Memories flow like fine wine when two winery pioneers sit down at a table together.
Clinton “Doc” McPherson and Robert R. Reed, who launched the wine industry in Lubbock County by growing grapes around a patio, still savor the bouquet of their efforts from the early 1960s. They also are willing, with a certain sense of humor, to tell how they did it just to show that what can be imagined can often be done.
“I met Doc in the 1960s when I was doing vegetable research,” Reed said of a time when he was a horticulture professor and McPherson was a chemistry professor at Texas Tech.
“When the campus expanded and moved west to where Murdough Hall is now, there used to be a little peach orchard there — and some grape vines.”
McPherson said, “You have to remember there was a professor out at Tech who planted all this, but they never labeled anything.”
The orchard had to be cleared for new construction, so Reed took the unidentified grape vines home and planted them around his patio.
Since the grapes had no name, and certainly couldn’t stand up in such distinguished company as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or even Gewurztraminer, they were given the humble name of their location — Patio.
“One year I got 200 pounds of grapes from it, and this one,” Reed said, pointing to McPherson, “being a chemist, said ‘Let’s try making wine out of it and see what it does.’ ”
Somewhat like alchemists, they looked up from their first grape juice turned to wine, and saw it as a shining pivotal moment in the agriculture history of the South Plains.
“We thought, this looks like a potential diversification crop,” Reed said.
McPherson envisioned how it could begin and then grow:
“What we wanted was a man and his wife to have two or three acres of grapes. They could walk through the vineyard, each one of them, pruning, talking to one another, and living a nice life because they would be able to gather maybe $2,000 to $3,000 worth of grapes from these acres. It would be Christmas money.”
Wine production, even with Patio grapes, needed a winery of sorts for any kind of reasonable research and efficiency.
McPherson approached the Board of Regents at Tech about setting up a winery in the basement of the Chemistry Building — and they approved it.
“Well, we put in this experimental winery,” McPherson remembers.
“So, we bought some crocks, and we were down there in the basement of the Chemistry Building, me and Bob, just making wine and having lots of fun. And it also was smelling up the Chemistry Building.”
He said, “One day Jean Dorn just out of the blue came in there with Dr. Holden’s wife, Frances, and said ‘Why don’t you boys put in a winery — this tastes pretty good.’
“And I told her, ‘Mrs. Dorn, we’re just poor professors, we can’t hardly keep food on the table.’ And she wrote out a check for $50,000 and said, ‘Now get started.’
“That’s when we got the lawyers involved.”
Reed refers to the miracle this way: “She was our financial angel.”
McPherson said, “We set up a limited partnership, and called it Llano Estacado Winery.
The pioneering work was not without crises.
“It was an unmitigated disaster,” Reed remembers of the first crush in 1976. “The building was up and the tanks were in — eight tanks that held 2,000 gallons each.”
But the first crush produced only 500 gallons, and that amount was not enough to bring the fluid level up to a cooling device. The first wine was on the sour side because it lacked sufficient sugar.
“We spent years overcoming that first year,” Reed said. “People would say, ‘I have tasted that stuff, and it’s awful.’ So, we got a bad name to start with.”
They met with the winemaker to talk over the problem, and they agreed that a bit of sugar could be the answer.
“Guess what? We came up with Llano Blush. And hey, we couldn’t keep it in stock,” McPherson said.
The rest, as the popular saying goes, was history.
But history also goes on. Ed Hellman, a professor and viticulture Extension specialist who works both for Texas Tech and Texas AgriLife Extension Service, said vineyard acreage is increasing across the South Plains, and is driven by the wineries.
“We’ve only got five wineries out here, but Llano Estacado is the second biggest winery in the state. So, it’s a very big player in the game.”
Hellman said a new development is occurring at Texas Tech. “We will soon have the only undergraduate vitaculture enology degree program focal area in a four-year university in Texas.”
A viticulture certificate program already is being offered online. “It is a partnership between Texas Tech Outreach and Distance Education and Texas AgriLife Extension,” Hellman said.
The first courses in the vitaculture enology program will begin in the spring.
“The wines out here are quite good. I think they measure up with any other wine region in the world,” Hellman said.
McPherson and Reed are reflective when they think of what they started when they were professors.
“We were going to have a boutique winery with our own little tasting room and maybe make 5,000 cases a year,” Reed said.
“Last year, it made 118,000 cases.”
Is he surprised at how wine from the Lubbock area caught on?
“Flabergasted,” he said.
From a basement winery in the Chemistry Building basement to the second largest winery in Texas, McPherson and Reed saw their efforts exceed their vision.
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