By Victoria Holloway
When Cliff Babbitt retired from the Texas Department of Public Safety in 2006, he decided to start another full-time job: growing wine grapes.
His choice is not surprising: The West Texas weather is good for growing quality grapes. Dry heat concentrates the sugars, which makes wine sweeter. A good grape harvest will net $6,000 to $8,000 an acre.
Babbitt grows grapes for white and red wines, including Moscato, Messina Hof, Gewürztraminer (a Germany variety), Malbec and Ruby Cabernet. Though the work is intense, he is committed to it.
“I enjoy just being out in the vineyard,” Babbitt said.
In January, Texas wine grape growers begin pruning the plants. By August and September, they are ready to harvest.
Texas produces the fifth highest amount of wine in the U.S., and 80 percent of those wine grapes are grown right here on the High Plains.
However, challenges abound. One is that skilled labor is expensive and difficult to find because grapes are a specialty crop.
Another challenge is the possibility of losing a crop due to late-spring freezes or hail storms. Babbitt lost most of his crops in 2013 and 2014 due to a freeze, but accepts the unpredictability.
“We say we grow grapes, but, really, God grows our grapes,” he said.
Diana Babbitt, Cliff’s wife, said what she enjoys the most is the community aspect of wine-grape growing in West Texas. Because the industry is relatively new, growers tend to cooperate rather than compete. She said the Babbitts share a grape harvester with some of their friends who are also in the industry.
Cliff described the community of growers as a “close-knit family.”
Jason Centanni, a winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery who has been in the wine business for 10 years, accepts its challenges.
This year may produce many quality grapes for Texas wine if there is no spring frost, he said. One problem Texas has been facing in the wine industry is getting grape productivity up to speed with demand.
“You’re forced to learn a lot out here,” Centanni said.
Grape growing is more difficult here than in the Mediterranean climate of California, he said. In addition, California has been growing grapes and commercially producing wine for hundreds of years, while Texas has only been growing grapes since the late 1970s and commercially producing wine for about 20 years.
High Plains wine grape growers are still discovering the proper rootstock and the right types of grapes to grow in West Texas, he said, and local winemakers are consistently establishing an identity and reputation for Texas wine.
“We’re seeing some promising wines being made, mostly with the heat-loving varieties of grapes,” Centanni said.
As new talent and veteran grape growers come together, the future of the Texas wine industry looks bright.
“The cool thing about Texas is Texas pride,” Centanni said. “We want to see Texas items be successful.”
Related: Read about how wine consumption is increasing among the millennial generation.