much oak that was balanced by a good fruit taste. Melon and green apple. I liked it but it didnít speak to me of Texas. I wanted it to be more rollicking and robust. Spicy and gritty. Maybe the names of the trails put me in that mindset ó The Tarantula Trail (one Iíd probably skip due to my fear of spiders), The Pecos Trail, The Balcones Trail and my favorite, The Enchanted Trail. But itís hard to categorize based on just one impression, so I asked Nils, who knows everything about wine, what he thought about Texan wines.

ďTheyíre not the Next Big Thing. Theyíre the Next, Next Big Thing. With the increasing quality and Internet sales, Texas is ready to produce and market very good everyday wines and some great premium wines.Ē

We can only hope that wine will be yet another blessing from the great state of Texas.

And as I continue my search for Texas wines, Iíll think about that great wine trip Iíll take someday, when I get the money. It used to be a bicycle tour through Burgundy, but lately I been thinking of saddling up and heading west, out the Highland Trail for parts like Flat Creek, Lost Creek and Alamosa Cellars, just me, a few friends, and a bedroll full of corkscrews, sleeping under the stars and tasting wine.