by Libba Letton
Photography by Reagen Taylor
As anyone in the Texas wine industry will tell you, you don’t have to go to the West Coast to find good wine, and the industry keeps growing. Texas is the fifth largest wine-producing state in the country, with more than 400 wineries across the state generating nearly $2.3 billion annually. Texas wines are awash in serious awards, and in 2015, Wine Enthusiast magazine listed the Texas Hill Country among the top 10 best wine travel destinations in the world. Every year, more than a million people travel to the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg, where nearly 70 wineries and tasting rooms can be found. It’s said that US Highway 290 is the second most-traveled wine road in the country.
Just 1.5 hours from downtown Austin, the Fredericksburg area is perfect for day trips. There are a few wineries closer to Austin near Dripping Springs, which you could hit in a half-day, but it’s worth venturing a bit further. I recently spent a kid-free, spouse-free day with my friend Lisa, visiting the wineries and tasting rooms from Austin to Fredericksburg and back. Several years ago I went on a small bus tour of the area with friends, but the unruliness of the group plus the sheer number of us limited the tour to three wineries. Lisa and I, with our designated driver, Yuniecy, planned to make it to at least four.
If you’re a wine drinker like I am, you’re most likely used to wines from Europe, Argentina, California, Oregon, and Washington. Here in Texas, growers plant some of the grapes you know—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc—but the grapes that do best in Texas are those also found growing near the Mediterranean. Eighty percent of Texas grapes are grown on the Texas High Plains, west of Lubbock in the Panhandle. The climate there is hot in the day, cool at night and extremely dry—much like Southern France, Spain, and Italy, producing Tempranillo, Montepulciano, Mourvèdre and Tannat for the reds, and Viognier, Vermentino, Roussanne, and Marsanne for the whites.
2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall, Texas 78671
With a full day ahead of us, Lisa and I arrived at Pedernales Cellars at 10 a.m. sharp. Pedernales Cellars is among the prettiest places we stopped—the winery sits at the top of a hill, and from the huge, shady deck out front you can see for miles.
Pedernales Cellars is known for its award-wining wines, including its 2012 Viognier that brought home a grand gold that year at the Lyon International Wine Competition in France. The family business started in 1990, when Larry and Jeanine Kuhlken planted their first grapevines in the Hill Country near Fredericksburg, and continues today through the work of their children.
Larry and Jeanine’s daughter Julie Kuhlken took us on a tour of their production facility, partially built into the side of the hill, where they make and age the wine. Afterwards, we tasted three whites, two reds and a port. We both really liked the 2014 High Plains Tempranillo; it smelled like berries but was nice and dry. Lisa, wisely, used the spit bucket to pace herself, but I’ve always had a hard time with that. Spitting out wine? Wha?
10354 E US Hwy 290, Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Next on our list was 4.0 Cellars. These folks have the right idea: three wineries share one big tasting room, so at this spot you can sample wines from Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery, and McPherson Cellars. Their tasting room is the largest I’ve ever seen, with high ceilings and lots of natural light; it could probably hold a dozen guests simultaneously. The property is expansive, with lots of lovely event space and huge 100-year-old oak trees.
Brennan Vineyards started in 2001 when Pat and Trellise Brennan planted grapevines in the 33 acres adjacent to their home in Comanche. Lost Oak Winery near Burleson, south of Fort Worth, produces award-winning merlots, among many others. I love the fact that founder Gene Estes’ first winemaking experience was in his parents’ garage in 1963. Dr. Clinton “Doc” McPherson is considered one of the fathers of the modern Texas wine industry and today his son Kim carries on the tradition of producing award-winning Texas wines for Lubbock’s McPherson Cellars.
As we arrived at 4.0, our server, Martin, must have overheard me talking (okay, probably shouting) about champagne, because he offered us each a glass of the delicious bubbles as our tasting began, and topped off those glasses again when we were done. We tasted some sweeter reds as well as a rosé, a Montepulciano, and some red blends which also tended towards the sweet end of the spectrum. I made a mental note to remember Brennan’s Austin Street Red for my Aunt Grace, who, when asked her drink preference, cheerfully asserts “SWEET RED!” Thankfully, Martin also made sure our tasting included food—an assortment of delicious Veldhuizen cheeses from Dublin, Texas, also sold at 4.0 Cellars.
After our tasting, I got super friendly with a vendor set up outside selling jewelry. Pretty sure by the time we left I’d shared with her my therapist’s phone number and offered to write a sorority recommendation for her daughter. Clearly it was time for lunch, so we headed into Fredericksburg and had tacos and tamales across the street from the National Museum of the Pacific War.
113 E Park Street, Fredericksburg, TX 78624
By the time we were fed, I was still feeling pretty good and my natural extroversion was coming to the fore as we entered the cozy Lost Draw Cellars tasting room in downtown Fredericksburg. Our server David previously worked in radio, and had a personality to match. Troy Ottmers, father-in-law of founder Andy Sides and now in the family wine biz, also joined us. I proceeded to shoot the breeze with them while we tasted, and they obliged with both wine and equally enthusiastic conversation. I was relaxed and happy, and I was feeling like a real native—as if we were speaking a special Texas-only language and we understood each other completely. I don’t even remember what we talked about; I just had a sense of belonging, of comforting familiarity that I’ve only ever felt in Texas. Or perhaps it was the wine. We tasted a white wine and their Arroyo Blush, a sweeter rosé, and three reds. The 2015 Perry is the last wine we tasted, a red blend. It was naturally fermented and unfiltered, giving it a cloudy appearance and a taste I can only describe as big.
6676 Hwy 290 West, Hye, Texas 78635
Our last wine stop was Ron Yates Winery, sister to Spicewood Vineyards off Highway 71, which has been making Texas wine since 1992. We spent more time at Yates, as our tasting happened in waves: rather than belly up to the bar like we’d done at our other tastings, we sat out front on the porch that spanned the length of the attractive stone production building. Our servers, Dan and Barry, took turns bringing us our tastings: a rosé, three whites, and five reds. We both liked the 2014 Mourvedre Rosé—it smelled like tart apples and was equally crisp to drink—yum! We also liked their 2014 Pinot Noir (we are big pinot fans). By this time, Lisa and I were feeling good and happy, though perhaps on our way to sleepy, so sitting outside in the fresh air did us some good. Ron Yates is planning to add more facilities over time, including a tasting pavilion, a swimming pool, and a 5,000 square foot tasting room.
As we headed back to Austin, Lisa remembered that a friend’s brother had started his own whiskey label, and their tasting room was only five miles out of our way, in Blanco. We said what the hell, and arrived at Andalusia Whiskey distillery around five o’clock.
6462 N US 281, Blanco, TX 78606
Co-founders Tommy Erwin and Ty Phelps (formerly of Real Ale Brewing Company) greeted us inside the big, open distillery they opened last fall. They directed us down to the end of the bar for a tasting of their three main whiskeys: White Pearl, a white single-malt; Revenant Oak, a peat-smoked single malt aged in American bourbon barrels; and Stryker, a smoked single malt whiskey. Both Revenant Oak and Stryker won bronze medals in the 2017 American Craft Spirits Awards.
Lisa is far more whiskey-savvy than I am, and I shamed her by making the college-kid-doing-cheap-tequila-shots face after every sip. She liked hers so much, she bought a bottle for herself and one for my husband, a whiskey and Diet Coke fan. For those who’d just like a cocktail, Andalusia offers those, too, like their Whiskey Hurricane or their Irish Coffee.
The distillery is on a working ranch, and all of their spent grain is fed to the sheep and cattle. Near the distillery, Erwin and Phelps plan to add a chicken coop and paddocks for sheep and lamb to enhance the farm atmosphere and make the place fun for families as well.
The space is big and airy, with an upstairs loft area with seating and tables for playing games; downstairs in the back is a small library, stocked wall-to-wall with books. And not just any old second-hand books—this library features real literature, from Herman Melville to Kate Chopin. Yes, there’s some James Clavell and Danielle Steel, but still, my inner English major was impressed.
You can find more advice, tours and Texas Wine Trail maps online. Be sure to look for upcoming wine festivals and celebrations like the Culinaria Wine and Food Festival in San Antonio, May 18–21. There are also monthly dinner series like the Fischer & Wieser Vintner Dinners in Fredericksburg. Find a designated driver, and happy touring!
Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017