Week 11: A Wine Tour of Texas Hill Country

© Dan Dunn
By Dan Dunn Posted December 17, 2014

Writer Dan Dunn winds his way through Texas in this week's installment of his wine-centric road trip across the country.

Dan Dunn is taking an extensive road trip across America to research his forthcoming book, American Wino: A Story of Reds, Whites and One Writer’s Blues on the Winey Road to Redemption (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). This is the 11th in a series of weekly dispatches chronicling his journey.

Day 80: Bending Branch Winery (Comfort, TX); Becker Vineyards (Stonewall, TX); 4.0 Cellars and Otto’s German Bistro (Fredericksburg, TX)

It’s taken more than two months and nearly 11,000 odometer miles to get to Texas, and frankly I don't know what to expect. The Lone Star State is unlike any other place in this country. Or on the planet, for that matter. It is a 10-gallon hat full of contradictions.

Texas is where you’ll find one of the country’s most progressive cities (Austin) and a slew of its most regressive politicians (see: Gohmert, Louie). The recently elected mayor of Archer City is an 18-year-old kid, while the top pol in Lajitas is a beer-drinking goat named Clay Henry.

Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state in the union. It also boasts the city with the highest percentage of gay and lesbian parents in the US: San Antonio.

Some of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known are Texans. And so is Chuck Norris. The Dallas Cowboys are known as “America’s Team,” yet virtually every football fan in America seems to despise them. There are two Major League Baseball teams in Texas. Neither has ever won the World Series. Their fans just act as though they have.

While Texas has a reputation for being heavily populated with beer-drinking yahoos (at least, according to my dear old grandma back in Philly), in truth it is home to far more wineries than breweries and ranks second behind California in wine tourism in the US.

There are more than 40 wineries scattered throughout the Texas Hill Country, from Austin to Fredericksburg and Lampasas to New Braunfels. Bending Branch, in Comfort, is one of the better ones.

Their first vintage was 2008—800 cases. This year, they’re on track to produce 14,000, according to John Rivenburgh, founder and vice president of operations. Of the 14 varietals they have planted on the estate, they seem to be having the most success with Tannat, a grape known for its high tannic levels normally found in the Basque-influenced regions of France near the Pyrénées. Indeed, the 2011 Tannat ($30) is a special wine. Big and beautiful, it grabs your attention from the first sip, then holds onto it by revealing layer upon layer of bold flavor. Somebody get me a Texas rib to pair with this!

John Rivenburgh, by the way, used to be a Cowboys fan. Then Jerry Jones bought the team. Not so much anymore.

One other note about Bending Branch: They have the country’s first fully automated flash detente machine. Proof that not everyone in Texas is afraid of science.

Fredericksburg is 30 minutes north of Comfort and one of the more picturesque wine regions in this or any other country. 4.0 Cellars, on Highway 290 East, is a tasting room for three wineries, including Brennan Vineyards, McPherson Cellars and Lost Oak Winery.

“We call this wine tasting, not wine liking,” Jimmy Davis of 4.0 tells me. “If you don’t like what you’re tasting, that’s what the spill bucket is for.” I do like most of what I’m tasting, though—particularly the 2012 Tempranillo from Brennan.

The tasting room at Becker Vineyards is, like so many things in Texas, massive. At 100,000 cases annually, Becker is the third-largest producer in the state. They make a wide variety of wines here, and all of it is sold in Texas. Standouts include the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the Canada Family Vineyard and “Raven,” a blend of 75 percent Malbec and 25 percent Petit Verdot.

When visiting Fredericksburg, you’ve got to have dinner at Otto’s, where they serve authentic regional German and Central European cuisine. I recommend the Jagerschnitzle—pork cutlet, tenderized and breaded by hand, with spätzle, rotkohl and wild mushrooms.

Day 81: William & Chris Vineyards (Hye, TX); Lewis Wines (Johnson City, TX); Pedernales Cellars and Rose Hill Manor (Stonewall, TX)

Day 81 was a busy one, and since neither of us has all day, here are the highlights:

• William & Chris is a world-class property with one of the busiest tasting rooms in the nation. If you plan to go, make a reservation. Wait times for walk-ins on most weekends can exceed two hours.

• All of the wine at William & Chris is made with grapes grown in Texas. “We’re 100 percent Texas. Always have been, always will be,” says owner Chris Brundrett, who is, like so many things in Texas, massive.

• Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines grew up in Elgin, one of the world’s great BBQ meccas. He started out as a philosophy major at St. Edwards College in Austin but gave that up after he caught the winemaking bug. Lewis claims to be 28 years old, but he looks 17. While tasting through his wines, I keep having the urge to ask him for ID. You can never be too careful in Texas. But in all seriousness, remember the name Doug Lewis. He’s going to be a star winemaker when he grows up.

• Doug learned to make wine at Pedernales Cellars. He was fortunate, because the wine at this place is stellar. The Tempranillo Reserve, which took Double Gold in San Francisco this year, is as complete an expression of the varietal as anything you’re likely to find in Spain. I know that’s an awfully bold claim I just made there but, hey, I’m in Texas—bravado is contagious.

• While showering in my room at an impossibly charming bed-and-breakfast called Rose Hill Manor, a thought occurs to me: Who are Gilchrist & Soames, and how did they manage to corner the fine resort bath product market? Are they friendly with Malin + Goetz? And what is it about oatmeal soap that makes me so very, very serene?

Day 82: Fall Creek Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery and The Salt Lick BBQ (Driftwood, TX); Kimber Modern Hotel and The Continental Club (Austin)

Dear lord, am I only halfway through Texas? OK, pull it together, we can do this...

• Fall Creek Vineyards is owned by Texas businessman/rancher, Ed Auler and his wife, Susan. While on a trip to France in 1973, they noted remarkable similarities in the soil, terrain and microclimate of parts of the French wine country and their own ranch and thought, “Hey, let’s get in the wine business.” Everyone at home thought they were crazy. They probably were. This was Texas in the ’70s. But ultimately, the decision proved to be decidedly sane— the proof is in the Sauvignon Blanc. And the Chardonnay. And Cabernet Sauvignon.

• The Salt Lick is arguably the most famous BBQ joint in America. I’d say it is. Wanna argue that point? Sure you do. My Twitter handle is @TheImbiber. Bring it on, Kansas City!

• “Why fuck up a perfectly good Viognier with oak?” says winemaker Dave Reilly of Duchman Family Vineyards. I tell him I think that’s a very good point, and in return he pours me another glass of Duchman’s clean, crisp and aromatic Viognier, which is grown by the folks at Bingham Family Vineyards in the High Plains of Texas. I’m scheduled to visit them as well in a few days. A few days? Hell, I’m never getting out of Texas, am I?

• Dave Reilly also makes very fine Sangiovese, though he freely admits to having a love-hate relationship with the grape. He’s happy Duchman’s customers love the wine he makes but laments that Texas Sangiovese will never quite grow the way it does in Italy. I tell him I think that’s a very good point, and he pours me more wine. I like how this is going.

• Oh, how I love my room at the Kimber Modern boutique hotel in Austin. It’s got just the right mix of cozy and modern. And free beer and wine in the outdoor communal space. I would move in here if it weren’t $300-plus per night.

• My buddy Wheels and I visit a famous music joint called The Continental Club on South Congress Avenue. There we witness Amanda Cevallos and the High Hands performing "He Won't Stop Leaving Me Alone." I am smitten. With Amanda Cevallos. And Texas.

Day 83: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)

It’s Thanksgiving, and the Eagles are playing the Cowboys. I buy a ticket and go to the game. Alone. Wearing a throwback Eagles jersey. Nobody bothers me, and the Eagles whup the ’Boys. Clearly, I have much to be thankful for.
Later that night, I Google “quotes about Texas” and find one that sums up what I’ve experienced here so far:

“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it, and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Next week: The long and winey road finally comes to an end.

For more on Dan’s journey, follow him on Twitter @TheImbiber

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