They brought you Heisman trophy winner Earle Campbell, presidential candidate John B. Connally and film star Farah Fawcett-Majors. Now get ready for . . . Chateau Longhorn?
West of the Pecos, where cattle graze and oil derricks are praised, the University of Texas -- the country's second richest -- recently completed its 1979 harvest of grapes from three experimental vineyards. These may keep educational cash registers ringing long after oil and gas leases have yielded to the coal, nuclear and solar realities of the 21st century.
Oil fame is fleeting -- depleting. And so, U.T. chancellor Ed Walker and lands manager Billy Carr are looking seriously to wine as the next "sugar daddy" for their Permanent University Fund. From preliminary indications, the Lone Star state could emerge in the 1980's as the latest entry in the American wine sweepsakes.
The most promising of the university's three experiemental vineyards is located at Bakersfield, 90 miles south of Mildan/Odessa, adjacent to an interstate highway which links San Antonio with El Paso. Other vineyards are located to the west, near Ft. Stockton and Van Horn. Looking more like scenery from a John Wayne movie than promising vineyard sites, nearly 40,000 of the 2 million university-owned acres are "ready to go big" according to viticulturist Steve Hartmann (trained at rival Texas A&M). This year's 12-ton harvest is the first step on the university's road to a possible new source of liquid gold.
The 1979 harvest began in mid-July. That is not unusual in a "Region 5" wine producing area, where summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. Although situated on a vast plateau near the Mexican border, 3,500 feet above sea level, the vineyards lack the moderating ocean breezes and occasional fog that bathes the valleys of Sonoma and Napa, in California. But the university's consulting enologist, Dr. Fred S. Nury of Cal State Fresno, sees significant parallels between this west Texas viticultural region and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley region in California.
Nury, who also consults for Heublein Corporation is cautiously optimistic about the U.T. project. Last fall, Nury examined wines produced from eight of the limited 1978 harvest of more than 70 varietal grapes at the three vineyard sites. Noting that the vinifera vines were only four year old and this was the university's first winemaking experience, he, saw "great potential" for "medium quality" wines and especially for two reds; ruby cabernet and petit sirah. Using the 20-point (U.C.) Davis scale, Nury rates those two wines 15 to 16, describing them as "clean and fruity." He judges the zinfandel, at this stage, to be only average in quality.
Both Nury and U.T.'S own enologist, Dr. Charles Mckinney, are candidly skeptical that cooler-climate varietals -- such as pinot noir, chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon -- will excel in their southerly, prairie vineyards.But they are "bullish" on the prospects for earlier maturing varietals such as French colombard, chenin blanc, sauvignon blane and several rieslings (all white) as well as grenache and barbera.
Following analysis of the wines made from this year's harvest, another 100 acres will be planted with varietal grapes that the university believes offer the most promoise. Hartmann will again prune the vines heavily next winter attempting to hold down yields to three or four tons per acre, a recognized necessity in producing premium wines.
So far, there is no stampede to buy home grown wines in the state where bourbon is king and Lone Star Beer is the "prince of ale." Dan Stathos of Austin, owner of one of the state's largest wine stores and wine merchant to Lady Bird Johnson and oil tycoons, notes that several other small new vineyards (such as "Bona Vita" near Ft. Worth) have failed to turn many stetson-adorned heads or produce many requests for "Texas chablis."
But that is just as well. Most of the 1978 U.T. wines are gone, having warmed the souls of barbecue-eating Texans both in evaluative studies and in tastings held to interest prospective winery owners in buying the university's latest product. That effort will intensify after a more thorough evaluation this fall of the wines made from this year's grapes.
The university winemakers do not rule out the possibility that the school itself one day might bottle and market its own wines -- the traditionally prohibitionist-minded legislature consenting, of course. But, for the near future, the university will seek merely to refine their winemaking skills in the production of six or seven of the most promising varietals and may eventually sell all or some of its annual production to private wineries -- if any spring up.
Meanwhile, back at the student union tavern on the Austin campus, where the house wine is Sebastiani (from California), beer is by far the leading potent potable. But Texans are known to be a proud and resourceful lot. "Chateau Longhorn" may indeed find it proper place -- if only they can find a way to keep that west Texas crude from rising to the top.