A Texas Grape and Wine History


by Dr. George Ray McEachern


NOTE: This material appeared originally in the Proceedings of the 10th Annual Oktober Gartenfest, jointly sponsored by Texas Cooperative Extension and The University of Texas Center for American History (Dr. William C. Welch, Committee Chairman) Winedale, Texas, 2003.

Grapes have grown naturally along rivers and streams in Texas for thousands of years. A wide diversity of genetically unique grape species have been identified as native to Texas. The legendary T. V. Munson of Denison, Texas was one of the most important grape taxonomists to classify the grapes of the world in 1909. However, one does not need to be a grape scientist to realize how abundant native grapes are in Texas. Every river, stream, road or fence row in the state is not without a native vine. These native species have played an important role in providing genetic resistance for grape rootstocks used around the world. A large contrast exists between native grapes and commercial wine grape production in Texas. Growing wine in Texas is very difficult.

Natural Challenges Which Limit Commercial Grape Culture in Texas


The first Europeans in Texas planted Vitis vinifera grapes from the old world in settlements at Bellville, New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, but there were never reports of production. Evidently, limitations in Texas prohibited their growth. In the mid 1950's a significant attempt to grow Vitis vinifera table grapes in the Winter Garden and Lower Rio Grande Valley failed because of vine death from a number of limitations. In addition to Texas, Vitis vinifera grapes failed in the lower southeastern states from Savanna, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana. With time, efforts to grow old world grapes declined and wine was made from native grapes. The new Texas wine industry did not begin on a commercial scale until the late 1970's.

Pierce's Disease - long recognized as the significant limiting factor for grape culture in the Gulf Coast states - is a major negative force in Texas. This bacteria lives unnoticed in a wide range of native plants and is vectored to grape vines where it kills them in several years in both east and south Texas. This has been occurring since the first European plantings. Since 1970, Pierce's Disease was thought to be limited to the area south of the 800 hour winter chilling below 45F line; however, in 1996 many vineyards in central Texas north of this line were identified as Pierce's Disease and it killed some vineyards entirely.

In Texas, where it is warm in the winter, the vine killing was different from California because we had a number of flat headed glassy-winged sharpshooters to move the bacteria from host plants to vineyards. Unfortunately, there was no positive control of Pierce's Disease in 2001 other than planting resistant varieties, which there are very few. These grapes do not have the quality characteristic of the classic Vitis vinifera varieties. LeNoir, Blanc duBois, and several others are the best resistant varieties. Jim Kamas is working with growers on a number of trials which target the vector as a method of managing Pierces Disease. Since there are vineyards in the PD Zone which have never become infected, there is great hope for this research. A second bacterial disease, Crown Gall, has also been a serious problem in some vineyards.

Cotton Root Rot is a significant problem in areas of the state which have high pH alkaline soils. It is not a problem in the acid soils of east Texas or in the soils of the south plains near Lubbock, Texas. When conditions are right, cotton root rot can kill a wide range of dicot plants, including vineyards. Where the problem exists, growers need a rootstock for cotton root rot control. Champanel and Dog Ridge have been used with some success. The vigorous growth of wild mustang, Vitis mustangensis (Vitis candicans), appears to offer promise but unfortunately it is very difficult to propagate.

Winter Freezes are a major problem in Texas. The new Texas wine industry did not receive a major freeze from 1973 until 1989. But a major freeze struck very hard when in late October 1989 temperatures dropped 60F in 24 hours killing hundreds of acres of mature vines and this occurred again in 1993. The Vitis vinifera grape is grown in very cold climates; however, the grape does not have a true dormancy or rest period, like peach. Consequently, if vines have cell activity during warm periods of the fall or winter, freezes can be lethal. In addition, spring frosts can kill new growth. Young Vitis vinifera vine establishment can be difficult to establish in west Texas due to early fall freezes. Freezes pose a serious problem for grafted vines, because rootstock vines are extremely difficult to redevelop into a new trunk following a damaging freeze. At the Newsom Vineyard in Plains, Texas it was learned that freeze damage can be reduced up to 40% by using two trunks rather than one.

Black Rot is a serious fungus disease of grapes in Texas. The development of commercial grapes in Texas and the eastern United States is to a great degree the result of new and better fungicides for protecting the fruit and vines during rainfall periods. Far west Texas can grow Vitis vinifera without fungicide protection during typically very dry years; however, there are years when it will be needed. Other fungus diseases - Anthracnose, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and others can also be a problem.

Texas A&M University Research Vineyards

A large research vineyard was planted at College Station, Texas in 1893 by R. H. Price and H. Ness which included more than 150 varieties with four vines each. By 1898 all varieties with any Vitis vinifera inheritance were dead and varieties with Vitis labrusca failed to perform in the southeast Texas climate. Repeated efforts to establish research vineyards at the main campus failed from what we now suspect was Pierce's Disease. In 2001 a new vineyard was established to evaluate the tolerance of Pierce's Disease in varieties which have demonstrated long term survival in the south. This is by the author in cooperation with Greg Cobb. In addition, five off campus PD survival trials have been planted with Jerry Watson, Mike McCann, Jane Terrell, Charles Suechs, and Scott Thompson.

Lubbock Station. In 1909, a large A&M research vineyard was planted at Lubbock, Texas and was maintained until 1937 when it was removed because of a lack of public interest in viticulture. In 1968, the research was reestablished by Bill Lipe and continues in 2001 under the direction of Edward Hellman. Hundreds of grape varieties of all types have been tested, as well as rootstocks, pruning, irrigation, pest management, and cold protection. New trials are underway with deficit irrigation to conserve water.

Winter Garden Station. In 1931, a large A&M research vineyard was established at the Winter Garden Experiment Station at Winter Haven, Texas by Ernest Mortensen. More than a thousand grape and rootstock varieties were tested until 1952 when the project was closed. When the Munson and Son's Nursery was closed at Denison, Texas the collection of Munson varieties was moved to the Winter Garden Station. Mortensen established Dog Ridge, Champanel and LaPryor as outstanding cotton root rot resistant rootstocks. He identified LeNoir, Champanel and Edna as good fruit producers. He also identified LeNoir, Herbemont and Barlinka as resistant to Vine Disease which we now know as Pierce's Disease. Mortensen also established that Vitis vinifera varieties have serious Black Rot problems in southwest Texas.

Montague Grape Investigations Laboratory. A major grape research program was conducted by A&M at Montague, Texas from 1939 to 1963. Uriel A. Randolph tested hundreds of grape varieties and demonstrated the superiority of Favorite, Carmen, Beacon, and Seibel 9110 grapes as well as Dog Ridge, Champanel and LaPryor rootstocks. Extensive research projects on pruning, fertilization and pest management were conducted. The program was closed because of a lack of public interest in viticulture.

South Texas Table Grapes

In the 1950's a large number of commercial table grape vineyards were planted from Crystal City south to Rio Grande City in south Texas and totaling over 3,000 acres. Test vineyards by Ernest Mortensen and Norman Maxwell at TAMU had shown that grapes from this region would be the first table grapes produced in North America, offering potential profits for the early fruit. Railroad companies cooperated with plans to ship the fruit north. Unfortunately, all of these vineyards failed because of Pierce's Disease, cotton root rot and possibly freeze injury. This major set back to Vitis vinifera in Texas slowed the future development of grapes in Texas.

T. V. Munson

Texas viticulture history requires a discussion of T. V. Munson of Denison, Texas. Few persons have or will ever study, describe, classify, breed, select, propagate, market, record, and exhibit greater technical excellence about the grape than Mr. Munson. For 30 years, 1880 to 1910, he traveled 50,000 miles by horse, train, and foot in 40 states, making concise notes on over 1,000 native vines. He then dedicated three years to the development of the first draft of his classification, and later supplied the leading Viticulture colleges of the world with a complete set of American grape specimens. He received national recognition for his comprehensive Exhibit of American Grapes at the 1893 Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The Exhibit was subsequently given to the USDA in Washington, D. C., and was the largest and most accurate single collection of grape species ever made.

T. V. Munson not only classified grapes, he collected a vast number of native vines and their current varieties which he bred and evaluated for selecting outstanding cultivars. This was one of the most outstanding private plant breeding programs ever developed. When a superior cultivar was identified, it was propagated for sale to the public from The Munson Nurseries. The railroad system at Denison, Texas was ideally located for shipping vines and other horticultural plants throughout the South. Profits from the nurseries subsidized Munson's life-long study of the grapevine.

The greatest contribution of T. V. Munson was his cooperation with the French wine industry in developing phylloxera resistant rootstocks. Once the problem was identified as an insect and it was learned that American species were resistant, the great challenge of moving rootstock material to France was taken by Munson. For four months in south central Texas, from Bell to Bexar counties, Munson organized dozens of workers and land owners who collected 15 wagons of dormant stem cuttings for shipment to France. Most importantly, all lots were identified by species and shipped via three ships to southern France. The vines were the breeding stock for the rootstocks which saved the European wine industry. Hundreds of villages were saved and thousands of grape growers were able to grow grapes again. The rootstocks used throughout the world today originated in Europe from the Texas native grape material from Munson. For this effort, T. V. Munson was awarded the Legion of Honor, Chevalier du Merite Agricole, by the French Government.

Munson, the man, was truly an outstanding individual. He was highly intelligent, extremely motivated, and physically strong. Munson was a deep thinker. Religion, nature and philosophy were very important, as he studied the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and especially Francis Bacon. Munson strived to capture "the nature of life," how it evolved and how it interacted with the environment. He was 100 years ahead of his time, breeding grapes to match the variety to the climate and to naturally prevent insect and disease damage. He believed in accomplishment. To write an idea down was not enough for Munson, it must be worked through to completion. In 1909, Munson published his life's work on viticulture, Foundations of American Grape Culture, which is in print today and available from the Denison, Texas Public Library.

Early Private Grape Pioneers in Texas

Through the years of little interest in Texas viticulture there were individuals whose love of the grapevine sustained their efforts to learn, propagate and grow grapevines with no intentions of profit or fame. These are the true heroes of Texas viticulture. C. O. Forester, Jr., of Elsa, Texas from 1938 to 1995 hybridized grapes in search of a table grape for the Lower Rio Grande Valley. He successfully crossed Vitis mustangensis (Vitis candicans) and Vitis vinifera to produce five seedless cultivars of commercial quality, the most outstanding being Mother Gloyd and Weisser, both seedless.

In 1966, Norman Willms of Los Fresnos, Texas began testing wine grapes for the Lower Rio Grande Valley and continued through 1995. During this period he identified two outstanding wine grapes. Muscanal, a natural hybrid of Vitis candicans, which has large loose clusters of red grapes has demonstrated resistance to all fruit and vine diseases. The second grape, Convent, was reported to be carried to Texas by French Sisters and is still growing at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral at Brownsville, Texas. Willms tested hundreds of grape varieties with Muscanal and Convent being the best.

In the 1950's, Mr. J. H. Dunn had an outstanding vineyard at Lubbock, Texas. When the new interest in viticulture developed later, Dunn was able to advise the new grape growers. The Crites vineyard at Diley, Texas was also a source of inspiration for the new industry.

Val Verde Winery. In 1833, the Val Verde Winery of Del Rio, Texas was established by Frank Qualia, an Italian emigrant. In the beginning, the Mission, Vitis vinifera, was planted; however, when Pierce's Disease entered at the turn of the century, the vineyard was converted to LeNoir and Herbemont. During the second generation of Louis Qualia, over 100 varieties of grapes were tested, but all but the PD resistant varieties died. The most PD tolerant Munson varieties, Champanel and Ellen Scott, remained in the vineyard; however, Ellen Scott eventually was allowed to die out. Over 20 commercial wineries were in production in Texas prior to prohibition, but only Val Verde Winery, under Louis Qualia, continued after the 1935 repeal. Today, the winery is stronger than ever under the management of third generation, Thomas Qualia, with LeNoir being their leading variety for Port Wine production.

The New Texas Wine Industry


In the late 1960's and until this date a new wine revolution was born in America and the world. Vineyards were planted in every state with several becoming established as commercially viable and Texas being one. Though there had been Val Verde Winery and other Texas vineyards, the first two new vineyards for wine were established by Bobby Smith at Springtown, Texas and a group led by Clint McPherson, Robert Reed, and Roy Mitchell called the Sandy Land Grape Growers Association west of Lubbock, Texas in 1974. Slow at first but rapid by the early 1980's, vineyards were planted throughout Texas and wineries soon followed. By 1975 areas of interest developed at Lubbock, Fredericksburg, Fort Worth, and Fort Stockton, Texas and they continue to be wine centers today with Vitis vinifera varieties.

South Plains. The Lubbock area has developed into the major grape producing area of Texas with approximately 1,300 acres of grapes in 1995 and this number should increase. The area is the superior region in Texas because it is free of cotton root rot and Pierce's Disease. It is also very dry which significantly reduces black rot problems. The soil is the best in the world and the nights are cool which helps fruit quality. However, freeze is a significant problem at Lubbock, Texas. The question is how far north of Lubbock can a variety be grown without serious freeze injury? The zero degree F average annual minimum temperature line from Collinworth County south to Cochran County is considered the upper limit for Vitis vinifera culture. Riesling and Chardonnay are grown north to Plainview and Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel slightly north of Lubbock, Texas. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chenin Blanc and Muscat Canelli are grown south of Lubbock, Texas. Since the industry is young, it will take time to make a firm determination as to which variety grows best where. The wineries in central Texas will depend heavily on grapes from the South Plains.

Far West. Ste. Genevieve vineyard of 1,000 acres by the Department of Lands of the University of Texas dominates the acreage of far west Texas, but there are 200 additional acres in the Dell City, Fort Davis, and other locations. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Ruby Cabernet, and Zinfandel have produced very high yields on top quality fruit. Early fall and late spring freezes, cotton root rot, water quantity and quality and iron chlorosis are all limiting factors. The Davis Mountains had one vineyard test positive for Pierce's Disease in 1996, however, no additional vines have died. Dry climate, fertile soil, and mild winters are positive for the area. Very good production, vigorous vine growth and high wine quality have exceeded expectations for the area.

Hill Country. The region north of Fredericksburg to San Saba, and west to Menard, Texas is home of beautiful limestone hills and pristine creeks with approximately 600 acres of vineyards. The Hill Country is famous for peach production with excellent soil and climate. A large tourist trade has made the Hill Country a popular wine region. Fruit and foliage diseases, hail and cotton root rot are problems in the area. In 1996, a serious outbreak of Pierce's Disease has caused growers to think hard before planting of new vineyards in the Hill Country.

West Cross Timber. The north central region of Texas has approximately 250 acres of grapes with a large number of smaller vineyards and wineries. The area has a wide variety of soil, some of which are deep, well drained sandy loam and excellent for grapes. The climate is typically dry, but rainfall can demand sprays for disease protection. Marketing is an advantage here because of the very large Dallas/Forth Worth metroplex. At one time the vineyards were all American varieties, which were replaced by French X American hybrids, which have now been replaced by Vitis vinifera varieties. However, there is interest in going back to hybrid plantings for better disease and cold protection. In 1994, the city of Grapevine obtained favorable state legislation for wineries and become a center for wine marketing. It is also the home of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. Pierce's Disease has tested positive in the West Cross Timbers in 1996, and some vineyards have been totally killed.

East and South. All of east and much of south Texas are grape disease territory. Pierce's Disease and black rot are the dominant limiting factors in this very large region of the state. Fortunately, outstanding port wine has been made by Tommy Qualia of Val Verde Winery of Del Rio and Paul Bonarrigo of Messina Hof at Bryan, Texas from the LeNoir grape which is resistant to Pierce's Disease. Cynthiana has also been planted as a PD tolerant variety. Blanc duBois offers potential for white wine with very good quality being made by Raymond Haak of Haak Winery and Bob Cottle of Pleasant Hill Winery. Muscadines grow well in the acid soils of east Texas with Piney Woods Winery at Orange making very good muscadine wine. There are many wineries in this region, which use Vitis vinifera fruit which is produced in either the south plains or far west Texas. Because of the high population and excellent marketing potential of the east, this trend will continue into the future.

Types of Grapes

There are six basic types of grapes grown in Texas: Vitis vinifera, French X American hybrids, American varieties, Muscadines, rootstocks and native species. The Texas wine industry is 99% Vitis vinifera. These are the classic wine grapes of Europe which are also grown in California, and all other major wine regions of the world. Before the new Texas wine industry, most vineyards were small and for home or local use. They consisted of the cold hardy, disease and insect resistant American varieties. This included hundreds of varieties; however, the prominent varieties were the Munson varieties; Beacon, Carman, Champanel and Ellen Scott, Cynthiana from Arkansas, and the Vitis Bourquiniana varieties, LeNoir, Hebemont and Favorite.

In the early 1970's the American varieties were replaced by French X American hybrid varieties such as S 9110, SV 12-375, Vidal 256 and Chambourcin. By the late 1970's with leadership from Kim McPherson and others only Vitis vinifera were being planted, and by 1985 the Texas industry was exclusively Vitis vinifera varieties, except for Port from LeNoir. Since 1996 with leadership by Jerry Watson and the Cat Spring Grape Meetings a number of vineyards have been planted in east and south Texas using LeNoir, Blanc duBois, and Cynthiana, which are Pierce's Disease tolerant varieties. Over 20 additional Pierce's Disease tolerant varieties are being tested in a new vineyard on the Texas A&M University campus which was planted in 2001.

In the acid soils of east Texas, Muscadines can be grown to perfection; however, there are only very small plantings and only Piney Woods Winery is making muscadine wine.

Rootstocks are hybrids of native American species, most of which were hybridized in southern France during the phylloxera epidemic. Rootstocks are used when a special root or soil problem can be corrected by their use. The most common needs in Texas are iron chlorosis which is corrected by using Fercal or 41B, nematodes which are corrected with SO4 or Dog Ridge or Freedom. Cotton root rot problems can be reduced by using Dog Ridge. One rootstock, 110R can address more than one problem and is the leading choice for Texas today. There are 21 native grape species according to Michael O. Moore in Flora of North America and 15 grow wild in Texas along fence rows, in forests, and on trees. Therefore 70% of the grape species of the world are native to Texas. The most dominant being Vitis mustangensis (Vitis candicans) wild mustang which grows in all of central, east, and south Texas from the Red River south to the Rio Grande rivers. In the acid soils of east Texas the wild muscadines Vitis rotundifolia are very common. Vitis monticola and Vitis cinerea var. helleri (Vitis berlandieri) are common in the high pH soils of the Hill Country. Vitis cinerea is common along the alluvial flood plains of the Brazos and Colorado rivers. Native species are different from cultivated varieties in that the vines are either male or female; with most of the vines being male with no fruit.


Dr. George Ray McEachern is a retired Professor and Extension Specialist from Texas A&M University, College Station, Tx. His interests cover grapes, pecans and other fruit crops.

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