We come to the Texas Hill Country on a mission: four days of intensive searching for world-class wines and barbecue. Not exactly a National Geographic–level expedition, but significant in a food-and-wine kind of way. And, so that I do not keep you in unbearable suspense, we found some of both and enjoyed every moment of the hunt. The “we” is me, my brother Rob and our wives and bodyguards, Darlene and Francie. We are all best friends. Darlene and I live near New York City, and Rob and Francie live in Louisiana, where Rob and I grew up. For about 40 years we were separated by corporate life, but recently, Rob and I left our day jobs, and now we rendezvous a few times a year in interesting places to rediscover each other through the shamelessly hedonistic pursuit of perfect moments of eating and drinking.
The Hill Country is home to two dozen or so wineries, and our group decides for scientific reasons that a statistical sample of at least 10 of them is required to assess the state of the industry. That means visiting three our first afternoon. That may sound easy to those who have cruised Route 29 through Napa Valley, but Texas is a big-ass place, and the Hill Country’s wineries are spread over about 14,000 square miles west of Austin and north of San Antonio.
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In our first four hours we visit Bell Mountain Vineyards in Fredericksburg, the glamorous Becker Vineyards in Stonewall, and the scruffy and delightful Woodrose Winery in Stonewall; all are located 70 miles, give or take, west of Austin. All four of us are flush with enthusiasm and a thirst for Texas wine knowledge, and we form two quick conclusions: 1) There are some very good wines being made in Texas; and 2) We have to taste less tomorrow, or else learn to use the spit bucket.
We also achieve at least two important insights. The first comes at Becker Vineyards, courtesy of a lady customer who is making a joke. The winemaker is explaining how he has worked three vintages to correct a problem he is having with a wine. Her response—“That’s a little like the reason they call it WD-40: The first 39 times it didn’t work”—seems to apply to the Texas wine industry as a whole. This is a very new business here, and winemakers only get one chance a year to fix mistakes. On the other hand, Texas wine is pretty good now, and it will get much better.
The second insight comes at Woodrose Winery, a humble little place with a couple of good wines and a relaxed tasting area. As we walk up to the tasting bar, one of the women there says, “Hi, I’m Joleen.” Without missing a beat, the four Ryders start singing the Dolly Parton song “Jolene,” and are quickly joined by the Woodrose staff. We have a ridiculous amount of fun there, as well as a couple of very good Merlots, particularly the ’06, with its dark-cherry, blueberry and chocolate flavors. The insight is this: Visiting wineries in Texas is a very warm, personal experience. And it’s cheap entertainment, too, since most wineries charge only about $5 for generous tastings. In most cases the owners or winemakers are there, and you can sit and talk with them at length, which is a pleasure—wine tastes better when you drink it with its maker.
The Hill Country is one of the two most important wine regions in Texas (the other is the area around Lubbock). Winemaking is new enough here that vintners are still searching for the best grapes to grow, and they’ll argue at length about what “best” actually means. The result is that while they’re primarily growing traditional European grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Chardonnay and Viognier, they’re also experimenting with lots of blends—including some unfortunate “soda pop” wines to satisfy the drive-by drinkers. It is telling that there are almost no second-generation owners yet in the Hill Country.
Our second day is a real road trip, filled with vistas of oak-studded hills, fields of prairie grasses, pecan and peach orchards, rivers, creeks and beautiful lakes. At Alamosa Wine Cellars in Bend, we arrive early; Jim Johnson, the owner and winemaker, is just returning from deer hunting in the nearby hills, still wearing his hunting camo. His wife, Karen, graciously gets our tasting started. The Johnsons specialize in Mediterranean-style wines and have a portfolio of about 12 bottlings, including a nice peachy-flavored, Vouvray-style Chenin Blanc called Jacques Lapin (Jack Rabbit)—Jim’s an irrepressible punster, and most of his bottlings have similar names—and the sensational 2001 El Guapo Grande, a Tempranillo filled with robust dried-cherry flavors and hints of leather and tobacco. The conversation and the wines are so good that we forget our lessons of the prior day and drink with scarce restraint. We stay so long that we arrive late to our next stop, lunch at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, one of the great shrines of Texas barbecue.
You should know that the area around Austin is the promised land for barbecue lovers, who make pilgrimages here from all around the world. The region was settled in part by Czech and German immigrants, and their Old World butchery skills found a perfect outlet in the cattle raised here. This is not your Kansas City– or Memphis-style ’cue with saucy, spicy pork ribs. Pork is sissy food. Texas ’cue is about beef, folks, and preferably that portion of a cow called the brisket. Brisket here is the religion of the promised land, and those tough hunks of beef are cooked for hours, mostly over post oak, until they are tender and juicy and filled with smoky goodness. Pit masters here often rub the meat with nothing more than salt and pepper and sneer that sauce just gets in the way of the pure beef flavor. Texans are very serious about their barbecue, and especially their brisket.
We are 20 minutes late for our 11 a.m. lunch at Cooper’s, and by then the place is packed, with an hour-long line. We go instead to Laird’s Bar-B-Q, a short drive away, where we can watch Mr. Laird himself tend the outdoor pits next to the restaurant. The staff let us sit on the porch in our matching shirts, embroidered with ryder boys’ texas wine and bbq tour. We bring six bottles of wine with us. They loan us the only four wineglasses in the establishment. We are right by the front door, and all who enter or leave either giggle or shake their heads in wonder at the sight of us: My brother and I look like retired alcoholic wrestlers hanging out with their babes. We are undaunted, because we are doing science. We eat delicious, moist, smoky chicken, passable pork ribs and good sausage with sides of mustardy potato salad, bad beans and plain white bread. The first plate of brisket is dry and tough, but the second plate is rich and juicy and toothsome.
For scientific reasons we eat quite a lot, so that we can form proper hypotheses about wine and barbecue. Here they are: 1) Drink beer with sauced meats, preferably Shiner Bock, or Big Red, a curious strawberry-and-cherry-flavored soda of strange chemical heritage; 2) Drink good local rosé (and there are a number of them) with chicken and pork; and 3) Drink any good, big red wine with unsauced meats like brisket, beef ribs or steaks.
After lunch we drive to Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow and spend quite a while with owners Ed and Susan Auler, tasting wine after wine. Ed and Susan are highly respected Texas wine pioneers absolutely determined to make world-class wines, and they are known for their generosity in helping other Texas winemakers; they have a touch of classic Texas patrician landowner about them and are more reserved and a bit more formal than the Johnsons at Alamosa. I had tasted their flagship Meritus wines before making the trip and was stunned by their quality. We taste them again at the winery, and I decide that the 2004 Meritus, a blend of 90 percent Cabernet and equal parts Merlot and Malbec, with slightly spicy blackberry and currant flavors, is not only the best Meritus yet, but is in fact the world-class wine Ed and Susan have been striving for.
We leave late but happy, headed for Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, famous for its Viognier. Unfortunately, I direct us by mistake to Cherokee, where, despite my insistence, the only merchant in town convinces us there is no winery there. Embarrassed by my navigational failure and ignorance of local Indian tribes, I have a brainstorm: “high tea” back at the legendary Cooper’s.
The place is still packed at 4 p.m., and in a veritable homage to Dr. Atkins, we order its famously primal meats—brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage, pork chops and chicken, accompanied by potato salad, coleslaw, white bread, sliced onions, whole jalapeños and four Prilosec. We pass on the barbecued goat and beef tenderloin, after deciding that more than 12 pounds of meat at high tea does seem rather indelicate. We also skip the wine tasting and have Shiner Bock instead. The brisket is rich and beefy, the beef rib tough, the pork ribs and pork chops dry and uninteresting. The sausage is overcooked, the coleslaw frighteningly bad and the potato salad a fresh, mustard-flavored redemption. On the ride back to our inn we decide that Cooper’s, while outstanding by most standards, needs to focus more on quality and less on volume. Darlene suggests we might do the same.
On our third day we have “breakfast wines” early with Rick and Madelyn Naber at Flat Creek Estate, near Marble Falls, and meet Angela and Howard Moench at Stone House Vineyard in Spicewood before lunch. These are must-visit places. At Flat Creek, Rick—an energetic guy who looks to be in his fifties and has a promoter’s pride in his winery—pours us the dark, black-cherry-and-espresso-flavored Travis Peak Select Reserve Cabernet. At Stone House, Angela, an Australian expat, runs the show. She pours us her 2005 Claros, a medium-bodied wine with bright cherry flavors made from the unlikely Norton grape variety.
We lunch at Opie’s B.B.Q. in Spicewood. Opie’s is owned by Todd and Kristin Ashmore and is named for their dog, who died a few years back. But regardless of the origin of its name, let me be clear: Opie’s is one of the best BBQ restaurants anywhere. The meats are hot off the fire and bursting with smoky, juicy beef essence, the sides and desserts are uniformly good, and the owners are charming. We order a preposterous amount of food: beef brisket, pork ribs, jalapeño sausage and a two-pound pork chop, all balanced with Opie’s “vegetables”—butter beans, pinto beans, Tater Tot casserole, jalapeño creamed corn and coleslaw. We open seven wines, follow it all up with brownies, carrot cake, blackberry cobbler, peach cobbler and ice cream, and confirm our judgment that there is very little that isn’t very good at Opie’s.
Our last day takes us to Spicewood Vineyards and lunch nearby at R.O.’s Outpost B-B-Q—another seven or eight wines, more outstanding barbecue. We are near LBJ Lake when we come upon a sign for Lost Creek Vineyard that reads, Winery closed due to flood damage. We are curious, so we call the number on the sign. Soon David, the owner, appears, welcoming us with open arms and his dog, Buddy. He shows us what had been his tasting room and wine-storage area, from which he’d sold almost 100 percent of his wine, and which were both completely destroyed in the June ’07 floods that hit this part of Texas. David also lost 1,000 cases of wine; another 1,000 cases were label-damaged. And while he had $3 million worth of insurance, it did not cover flood or water damage—a concept folks like us from Louisiana have come to understand.
He takes us to the winery—the only building on high ground—which now also serves as a storage area and triage center. The label-damaged bottles turned out to be fine, so David and his new wife, Valerie (“the one really good thing to happen this year”), are painstakingly pasting new labels over the old ones. David says that, ironically, he’d had one of his best crops ever in 2007, but the flood destroyed his business. But that hasn’t stopped him. Now he is making new wine from the great crop, reclaiming the damaged bottles and rebuilding the tasting room; he plans to reopen this spring. We taste his 2005 Lost Creek Buddy’s Select, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz. Buddy wags his tail and looks smiley-eyed at us as we taste. How could we not love it?
On the way back to Austin, we decide that David’s irrepressible spirit and optimism are symbolic of what we’ve seen in so many Texas winemakers. As a group, they face a wicked host of obstacles—floods, heat, pests—yet they go on, determined to make world-class wines. A few miles down the road, Francie mentions that she wishes she’d bought some Buddy’s Select to give as gifts and asks if we can go back. I remind her that wine always seems better when tasted with the maker, not to mention the dog for which it is named. She says, “Yeah, whatever. Just turn around.” So we do.
Thomas O. Ryder, a longtime magazine publisher, lives in Connecticut and eats with enthusiasm.