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October 9, 2000     (512) 463-0300

Agriculture Committee Examines the Texas Wine Industry

AUSTIN - The Joint Agriculture Policy Committee met this afternoon, October 9, 2000, at the state capitol in Austin. Senate members include Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, serving as co-chair, Ken Armbrister of Victoria, Teel Bivins of Lubbock and Steve Ogden of Bryan. House members include David Swinford, serving as co-chair, Robert Cook, Jim McReynolds and Bob Turner.

Today's primary topic was the future of the Texas wine industry. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs led off the invited testimony with a review of the industry. In short, she told the committee that Texas needs to dramatically increase both grape and wine production to meet an exploding demand. She has just come back from a trip to California, where wine is a huge part of the economy. During that trip, she saw that farmers can make large profits off of relatively small acreage if the crop is grown properly. In addition, she says California has capitalized on the tourist industry that grows up around vineyards, something that Texas has yet to do.

The agriculture commissioner says Texas currently ranks fifth or sixth in wine production, depending on whose numbers you use, but says there is a lot of room for growth since local production doesn't even come close to meeting demand. Wine is already a hundred million dollar business in Texas, responsible for creating about 1700 jobs. Problems for the Texas industry include many of the same ones that challenge other agricultural crops, such as insect infestation and a stable water supply. She also called for Texas universities to continue research which would promote and assist the wine industry in Texas.

Combs says the challenge for many Texas farmers is that traditional crops such as cotton are not producing the same profit as they have in the past and that Texas farmers are asking for help in diversification, finding crops that will be profitable. The problem they face is that many new crops take a long time to get established before the farmer ever sees a profit.

RandyYarbrough from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission testified that Texas law sometimes restricts marketing in a way that puts them at a disadvantage when compared with wineries in other states.

Dr. Jim Butler of Texas A&M followed, talking about Pierce's disease, which has attacked the Texas grape crop and what is being done to combat it. So far there is no cure, only preventative measures that growers can take. Paul Bonarrigo of Bryan's Messina Hof Winery testified that ninety percent of Texans who drink wine would purchase a Texas product if given a chance, but that Texas winemakers are having a tough time getting distribution. In recent years, production has actually decreased due to Pierce's disease. He said that ten thousand producing acres are needed to meet future demand, while today we have only twenty two hundred.

Dr.Tim Dodd of Texas Tech University testified that visitors to Texas wineries are a great source of tourist dollars, as they are generally in a high income bracket and are ready to spend. In regard to the disease problems, he said that different varieties of grapes and root stock may be part of the answer. His office at Texas Tech generally concentrates on the marketing of the product.

Dr. Charles McKinney, Consulting Viticulturist testified that Texas laws and regulations developed in the 1930s must be modernized to allow the Texas industry to be competitive with wineries in other states. For instance, a winery in Texas cannot own a restaurant where its own wine is served.

He also called for Texas colleges and universities to renew their support for research into the Texas wine industry. Les Constable of Brushy Creek Vinyards testified as to the challenges faced by the small, family-owned vinyard, saying that despite awards and fine crops, he has not made a profit after five years due to the fact that state laws restrict how he can sell his wine. In fact, due to location, he can't sell out of winery. Ed Manigold of Spicewood Vineyards in Burnet County followed, also speaking as to the issues that restrict wineries from selling wine. Cord Switzer of Fredricksburg Winery echoed those sentiments, saying that the current distributor-led system is hurting new businesses.

The committee was to recess subject to call of the chair.

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