John JuergensCowboy wines

A couple of weekends ago I got to go to Grapevine, Texas, which is just north of Dallas, to judge the annual Lone Star International Wine Competition.

Grapevine is one of those renaissance communities that has very successfully blended its nineteenth century origins with contemporary functionality. And with a name like that what better place to hold a wine competition?

Grapevine has held its competition every year since 1984 as a venue for Texas wine makers to strut their stuff and to see how their wines compared in head-to-head competition. I learned about the competition maybe five or six years ago and sort of weaseled my way into becoming a judge.

Over the years I had tasted some really good Texas wines. In addition, I had heard a very influential person in the wine and food business in Texas say back in the early 1990s that by the year 2000 Texas would be making Chardonnay wines every bit as good as anything California could produce. So I was very interested in what the industry was up to down there.

I still remember vividly my first judging experience. I don't think we had even 100 wines distributed across maybe 15 judges, and at that time the competition was limited to only Texas wines. Most of the judges were local or near local folks who owned wine shops, managed restaurants, or were local wine writers.

I've been to a lot of very snooty wine tastings and have judged with some very famous (and stuffy) people in the international wine business, so it was refreshing to walk into a room of judges half of whom were wearing honest working cowboy garb, including boots, cowboy hats, jeans and western style shirts. And the best part was that they were down to earth folk without a shred of pretense or wine snobbery. I learned a lot from those humble people about what to look for in the different types of wines from the various grape growing areas of the state.

I remember tasting some wonderful Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay wines as well as some really good Cabernet Sauvignons and ports. However, at that time, you could eliminate about half of the wines just by smelling them. I recall using the code D.N.P.I.M. frequently in my tasting notes at that first judging: "Did Not Put In Mouth."

Well, I'm here to tell you, pardner, that the situation has changed completely in just a few years.

The competition has about tripled with the number of entries up to nearly 300. In 2001 the competition was expanded to include wines from other states and other countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Austria - something to do with a sister city. The big producing states of California, Oregon, and Washington, were excluded. This year the competition was expanded again to include Oregon, Washington, South America, and other countries.

Of the 50 or so Texas wines I judged this go-round - I put every one of them in my mouth this time - only one sample was what I would call poorly made. In fact, the consensus among the judges was that overall the Texas wines as a group were better than those entered in the non-Texas category. And there were a lot of recognizable winery names in that group of entries.

Texas currently has close to 70 wineries, most of which are small family run operations. But they also have several that rival anything in California. Some of the wineries that can compete consistently in terms of quality on the international level include Llano, Ste. Genevieve, Fall Creek, Cap Rock, Delaney, Becker, Pheasant Ridge, Messina Hof, and La Bodega, among others. But the bottom line is that Texas wine makers in general have learned their craft well and are producing some world class wines, and I am a devoted fan.

Okay, that's the good news. The bad news is that many Texans, including many upscale restaurants, are very proud of the wine industry's achievements and have become extremely fond of their native wines. Consequently, demand for many of the better wines currently exceeds supply. As one wine maker told me, they are having difficulty supplying just the local demand so they can't expand into other states. That means you will have to make a run to Texas if you want to experience what they have to offer.

So the next time you are anywhere in Texas, put a wine tasting on your to-do list. Better yet, try to get down to Grapevine for one of their wonderful street festivals such as their huge Main Street Days celebration in May or the annual Grape Fest in September. Both events prominently showcase the Texas wine industry and you can sample some of the best they have to offer.

August 2003

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