Education and research are the two areas where the university has helped make the High Plains one of the top grape-growing regions in the U.S.
The High Plains of Texas will likely never be compared to places like Southern France, Spain or Italy when it comes to the subject of tourism.
Or most other subjects for that matter.
But there is one characteristic where those areas and the High Plains have something in common – their climate. Warm and dry springs and summers, similar moisture contents and nice, cool summer nights all make these areas enjoyable places to live.
They're also pretty good for growing wine grapes, which is why the grape-growing and winemaking industries have taken off in the South Plains over the last decade.
"The advantages we have out here are the high elevation, the clear skies and we get lots of sunlight and heat,” said Ed Hellman, a professor of viticulture in the Texas Tech University Department of Plant and Soil Science. "We get that combination of sunlight and heat that makes the vines very productive, but also, the quality of fruit is high out here.
"When I came to Texas Tech in 2001 there were 46 wineries in the state, and now there are over 400.”
That growth in grape-growing and winemaking also has been good for the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, which not only conducts extensive research in viticulture but offers degree concentrations in viticulture and enology for students as well as viticulture and winemaking certification programs for wine industry entrepreneurs and prospective vineyard managers seeking to extend their knowledge of commercial grape production practices.
The undergraduate viticulture concentration began in 2010 and its graduates are starting to populate vineyards and wineries throughout the state. The viticulture certificate program began in 2007 and the winemaking certificate program started five years later, with Texas Tech making a major impact on the growth of the industry in a short amount of time.
"I see our role as helping this industry continue to evolve and grow,” Hellman said. "We do that both with research as well as the teaching programs. We are training the next generation of grape-growers and winemakers.”
Foundation of a new industry
Currently, Texas ranks low in per capita wine consumption at just 5.0 litres, compared to places like Washington D.C. (25.7) and New Hampshire (19.6).
But that number understates the importance of Texas as a wine market, which ranks among the top five states in wine sales because of the large population, now over 27 million, compared to New Hampshire (1.3 million) and Washington, D.C (just under 647,000). Thus, in terms of total consumption, Texas is a very significant market for wine. In terms of wine production, Texas now ranks 10th, leaving a lot of room for continued expansion of the state's industry.
And Texas' growth in the wine industry has come in just the last 11-12 years. Hellman attributes that growth to two key factors.
The first factor is the increased interest by consumers nationwide for local food and drink. That preference spilled over (no pun intended) to the wine industry and has led to increased wine consumption. The second factor was that, around 2005, the wine industry successfully lobbied to have certain laws changed, laws that Hellman said were highly unfavorable toward business development. Among these changes, wineries in dry districts or counties were allowed to build tasting rooms where people can sample wine before purchasing, whereas before, tasting rooms were outlawed and thus forced people to buy a wine without tasting it first.
"We've gotten more attention from people in the industry or people who are interested in getting into the wine industry, and they're looking at Texas as a pretty significant state,” Hellman said. "They're paying attention to us.”
According to Hellman, roughly 80 percent of the grapes grown for the wine industry are done so in the High Plains, but there are relatively few wineries on the High Plains due to the smaller population numbers. Most of the state's wineries are in the Hill Country or Dallas-Fort Worth area. Those wineries have small vineyards but don't generate nearly enough grapes to keep up with production needs, so they purchase the grapes that are grown in this region in abundance.
"Most people consider the High Plains to be the best area of the state to grow wine grapes,” Hellman said. "Where the people are is the best place to sell the wine. It's an interesting dichotomy in a partnership between wineries that depend on High Plains grapes and growers who depend on wineries throughout the state to buy their grapes.”
The high elevation on the High Plains leads to better color development in red wine grapes, Hellman said. But the way temperatures drop off somewhat during the summer nights prevents the fruit from losing a lot of its acidity during ripening, which helps wineries maintain the critical balance of fruit and sugar.
"It's a little-variety dependent, but I think you get a better flavor and aroma development in grapes out here,” Hellman said. "From mid-August through September, nighttime temperatures are more moderate as the fruit is ripening. That really influences the fruit quality.”
The low humidity on the High Plains also helps reduce grape diseases and pest problems that could affect crops. Growers also don't have to be as concerned about deer and birds feeding on grapes as growers do in other regions, all of which leads to a lower cost of production for the wineries that import the High Plains grapes.
And those are the areas where the educational and research programs at Texas Tech have the biggest impact.
Maintaining industry health
Several current and former students in the viticulture degree program at Texas Tech have studied the environmental and biological factors that go into growing quality wine grapes.
One graduate student two years ago, Hellman said, conducted research examining the environmental effects of sunlight and temperature on the grapes, trying to determine specifically which has the most impact on the flavor and aroma of the grapes.
Hellman said some varieties of wine grapes tend to naturally possess a flavor that has just a hint of green bell pepper, which is fine. But if those grapes develop in a lot of shade instead of sunlight, that green bell pepper taste becomes much more prevalent and does not go away. The student's research attempted to discover which factors led that flavor to be strongest in certain grapes.
One current student is conducting research looking at how grapes are affected by powdery mildew, the major fungal disease that attacks wine grapes. The student is evaluating disease prediction models developed in other states under other growing conditions to see how they might apply here. The hope is to understand under what environmental conditions are the fungal spores released in order to develop an improved spraying schedule that is not based on a calendar but on when the spores are released.
Irrigation is also a major factor with growing grapes. A number of researchers in Plant and Soil Science are collaborating to improve the efficiency of irrigation scheduling.
"How much water to apply and when to water is one of the trickiest questions there is,” Hellman said. "It is really complicated, much more complicated than is thought, and so we have a lot of different experts in this department and have put together a proposal that utilizes some of the different expertise and applies it to vineyard irrigation scheduling.”
Irrigation scheduling, Hellman said, is a main focus of the industry itself, because current irrigation methods require a lot of guesswork that is not conducive to water use efficiency.
Another potential hazard to wine grapes that gets a good amount of attention from the industry is cold temperatures, particularly frost and freezes that can hit in the spring after the vines have already begun budding, which usually happens around late March or early April.
Hellman said freezes in the late spring of 2013 devastated that year's grape crop, and growers and researchers were sweating out the sudden cold temperatures that hit the South Plains toward the end of April this year, but temperatures never got below freezing.
"If we get a freeze or frost event, it can kill the shoot, and along with it, the flower cluster that was going to produce the fruit,” Hellman said. "It can be really detrimental to the yield.”
Some grape growers have used giant fans in their vineyards to help combat instances when heat rises from the ground and hangs in the air, causing a radiation frost. The fans can help recirculate the warm air that lifts to about 40-50 feet and force it back down, thus warming the ground and preventing a frost.
Vineyard owners also use pruning tactics where they leave longer canes that suppress bud growth further down the vine that prevents them from growing. The buds toward the tip of the vine take the brunt of cold weather and protect the bottom two buds that growers are counting on to produce the quality wine grapes to begin with. Once growers are confident there will be no more frost or freeze events, they trim the canes back to leave just the two buds that will produce grapes.
"Everything done is to try to avoid the spring frost so they can get a more consistent crop year to year,” Hellman said.
Eye to the future
The viticulture program also continues to upgrade its facilities. Hellman said the program has just installed a new 1.5-acre research vineyard at the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute (FBRI) and also recently completed a renovation to a laboratory at FBRI, giving the program a dedicated viticulture and enology lab for the first time.
Then there is the educational aspect of the program, not only in the degree programs offered but in the continuing education programs the department has developed, helping advance the business side of the viticulture industry as much as it has the agricultural side.
"We have had a huge impact on the growth of the industry in having so many of those new entrepreneurs go through our program,” Hellman said. "With the influx of interest by second-career professionals, we are able to really facilitate the growth of the industry by giving these entrepreneurs the basic training and education they need.”
In addition to studying irrigation scheduling methods, the vineyard also will allow researchers to experiment with grape varieties. The most widely planted variety currently is Cabernet Sauvignon, most famously from the Bordeaux region in France, but there is increased experimentation with varieties that are native to warmer areas in Southern France, Spain and Italy, those areas with similar climates to the High Plains.
"If you look across the different wineries on the High Plains, we are growing at least 50 to 60 different varieties,” Hellman said. "So, for the growers, it's hard for them to conduct a systematic evaluation of the varieties. It is more of our role to be able to critically evaluate the varieties in what their performance characteristics might be.”
Hellman said some of the large California wineries have noticed what is happening on the High Plains, and if the industry continues to grow, it will only make this region more appealing for outside investment.
"They're making wine in California and shipping it to Texas, a lot of it,” Hellman said. "Why not make it here and sell it here? It will happen eventually.”