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Wine a Little, Learn a Lot

McKenna Keele Profile

When thinking of wine and college, the classroom isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind for many, but that’s not the case for members of the viticulture and enology (V&E) program at Texas Tech University, that’s right, they’re studying wine. An alumna of the program, McKenna Keele, says she was hooked after taking her first class: the Science of Wine.

Keele, from Snyder, Texas, knew she was coming to Texas Tech to pursue a degree and career in agriculture but was not sure what major would be best for her.

“My advisor was going through the plant and soil science concentration areas, and when she mentioned the V&E program,” Keele said, “I thought that it would be a really interesting subject to check into… and the rest was history.”

The viticulture and enology program offers undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees and professional certificates in principles and practices of commercial production of grapes and wine. Keele said the courses she took gave her the opportunity to learn from the ground up about the wine industry, and gave her the tools to succeed in her career.

“Every single class that I took within plant and soil science prepared me for my first job in the wine industry,” Keele said, “as the laboratory manager and on-site chemist for a custom crush facility in Brownfield, Texas.”

Wine, Vineyard, Grapes, Agriculture
Photo courtesy of McKenna Keele

Keele said she remembers classes like “Wine Production” and “Wine Quality Control and Analysis” as some of her favorite memories of the program where she not only made wine, but also life-long friends.

“Our wine may have tasted horrible, but I wouldn’t trade those days for the world!”

McKenna Keele

Keele said she is grateful for the unique opportunity offered by the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the V&E program to be able to use the degree for her career in the wine industry.

“My education within CASNR and Texas Tech as a whole was incredible,” Keele said, “I had the absolute best professors who equipped me with the needed tools and scholarship opportunities to become successful.”

West Texas Wine Women

Katy Jane's background in agriculture influences the rustic feel of Farmhouse Vineyards' visitor spaces, inside and out.
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aty Jane Seaton wears many hats – mother, farm wife, advocate and business woman – just to name a few. Seaton has spent 17 years in the wine industry, 14 of those in Texas advocating for wine growers and eventually becoming one herself. She now owns Farmhouse Vineyards in Meadow, Texas, with her husband, along with his sister and brother-in-law. When she is not managing her business, Seaton travels the state and the nation to fight for winegrowers’ rights and for their place in agriculture.

 “My heart lies with people who work with the land and create things,” Seaton said.

This disposition has lent to Seaton’s success and passion for the wine industry. However, coming from a ranching background, she did not always plan to pursue a career in viticulture.

Seaton’s passion for wine started with a simple favor for a college professor during her time at New Mexico State University, working the merchandise booth at a weekend wine festival. Since then, Seaton has spent time in several capacities of the wine industry. She started off in the New Mexico wine industry before spending seven years in Austin working as the executive director of the Hill Country Winegrowers Association, then transitioning to the private sector. She now serves as executive director of the High Plains Winegrowers Association along with operating Farmhouse Vineyards and their tasting rooms in Brownfield, Texas, and the Texas Hill Country.

At a rustic table settled neatly in the front window of Farmhouse Vineyard’s Whitehouse Parker tasting room in Brownfield, Seaton divulged how the company began along with the development of the brand she has worked to cultivate over the past several years.

The flagship “estate” vineyard was originally planted by Nicholas Seaton’s uncle, a pioneer in West Texas wine. Following a whirlwind courtship with her now-husband Nicholas, Katy Jane moved to West Texas and, with her experience, the family saw it fit for the new couple to take over the existing vineyard and develop the brand we know today. And so, Farmhouse Vineyards was born.

Falling inside the Texas High Plains American Viticultural Area, Brownfield/Meadow was ideal real estate for Farmhouse Vineyards to stake its ground. With approximately 4,000 acres of vineyards in commercial production at an elevation of 3,500 feet, the area is responsible for 85 percent of the fruit grown in the state, according to the High Plains Winegrowers Association website. Farmhouse Vineyards, since established, has helped solidify West Texas as a respected wine growing area.

Rafael Gonzales, a restaurant, hotel and institutional management major at Texas Tech University, began working in the Seaton family vineyard with his mother at a young age before becoming an intern for the Whitehouse Parker tasting room. He plans to apply what he has learned with Farmhouse Vineyards to a career in wine and event planning. As he has watched the company brand develop over the past several years, he is proud of the way Farmhouse has set itself apart from other wineries.

“Our main goal and our main message that we want to get across is we are not in the business to have a whole long list of wines to sell,” Gonzales said. “It is to be farmers and to be growers and to grow quality fruit to sell to quality wineries.”

Be willing to fail, because you learn just as much from your failures as you do your successes.

The passion Katy Jane has for farmers that is reflected in Farmhouse is also reflected in her work as executive director of the High Plains Winegrowers Association. This legislative session, the association is working to get a bill passed that will allow farmers to maintain a tie to their grapes, even after fermentation. However, one of their biggest challenges is maintaining the winegrowers’ rights as agricultural producers rather than handling the issue through the alcohol sector.

“The winegrowers association right now is literally standing on the cusp of losing or creating our moment identifying ourselves as farmers and producers of an agricultural commodity,” Seaton said. “People do not associate grape growing with agriculture.”

One of Seaton’s biggest legislative “wins” was getting this bill back on the table after it failed by one vote two years ago. She credits that win to the resiliency and endurance of her board and their willingness to fight for what they want – even if that means tabling the issue until the next session, yet again.

In her position, Seaton has had the opportunity to talk with many young people about their professional lives and about being advocates for the agriculture industry. Her advice to them is to be willing to work hard and not fearing failure.

“You have to do the work, be willing to do all of the unglamorous stuff, and to take every meeting,” Seaton said. Be willing to fail, because you learn just as much from your failures as you do your successes. You’ll never make those same mistakes again.”

These same principles are instilled in her employees and interns.

“[Katy Jane] expects a lot,” Gonzales said. “She holds me and everyone else at a very high standard. Everyone knows that with her there are no shortcuts, you really have to give it your all. You are going to make sure our brand is well represented.”

To understand the many hats of Katy Jane Seaton, you have to walk a mile in her shoes. From high heels in offices of the state capitol, to muck boots in the vineyard as she assesses grape quality, and never without a little sparkle, Seaton’s dynamic personality and passion for agriculture will continue to influence the wine industry in Texas and beyond for years to come.

Four Reasons Why Texas High Plains Wine Grapes are Making a Name for Themselves

A cluster of Tempranillo grapes a few weeks from being harvested on the High Plains. Photo by: Olga Koldin on https://www.freeimages.com/photo/wine-yards-1324683

The Texas High Plains is home to roughly 4,000 acres of commercial vineyards and about 80 percent of all wine grapes grown in the state. This came as a surprise to me because I thought the only thing grown in this region was cotton. After learning about this statistic, I set out to find exactly why High Plains wine grapes grow so well.

1. Soil

The Texas High Plains has sandy loam soil with some caliche underneath. This soil is perfect for growing wine grapes. The grapevines thrive here because the soil has good drainage, which helps the water reach the roots. Our well-drained soils encourage the roots to seek out water, ultimately produceing better roots.

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Stepping into the vineyard on a nice spring day. Photo by Mario Gonzaga

 2. Climate

The Texas High Plains is perfect for growing high-quality wine grapes. In this area, we have some really hot summer days; this is essential for ripening the grapes. Due to the altitude, we have cold nights, which allows the grape’s juices to cool off and slow down the ripening process. Unlike cotton production, low rainfall and humidity are ideal for conditions for grape production because it reduces the presence of grape diseases. The amount of sunlight we have is great for the red grape’s skin color, which makes more intense flavors and colors in the wine. Our warm, dry climate is ideal for grape varieties acclimated to Mediterranean conditions.

3. Educational Resources

Texas Tech plays a vital role in helping the wine industry flourish in the High Plains. Texas Tech actively promotes the education of viticulture and enology by being the first university in this region to offer certificate programs and coursework relating to this industry. Texas Tech also has a Wine Marketing Research Institute that educates various audiences interested in the wine industry. With the support of Texas Tech, the local government and community have accepted the wine industry as a part of their culture.

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A cluster of Tempranillo grapes a few weeks from being harvested on the High Plains. Photo by: Olga Koldin

4. Agricultural Economy

Because the High Plains is prime real estate for agricultural businesses, it’s no wonder the wine industry has found its home here. We have resources such as irrigation companies, skilled laborers and the knowledge of farming to help this industry thrive. According to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, there are more than 436 wineries in Texas, most of which are fueled with grapes from the High Plains.

The High Plains was built on the foundation of agriculture. This cultivates a community that supports viticulture because they view it as what it is — another form of farming.

The High Plains is thriving in the wine industry and is continuing to grow. Now that you know more about wine grapes in the High Plains, make sure to grab a bottle of wine made with local grapes.

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