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The Biggest Winery In Texas Thrives In The Desert

Grape vines at Mesa Vineyards, the state's largest winery and vineyard, located in rural Pecos County, TX. (Travis Bubenik / KRTS)

The Texas wine industry’s been growing in recent years – with new tasting rooms and vineyards popping up in the hill country and across the state.

When you think about Texas wine, you’re probably imaging a quaint little roadside farm in the hill country somewhere.

But what you might not realize is that there’s a big player in the industry just off a lonely stretch of I-10, way out in the West Texas desert.

The sun’s barely up in rural Pecos County and Whitney Smalley’s already hard at work at Mesa Vineyards – the state’s biggest winery and vineyard on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Smalley’s a lab tech who tests wine all day every day. She’s one of about 30 full-time workers who help turn 200 acres of grapes into about 600,000 cases of Ste. Genevieve wine every year.

The harvest is in full swing, but nobody’s out picking grapes by hand.

Tractors roar through the fields, scooping up the grapes and trucking them over to a 70,000 square foot building, where industrial-grade equipment will turn them into wine.

Growing grapes in the desert might sound like a bad idea, but there’s actually plenty of underground water here for farming, and the vines really don’t need that much.

The vineyard pumps about 3,000 acre-feet from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer a year, compared to the 30,000 – 40,000 a nearby Pecan orchard uses.

But the vineyard’s manager Jean-Michel Duforat says while it’s not necessarily hard to farm in the desert, it’s not easy either. This part of the state’s prone to hail storms and freezes.

“So that’s some kind of little challenge here,” he says. “Like last year, a lot of people lost their crop. We lost our crop last year so no, it’s not easy. It’s an adventure.”

An adventure that started as an experiment.

The University of Texas owns the land the vineyard sits on, along with about two million acres across the state. Since the 1800’s, the university and its rival A&M have gotten royalties from oil and gas, farming and wind power on all that land.

In the 1970’s, the university started growing grapes here, just to see if it could be done, but also to diversify where that money was coming from.

Duforat came here in the ‘80s, when the UT research ended and a French company came in to lease the land and set up shop.

He says back then people here didn’t really care about wine.

“You know where we are here in West Texas, people was drinking beer, they still drink beer. Now I have to say, I did convert some people to wine,” he chuckles.

Texans have been converting ever since, but it took a couple decades for the industry to really take off.

Debbie Reynolds is the head of the trade group Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

The growth has actually come since the early 2000’s to now, is when you’ve seen the bulk of the wineries open in Texas,” she says.

Still, Ste. Genevieve isn’t exactly the type of wine people are getting more interested in. It’s cheaper, sold in bigger bottles. Reynolds describes it as “dependable.”

Consumers are getting more into the fancier stuff. Patrick Prendergast, President of Mesa Vineyards, says his company’s responding to that.

“They’re spending a little bit more money on wine, they’re looking for something that’s more niche, they’re trying to understand where the wine comes from, where it’s grown, and they’re learning a lot,” he says. “We’re growing in that way too.”

He says the company’s finer wines like its Peregrine Hill brand are growing three times faster than Ste. Genevieve.

But while the market’s growing, the industry as a whole is at a crossroads.

“The only thing is we need to have more grapes,” says Duforat. “We don’t have enough grapes right now to supply the demand that there is in Texas, so we need to have more growers.”

“You can build 1,000 wineries in one year, if you don’t have the grapes, that’s not going to be beneficial for nobody.”

Some Texas farmers see that as an opportunity. They’re now planting grapes alongside crops like cotton and corn.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.