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Texas History

A Texan Saves French Wines

Viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson’s living legacy is on display in Denison

Plump, purple grapes, grown from rootstock developed by a Denison viticulturist more than a century ago, dangle from a vine near Valley View.

That viticulturist, Thomas Volney Munson, discovered a wild species of mustang grape along the banks of the Red River and ultimately developed more than 300 varieties. He also is credited with saving the French wine industry in the 19th century.

Today, a new generation of winemakers learns the skills required to successfully cultivate vineyards with information preserved through the Grayson College Viticulture and Enology program. Viticulture covers the cultivation of grapes, and enology is the study of wine.

To have that connection with that history is incredible, says Meredith Eaton, a 2014 Grayson College graduate. She planted her own vineyard in southern Cooke County near the banks of Ray Roberts Lake, where the microclimate and sandy loam soil create conditions ideal for growing grapes. She joined an industry that brings more than $2.27 billion in economic value to Texas.

In 1887, Munson rode horseback with French scientist Pierre Viala along the Red River during Viala’s search for a hearty species resistant to phylloxera. The small aphid had wreaked havoc throughout France, destroying an estimated 80 percent of the country’s vines.

Munson, an expert in grape botany and plant grafting, was Viala’s last hope for a solution to the problem. Munson directed Viala to western Bell County, where the limestone soil approximated that of the French countryside. Viala found three native species thriving in poor soil conditions and, through grafting European vines to the phylloxera-resistant Texas rootstock, replenished French vineyards wiped out by the epidemic.

A year later, France recognized Munson as Chevalier du Mérite Agricole in the French Legion of Honor.

On a hill west of U.S. 75 in Denison, Grayson College students learn the art and science of cultivating grapes from 65 varieties grown in the T.V. Munson Memorial Vineyard and the nearby T.V. Munson Center, which houses the viticulturist’s research, a classroom and tools of the trade.

Roy Renfro started the Grayson College program in 1974 and transformed Munson’s family home into the Vinita House museum. He also co-wrote Grape Man of Texas, a biography of Munson published in 2004.

The college works with the Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension Service, which has confirmed viticulture as a prospering industry in the state. Texas has eight American Viticultural Areas, with Denison covering 3,650 square miles in the Texoma viticultural area.

Nestled in a neighborhood within the city of 23,000 is the two-story Vinita House, where Munson raised his family. Upon his arrival in Denison, Munson is said to have announced, “I have found my grape paradise.” His home still suggests his activity. Sketches of machines he envisioned lie atop one desk. Photos of past vineyards and a nursery line the walls beside family portraits.

Dinnerware and place settings fill a formal dining table, as if awaiting guests. A grand piano in the living room and a tiny wooden cradle in the master bedroom add to the sense of a 19th-century home.

Munson’s legacy continues to bear fruit. Eaton recalls her studies in Denison, working in the hilltop vineyard, learning in the nearby classroom, reviewing Munson’s research and visiting the Vinita House.

Turning their hobby into a business, Eaton and her husband, George, planted cabernet sauvignon, merlot, tempranillo, roussanne and chambourcin, a French-American hybrid, among other varietals on three acres in CoServ’s service territory.

One summer morning, Eaton carefully holds a grape cluster. The slight dimpling signals time for harvest. A blaring radio keeps deer at bay day and night. Her vision is now reality: She is ready for a lifelong pursuit in viticulture and enology.

And it’s all thanks to T.V. Munson.

Dawn Cobb is the PR communication specialist at CoServ, the electric co-op in Corinth.