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Texas wine production flourishes in drought-ridden area

A fruity, sweet aroma fills the brightly-lit tasting room on a Saturday afternoon. A crowd of people clutch their wine glasses as they gather around the bar. On every wall, framed awards and clippings of magazine and newspaper articles are displayed. The vineyard’s pest control cat, Cotton, is asleep on an office chair in the corner.

A table in the center of the room holds various gifts: cheese plates and knives, jewelry, measuring cups, wine aerators and pastry mixes. The rustic decor, cream walls and red brick floors give an instant feeling of warmth.

James Nobles, the tasting room/office manager at Fall Creek Vineyards, rings up customers. Though he is busy, he connects with each customer as though they were the only customer in what is actually a very long line in front of the register. He quickly fills orders for cases of wine while happily holding a conversation with the patron. He is a skilled multitasker.

The vineyard was established in 1975 by Ed and Susan Auler. The first vines were planted that year and production started in 1979. Last year, they sold about 60,000 cases of wine, making Fall Creek the third largest winery in Texas.

Nobles grew up on the vineyard. His father has been the production manager for 33 years.

Fall Creek Vineyards is located in Tow, Texas, about 80 miles northwest of Austin. This area of the hill country is struggling with severe drought. Rainfall has been scarce. The water level of Lake Buchanan, which is adjacent to the vineyard, is dropping every year. The water is currently 26 feet below what it should be.

Boat ramps are completely exposed. Floating docks are resting on the ground. Rentable cabins that used to be considered “waterfront” are now at least half a mile away from the water.

According to Sherry James at Jesse James Real Estate, property values in the area have dropped five percent since 2008. Despite the buyers’ market, there are more people leaving the area than coming in.

“There are numerous homes on the market and there’s just not many selling. And it’s mostly because of the water. So we just pray for rain,” James said.

Tourism used to be a large part of the local economy, but James said there are nearly 100 small motels for sale around the lake. “A few have sold, but they have sold for less than half [of their value],” James said.

While the community grapples with issues caused by the lack of water, Fall Creek Vineyards is thriving. The ground is dry and cracked everywhere else along Lake Buchanan, yet the soil along the rows of grape vines at Fall Creek is muddy. Fall Creek doesn’t pump water from the lake; they use water from a well to water their vines.

“The drought situation in Texas hasn’t affected us… Red grapes typically love a dry climate. The drier the climate, the more it forced that vine to be strained. And so therefore you end up having a more robust red [wine],” Nobles said.

There are several wineries in the area and it is the only business that’s truly booming. The relationship among the wineries is a symbiotic one. Instead of fiercely competing, they work together and help each other.

“We’re a brotherhood. We couldn’t exist without each other,” Nobles said.

“One of the things that I think is really distinguishing us from California is the fact that when you go to California now, it’s kind of over produced…when it started about the wine. In Texas, It’s staying about the wine. And I think there’s something that’s very beautiful about that, but it’s all coming from the family network that we have.”

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Fall Creek uses water from a well to water their grapes instead of pumping from Lake Buchanan. Despite the drought, the type of grapes they grow thrive in a drier climate.

Fall Creek uses water from a well to water their grapes instead of pumping from Lake Buchanan. Despite the drought, the type of grapes they grow thrive in a drier climate.

The vineyard cat, Cotton, is responsible for pest control on the winery grounds.  Cotton lounges around the tasting room.

The vineyard cat, Cotton, is responsible for pest control on the winery grounds. Cotton lounges around the tasting room.

Local realtor Sherry James prepares for a busy Saturday afternoon at Jesse James Realty. According to James, dropping property values in the area are creating a buyers’ market.

Local realtor Sherry James prepares for a busy Saturday afternoon at Jesse James Realty. According to James, dropping property values in the area are creating a buyers’ market.

Local residents Frank and Pat Veenstra share a bottle of Fall Creek’s Cabernet Sauvignon in the courtyard adjoining the tasting room.  Fall Creek sold 60,000 cases of wine last year.

Local residents Frank and Pat Veenstra share a bottle of Fall Creek’s Cabernet Sauvignon in the courtyard adjoining the tasting room. Fall Creek sold 60,000 cases of wine last year.

James Nobles, tasting room/office manager at Fall Creek Vineyards, tallies up an order for a customer. Nobles grew up on the winery.

James Nobles, tasting room/office manager at Fall Creek Vineyards, tallies up an order for a customer. Nobles grew up on the winery.

A boat ramp at LCRA Park outside of Tow is completely exposed. Tire tracks are present where people have driven from the boat ramp to the water.

A boat ramp at LCRA Park outside of Tow is completely exposed. Tire tracks are present where people have driven from the boat ramp to the water.

This carp is one of many fish skeletons left on the beach at Black Rock Park. Lake Buchanan and Buchanan Dam is visible in the background.

This carp is one of many fish skeletons left on the beach at Black Rock Park. Lake Buchanan and Buchanan Dam is visible in the background.

The water in Lake Buchanan is 26 feet below where it should be. These structures were once floating docks and this area was filled with water.

The water in Lake Buchanan is 26 feet below where it should be. These structures were once floating docks and this area was filled with water.

The tasting room at Fall Creek Winery boasts a variety of wine-related gifts. Awards and press clips are displayed on every wall.

The tasting room at Fall Creek Winery boasts a variety of wine-related gifts. Awards and press clips are displayed on every wall.

Ed and Susan Auler established the winery in 1975. Fall Creek is now one of the largest wineries in Texas.

Ed and Susan Auler established the winery in 1975. Fall Creek is now one of the largest wineries in Texas.

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PHOTO GALLERY: Texas wine production flourishes in drought-ridden area

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