August 13, 2017

Developers of the Agriculture Sci-ence curriculum offered as part of the Mason Independent School District career and technology ed-ucation department are, from left, are Lance Rasch, Mason High School teacher; Dan McLaughlin, owner of Robert Clay Vineyards; Melany Canfield, MISD school counselor and Justin Scheiner, a Texas A&M University professor. — Submitted photo

Developers of the Agriculture Sci-ence curriculum offered as part of the Mason Independent School District career and technology ed-ucation department are, from left, are Lance Rasch, Mason High School teacher; Dan McLaughlin, owner of Robert Clay Vineyards; Melany Canfield, MISD school counselor and Justin Scheiner, a Texas A&M University professor. — Submitted photo

Vineyards on the Mason High School campus.— Photo by Ann Taylor

Vineyards on the Mason High School campus.— Photo by Ann Taylor

Mason Independent School Dis-trict students visiting Robert Clay Vineyards during the fall semester. — Submitted photo

Mason Independent School Dis-trict students visiting Robert Clay Vineyards during the fall semester. — Submitted photo

A Harvest of Young Minds

Hill Country Public Schools offer Students Viticulture Programs

By Ann Taylor

Texans have long been partial to Dr Pepper, sweet tea and beer. But cowboys and girls now have new favorite beverages to consider at their favorite eating establishments — Texas wines.

During the past decade, Texas vineyard operators have learned by trial and error what grape varieties thrive in Texas’ unique soil and climate. Consumers have begun to accept that “Texas wine is not California wine or French wine or Italian wine,” as reported recently in Texas AAA magazine.

Passing this unique knowledge to the next generation of vintners is one of the goals of Texas’ first high school viticulture program, begun in the Mason Independent School District (MISD) in 2015.

A similar program will be offered to Fredericksburg High School students in spring 2017.

Mason’s program started with a dinner conversation involving Dan and Jeanie McLaughlin, owners and operators of the Robert Clay Vineyards, and Melany Canfield, an MISD school counselor. The trio saw that the $1.83 billion Texas grape industry faces a growing need for younger workers, and rural areas that had suffered economic decline were in a good position to benefit from both the agriculture and tourism needs of the grape industry.

The Texas Hill Country is the second largest viticulture area in the U.S., covering 15,000 square miles and all or part of 22 counties.

The idea took root quickly as the McLaughlins and Canfield learned that an application to teach the course needed to be submitted to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) within two weeks.

With help from Justin Sheiner, a Texas A&M University professor who had written a viticulture program for Grayson College in Denison, an MISD curriculum and course outline was developed and submitted in time. The TEA approved the course, which is now available to any high school in the state.

The McLaughlins supplied trellis wire, end posts and gripples (hangers that hold up the vines), as well as 50 vines for the program. Mason High School provides the water and a plot of land for the student vineyard.

Mason County soil is some of the best in the state for growing grapes, as its sandy composition makes for good drainage. Low salinity in are-as of Mason County also con-tributes to the success of viticulture in the region, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture soil studies.

During the fall of 2015, 18 Mason High students and their teacher, Lance Rasch, started learning the ins and outs of the viticulture industry.

“I’m learning right along with the students,” Rasch said, as this was not a course he had taught before.

“Introduction to Viticulture” is an elective class that is part of the Agriculture Science curriculum offered as part of MISD’s career and technology education department. The program is designed to teach students the concepts and practices of grape production (viticulture) and enology. Viticulture is the science related to the management of grapevines and enology is the science of winemaking.

Rasch is quick to point out that making wine is not part of the curriculum. Finding course materials that steer clear of high school students creating alcoholic beverages has been a challenge, so Rasch has made use of lots of field trips and guest speakers.

The students’ first experience soon after school started last year was to visit the McLaughlin vineyards and learn about hand picking grapes and testing sugar levels.

“The students sort of start-ed their learning backwards, as fall is when we harvest grapes,” Jeanie McLaughlin said.

Another local vintner, Drew Tallent, supplies grapes for the Becker and Grape Creek wineries. He hosted the students to show them how a larger operation uses a harvester to pick the fruit. In addition, they learned how a hydrometer is used to measure pH (a chemistry scale that specifies the acidity or basicity of a liquid), acids and sugars in grapes.

As part of the curriculum, students also study soils, plant structure, chemical usage, safety and careers in the viticulture industry, among other things.

“The number one positive I heard from the students was they learned something they could apply to other aspects of the agriculture industry, beyond viticulture,” Rasch said.

Students also heard from Linda Rojan, a wine initiative coordinator with the Texas Department of Agriculture, who discussed viticulture and enology careers.

There are more than 11,000 full-time jobs paying $417 million in wages in the Texas wine and wine grape industry, according to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

According to Dan McLaughlin, who left a career in high tech to start his vineyard, the viticulture industry is ripe with career possibilities, citing a need for engineers to make better machinery; technologists to solve bird problems; marketers to help increase sales and educate the public on Texas wine; and chemists to work in wine production.

Seeking to spark interest among his students, Joel Bush will begin teaching the viticulture course at Fredericksburg High School starting in the spring semester. He’ll utilize a more comprehensive curriculum, which is in development at Texas A&M.

“I’ve been surprised at how many of my students have relatives who are part of the wine industry,” Bush said.

With the change to block scheduling this fall at Fredericksburg High, Bush is planning extended field trips so students can experience hands-on learning.

“My goal is to introduce viticulture concepts so my students can go to college and major in horticulture with an intent to come back and manage a vineyard,” he said.

Ann Taylor is a Fredericksburg freelance writer who operates Taylored Communications. More information is at



Texas is the fifth largest pro-ducer of wine in the U.S., which is leading to increased local job growth in both vineyards and wineries.

The Lone Star state was the site of the first vineyard in North America, planted by Franciscan priests close to 1659, according to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Asso-ciation. Texans were schooled in grape growing techniques and practices that worked in California, where 90 percent of U.S. wine was produced.

July 13, 2017


By the Numbers:

$1.88 billion | Wine industry contribution to Texas economy
$1.6 million | Wine-related tourists
$466 million | Tourism spending by wine fans in Texas

Thy Goblet Runneth Over

As the wine industry in Texas expands, how will it impact the Texas Hill Country?

By Valerie Menard

Like spring showers, revenue from the Texas wine and grape industry continues to pour into the state’s economy.

The Texas wine industry contributed $1.88 billion to the state in 2013, up by 88 percent from $997 million in 2005, according to The Economic Impact of Wine and Wine Grapes on the State of Texas–2013, the latest study from the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) in conjunction with the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University.

The biennial study also claims that Texas is the fifth-largest wine producer in the country and seventh in grape production.

There were some downturns, however, specifically regarding vineyard revenue, despite a growth in wineries, as well as grape bearing acres. Debbie Reynolds, TWGGA executive director, explained that this reflected damage from a severe frost in 2013.

“We’ve gotten smarter and learned a lot about frost protection, vineyard planting management, pest disease management, etc.,” she said. “All around we’re getting better at what we do.”

When David Kuhlken, co-owner of Pedernales Cellars, in Stonewall, and TWGGA treasurer, heard the news, he wasn’t surprised. He had no idea the industry would be so robust when his family opened their vineyard.

“My parents, Larry and Jeanine, first planted grapes in 1995 when it was considered more of a boutique business,” he said. “When we decided to open the vineyard in 2005, we wrote a business plan, but the growth has far exceeded the best case scenario we estimated.”

According to the report, areas with the greatest winery expansion include North Texas, the Dallas metroplex, and the U.S. 290 corridor which includes the Texas Hill Country. Overall, the number of wine-related tourists grew by 84 percent to 1.6 million, translating into tourism expenditures of $466.1 million, a 110 percent increase.

The news is not just good for vintners and grape growers. Several communities look to the industry for jobs, particularly the jewel of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg in Gillespie County.

“In quantitative terms, at least 10 percent of the gross domestic product of Gillespie County, or $100 million, can be attributed to revenue from the wine industry,” said Tim Lehmberg, executive director of the Gillespie County Economic Development Commission. “Subjectively, it’s becoming increasingly important. It’s probably the fastest growing economic sector in the county and I don’t see signs of it slowing down or approaching critical mass.”

In 2011, the commission conducted its own survey of local wineries and grape growers. They identified 37 wine industry businesses that were primary employers or directly related to the industry.

Currently, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has issued 29 winery permits in Gillespie County, said Lehmberg. Prior to 2010, there were only 13.

More research is on the way from Texas Hill Country wineries, said executive director January Wiese. The group is surveying its 46 members and other industry members that represent 65 wineries in the Hill Country to compile economic impact, salary information, and a crush report detailing the grape harvest. The results should be released this fall.

“We hear the numbers about the industry as a whole but we want to know how we’re doing [in the Hill Country] as an American Viticultural Area and a destination,” she said.

The picture isn’t completely rosy. One challenge, according to Reynolds and Kuhlken, is Texas grape production, which, hasn’t kept up with demand, forcing vintners to import grapes from other states.

For Fredericksburg, the visual evidence seems clear. Known for decades as a shopping destination, the influx of wine tours and tasting rooms is changing tourist demographics, attracting younger visitors to town who are more experience-oriented, said Lehmberg.

“They’re here to take a wine tour, eat at restaurants, visit Enchanted Rock and museums and maybe, fill in the day with shopping.  It’s been a challenge for local retailers who have to stay ahead of trends,” he said.

Wiese added that many of the new tasting bars, both brand new business and those coming from wineries outside of the Hill Country, are utilizing the advantage of Fredericksburg’s tourism infrastructure. Kuhlken agreed, “Fredericksburg has been critical to our growth. We didn’t have to convince people to come to the Hill Country to try our wine, they were already headed this way.”

While some might mention the increased traffic along Main Street as a downside, Lehmberg said the real struggle has been finding workers. The high cost of housing has been a deterrent, but the commission is pursuing more multi-family and affordable single-family housing developments. On the plus side, Fredericksburg has not experienced overwhelming population growth like other small towns and remains at a steady number around 11,000.

“For our size, we can offer many amenities like entertainment, restaurants, etc., but remain a small town with a distinct sense of community and a great quality of life,” he said.

Recent news from Austin may energize continued growth. During the last session, legislation that would allocate a portion of wine sales and excise tax revenue to wine marketing, education, and research programs was approved. If signed by Governor Greg Abbott, the bill would provide up to $2 million to be allocated in a fiscal year.

“We’re thankful for TWGGA and their diligence to secure future funding that will help grow our industry,” said Wiese. “That’s how we’re going to overcome the diseases and work past spring frost issues, all from the work being done at A&M, Grayson [College], and Texas Tech.”

As for those showers, so long as they don’t include hail, the vines should be fine.

Valerie Menard is a published author and freelance writer based in Austin. You can read her work at

From the Summer 2015 issue of Rock & Vine Magazine 

July 4, 2017

Dr. Richard and Bunny Becker were the Tall in Texas awardwinners at the 28th Annual Grape Fest in Grapevine. – Submitted photo.

Dr. Richard and Bunny Becker were the Tall in Texas awardwinners at the 28th Annual Grape Fest in Grapevine. – Submitted photo.

The beautiful private tasting room at Becker Vineyards. – Photo by Alana Lively.

The beautiful private tasting room at Becker Vineyards. – Photo by Alana Lively.

The grounds at Becker Vineyards. – Photo by Alana Lively.

The grounds at Becker Vineyards. – Photo by Alana Lively.

Deep in the Heart of Texas Win Country

Becker Vineyards has grown from an interest, to a business, to one of the top wineries in the industry.

By Lindsey Bertrand   

Winemaking never began as a simple hobby for Dr. Richard and Bunny Becker. It began, as all long-lasting endeavors do, from love. The Beckers have always loved to grow things. They garden prolifically, sometimes producing enough fruits and vegetables for blocks’ worth of neighbors, and Bunny is practiced in French cooking. This cultivation of pastimes throughout the years carried over into a budding interest in wine and viticulture.

 In the 1980’s, Richard Becker began to study food and wine pairings. He and Bunny traveled to Europe, tasting and buying wines from different regions. They developed their own palates, and an idea began to form. Could they translate what they had learned during their travels into something that could work in Texas?

 In the early 1990’s, the Becker’s bought land in Stonewall with the intent to restore an old farmhouse on the property. As their travels brought them more and more to the Hill Country, they began to taste the wines of Grape Creek Vineyards in Stonewall and of Sister Creek Vineyards in Sisterdale. During this time, the wine industry in Texas was just beginning to take a foothold, and its epicenter was the Hill Country.

 Wine enthusiasts elsewhere were convinced that Texans knew nothing of wine, that they had no palates. “Texans only like sweet wines” was the prevailing sentiment of the wine industry.

 Richard disagreed. He went to symposiums and wine festivals to learn what varietals could grow in Texas. He continued to taste Texas and European wines. And he wasn’t afraid to experiment.

 “We loved the challenge,” he said. “We asked ourselves if we could create wine that could compete with the best in the world, and that’s what we set out to do.”

 After years of research and tasting, the Becker’s decided it was time to plant their own vineyard in Stonewall.

 “Bunny was more conservative than I was at the time,” Richard said. “She suggested we plant a quarter-acre. I thought ten acres sounded good.”

 In 1992, the first vines were planted and for three years the Becker’s waited.

 “Those first three years were tough,” Richard said. But the Becker’s played it smart, watching over the vines and slowly adding to the processing facilities and the tasting areas.

 “If you’re in a rush, this is not the business to be in,” emphasized Nichole Bendele, Becker Vineyards public relations manager.

 From the first harvest in 1995, they made three wines.

 It wasn’t that the Becker’s were out to change anyone’s minds. They wanted to make what they loved—wines that paired well with food—and they succeeded. From the beginning their wines were about taking the time to gather around a table, enjoying a meal and staying around that table. In the U.S. and in the Hill Country, this meant a more leisurely approach to wine drinking. Wine didn’t have to be reserved for before or after meals. It could be savored at length.

 “Even the preparation of food can determine a good wine pairing,” Bendele said. “Experiment. Don’t limit yourself with rigid rules about which wine goes with which type of meal. It’s always a good idea to try as many wines as you can to educate your palate.”

 Even after the first harvest, Richard’s curiosity continued to grow. In 1996, they began harvesting the white grapes that would become their signature viognier. In doing so, Becker Vineyards became the first producer to commercially make a viognier in Texas.

 Nearly 20 years later, the Becker’s continue to participate in wine conferences and festivals, and they continue to keep an open mind as they refine their wines.

 “We’re not following a blueprint here in Texas,” Bendele said. “We are still learning in pursuit of creating the best wines.” 

 The fruits of their labors never had a business plan, Richard said. “It was all intuition, and the wines have tasted better than I ever thought.”

 The proof can be seen throughout Becker Vineyards’ main tasting room. Atop the shelves, bottles stand shoulder to shoulder, their necks adorned with layers of medals from decades of competitions. Other awards are nestled between cookbooks and wine gear.

 On the walls hang photos and framed invitations from dinners hosted by heads of state, governors and presidents—all listing wines that grew from love and perseverance as much as they grew from the Texas soil.

 For the Becker’s, the reward lies in the time and steadfastness they have invested in their pursuit of a product that people enjoy, qualities that have been rewarded and refined over the years. It’s easy to see that a quality product keeps customers coming back, said Bendele.

 Today Becker Vineyards consistently produces more than 20 wines, and their tasting rooms continue to draw large crowds throughout the year. As members of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association for more than two decades, the Becker’s also continue to support research, mentor others in the wine industry and champion Texas wines. For their longstanding dedication, in 2014 Becker Vineyards received the “Tall in Texas” award as part of the 28th Annual Grape Fest in Grapevine, Texas. As for what lies ahead, the fruits of their endeavor look promising.

 “The fruit from 2014 is the best we’ve seen in Texas,” Becker said. “The quality is beyond what we expected, and we are excited by that.”


Lindsey Bertrand writes about Texas, health and science from Fredericksburg. She is the winner of the 2014 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference’s Ten Spurs Award for nonfiction.

Story ran in October 2014 issue of Rock & Vine Magazine


On behalf of Rock & Vine Magazine, we would like to extend a BIG thank you to all of the attendees for a very fun evening at the Rock & Vine launch party on November 3rd.  

A special thank you to:
Daniel Meyer, Sarah Eckert-Maurer & Staff at The Club @ Baron's CreekSide
Davey Schrank - Music
Door Prize Contributors: Cabernet Grill | Gastehaus Schmidt | Fischer & Wieser | Luckenbach Texas Inc. | Old West Spirit | Pasta Bella | Pedernales Brewing Company |
The Treaty House | 4.0 Cellars

A personal thank you to Abbi Jones (The Coop), Chuck Wehner (Photography) and Sally Hough of Menard Title & Abstract Company, Inc.