ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Okay, first, France; second, Italy; third, Spain; and finally, the U.S. of A in fourth place. This is a list of the world's top wine producers. Now, within this country, the top states are California, Washington, Oregon, New York - and Texas? Well, so claims our Lone Star state correspondent, NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
WADE GOODWYN: Conjure in your mind a picture of West Texas.
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GOODWYN: Now, don't think sandy desert but a landscape filled with scrub brush and oil well jacks bobbing in the distance like a horse's head. This is "Last Picture Show" territory - bleak, dusty, with a sky so diminishing, it takes up half the world. It seems impossible that this could be a good place to grow grapes. Trees can't even make a go of it here. But over the last 20 years, it's slowly become apparent that this is an ideal place to make wine.
Mr. NEAL NEWSOM (Proprietor, Newsom Vineyards): What works good in Tulare, California means absolutely nothing here.
GOODWYN: For much of his life, Neal Newsom was just another West Texas cotton farmer. But nowadays he's the proprietor of Newsom Vineyards. Acres of Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Malbec, Muscat, and Cab Franc. Really Neal Newsom is still just a dirt farmer, but in the eyes of the rest of the world, he's so much more interesting now.
Mr. NEWSOM: And it doesn't matter where you go. If somebody finds out you're a grape grower or you're associated with the wine industry, well, the rest of the day, that's the universal language, that's all they can talk about.
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GOODWYN: Violent thunderstorms have been sweeping across the Texas panhandle for weeks and all the rain in the spring means Newsom probably won't have to irrigate his vineyard at all. He needs just 18 inches to grow his crop and he's already gotten 12 inches of rain. And there's another big plus to growing grapes out here. Instead of dealing with powerful and ruthless commodities brokers who to do everything they can to undercut the farmer's prices...
Mr. NEWSOM: In the grape industry that's not the issue. If a winery decided not to pay a grower, well, every grower in Texas would know it in a few days and he'd be dead in the water. So they take pretty good care of their growers.
GOODWYN: For grapes, elevation means everything, and Newsom's farm sits atop what is called a cap rock. It rises out of the desert 300 miles long, 200 miles wide, and 4,000 feet above sea level. Even though summer temperatures soar into the upper 90s during the day, at night here the vines rest in cool temperatures.
Mr. NEWSOM: Even in the summer, you know, it's not unusual to be in the low 60s every morning.
GOODWYN: You've just heard the perhaps surprising tale of the hospitable grape growing conditions in the Texas panhandle. You want to hear the bad news? Last year, Newsom lost 85 percent of his grapes to a vicious hailstorm, and this year a late freeze during Easter weekend has taken out at least a third of his crop, maybe more - he can't tell how bad it is yet. This is not Napa Valley, it's tornado alley. But it doesn't seem to be stopping anyone. In the year 2000 there were 42 wineries in Texas; seven years later there are 138 wineries, from East Texas to El Paso, from Lubbock to Houston, spanning three different climates.
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Mr. RAYMOND HAAK (Owner, Haak Winery): People say, well, why you - why did you build in Santa Fe? Well, I didn't choose it; it just happens to be where I was born and raised and went to school. The good news is Houston, Texas, some two plus million folks, are just 45 minutes to an hour away. And they have come streaming in here. And our marketing has been working very well.
GOODWYN: Raymond Haak is the owner of Haak Winery, which is just a stone's throw from the beaches of Galveston.
Mr. HAAK: My wife bought two grape vines in 1969, brought them home to the house and said, here, Raymond, put these on the flowerbed outside. And that's exactly how we got started.
GOODWYN: Haak now has 50,000 visitors a year, a staff of 12, and sells 60 percent of his production right out of his elaborate visitors center. That statistic is not unusual for small Texas wineries and low overhead is a big part of why they're profitable. It turns out there's an ever-growing customer base for a little vineyard out in some lovely countryside, a nice weekend drive for wine drinkers looking for a little diversion.
Mr. HAAK: We have free summer concerts starting Memorial Day here. We have seating for about 400 people. But we've had six and 700 people show up here.
GOODWYN: On this day, many of the state's best wine makers have gathered on Raymond Haak's expansive back patio for a wine tasting party.
Mr. HAAK: We've learned how to make a small fortune in the wine business. Just start with a large fortune.
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GOODWYN: Jeff Sneed and his business partner Jim Jacoby took a small money stake and started Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards up in East Texas near Tyler. They're not rich, but they're young and have strong backs. For the last seven years, they have done most of their own labor, kept expenses down and hoped to turn their first profit next year.
Mr. JEFFREY SNEED (Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards): We can't really make enough to keep up with demand, which is a good problem to have, sort of, and not a good problem to have, sort of.
GOODWYN: Fall Creek Vineyard in the hill country, Llano Estacado in Laredo, and in East Texas Paul Bonarrigo's Messina Hof Winery are among the bright Texas stars, the big medal winners who can hold their own in any national competition.
Mr. PAUL BONARRIGO (Owner, Messina Hof Winery): We go out to the unified conference in Sacramento each year, and they always put Messina Hof between Napa and Sonoma. And so there's no Appalachian on our table. And so the winemakers from Napa, Sonoma, and the rest of California come to the table, and they say, oh, these wines are fabulous, you know. Where are you located in the Valley? And we say, well, about 1,600 miles to the east.
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GOODWYN: Talk to the wine producers here and they'll tell you business is good. Ten years ago, wine bypassed liquor in amount consumed, and five years ago it left beer in its wake too. The biggest problem for the wineries is that they need more grapes under cultivation. The winemakers blame Texas banks, which they accuse of being trapped in the last millennia.
You want to drill for oil? No problem, here's your loan. You want to grow grapes - what?
Mr. ALPHONSE DOTSON (Owner, Certenberg Vineyard; Former Oakland Raider): We need right now, easily, 3,000 more acres. And we are striving to have the financial institutions understand this industry.
GOODWYN: Alphonse Dotson is a former defensive end for the Oakland Raiders. His son, Santana, was an All-Pro tackle for the Green Bay Packers. The biggest challenges to Dotson's Hill Country vineyard include a blight called Peirce's disease, and the mockingbird's insatiable appetite.
Mr. DOTSON: The Texas state bird, who loves our fruit dearly, and we cannot harm his derriere, you know.
GOODWYN: If they can just keep the mockingbirds, the late freezes, the hailstorms, and grape disease at bay, the future's so bright they've got to wear shades.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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CHADWICK: Hey, those vintners in Wade's story have one additional obstacle if they want to sell their wine across the very state where they grow the grapes. Because in Texas one of every five counties is dry. One of them, Andrews County had a chance this past weekend to change that. For the first time in 50 years, Andrews residents voted on whether to allow liquor sales in the county. They said no. Nearly 56 percent of those voting on Saturday rejected the ballot proposition, which would have made beer, wine and spirits available in Andrews.
Opponents said they wanted to stay dry for one big reason: alcohol and uranium do not mix. Andrews County is in West Texas, that's on the New Mexico border. It's home to a storage site for 45,000 tons of radioactive waste - remnants from the Cold War. The concern, said a member of the Keep Andrews Dry Coalition, was worker safety. Drinking all night and working with radiation the next day? That's too potent a cocktail for Andrews County to consider.