How herbicides are threatening wine production in Texas

The past two growing seasons in the Texas High Plains AVA have seen historically miserable weather that has cut wine grape production by two-thirds, leaving the state’s wine sector between a rock and a hard place. Now, the legal claims that a chemical herbicide drift from nearby cotton fields damaged thousands upon thousands of vines could ultimately leave the local wine industry nowhere.

The High Plains accounts for up to 80% of the production of the nation’s fifth-largest wine-producing state. But if herbicide drift has damaged enough vines — more than 100 grape growers and vintners claim, in a lawsuit filed against herbicide makers last summer — then the future of Texas wine may well be uncertain.

“The High Plains must be an important part of the Texas wine industry,” says Jessica Dupuy, author of The Wines of Southwest USA “It’s not just that the quality of the grapes is better than elsewhere; it’s is the amount of production. Without it, there would be no industry.

The lawsuit, filed against Bayer-Monsanto and BASF, makers of the herbicide Dicamba, shows growers and growers are scared. Damaged vines would be bad enough, but there is also concern that consumers will assume herbicide drift has harmed wine quality. So far, there’s no evidence, but if smoke-panked California is any indicator, imagine the panic caused by pesticide contamination, real or imagined.

Who is to blame for the herbicide ending up on the vines of nearby cotton rows?

There’s also a sense that some growers, if they win the settlement, could plow their vines and go back to cotton. Because, in one of the many ironies surrounding the suit, several High Plains growers were cotton growers who switched to grapes because they use less water and bring higher prices.

Another irony: the question does not seem to be whether Dicamba, used to control weeds in cotton fields, actually damages the vines. In fact, Ed Hellman, PhD, who has followed Texas vineyards for more than 20 years as a professor of viticulture at Texas Tech, can confirm this is the case, saying drift has almost certainly reduced yields by grapes. He even saw symptoms of Dicamba on trees in Lubbock, dozens of miles from said infected vineyards.

Rather, the lawsuit focuses on human error: who is responsible for the herbicide that ends up on the vines of nearby cotton rows? Cotton and grapes are grown side by side in the High Plains; it’s just a fact of agricultural life in the region. So, the industrialists’ argument is not unfounded: did the cotton growers correctly apply the herbicide? Had they done so, it would have reduced, if not prevented, drift to neighboring vineyards. Otherwise, it’s the farmers’ fault for misuse of the product, the makers say, and the wine industry plaintiffs are just…unlucky.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Passionate about wine magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Posted on July 18, 2022

Shirley M. Pinder