What happens when landowners, extension agents, viticulture specialists, the city and chamber of commerce all come together in one room? There’s a good chance that a booming industry will be born in Brown County - one that is already creating a statewide impact of more than $1 billion per year in Texas.

Texas is the nation’s fifth largest wine producer and the Hill Country is home to more than 46 of the state’s 140 wineries. The two closest wineries are located in Comanche and Eastland counties, and several civic leaders think the time is right for Brown County property owners to join the trend. There are several reasons for their support and optimism about the industry including the economic impact from tourism, employment and product sales including both grapes and wine.

In 2005 more than 869,000 visitors traveled to vineyards and wineries - a number that grows each year. The local wineries are members of a group called WOW, for Way Out Wineries. That group organizes several weekend events each year that will draw 250 to 300 visitors to a winery in a single weekend. Most of those visitors will travel to a number of the wineries over the course of the weekend, opening the door for restaurants, beds and breakfasts, hotels and shops in surrounding towns to capitalize as well. In 2005, it is estimated that wine-related tourism spending totaled nearly $222 million.

The wine and grape industry do have a positive impact on employment in the state, with the equivalent of 8,000 jobs created and a combined payroll of more than $234 million. They also pay more than $69 million per year in local, state and federal taxes.

Over the past several years, Texas vineyards have harvested an average of 11,100 tons of grapes, with a value of more than $10.6 million. Some of the harvest is actually used at wineries located at the site of vineyards, while the remainder is sold to larger wineries.

When you consider the state currently has approximately 3,700 acres of vineyards, that works out to about 6,000 pounds of grapes per acre. One local vineyard said recently that he had a contract to sell his grapes for $2,000 per ton.

The production and sale of wine is no small business venture in itself, with annual sales totaling more than $92 million. More than half of all vineyards in the state are connected to a winery, making the business one that can be potentially profitable one for vintners for either just the sale of grapes or even more so with the production and sale of wine.

Like any agricultural endeavor, there are potential pitfalls to the grape and wine business, though. Vines will take three to five years to mature to the point of growing a usable crop. Weather is always an unknown consideration that can make or break a harvest. Soil conditions and available water supply will impact the profitability of each acre of vines. And that list doesn’t include pests, fungi and viruses, labor and legal issues or any of the other myriad of factors that affect any farmer.

The wine industry in Texas is established and growing. Brown County has plenty of land and according to many experts, nearly ideal growing conditions. Growing grapes is profitable for farmers and the area’s tourist-related businesses. As this community continues to look for ways for diversify its growing economy, and as tourism continues to play a larger role in that growth, embracing the grape and wine industry seems like a natural fit for the Brown County area.

Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@brownwoodbulletin.com.