Chasing California, Finding France
Only the bravado of Texas would challenge the transcendence of Napa. Fifty miles to the north, it’s happening.
As the second-largest grape-growing region in America, Wine Enthusiast magazine named the Texas hill country a Top 10 Wine Travel Destination in the world last year. Not shabby for a viticulture area designated less than twenty years ago.
“The hill country was already known as a tourist destination,” said Julie Herbert, general manager at Grape Creek Vineyards in Fredericksburg. “The wineries have simply built on that foundation.”
Nearly three dozen wineries now sprinkle the area with new additions each year. Last year the region welcomed Pontotoc Vineyard (Chickasaw for “land of hanging grapes”), the German-rooted Kuhlmann Cellars and - pardon my French - Fat Ass Ranch & Winery (ever tried watermelon wine?).
No need for airfare with so many options just beyond the back forty. A full tank of gas and a designated driver - or a reservation with a tour service like Off the Vine Wine Tours (www.OfftheVineTXWineTours.com) and you’ll be savoring fine wines in no time. Pick-ups available from The Boerne Wine Company (www.BoerneWineCompany.com). Here’s a tasting of what you’ll find.
Bending Branch Winery
142 Lindner Branch Trail
Comfort, Texas 78013
The Dominion’s own Richard Becker isn’t the only MD prescribing wine in the hill country. Internist Robert Young began growing grapes in Helotes prior to securing his slice of Texas near Comfort (25 miles out Interstate 10).
Nestled a stone’s throw from the Guadalupe River, Bending Branch is a self-described organic vineyard. Hosted at a handsomely-finished Live Oak tabletop (redeemed from a wilted Live Oak), tastings include wine from hand-harvested grapes. Bending Branch’s harvests are nourished by captured rainwater but untainted by pesticides or fungicides.
True to their bluegrass roots, Bob and wife, Brenda, host a lively Kentucky Derby party each year complete with a hat contest and homemade mint juleps. A “light crowd” of 300 enjoyed the festivities in May.
The winery’s varietals excel in the warmer central Texas climate. Roussanne, for example, does better than Chardonnay but has similar characteristics.
Like most area wineries, Bending Branch sources grapes from both its property and from other parts of Texas and California. Its Vermentino has been described as the hypothetical offspring of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
A scientist by trade, Young experiments with innovative fermentation methods. Deep freezing, for example, causes grapes to expand, cell walls to burst and flavor to pour forth.
“As opposed to large tank fermentation, we ferment in small bins to increase the intensity of flavor and concentration,” Young explains.
A “flash” method achieves nearly 100% “extraction”. With a rare Italian machine, Bending Branch can heat its grapes (to a balmy 185 degrees) and then rapidly cool them (in, say, two minutes). Similar to distillation, this method steams off impurities that taint a wine’s flavor.
Young also experiments with obscure varietals. Tannat is his signature red because of its tannin concentration. (Tannins give red wine their salutary effects.)
From its hilltop elevation overlooking the Guadalupe River Valley, the tasting room and patio at the Branch will inspire your emotions. Dr. Young’s laboratory tour will challenge your intellect. Or visit the winery’s “urban” tasting room on High Street in Comfort.
Grape Creek Vineyards
10587 East US Highway 290
Fredericksburg, Texas 78624
Many of us have purchased a bottle during a California wine tour. Not many of us have purchased a vineyard. That’s exactly what Grape Creek owner Brian Heath did last year.
Each year Heath and his team tour California seeking ideas and inspiration. When a tour guide casually mentioned a vineyard for sale, Heath Vineyards was born. (A sequel to “We Bought a Zoo,” perhaps?)
Founded in the late 1980s, Grape Creek calls itself a “boutique” winery, distributing the fruit of its vines via a 5,000-member wine club and tasting rooms in Fredericksburg and Georgetown. Grape Creek makes agreements with no wine wholesalers.
“The model works for us,” GM Herbert says. “Our wine club purchases 85% of our wine. We offer special ‘wine club only’ wines and hold special events and tastings for our members.”
Grape Creek’s chic courtyard welcomes bridal parties and the forced smiles of married men obliging their wives’ desire to capture the moment. By vineyard policy, no tour busses or inebriated tourists allowed. A handsome mall cop traverses the front walk to enforce.
Wine club members access a private section of the shady patio. Live music wafts in the background on weekends. (“Sittin’ on the dock of the bay…”)
Grape Creek added to its case for “Tuscany in Texas” in May when Stout’s Pizza Company opened on the grounds. The trattoria is Jason Stout’s sophomore effort behind a successful Stone Oak location. Gourmet pizza, pasta, salads and cheese boards grace the Grape Creek menu.
After lunch and a tram tour of the estate including a stop at the first commercial wine cellar in Central Texas, pick up something clever for a friend at the winery’s well-stocked gift store. Napkins, perhaps, with helpful reminders: “Wine is cheaper than therapy.”
Or maybe a dish towel for your own kitchen complete with a helpful reminder for guests: “If you don’t like the food, have more wine.”
10354 East US Highway 290
Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Multi-taskers will appreciate this stop on the wine trail. An efficient collaboration of three Texas wineries, 4.0 (it’s the threesome’s fourth location) brings a modern feel to a traditional industry. Constructed in a hill country contemporary motif, the tasting room unites Texas wine, Dublin cheeses and fine chocolates.
Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, Lost Oak Winery in Burleson and McPherson Cellars of Lubbock have different styles but the same commitment to quality. They joined together in 2012 with hopes that the sum might be greater than the parts.
“We want there to be a second Napa in Texas,” said Sylvia McPherson. “We want to raise the bar.” Her husband, Kim, has as deep of roots in the Texas wine industry as anyone.
McPherson’s father, a former Texas Tech chemistry professor, co-founded the legendary Llano Estacado Winery in 1976. Dr. McPherson brought Sangiovese grapes into the state which his son still uses as his signature varietal.
“4.0 Cellars is a unique venture,” notes Pat Brennan. “The common thread that brought us together was our dedication to being the best.”
Along with Becker and Young, Brennan rounds out a triumvirate of medicine-practicing Texas winemakers. (“Winemaking is, like medicine, both art and science,” Becker says.)
Dr. Brennan calls his a classic slippery slope story. He “got the bug” in 1997 when he purchased a historic home in Comanche 100 miles southwest of Fort Worth. He planted five acres with the intent of merely selling grapes. Famous last words of a winemaker.
“Our Viognier has been repeatedly acclaimed in national and international competitions. It’s our claim to fame,” Brennan said. “It’s been a real adventure. We’ve met some wonderful people including our partners in 4.0 Cellars.”
“Our goal was to bring three top quality Texas wineries together who are dedicated to growing the Texas wine industry,” said Roxanne Myers of Lost Oak Winery, the third leg of the 4.0 Cellars stool. “We’re trying to put a bottle of Texas wine on every Texas table.”
464 Becker Farms Road
Stonewall, TX 78671
No hill country wine tour is complete without a visit to the granddaddy of them all, Becker. Dominion residents Bunny and Dr. Richard Becker founded their winery in 1992. Wine Enthusiast recently nominated Becker for American Winery of the Year. A black tie affair in New York City will reveal the winner in January.
“We’re pretty excited,” Dr. Becker said. “It’s a nice list to be on. The other four nominees are west coast wineries.”
Not that Becker is chasing California. He’s finding France.
“I really love French wine. When we started, everyone said, ‘You have to make sweet wine. Texans won’t drink wine without sugar in it.’ But I liked dry wine and that’s what we were going to make. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out.”
It worked out. The American and Texan pallets seem to have shifted at just the right time. Becker’s success has caught even Becker by surprise.
“We didn’t expect this. We were in the middle of nowhere,” explained Becker, who chose Stonewall near Fredericksburg because it was closer to somewhere than Brady, where his roots date back to the Civil War.
“What’s made the whole thing cook is that the wine is actually good.”
According to Becker, hill country wine is no spring chicken. The Gillespie County farm census in 1860 listed the number of cattle, goats, chickens, how much wheat and corn and how many barrels of wine each homestead owned. The Germans made wine from native Mustang grapes.
“It’s the air and the soil that has Texas wineries winning a disproportionate number of medals at competitions worldwide,” Becker believes.
Becker will ship 120,000 cases of wine this year, up from 20,000 in 2002.
“But we make it all as if we only made 500 cases,” Becker insists. “We pay a lot of attention to it.”
While the vineyards are are open seven days a week, on Saturdays special guests can experience the exclusive Reserve Wine Library housed in the winery’s barrel cellar. Space is limited. Taste is not.