Visiting Texas Wineries
The wine lover in me perked up when I learned there are around 40 commercial wineries in Texas, and many of them are located close enough to Austin to visit in a day trip. Of course, 'close to' is a relative term where Texas is concerned. It is a huge state, distances are immense and day trips involve mileages that I would balk at back home in England. But here the roads are wide and uncrowded and generally if a journey is 50 miles and you travel at 50mph then it takes you an hour; unlike back home where it seems impossible to get to anywhere faster than an average 30mph on a good day.
Many immigrants to this part of Texas came from Germany bringing winemaking skills and there are several nearby towns where their influence remains strong. One such is Fredericksburg which promotes its roots. Restaurant menus have sauerkraut, wurst and other traditional dishes and some street names are in German. It is a friendly small town whose Hauptstrasse (Main Street) looks much as it did 100 years ago and this is the place a wine lover should head for. On Main Street are two wine shops filled with wine-related souvenirs and counters full of local wines that you are invited to taste.
Main Street is also home to the Fredericksburg Winery. This is the first carpeted winery I have ever seen. Wine making equipment is at the back of the large hall, tasting counters are set in the middle and the front has displays of equipment, souvenirs and stocks of bottles. Fredericksburg seems to have labels and wines for every occasion. They make sweet and dry red white and rose table wines, sparkling methode champenoise and fortified wines in the style of Port and Sherry. They claim a first wine bottling of the millennium. Winemaker Jene Switzer, a big friendly bearded man, is on hand to pour tastes and explain winemaking to anyone who shows an interest. The rest of the family all play their part, down to four year old Chardonnay who is listed as 'Junior, Junior Assistant Winemaker'. But the grapes are grown elsewhere.
To see a winery surrounded by vineyards let us first head back down Hauptstrasse and drive north at the crossroads. Fifteen miles on Route 16 is Bell Mountain Estate. (It is on the right, ignore the vineyard you see first on the left). This is home to the Oberhellman family and in the tasting room you can try their range of Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignons and award winning Pinot Noir. All wines come from grapes grown on their 56 acres of vineyards. Bell Mountain was the first viticultural area in Texas to be granted its own appellation, in 1986, and the winery changed their name from Obelhellman Vineyards in recognition. The tasting room is next to the winery and tours are available on request.
Back to Fredericksburg, and left on US Highway 290, eastwards towards Johnson City and Austin. Ten miles from Fredericksburg look for Jenschke Lane on the right. This leads to Becker Vineyards. Their imposing German style stone house is a tasting room for their impressive and serious wines. They are pioneers in Viogner, and in their 36 acres of vineyards they have also planted syrah, grenache, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon with the aim of making Bordeaux and Rhone style wines. Aging is in new French and American oak barrels in the largest underground wine cellar in Texas.
Less than a mile further from the Jenschke Lane turnoff is Grape Creek Vineyard with its rows of vines alongside 290. The small cluttered tasting room is over a stone cellar dug into the ground. Winery tours let you see the stainless steel fermentation tanks crammed into the compact winery.
If you have the time, backtrack along 290, look for a filling station at the junction of farm road FM 1376. Some twenty miles down this scenic road turning and raising over the hills is the small town of Sister Creek. An 100 year old cotton mill at the roadside is the home of Sister Creek Vineyards. The inside could be straight out of a Waltons episode, even down to the trumpet earphone telephone on the wall. After tasting their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon you are welcome to open the door to the winery and walk among the barrels and fermenting tanks.
Their vineyard is planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.) are planted in the vineyard which is located between the cypress lined East and West Sister Creeks. In the winery they use traditional French winemaking techniques using minimum filtration and fining and oak barrels ageing. Their intention is to allow the wine to retain its fullest flavour.
Back on the homeward journey to Austin there is a treat in store at Johnson City. Just one mile east on ranch road RR 2766 is Texas Hills Vineyard. This modern winery specialises in Italian style wines, growing Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and Moscato along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Chenin Blanc. They are the only producer of Pinot Grigio in Texas. Tastings are accompanied with scoops of home made preserves, salsas and spices and you are encouraged to see how the food alters your perception of the wine.
Owner/winemaker Gary Gilstrap is proud to take you into the winery with its ranks of oak barrels and steel fermentation tanks. The spacious cellar is built above ground and made with two-foot thick walls of concrete mixed with local sand and stones, giving a warm colour sympathetic to the surrounding area. The walls provide insulation from three digit summer temperatures, and cooling jackets around large stainless steel fermentation tanks bring down the overall temperature to a pleasant cool. In summer the field alongside the lane to the winery is carpeted in an amazing display of brightly coloured wild flowers of blue, white, yellow, orange and red.
Lastly, just outside Austin between Oak Hills and Dripping Springs on US Highway 290, is Cana Cellars Winery & Vineyard. The winery is in the basement of owner Joe and Deena Turner's house, at the end of a track winding through grazing long-horned cattle. Deena pours their excellent spicy Merlot in the small wine rack lined tasting room, approached through the cramped winery. The winery name is a reference to the famous wedding at Cana two thousand years ago, and Cana Cellars initial vintage was served first at Joe and Deena's wedding.
Two other wineries further afield I enjoyed visiting were Fall Creek Vineyards and Dry Comal Creek Vineyards. One large and successful, the other small and individual.
Fall Creek was one of the few local wines I saw on restaurant wine lists. It is north west of Austin, a few miles north up a country lane from the small town of Tow in Lake Buchanan. The drive is long but idyllic as you follow the coast around the lake and finally come upon a modern winery set among 65 acres of vineyards on the very banks of the lake. An avenue of mature trees shades the driveway. The tasting room is equipped not only with a good range of wine-related souvenirs but also arrowheads and other Indian artifacts found in the vineyards. A wide range of wines are made here, both from their own grapes and from those bought in. The owners of Fall Creek were inspired to plant their vineyards after a visit to Europe where they became convinced the terroir was the same as their property back home. Fall Creek wine has been served to visiting dignitaries at the White House and the tour of the winery also takes in the owners house and an exhibition of the awards won by their wine.
Just off Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio at New Braunfels is Dry Comal Creek Vineyards. This is a small vineyard and winery enthusiastically run by owner/winemaker Franklin Hauser. Franklin gives a great tour of his compact modern winery and then back at the tasting room thrusts his wines at you, encouraging second and third tastes. He has definite opinions about wine and is most refreshing to talk to. He knows his audience and makes a popular sweet red wine, but I loved his cracking New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc.
This area of Texas, known as Hill Country, is a lovely welcoming place, never more so than when you crest a hill and see lines of dark green vines signalling a winery ahead. My gut feeling is the temperature is just too hot for quality grapes, and I am puzzled by the reliance on German winemaking techniques. Despite the history of the region, Germany is a northerly cold region where they lack sun and warmth - Texas has the opposite problem and I would expect advice from hotter areas such as Australia and South Africa to be more relevent.
Then there is the great unspoken spectre of vine disease. I fear for the long-term viability of this area as a quality winemaking region. Pierce's disease is present, scything through vineyards. One of the reasons wineries are buying in grapes is their own vineyards have been devastated by diseases. Hill Country Cellars a few miles north of Austin has given up after it lost vineyards to Pierce's.
In summary, much of what I saw in Texas reminded me of California in the 1970s. Locals generally look down upon the wine, considering California wines as 'proper' wine. In 1970s California, local wine was dismissed as 'domestic' and French wine was the standard. Texan wine makers have invested considerable money and time on wineries, selling 98% in state and this mostly to visitors to the wineries. The best of the wines are very good, but some are not as good as they should be. This is due in part to very young vines and new wineries on a learning curve.
Given they can overcome vine disease I can see a time in perhaps twenty years when Texas is discussed in the same breath as California where wine is concerned.
Other Things to See
Fredericksburg seemed to be hosting some fair, music show or other event in the town square every time I visited, it's a fun place to go and if you have a weekend to spare its worth considering staying overnight there, there are plenty of hotels and B&Bs.
Fredericksburg was home to Admiral Nimitz, hero of the Battle for Midway. The wooden family hotel on Main Street is preserved as a museum, and behind this is a magnificent new Pacific War museum.
The original setters built the town in Comanche territory. Townsfolk made a peace treaty claimed to be the only treaty ever made with Indians that was never broken by either side. The town square has a reconstructed fortified circular church which was refuge in those early days and just outside the town is the remains of one of a line of forts built by the Army along the frontier border.
Just south is the hamlet of Luckenbach (Population 3). This comprises an ancient post office cum general store cum saloon and a dancehall. Made famous by a country song of Willie Nelson this is a great place to visit. Marge had been flipping the caps off the beers from over twenty years and there are always a few guitar players in big hats jamming and singing country songs. Just sit down and let the twentieth century leach from your soul as you listen to some tale of a woman whose man done her wrong. And watch for the crazy lady and her spoons! If you like a bit more action, you can toss washers in the yard and that's about it. We went for 10 minutes and stayed for four hours.
Touring Texas Wineries
This book lists scenic routes to 27 wineries throughout Texas. It's illustrated with photos and sketch maps. Available in Barnes & Noble.
Texas Hill Country Wine Trail
Free leaflet available in wineries and tourist offices listing 16 wineries easily reachable from the Austin and San Antonio areas. Opening hours and a map.
Texas Wine Web Sites
Associated with the book above, has printable list of all Texas wineries and up to date news.
There are chapters of this non-profit organisation in Austin and San Antonio
The Grape Vine Market has Austins largest stock of Texas wines in its 18000 square foot store. It hold daily tastings with a fun 'Quaffers Club' tutored tasting Mondays at 6.30pm.
Bell Mountain Estate
Fall Creek Vineyards and Winery
Sister Creek Vineyards
Grape Creek Vineyards
Texas Hills Vineyards