Texas’s biggest grape-growing region offers a creative, welcoming wine community, a wellspring of winemaking talent and “world league” wines.
Sixty years in the making, the Texas High Plains American Viticultural Area (AVA) welcomes a new era of talent and taste in the state’s largest grape-growing region. Wine aficionados and enthusiasts alike visit the Lubbock area for an up-close look at the burgeoning skills of these newcomers to winemaking, and to savor local varietals with local, legendary figures.
“The High Plains wine region is in league with every other region in the world and has very good wines — certainly, the best of the best or world league,” said James Tidwell, a Dallas-based Master Sommelier.
As the founder of the TEXSOM Conference and International Wine Awards, Tidwell is an expert in the world of wine. He has a special place in his heart for the Lubbock-area wine scene and a keen understanding of what makes it stand out.
“The High Plains is where it's at in terms of understanding what's grown and produced in Texas,” said Tidwell. “It has one of the longest histories of the Texas wine regions, and certainly produces the vast majority of the grapes that are turned into wine. And yet in some ways it’s still a new region.”
The history of Texas wines starts with the late Clinton “Doc” McPherson, a Texas Tech University chemistry professor from a farming family. He and fellow professor Bob Reed started experimenting with grape growing in 1969, and their experiments took root, so to speak. In 1974, after years of growing and lobbying state lawmakers for industry support, McPherson and Reed opened Llano Estacado Winery, now one of the leading wineries in Texas. As Llano Estacado grew, other vineyards and cellars started setting up in the region.
What makes the High Plains such a good place to grow grapes? Tidwell says that despite the region’s cold winters, which can be a challenge for growers, the dry warmth and cool nights are ideal for many Mediterranean grapes, including Roussanne and Viognier from France’s Rhône Valley, Tempranillo from Spain and Vermentino, Sangiovese and Montepulciano varieties from Italy.
According to David Mueller, winemaker at Lubbock’s English Newsom Cellars at Caprock Winery, the High Plains setting prevents some of the challenges that confront growers in more humid parts of the state and in areas with heavier soil.
“It’s really windy here, and that prevents a lot of molds from building up, because the grapes are always getting good aeration,” said Mueller. “Grapes don’t like too much rain, so the dryness out here works to our advantage. Also, our soil is a nice sandy clay loam that absorbs well, so you can pump in the nutrient program you want for each variety.”
The good growing conditions deliver abundant harvests — more than 10,000 tons of grapes in 2019. That gives High Plains winemakers the resources to produce wines entirely with local grapes, something that’s not always possible in other parts of the state.
“One of the things we do out here that’s different is that we’re completely estate-grown,” said Mueller of English Newsom. “We have about 200 acres of vineyards that we oversee from grape to bottle.”
The vast local resources also make it easy for area wineries to collaborate and try new things.
“The strength right now is that there's a lot of experimentation,” said Tidwell, contrasting the High Plains region to more traditional regions like Burgundy in France, where winemakers have followed and honed many of the same practices for centuries. “Here, for example, we get to see the same grapes from the same vineyard distributed throughout several different wineries to see how each winery makes wine out of them. That’s very important because it allows us to see what works well.”
The region’s “custom crush” facilities, which rent production space and equipment to wine brands, also fuel creativity.
“I think of custom crush facilities almost like incubators, in that a custom facility is essentially a winery-for-hire,” said Tidwell. “They facilitate smaller producers being able to produce wine, which leads to more experimentation, more variety and new products that we might not see otherwise.”
The close-knit nature of the High Plains winemaking community creates a unique experience for visitors, too.
“What I love about the High Plains is that there's a sophistication to the winemakers and the wineries, but at the same time, it's still a place where you can meet the people,” said Tidwell. “You could go to McPherson Cellars and Kim McPherson, son of “Doc” McPherson, could be in the tasting room pouring wine, or you could go across the street and see his wife Sylvia at La Diosa Cellars. It's like Oregon was back in the 80s and 90s, when you could go to the Willamette Valley and walk into a tasting room and see the owner of the winery.”
The McPherson family and other veteran High Plains winemakers have decades of knowledge and experience to share, and the local wine industry is growing all the time. Many interns and new hires come from Texas Tech University, which launched a viticulture and enology degree program in 2010. It’s the path that Mueller took after starting as a business student, and it has helped to build a talent pipeline that feeds the local winemaking scene.
“I would say at least 75 to 80 percent of the program’s students do an internship. A lot of the local wineries and custom crush facilities are very receptive to students and want to help the industry grow,” said Tidwell.
With all the growth, collaboration and creativity among High Plains winemakers, the region is on the cusp of gaining more recognition in the wine industry.
“Through collaboration, people start to see a bigger vision for a region, and I think that's one of the things that is happening on the High Plains,” said Tidwell. You see a lot of cross-pollination and collaboration with growers, with winemakers, with wineries. In other words, the time to come visit and enjoy a taste of the state’s biggest open secret is now. Lubbock’s winemakers are happy to share their creations with you.
Texas wine is delicious, refined and accessible for all, and with area experts to lead the way, it’s never hard to find your perfect pairing.
“When visiting Lubbock, start with the classics,” said Tidwell. “Generation One of Texas wine is Llano Estacado. Jason Centanni is a brilliant winemaker. His experimental wines that go out to their wine club are some of the most dynamic wines I’ve tasted in Texas. English Newsom Cellars at Caprock Winery is the other sort of first-generation winery, and they’re crafting a really good Pinot Grigio.
“McPherson Cellars is one of the stars of the Texas wine industry. Kim McPherson is a winemaker to pay attention to — and his assistant winemaker, Spenser Igo, is dynamic, wants to experiment and wants to understand the principles behind what makes a great wine.”
“Katie Jane Seaton and her family have a little farmhouse down there that they turned into an excellent tasting room.”
And there’s one Lubbock-based winemaker you can visit only online: Cheramie Wine. Marine veteran and wine broker Cheramie Law and her partner, Todd Aho, “fell in love with Texas wine, decided they wanted to make wine, and jumped in and started with locally grown grapes,” Tidwell says. “Cheramie is an example of out-of-the-box Texas thinking about how to start a wine brand. She’s really promoted her wine through social media and has a great following.”
Visitors find the wine grown in the Texas High Plains is as unpretentious and welcoming as the people who tend the vines. Regardless of your choice of vino, wine lovers see Lubbock as a destination to be savored.
Find your perfect pairing today. Cheers!