Texas chards speak

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For close to 20 years, I've been ignorant of, then suspicious of, then frightened by, then curious about, then interested in, and then impressed by the whole crazy notion of making wine in the Gret Stet of Texas. I mean, of course, making wine somebody without a gun to his head might actually drink.

I have struggled valiantly to place Texas somewhere on the map of "wine places'' as far away (and far-fetched) as Pennsylvania and Virginia at least their vineyards had Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson doing PR Deep South exotics like Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, and blessed terrains like Washington and Oregon.

But still, Texas wines didn't make a whole lot of sense to me until I started hearing voices.

No, this isn't Joan of Arc or Moses here, though on my life's first trip into Texas Wine Country I saw terrain just about as diverse as Joan saw around Orleans and Moses saw around the Sinai. I mean real voices, belonging to men and women who make wine in Texas. And they were speaking over eight yellow-gold glasses of chardonnay, made in places more famous for barbecue and chili than wine.

Voices of Texas wine

The winemakers came together as part of the recent Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, the 16th annual gourmet-grape-guzzle staged in Austin.

There was, over four days, much ado about many things. Yet my favorite moments were those spent listening to the voices at a tasting titled "Beaune on the Range.'' And since I listened so long and hard to talk of "Texas terroir'' (borrowing on the French notion that land signs its signature to any wine it brings forth), I thought you'd enjoy hearing what the voices were saying.

Industry pioneer Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards in the Hill Country, on the Texas wine industry's past, present and future:

"I noticed at the time (early 1970s) that the soil here was similar to the soil in Burgundy. In the Hill Country we always say we have the best topsoil West Texas ever had. It came down the river in the form of erosion and was dumped right in the valley Each year we try to remember the best chardonnay we ever tasted. And each year we just try to get there with ours.''

Mark Penna of Escondido Valley, on talk of close links to wines and winemaking techniques in France:

"Ours is rugged mesa country. The vines certainly know they're in West Texas. They're not confused about being in France and you won't be confused, either We recognize we're not in Beaune or any place like Beaune. We are in a pretty harsh environment."

Dr. Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards, on the trials and tribulations of growing chardonnay grapes in Texas:

"When I started planting grapes here, I thought: This is not the place to be planting chardonnay.

But then I had to plant some chardonnay, and to our amazement there was a lot of spicy flavor. We have produced better chardonnays than I ever thought possible I always thought the French notion of terroir was nonsense. Now I think that if our wines taste different from the other fine wines here today, it's because of our soil.''

Philosophy on the vine

Greg Bruni of Llano Estacado, on the extreme intuition required for anyone wishing to be a winemaker, especially in Texas:

"Terroir is more than just the physical factors that come to bear on a plot of land. It's a philosophy. It's something that can't be measured. It's like acupuncture it can't be tested. We are taking the wines from a Mediterranean or Pacific Coast environment and sticking them in the middle of the continent. As winemakers, we need to know when to intervene and when to stand back.''

Kim McPherson of Cap Rock Winery, on the physical conditions that make winemaking in Texas such a joy:

"I've seen all kinds of vines and grapes for 22 years. I've seen tornadoes. I've seen wind storms that blow vineyards over. I've seen it be 78 one day and 17 the next that sure didn't do us any good I know we can make chardonnays, and I know we can do them right. But it's very hard to get the Wine Spectator to say, `Hey, guys, you're doing a great job.' I don't know how we can get them to do that.''

Bob Oberhelman of Bell Mountain, on the challenges of making Texas wine and spreading the marketing gospel:

"We winemakers are not like technologists formulating a steak sauce. Every year we're flying by the seat of our pants, and every year everything is different Right now we are in the Rodney Dangerfield Era of Texas wine. We deserve respect. For the first few years, we were in the Pet Rock Era.''

John DeMers is the Houston Chronicle food editor.

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