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For Texas vineyards, it's been a grape year

Blessed by Mother Nature, buoyed by innovation, 2010 harvest is bountiful

Tim Eaton

The harvest on Alphonse and Martha Cervantes Dotson's Hill Country vineyard was 2.5 tons last year, their worst since they began growing in 1997. This year, the Dotsons' yield was 33 tons, a 1,220 percent increase. "We had a smile from here to here," Martha Dotson said, pointing to her ears.

The 2010 grape harvest across the state is primed to be one of the best on record, with an overall 44 percent increase over 2009, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Some grapes are still on the vine, and much of the harvest is still being reported to state officials, but Veronica Obregon , a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said the state's grape production this year could exceed the best years on record .

Favorable weather this year and the discovery of some Texas-friendly grape varieties could help strengthen the growing wine industry in the state, experts in state government and the industry said.

Alphonse Dotson , a 67-year-old former professional football player who owns the vineyard with his wife, said Texas grape growers are getting a needed boost after several years of bad luck.

"Mother Nature has been kind to us," said Dotson, who traded in his Oakland Raiders helmet for a white cowboy hat. "There were no major freezes across the state, no major hail."

Penny Adams, a program specialist and grape expert for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service's Hill Country office, said the 2010 grape harvest in the Hill Country and across Texas could be epic.

"Everyone who wanted fruit got it," she said.

The past few years have been dismal for wine grapes. Late spring frosts killed much - and in some cases, all - of the grape crop across the state in recent years, Adams said. But this year, the frosts didn't come, and the devastating drought broke.

"I think it's a turnaround year," Adams said. "I think you'll see a lot of great wines coming out of the Hill Country this year."

Many Texas winemakers historically have bought grapes from out-of-state growers to supplement Texas grapes. But years like 2010 will allow them to use more Texas grapes.

Dacota Haselwood , a spokeswoman for the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, said this year's crop shows that Texas can compete with the bigger wine states, such as California and Oregon. "We've proved we can get the kind of cropload necessary to support a major industry," Haselwood said. "Our farmers have figured it out."

Growers, for example, have discovered when to prune vines to help avoid late frosts, and they've started using technologies to protect vines from the freezing temperatures.

Cliff Bingham , grower and president of the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, said the 2010 harvest isn't a fluke, particularly in the High Plains near Lubbock, where he manages 130 acres of grapes for Bingham Family Vineyards & Farm.

With each year that goes by, the production keeps getting better, and the acreage continues to increase. He might not have seen the enormous increase in yield that the Dotsons experienced, but he said his vineyards have seen an increase of a ton per acre over the past year.

"The future is expanding on what we're seeing this year," he said.

Bingham said growers in Texas grape-growing regions - including the High Plains, West Texas near Fort Stockton and the Hill Country - have figured out which types of grapes can thrive in the state.

For white wines, grape varieties of Viognier, Vermentino, Roussanne, Trebbiano and Albarino will thrive; and Tempranillo, Dolcetto and Mourvedre in red varieties will represent the future of Texas wine, he said.

Adams said time will tell which varieties have staying power, but she said the Binghams are some of the best growers in the state.

State Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said the 2010 harvest should heighten the stature of Texas wines.

"This is truly a high point that will enable this industry to continue to grow for the next few years, regardless of what the weather turns out to be," Staples said. "And it also allows them to reinvest in new acres."

Alphonse and Martha Dotson said they hope to expand their 29-acre growing operation to at least 100 acres within the next few years.

But for now, the couple will spend their time marketing the only wine out of their Dotson-Cervantes Winery, a fruity and sweet white called Gotas de Oro , Alphonse Dotson said during a delivery to Mandola's Italian Market in Bee Cave.

With a few more years of favorable weather, Dotson said, "there would be no reason for every winery that produces under 12,000 cases per year to not have a true Texas product."

teaton@statesman.com; 445-3631

Texas wine facts

• Texas is the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the nation.

• The Texas wine industry supports more than 9,000 jobs with an annual payroll of $300 million.

• The Texas wine industry generates tax revenue of $142 million a year.

• About 2.96 million gallons of Texas wine are produced annually.

• The Texas wine industry has a $1.35 billion economic impact.

Sources: Texas Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture