Third Time's the Charm: Texas Legislature Passes New Wine Labeling Law
June 01, 2021
In a Texas legislative session marred by partisanship, a labeling law designed to guarantee authenticity of Texas wine—authored by a Republican, with three Democrat joint authors—slid through the state legislature with ease and was signed by the governor into law.
“Great wine is something we can all agree upon,” said Chris Brundrett, co-founder of William Chris Wine Company and president of the Texas Wine Growers (TWG)
However, for six years this issue has been mired in controversy, splintering the industry into two factions: those who believe all wines labeled “Texas” should be crafted of 100% Texas-grown grapes, and those who feel there should be some “wiggle room” to source grapes from outside the state.
Dubbed the “grape compromise” by Brundrett, the new law took six years and three legislative sessions for all parties to come to the table and hammer out an agreement.
Labels listing a county designation must include 75% grapes from within the stated county, with the remaining 25% from within Texas.
Labels listing an American Viticultural Area (AVA) must include 85% grapes from within the stated AVA, with the remaining 15% from within Texas.
Labels listing a vineyard designation must contain 95% grapes from within the stated vineyard, with the remaining 5% from within Texas.
Labels stating only Texas may include up to 25% grapes from outside of the state.
TWG was founded in 2017 and embraced the principle of the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place and Origin. The group has pushed for the same labeling standards of Napa Valley, Oregon, Washington, and New York for Texas. The effort, they claim, would spotlight the state’s eight AVA’s, elevate its sub-AVA’s, and highlight top vineyards through transparent labeling. Known by some as the “hundred-percenters” this group believes Texas’s future success relies on producing all Texas wine exclusively from grapes grown in the state.
“We know in our heart of hearts this is the next step as an industry to achieve greatness,” says Brundrett.
Meanwhile, another group, the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA), representing approximately 85 percent of the state’s grape growers and 600 wineries, earlier opposed the legislation.
In 2019, Paul Bonarrigo, CEO and head winemaker of Messina Hof, was president of TWGGA. Although Messina Hof is the state’s largest winery to use 100% Texas grown fruit, on behalf of the coalition he opposed the prior bill, believing it would hurt grape growers.
TWGGA’s position was three-fold. First, there aren’t enough grapes in the state to meet all winemaking demands. Second, they favor an option to include up to 25 percent of outside fruit to allow for more competitive pricing with other regions. Finally, the group advocated for flexibility to source outside fruit in challenging vintage years, and to insulate it from issues that plague Texas grape growers, such as Pierce’s Disease, hail and frost, and off-target herbicide volatilization drift.
“Historically, TWGGA has been opposed to it because it puts limits on what can be done with the wine. If you take that tool out of the toolbox you are limited. Less restrictions equal more options,” Roxanne Myer, president of Lost Oak Winery and TWGGA, said of the legislation.
David and Goliath
Many of the state’s largest wineries have most vocally opposed new labeling, at times pressuring growers to go against it to their own detriment.
Nikhila Narra Davis co-founded one of the state’s largest vineyards, Narra Vineyards, with her family in 2014. Three years later she and her husband, Greg, co-founded a winery, Kalasi Cellars, that uses 100% estate fruit. The couple has taken an outspoken position in favor of the new labeling legislation, but it has cost them at least one client that sought to purchase fruit.
“There is a lot of risk in sticking your neck out on this issue and losing sales, because it’s the biggest wineries that oppose this, even though they still buy a lot of Texas fruit,” says Narra Davis.
In speaking before a Texas House sub-committee in 2019, Mark Hyman, president of Llano Estacado Winery, one of the state’s oldest and largest wineries, explained that it’s pricing pressure that drove his opposition. Putting the Texas name on the label is key to the winery’s identity, according to Hyman, but for competitive pricing on a few of his wines, using 100% Texas fruit is not sustainable.
The Grape Compromise
Finally, both sides decided to come to the table to reach agreement. “We realized it was time to reconsider our agendas, to see if we can move past this issue so we can accomplish more for our industry. This is where the conversation began,” said Roxanne Myer of TWGGA.
By focusing on regulating AVAs while still allowing for the use of outside fruit under the broader Texas appellation, the new legislation is a healthy compromise, said Paul Bonarrigo of Mesina Hof, the former head of TWGGA. “I’ve always believed unity is the best way for an industry to move forward.”
Brundrett agrees. “I want to commend TWGGA. They realized this issue will continue to grow, it’s important to our industry,” he said. “I was the tip of the spear, but TWG deserve all the credit. Despite lots of pressure, they hung in there…Courage is one of the values we all stick too.”