Napa and Sonoma may be more famous, but Texas Hill Country has one key thing they don't: amazing smoked meats. Ray Isle returns home to the Lone Star State to get his fill.
I was born in Texas, and my spirits still lift every time I step off a plane in my home state: The air feels right, the vast sky dispels stress and, handily enough for me, the place is making seriously impressive wine these days. The real bonus? Head to Hill Country outside Austin and you can drink it with some of the world’s best barbecue—my kind of one-two punch of pleasure. This is the heartland of Texas ’cue, which means succulent, slow-smoked beef, though there are also plenty of fall-off-the-bone pork ribs. And locals have come to realize that wine and barbecue are perfect together. Enlist a pal (I met up with Jessica Dupuy, Texas Monthly’s wine critic extraordinaire), rent a big car (it’s Texas, right?) and hit the road. What on earth are you waiting for?
8:45 a.m. Spice Up Your Morning
Fortify yourself for a long day of tasting with what may be the greatest breakfast taco ever invented. At Valentinas Tex Mex BBQ, a food truck and barbecue pit just outside of Austin, people line up for the Real Deal Holyfield—bacon, potatoes, refried beans, a fried egg and a strip of smoked brisket, all wrapped in a flour tortilla. Add some homemade tomatillo-habanero salsa and you’re more than good to go. valentinastexmexbbq.com.
10:35 a.m. Chili & Cabernet
Each winter, Spicewood Vineyards is home to the annual Pair It With the Claret (that’s right, it’s pronounced “clare-it”) chili cookoff, where more than 40 cooks try to convince 2,500 attendees that their bowl of red is the best one with, well, a glass of red (specifically, the winery’s Cabernet Claret). Even if you miss the chili-fest (this year’s happens on February 25), don’t skip a visit to try owner Ron Yates’s toasty 2014 Estate Tempranillo ($43). spicewoodvineyards.com.
11:40 a.m. Barbecue Feast
Pitmaster Seth Glaser is the man responsible for making Opie’s a cult favorite in the hotly competitive Austin-area barbecue circuit. As with all great ’cue joints, go early, before the meat runs out. Take your pick from everything on offer in the 12-foot-long black metal pit up front. It’s all good, but if you skip the perfect brisket, you’re making a huge mistake; ditto the spicy jalapeño sausages. Don’t ask for plates: As is custom in these parts, the ’cue is sold by the pound and served on a piece of butcher paper with lots of napkins. opiesbarbecue.com.
1:15 p.m. Time for Tempranillo
Finish off your pecan pie cobbler at Opie’s (if you didn’t order it, run back in right now), then return to your car and head 45 minutes southwest to Pedernales Cellars, a mainstay of the Texas wine scene. Like the river of the same name, Pedernales is pronounced “pur-den-alice” by locals; why that is remains a mystery to all. Winemaker David Kuhlken is known for his superb Tempranillo- based reds, but don’t miss his silky, Condrieu-like 2015 Viognier Reserve ($40). pedernalescellars.com.
2:30 p.m. Hill Country's Rising Star
Drive straight down Highway 290 about 15 miles to Lewis Wines, where Doug Lewis, who got his start at Pedernales as a part-time cellar helper, is making a strong argument for Mourvèdre as Texas’s next premier grape (try his seductive, smoky 2014 Lost Draw Vineyard bottling, $35). Not that it’s an easy task making wine here. As Lewis says: “California winemakers worry about a three-day heat spike. We have that eight-week heat spike we call summer to deal with.” lewiswines.com.
4:40 p.m. Vino with a View
Try to time your day so you get to the William Chris winery before sunset—the view from the tasting area under the oak trees is spectacular when the light starts to fade. This joint venture between winemakers Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett, who made a name for themselves by producing wines for other labels, started in 2008 and has now hit its stride. Their wines are uniformly good, but don’t miss the floral, citrusy 2015 Enoch’s Stomp Blanc du Bois ($26)—an offbeat variety from a bottle with an equally offbeat name. williamchris wines.com.
7:15 p.m. Check In, Bliss Out
It’s about an hour to Sage Hill Inn, a beautifully renovated country lodge by the banks of Onion Creek, but you’ll be well placed for your first winery visit tomorrow morning. Plus, you’ll get treated to gorgeous views looking west out over Hill Country, working fireplaces in all the plush, modern rooms, and terrific food from chef Autumn Wallace, graced with whatever’s currently growing in the inn’s gardens. Book a massage at the inn’s new spa, then sleep peacefully, in utter silence—except for those ubiquitous Texas crickets. Rooms from $299 per night; sagehill.com.
10:30 a.m. La Dolce Vita
Start the day with an herb-filled omelet from the Sage Hill Inn gardens, then head out to Duchman Family Winery, about 15 minutes north in the town of Driftwood. Winemaker Dave Reilly (far right) concentrates on Italian varieties, and his wines prove how well suited they are to the Texas heat. The 2015 Vermentino ($20), a grape more often found growing on the Ligurian coast, has vibrant spiced-pear notes—it’s a perfect springtime white. duchmanwinery.com.
12:15 p.m. Bring on the Beef Ribs
Scott Roberts’s family started out growing cotton in the 1880s on the land that’s now Salt Lick BBQ. Turns out, they weren’t meant to be farmers. “After the cotton, it was truck crops, then they planted about 300 peach trees,” Roberts says. “Killed ’em all. A slow, merciless death.” Luckily, his father started selling barbecue from a roadside pit in 1967. Today, Salt Lick is a veritable institution. And while the brisket is tasty, the smoky-sweet double-cut (a.k.a., extra-meaty) beef ribs are the must-have here; that and the surprisingly good coleslaw, whose secret ingredient is sesame seeds. saltlickbbq.com.
2 p.m. Get Schooled
Head directly across the street from Salt Lick to the tasting room for one of Texas’s oldest wineries, Fall Creek, which Ed and Susan Auler founded in 1975 (the winery itself is an hour and a half away, on the north shore of Lake Buchanan). If you’ve managed to save room after all that barbecue, the daily wine-pairing flight (six wines with six small bites) is a great introduction to the Aulers’ wines. Make sure to try their top bottle, the intense 2012 Meritus Red ($50), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, if it’s on offer. fcv.com.
3:30 p.m. Croquet & Gin
Enough wine—it’s time for a cocktail. Every weekend, the cavernous barn on Treaty Oak’s 27-acre Dripping Springs property is packed with people savoring the distillery’s housemade spirits—unless they’re outside playing yard games or enjoying the spring weather. Take a tour of the distillery, then relax with a refreshing Sip to My Loo: their barrel-aged Waterloo Antique Gin with ruby red grapefruit juice and tarragon. It’s a match made in heaven with chef (and head distiller) Clay Inscoe’s killer pimento cheese, made with roasted poblanos and jalapeños, hatch chile powder, Texas white cheddar and a touch of lime zest. treatyoakdistilling.com.
7:45 p.m. A Night to Remember
End your trip at the South Congress Hotel back in Austin, which opened in late 2015 on what’s probably the city’s coolest retail and restaurant strip. Hardwood floors, exquisite Matteo sheets, electric bike rentals (why not?)—it’s all very luxe, in a laid-back Austin way. If you’re barbecue-exhausted at this point, book one of the 12 seats at Otoko, a jewel box of a spot tucked inside the hotel, run by local-genius sushi chef Yoshi Okai. And, since you’re done roaming Hill Country, why not add a few days to your trip to explore the city, too? Rooms from $199 per night; southcongresshotel.com.