Texas appears to be an improbable place for world-class wine. That did not stop two Texas Tech University professors, Drs. Clinton “Doc” McPherson and Bob Reed.
At a seminar in 2009, McPherson related the two were eating lunch in the 1960s when McPherson quipped: “Let’s grow some grapes. We can make jelly and sell it on the roadside during the summer for extra cash.” McPherson then quickly added: “If I had all the money Bob and I made and lost with grapes in the early days, we’d be millionaires.”
As the story unfolds, Texas Tech’s president decided professors needed research projects. Chemistry professors McPherson and Reed suggested an experimental winery in the basement of the chemistry building.
Texas made wine before that. Spanish missionaries planted grapes and made wine in the 1700s. The Qualia family started Val Verde Winery in Del Rio in 1883; today it is operated by the third generation of the Italian immigrants.
But the genius of McPherson and Reed was to see the vast, sandy loam flatlands of the Llano Estacado (the flattest expanse on Earth), consuming more than eight million acres around Lubbock (where Texas Tech is located), could grow wine grapes just as it successfully grew cotton and grain.
The vast Ogallala Aquifer could provide irrigation water. The soil reduced or eliminated pests encountered in lush areas. Dry, windy conditions limited mildew and fugal diseases. Most important, with terrain elevations of 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level, there was significant day-night fluctuations in temperature, often 30 to 40 degrees, a signature element of many of great wine growing regions in the world.
But how to get started? In a quintessential Texas story, according to McPherson, after he and Reed started the winery in the Texas Tech basement, in the early 1970s a lady came up to them and asked: “Why don’t you boys put in a real winery?” McPherson said, “Ma’am, we’re professors. We don’t even have enough money to buy groceries, not to mention a winery.” She turned to her secretary and said, “Write these boys a check for $50,000 [equivalent to a quarter million dollars today] to get them a winery started.”
The result was Llano Estacado Winery, today the largest, best-selling premium winery in Texas, and the birth of the Texas wine industry as we know it.
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