Dusty Timmons, former viticulture advisor for the past two years for the West Texas region including the High Plains, had offered to give us a tour of the High Plain vineyards whenever we went to the Lubbock area. Since he had to travel to the various vineyards and help with any problems they may have in their vineyard, we could not have asked for a better guide so we gladly accepted his offer.
Disclaimer: We have been to many wineries but have not had experience visiting vineyards. Dusty helped tremendously when asked questions but there were a lot of grape growing terms and names mentioned and I didn’t want to keep asking Dusty to spell them. So I apologize if I misunderstood terms or any of the names are misspelled. When trying to confirm names, it was very difficult as vineyards usually don’t have a website unlike wineries. Please let me know if there are corrections and I will gladly update this post.
We met Dusty in Brownfield and jumped into his truck to begin the tour. We learned later it was a great idea to be in a pickup instead of the small car we had rented with the roads we drove on. The biggest concentration of vineyards is just east of Brownfield with around 300 acres in about 6 or 7 square miles. Terry County, where Brownfield is located, has the highest concentration of vineyards anywhere in the state of Texas, and includes the two largest vineyards in the state. Terry County has around 700 acres of grapes in its 30 square miles. Last year the state of Texas produced about 3,100 tons of grapes and this year alone Terry County will produce almost 4,000 tons.
We first drove by Bingham Family Vineyards which is broken up into seven different locations. I verified later how many acres they had. Cliff Bingham said they have 130 acres of producing wine grapes this year which will be marketed under Bingham Family Vineyards. There are also 85 acres in first or second leaf which are not producing yet making for a total of 215 acres.
The first vineyard we drove by was Nicholas Seaton’s vineyard who is Cliff Bingham’s nephew. He has 20 acres with at least Roussanne, Tempranillo, and Orange Muscat. The part we drove by will have its first harvest this year as it typically takes three years before a productive harvest. We then went by Clint Bingham’s vineyard, Cliff’s eldest son, and then the original vineyard which Cliff Bingham planted. Another son, Kyle Bingham, had his vineyard on one side of a road and Tyler Oswald, Cliff Bingham’s son-in-law, had his vineyard on the other side.
Tyler Oswald met us at his vineyard and explained he was growing six different varieties, two reds, Merlot and Dolcetto, and four whites, Vermentino, Viognier, Trebbiano, and Muscat Giallo. The Merlot and Vermentino were planted in 2009 and the rest were planted in 2010, so this year will be his first crop. One thing we were unaware of because we are novices is all grapes start out green, whether they are red or white grapes. Once they go through veraison is when they’ll start to change. Veraison is when the berries begin to soften, to swell, build sugar, and the red grapes start to turn red. That’s when you know you’re getting close to harvesting.
Tyler’s 25.5 acre vineyard was only worked by his wife Jessica and himself, and they discovered it was just too big a vineyard for two people. One thing they learned the hard way is for people who plan on working their own vineyard, the rows should be made short in length. Tyler said, “You need a goal to work to. When the rows are long and you’ve been working an hour, you turn back and there’s nothing behind you, and then there’s a whole lot ahead of you. It’s just disheartening.”
Dusty mentioned he read about a California AVA which was 50,000 acres and somebody complained that was just too big. The High Plains AVA is about 8.9 million acres. He believes the AVA should be broken down and Terry County could actually be two AVAs with Eastern Terry County being one and Western Terry County being another. The growing times between the two areas are just so different such as ripening times with a two week difference. He has had varietal tastings of a Tempranillo made the exact same way from the same winemaker, one from Eastern, another from Western, and another a mile away, and they were three completely different wines. The primary reason is the soil. For example, Tyler Oswald’s soil is shallower than Dusty’s vineyard. Dusty’s soil is six feet to caliche which is made up of 1.5 feet of top soil, 4.5 feet of clay, and then caliche. Tyler’s soil is 4-5 feet to caliche. Caliche is the result of calcium in the hard water forming a hardened deposit of calcium carbonate and is often seen along the roads as white rocks.
Hail is always an issue with damage to the vineyards in the High Plains. Tyler’s vineyard though had damage from something we have never heard of: 2,4-D. 2,4-D is used as a herbicide in nearby cotton and peanut fields to control hard to kill weeds. It is also a very popular herbicide used in homeowner products to kill weeds. Take a look at the chemicals in any of your home weed killing products and you will probably find 2,4-D. The problem is the liquid easily changes to a gas letting it drift to other areas over a long distance and then ends up on vineyards. We learned that out of the many vineyards we saw during our tour, only two did NOT have the damage.
There are three primary Muscat grape varietals grown in the High Plains. Orange Muscat is the least vigorous and the lowest yielding with a good year being 7 tons per acre and an average year about 5-6 tons. Muscat Canelli is much more vigorous, thin skinned with tighter clusters, and can get 10-12 tons. Muscat Giallo, which Tyler grows, is thicker skinned, less prone to diseases, and will yield more than Muscat Canelli.
“Tons per acre” was a new measurement to us. You would think the more the better, but by reducing the tons per acre you get more concentrated flavors. It differs per type of grape and every vineyard though. The grower needs to determine the correct yield for a grape so the tonnage isn’t too low not yielding enough grapes and creating a bell pepper-type flavor in the wine. If the tonnage is too high, then it does not provide a nicely concentrated wine. The growers can control the tonnage by adjusting the grapevine canopy and cutting fruit off where necessary to balance the crop. Finding the correct number requires a winery to participate in the discovery process if possible.
We thanked Tyler Oswald for spending time with us and we were back in the truck. We drove by the Bayer Family Vineyards which is unique for a couple reasons. One reason is it is one of only two recent plantings in the last ten years of Pinot Noir. The other reason is the vines are planted on 80 inch centers which is closely planted compared to other vineyards in the Brownfield area which can be 8 foot like the Binghams use, 10 foot which Dusty uses, and 11 foot which Jet Wilmeth of Diamante Doble Vineyard uses. Newsom Vineyards to the west however are planted at 4 foot.
The Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) trellis system is often used in the area. Dusty said they try and capture about 36 inches of vertical growth of the canopy with the trellis wires. This allows the canopy to still leave room between rows for a tractor to drive through for spraying. Having the canopy go vertical too instead of hanging down allows light and airflow through the canopy to get to the grapes to provide for quality growth.
As we have seen with various plants, shrubs, and trees, they all have different root systems with some being very shallow and others going deep into the ground. I asked about the depth of grapevine roots and was told they will go until they hit a significant obstruction. Dusty said he has seen some fairly young vineyards which had a 16 foot deep pit dug next to it and you could find roots at the bottom of that. He has heard some roots have been documented to be 30 feet deep.
Our next step was going to be Reddy Vineyards owned by Vijay Reddy. Approaching Reddy Vineyards, we were told we were now in the highest concentration of vineyards in the state. These included the Young family’s north and south vineyards, the Hunter Vineyard, Monty Graham’s Five Star Vineyards, Rusty Smotherman’s vineyard, Tere Caswell and Tom Hesse’s vineyard called Castaño Prado, Dusty’s Twin T Vineyard, and his older brother Andy Timmons’ Lost Draw Vineyards.
Before our trip to the High Plains, we were told the great part about visiting Reddy Vineyards is his two story building which sits in the middle of the vineyard. The view from the second floor overlooking the vineyard is impressive. We heard Jet Wilmeth’s Diamante Doble Vineyard also has an impressive building because he built a walkway on top of the building. We tried to stop by the next day to get a view of Jet’s 90 acre vineyard but were unable to connect.
We met Vijay Reddy outside his vineyard building and after greetings, I presented him with two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon which Chris Caldwell from Eaglefire Winery and Vineyards had requested for us to deliver to Vijay since the wine was made from Vijay’s grapes. It appears to be a common practice for growers to receive wine made from the wineries which used their fruit. It must be a good feeling for the grape grower to see their effort to produce quality grapes turned into a quality wine.
Because of the freeze last year which hurt west Texas vineyards and because Vijay planted 60 acres this year, Dusty informed him he has now become the biggest vineyard in the state. I confirmed with Vijay later how many acres he had and he replied with 216 acres. Bingham Family Vineyards has a total of 215 acres among their family member vineyards so they are running neck and neck, but if you compare individually owned, Vijay Reddy takes the lead.
We then proceeded to the top of his building. At the top are living quarters with surrounding windows so the vineyard can be seen and outside is a balcony which overlooks the vineyard. Vijay had recently created some cuttings and went through with a hay bailer to bail them up in big round bundles like you see done with hay. Dusty said he had never seen that done before. Even though Vijay has the largest vineyard, you could still see other vineyards in the distance from the top of his building.
Reddy Vineyards planted their first vines in 1997 and now has close to 30 different varieties of grapes planted. Even with the years of experience, Vijay said he is still experimenting. He said, “I still have half an acre of this, one acre of this, and one acre of that. Unfortunately we had to tear out a three acre patch of Malbec. It wasn’t producing, only two tons, a ton and half, for the last four to five years. Everything else is still producing well.”
With a large vineyard as his, Vijay has 16 workers helping him and even with that amount of people, they still can get behind as there is always something that can be done in a vineyard. We had a nice visit with Vijay and Dusty got us on the trail again to see the next vineyard.
We ended up on Highway 380 where there is about a mile of grape vineyards along the road. Dusty made the joke, “You have Wine Road 290 and Grape Road 380.”
Upon arriving in Brownfield, we next visited Dusty’s vineyard consisting of 13 acres which he first planted in 2007. Grown in the vineyard is Muscat Canelli, Tempranillo, Riesling, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon. He will also be planting two different clones of Cabernet to see what he can do with Cabernet. When he sells the Cabernet, he wants to sell it to people who will vinify it separately and they’ll each get an equal amount of all three clones until they work out what the right blend is. Hopefully by blending the three clones together they can add more depth to the flavor. Most of Dusty’s grapes go to Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards along with Wedding Oak Winery, Westcave Cellars, and Perissos Vineyard and Winery.
We then drove by the La Pradera Vineyard owned by Mike Paddack and his wife out of Denver, Colorado. Mike Paddack was originally from the area and wanted a vineyard so he contracted with Andy Timmons to put in and manage the vineyard. Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, and Samsó were planted in 2011. Between this vineyard and Lost Draw Vineyards, Andy Timmons is growing 13 varieties of grapes. Andy first planted his own vineyard, Lost Draw Vineyards, in 2006.
Lost Draw Vineyards was next to visit and we drove by the growing Merlot, Tempranillo, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Orange Muscat, Vermentino, and more. We then met Andy Timmons who had arrived just before us. We were able to taste Viognier, Mourvèdre, and Muscat Canelli grapes although they were not yet at veraison. About half of his vineyard goes to Grape Creek Vineyards but some other wineries he sells to are McPherson Cellars, William Chris Vineyards, and Los Pinos.
Andy talked about selling his grapes to wineries and trying to determine the best way to grow a grape for the wineries. He said, “Most of the people we sell to sell everything so fast. There are a lot of people if you harvest it in October, then in July the next year the red is out. They just have to have the fruit and can’t afford to let it sit down, so you can’t really compare one year to the next. You just have to kind of remember.”
Dusty added, “That’s so unique in Texas. In California they do it all the time. Wineries are always working with the growers experimenting to find the best, and out here it’s just how fast can we get it into a bottle and out the tasting room door. That hurts because it delays the collection of information that we need to have.”
It was time to move on so we said farewell to Andy Timmons and hopped in the truck to move to the next vineyard.
It was now time to ask the question which had been stirring inside me since wineries had recently been discussed. We had seen many acres of vineyards but there were also a lot of unplanted acres. As consumers, we always hear there are not enough grapes grown in Texas and that is why wineries cannot have all 100% Texas wine. I asked Dusty for his opinion on that topic and the answer was, “Nobody wants to spend $20,000 an acre putting in grapes if you don’t know for sure you’re going to sell them. For example, this year there will be enough tonnage produced to pretty well meet the demands of the Texas wine industry. But there won’t be enough tank capacity in the wineries to do it because they’ve gotten used to getting it out of California when they needed it. Even if a winery said they’re going to go 100 percent Texas this year and they filled every tank they own, they don’t have enough fermentation capacity to actually make it.”
Next we visited the Cox-Bogar Vineyards which is a collaborative effort between the Mark Bogar and Bobby Cox families. The 162 acre block of land used to grow crops with center pivot irrigation but grapevines were planted in the corners. The vineyard is noted for having old Chenin Blanc vines which are over 26 years old. We learned the average lifespan of a grapevine is less than 30 years. They can grow for more years but as they grow older, the yield expectancy drops.
Our last stop was at Russell Lepard’s vineyard. The vineyard was originally planted with Cabernet and Muscat Canelli by the previous owner from Florida who had moved to the area to grow grapes. At the time Russell Lepard bought the vineyard in 2009, it had been unmanaged for two years. Dusty helped Russell manage the vineyard in 2009 and planted Chenin Blanc and Viognier. Riesling was recently planted.
The fantastic vineyard tour given by Dusty Timmons was now at an end. We have visited our share of wineries, but seeing where a lot of the grapes come from for those wineries to make the Texas wine we enjoy was very interesting. We also learned many things about growing grapes and the effort put in by grape growers. There is no way we could have visited that many vineyards, let alone even know what we were looking at without Dusty’s help. We thanked him many times during the tour and once again, thank you Dusty for your time and patience!
G. Harrell says
Yes, I’m a bit delayed in reading the article – but, I’m very glad I finally did. Good information! Texas has some talented and dedicated folks in the wine industry!
Jeff Cope says
I couldn’t agree more. We had walked away with a greater appreciation for all they do in the High Plains.