For two years, Neal Newsom, a well-regarded West Texas grower, stubbornly put off entreaties from a would-be Dallas winemaker in his 20s to gamble on tempranillo.
It was the late 1990s and Newsom had never heard of Dan Gatlin, nor did he like what the scion of the Hasty liquor store chain had to say - that the dark red Spanish grape with flavor notes of blackberry and currant might someday produce the state's signature wine.
Gatlin kept nagging, but Newsom remained reluctant, explaining: "Tempranillo just had no history to speak of east of the Rockies. And it hadn't been grown at this altitude in the United States. I was just scared."
Then Gatlin made an unusual offer. He'd buy the vines, have them shipped to the High Plains from California, and supply anything else needed if Newsom contributed the labor to grow it. Gatlin would be reimbursed in grapes - if the vines actually produced.
And they did.
Texas tempranillo has now garnered gold medals, including one at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition, and many regional winemakers are predicting it will become the state's best-known wine grape. Bobby Cox, a Fort Worth, Texas-reared winemaker and consultant, is convinced that Texas will eventually surpass California in tempranillo acreage.
"Where was tempranillo 20 years ago when I needed it?" complained Don Brady, an award-winning winemaker at California's Robert Hall Winery and owner of the Brady Vineyard label, who got his start in Lubbock, Texas. "It may well be a big part of Texas' answer to quality red wine."
Lone Star winemakers have come a long way since the 1970s, when they were advised by "experts" that only American hybrids would thrive in the state. Some did, but the wine was generally disappointing. Most switched to French and Italian varietals, which garnered respect for many wineries. Early on, Lubbock's Llano Estacado took a double gold (reflecting the judges' unanimous decision) with its chardonnay at the 1986 San Francisco Fair. But Cox said some varieties were more suited to California than Texas, or cost more to grow and yielded less.
"Everything's different here," Cox said. "We're the yang to California's ying,"
The hunt for varieties best suited to Texas conditions continued.
Cabernet sauvignon has the most acreage in Texas, more than 500 in 2010, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same report has only 90 acres of tempranillo, but Cox says the statistics are dramatically flawed and estimates that more than 400 acres are covered with vines bearing the Spanish grape.
Ed Hellman, a professor of viticulture at Texas Tech University, noted that the USDA survey is voluntary and has not been verified. He says tempranillo may someday overtake cabernet sauvignon in Texas because "very little cabernet is being planted and tempranillo is still being planted."
"Tempranillo has become a better grape for Texas than cabernet or merlot," insists Les Constable, an early experimenter with the Spanish variety who has tried out scores of different grapes at Brushy Creek Winery near Alvord, Texas, 55 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Alamosa Winery's Tio Pancho Ranch vineyard in San Saba County also was a tempranillo pioneer.
"Like shiraz is for Australia and malbec for Argentina, I think Texas is going to do well with tempranillo," Constable told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It's already a huge grape for the state."
Gatlin said he didn't approach Newsom out of the blue. As the wine buyer for the Hasty chain, he was keen to make his own vintages, and hoped to find varieties that would suit conditions at his startup vineyards in Denton, Hunt and Dallas counties. He says he spent "seven figures" on seven vineyards testing 37 varieties.
When palomino, a white Spanish grape, did well, he thought there would be similar results for tempranillo - which means "little early one" because it ripens before other red grapes in Spain, where it is famous for its link with the renowned Rioja and Ribero del Duero regions. But Gatlin had only mixed results in North Texas. He scouted the High Plains to buy land and ran across Newsom, an electrical engineer turned cotton farmer turned grape grower.
"I honestly didn't think it would work, especially at our altitude, 3,700 feet," said Newsom, who grows near Plains, Texas, just 15 miles from New Mexico.
Gatlin insisted, telling Newsom: "You are sitting on the best spot for tempranillo in America."
Newsom's soil was high in calcium, and the area was blessed with sufficiently cool nights.
"It was 47 degrees one August night when it was in the 90s in Dallas," Gatlin recalled. Tempranillo grapes ripen unevenly, so clusters need to stay on the vine four months to allow late berries to catch up, he explained. But don't let tempranillo grapes hang 120 days in the far hotter Hill Country "or you'll have raisins," he said. Yoakum County in the High Plains south of Lubbock, by his reckoning, was perfect.