Life on the Vines

West Texas' Very Own Napa Valley

By Elizabeth Dusold
Photos by Emily Burkholder and Natalie Underwood

In Lubbock’s Depot District on a bright afternoon, a vibrant, red-painted building is surrounded with landscaped yuccas among rocks and pebbles. Housed inside the historic Coca-Cola Bottling Plant, McPherson Cellars was built in 2008 and has been open as a winery for three years. The building is artistically renovated: the walls are draped with mirrors and pieces of contemporary artwork; bold colors paint the ceiling in a variety of green shades; and bright red doors guide visitors through the winery. Black stones cover pillars, and wine barrels decorate the establishment. These features reveal the character of the McPhersons: passionate toward both West Texas and Texas Tech University.

McPherson Cellars The McPhersons have been in the grape-growing and winemaking business in Texas for more than 40 years and truly are engrained in Lubbock’s wine industry.

The owner and winemaker of McPherson Cellars, Kim McPherson, graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in food science and continued his education at the University of California at Davis, where he completed the enology and viticulture program.

“My father is the ‘father’ of the modern-day Texas wine industry,” Kim McPherson said. “He started in 1968 and continues to work in the industry growing grapes at his vineyard.” Kim McPherson’s father, Clinton “Doc” McPherson, a chemist, began his role in the wine industry when he established Llano Estacado Winery with his colleague, horticulturist Bob Reed. The two former Texas Tech professors discovered run-down vineyards on the Texas Tech campus, and upon experimentation, the two realized the grapes were good quality grapes, so they made wine. The professors got enough people interested, and in 1976, they founded Llano Estacado Winery, located in southeast Lubbock. The winery is now the largest premium winery in the state. Llano Estacado Winery controls 60 percent of the Texas wine market, meaning that six out of 10 bottles sold in Texas are Llano Estacado wines.

Texas’ wine industry has grown in the past 20 years. Tim Dodd graduated from Texas Tech with an master’s of business administration degree in marketing and a doctorate in consumer economics, and he is now the director of the Texas Tech Wine Marketing Research Institute. He said when the institute was founded, the industry was small: “There were around 20 wineries in the state,” Dodd said. “Now, there are over 200, so it has become a pretty big industry statewide.”

According to Michael Laughlin, the tasting room director at Llano Estacado Winery, wine tourism in Fredericksburg, Texas, is presently second in the nation behind Napa Valley in California.

Wine tasting room With the growing Texas wine industry and need for skilled employees to help with marketing, grape-growing and winemaking, came the response of universities in Texas to offer courses about wine. Texas Tech is currently the only four-year university in Texas that offers students the opportunity to earn a specialization in viticulture (grape-growing) and enology (winemaking).

Brent Trela began the viticulture and enology program in the Fall of 2007 by creating new courses, conducting research, and completing enology extension work through Texas A&M Agri-Life. He continues to teach and conduct research at Texas Tech in enology, winemaking and wine appreciation.

“It was the Texas wine industry, through the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, which sought university-level training, teaching and research in enology (and viticulture) to support the Texas wine industry,” Trela said.

The viticulture and enology program at Texas Tech was implemented in the Fall of 2009 and is in the Horticulture Department. At Texas Tech, courses are offered in the enology (grape-growing), viticulture (winemaking) and marketing aspects of the industry. Trela said to earn an undergraduate degree in plant and soil science with an enology and viticulture specialization, students must take 18 credit hours. The required courses are: Winemaking Worldwide: An Introduction to Wines of the World and its accompanying lab, Wine Production Introduction and is accompanying lab, Principles of Viticulture, Winemaking Quality Control and Analysis, and Grape Production.

“Come join the only university program in Texas focused on viticulture and enology,” Trela said. “With state-of-the-art facilities, wine labs, and research vineyards, we offer our students a superior learning experience. Whether you are interested in producing award-winning wines or growing world-class grapes, we have faculty and staff that will get you there.”

The Texas Tech Wind Marketing Research Institute, within the Restaurant Hotel and Institutional Management Department in the College of Human Sciences, offers two wine-related courses: Wine Tourism and Wine Marketing. The courses are optional, as they are not required to obtain the specialization in enology or viticulture. The associate director of the institute, Natalia Kolyesnikova, conducts research and teaches the courses and said that she and the other instructors have between 30 and 40 students who enroll in the Wine Tourism and Wine Marketing classes each semester.

Kolyesnikova explained that about two years ago, the institute became part of the viticulture and enology program at Texas Tech.

“The TWMRI was established to help the local industry get developed by providing economic and marketing information to the industry and to people who are interested in Texas wine,” Dodd said.

“One thing we try to do is make sure all of the projects we do in class connect to the wine industry in Texas,” Kolyesnikova commented. “We like to do something that benefits the industry.” Kolyesnikova explained a project that her students completed last year. She said each student evaluated eight websites from different Texas wineries, then the information was cross-examined, and the class sent reports to the wineries showing their websites’ strengths and weaknesses, and offered suggestions.

Raider wine “The wineries really love the feedback,” Kolyesnikova said. “And the students enjoy doing these projects for the industry; they know they are contributing to something real.” Kolyesnikova said that this year her class is making one central calendar for all Texas winery events. She said her students are conducting research on events that the wineries around the state are hosting. These events will be posted on the calendar so that when someone wants to visit Texas’ wineries, they can also view all of the events in the state and plan to attend the ones that interest them.

Dodd said the Texas wine industry involves agriculture in relying on local farmers for grape production and the wineries for winemaking but also the business-side through production, marketing and tourism. The general manager at CapRock Winery, Phillip Anderson, noted that the number of wineries in Texas is growing as well as the number of grape-growers. “Still, we do not have enough grape-growers in the state,” Anderson said. “We need more -- there is a market, thus a need for grapes.” He said that grape-growers will always have uses for their crops.

Texas Tech’s campus is located within the Texas High Plains region. According to Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, this region has more than 1,100 acres of vineyard land and is elevated 3,400 feet above sea level on flat terrain.

Anderson said the weather conditions in the Texas High Plains are great for producing grapes. “Part of it is because it’s dry, and the fact that it’s dry and windy keeps the grapes from rotting,” he said. “So we can grow some stuff here that you couldn’t grow in the Hill Country, and you definitely wouldn’t want to grow in East Texas. In East Texas, they tend to grow hybrid grapes. They grow that kind of thing because it will grow there. We don’t have to do that; we can grow the traditional European grapes because they will grow here.”

Laughlin said when McPherson and Reed began making wine, they used hybrid grapes until discovering that pure European grapes grew well in the Texas High Plains area.

“People have begun to realize if they want to get into wine, this is a great place to do that,” Laughlin said. Currently, five wineries are in business in Lubbock alone: CapRock, Llano Estacado, D’Vine Wine, McPherson Cellars and Pheasant Ridge.

Each winery is unique in offering something distinct with their wines, and the wineries in Lubbock have their own goals for growth. Anderson said a goal that CapRock Winery is working toward is to expand its sales into another 14 states, as the company’s wines are currently only sold exclusively in Texas.

Although the various wineries in Lubbock have their own unique goals, they are also working toward a common goal: to drive tourism to each winery efficiently and conveniently for those who enjoy touring wineries. “I would love it if we ever got to the point where people were doing the limo tours or if we could have a train, that sort of thing, like they do in Napa Valley,” Anderson said.

This goal is something in progress but will not be easily accomplished as the wineries are located in northeast, southeast and southwest Lubbock and only five wineries are located in Lubbock. Laughlin said that the winery owners still are talking about the idea of having a wine trail and are working on getting it started. “We are not there yet,” Anderson said. “But I believe there is the potential for us to get there.”

All of the wineries in Lubbock give free tours and wine tastings. The experience is enjoyable and educational. “On the tours people learn a lot about wine making,” Laughlin said. The people employed by the wineries are knowledgeable and eager to help those with less knowledgeable to learn about wine. “It is pretty low-key out here and easy to get into wine,” Laughlin said. “If you are trying to learn about wine, I definitely recommend you come out to the wineries and do the tastings.” The people who work at the wineries are passionate about their work and truly love what they do.

Wine barrels The wineries in Lubbock have entertaining events to further engage the community. Some wineries in Lubbock host their own events: Llano Estacado hosts an event called Grape Day. At this event the winery personnel serve wine and local food, and have live music and dancing. “These events are a way students can further become involved in Lubbock,” the tasting room director at Llano Estacado said. Other wineries contribute to local events like the First Friday Art Trail. “The First Friday Art Trail is a good way to get into not only wine in Lubbock, but things to do in Lubbock,” Laughlin said.

Krystin Herrera, the winery operations manager at McPherson Cellars, said the winery is part of Lubbock’s First Friday Art Trail each month. The art trail is a free event for all to enjoy local and regional art and culture. Galleries, restaurants and businesses in downtown Lubbock contribute to this event. A trolley offers participants a free ride to each of the different venues.

In addition to the five wineries, Lubbock has three wine bars in which patrons enjoy wine from West Texas and beyond: The Funky Door, La Diosa Cellars, and Manna Bread & Wine. La Diosa Cellars is located in the Depot District, not far from McPherson Cellars. “My wife owns LaDiosa, and I make her wines at McPherson Cellars,” Kim McPherson said.

McPherson Cellars has a relaxing open-air, outdoor courtyard and lounge. “We have a courtyard, where you can buy a bottle and sit out there and drink wine,” McPherson said. The courtyard is an oasis garden built for relaxation; the sound of water flows through steel pipes from the artistic fountain. Colorful lime green metal and rustic wooden panels highlight the skyview above.

McPherson stated that his mission is to use modern technology to make wines of distinction that have an Old World feel and character. His mission is apparent in the winery he has created.