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HomeHistoryDeep Roots: Texas Wine History

Deep Roots: Texas Wine History

When discussing American wine, it’s inevitable that images of the majestic Pacific Northwest coast spring to mind.  Landscapes of rolling valley vineyards cradled in the lush embrace of a mountain range are synonymous with a glass of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  This immediate association is certainly fair considering that California produces 90% of all wine in the United States though all 50 states in the union produce wine and grow grapes.  In a state known for its cowboys, cotton fields, big oil and free roaming cattle, grape growing (or winegrowing) is frequently overlooked as a cornerstone of Texas agriculture and agricultural history.

Texas Saves the World

North America is home to many unique species of grapes, so much so that the first European explorers called the lands ‘Vinland’ due to the profusion of grape vines they had found!  However, the species best known to produce quality wines, Vitis Vinifera, was found natively in Europe.    Early settlers found that producing the wines they love would be near impossible with the grapes found growing in their new frontier and began a pursuit to bring the coveted Vinifera grapes to American soils.  According to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, the first vineyard in North America was established in Texas in 1662 by Franciscan priests and more than a century of experimentation would continue while the Vinifera vines struggled to adapt to climate, soil and insect pests.

In the mid-1800’s the European wine community was devastated by a root louse called, Phylloxera.  This louse swept through France and neighboring countries laying more than 6 million acres of vineyards to waste.  After much research, it was discovered that this louse was carried by plants and vines transplanted from North America to Europe for research.  After exhausting all options, the French government looked to the horticulture community in America for help.  After all, if vines could survive the louse in America, America could provide the solution to the louse in France.

Enter Thomas Volnay Munson.  Munson was a native of Illinois who moved to Nebraska to catalogue and study native North American grape species.  His initial experiments failed, due to the volatile climate of the prairie and a plague of Rocky Mountain locusts. Undeterred, he moved to Dennison, Texas in 1876 where two of his brothers already resided.  While there, he discovered that the soil of Texas was remarkably like the soil of the Mediterranean where grapes were known to thrive.  Munson began experiments in cross pollination and hybridization between native Texas grapes and their European cousins.  Munson cultivated the single largest collection of grape species for study and bred a superior cultivar that would ultimately thrive in the Texas market.

Given his vast expertise, the French government sought his advice since rootstock from other areas of America continued to fail in the French soil.  Munson and his team spent four months collecting native grapevine rootstock in an area stretching from Bell County to Bexar County.  The plan was to graft the affected French vines to the Texas roots.  A total of 15 wagons of cuttings were sent to France with the hope that the newly grafted plants would show resistance to Phylloxera.

The results were successful beyond all estimations. The European Vitis Vinifera combined with the hearty Hill Country rootstock allowed the ancient vines to continue producing grapes while proving resistant to the louse which had ground the European wine industry to a halt.  These Texas vines were the breeding stock for the roots that saved the French wine industry, and can be found in the genetics of rootstock worldwide today.  For his role in saving the world of wine, T. V. Munson was awarded the Legion of Honor, Chevalier du Merite Agricole, by the French Government.

Today the heart of the Texas Hill Country wine trail runs directly along Highway 290 between and South of Fredericksburg on Highway 16 and is home to more than a dozen wineries and vineyards that continue with the passion for experimentation that was seeded by Munson. The budding Texas wine industry has grown wildly in the last two decades bringing the full number of Texas winery licenses to just over 400 statewide (and growing) and boasts over 4,500 acres of grapes planted.  These statistics have placed Texas as the 5th in the country for wine production, 7th for grape growing and 2nd for growth in wine tourism.  However, no heart is as big, or as loyal, as a Texan’s therefore Texans continue to consume 90% of the wine produced in state.  As the wine industry continues to weave its way into the agricultural tapestry for which Texas is known, it is important to understand our rich place in world wine history.

We look forward to inviting you back to our historic property soon, founded in 1851 by C.H. Guenther with what we know today as the Pioneer Flour Mill.  The original 1851 farmhouse and barn are being renovated to their origninal glory. Have a glass, relax in the majestic views and feel the historical roots around you.

Drinking Texas History

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As the director of operations and branding, sommelier and educator at Slate Mill Wine Collective, Jennifer guides the day-to-day business of the tasting room and wine club. She is one of less than 500 wine professionals in the world to be awarded the title of Certified Wine Educators by the Society of Wine Educators in 2019 and holds a level 2 Certified Sommelier title with the Court of Master Sommeliers. She writes a bi-monthly wine column for Edible San Antonio and fervently supports local charity organization as a member of the Dames d’ Escoffier and San Antonio Chef Cooperative.