Texas wine country

A trip down Wine Road 290

Just outside of Pedernales Cellars in Stonewall, TX.

As a wine dork who lives in Texas, it was only natural that I’d end up curious about juice from my home state. After a mediocre at best first impression, a bottle of Syrah from Kiepersol convinced me that a quest to learn more about Texas grapes was well worth embarking on.

A year, a few books, and a lot of bottles of wine later, I finally felt like I knew enough about the state’s industry to make a trip to the 290 Wine Road (about an hour and a half West of Austin near Fredericksburg) worth my time. So, as soon as I had a few days off, that’s exactly what I did.

I only had two days to explore the 290 Wine Road, which meant that I had to prioritize. I didn’t have nearly enough time to try everything, unless I didn’t mind not remembering any of it afterward. A number of both large and small producers call the area home, and I wanted to taste the big and the small. Figuring that I’d enjoy the smaller ones more, I opted to save them for last and try the big boys first. Still, I was careful to stick to wineries I thought were worth my time, based on preliminary research.

Grape Creek Vineyards

This place came highly recommended, and for good reason. It did feel like it was trying to appeal to the bachelorette party crowd a bit, but the wine was beyond solid, the tour guide knowledgeable, and the tasting unique.

The high point of the tour involved tasting the same wine (a Petite Sirah) aged in three different types of barrels (new French Oak, new American Oak, and used American Oak), to see how the oak changed the flavor profile of the wine. It’s one thing to read that French Oak is more subtle and gentle than American Oak, but it was eye opening to experience the difference with all the other factors neutralized.

I also appreciated that, even though Grape Creek makes a ton of wine, they still seem to focus on grapes grown in the state. Many producers, especially the bigger ones, like to sell the idea of Texas wine while pushing bottles of juice trucked in from California. Growing grapes in this state is hard and unpredictable. Giant producers don’t usually have time for either one of those.

Grape Creek’s wine was approachable and, like most wine made from Texas grapes, rustic and maybe a bit green. When done wrong, this can come off as aggressive and unpleasant. When done right, wine in this style is delicate and elegant. Grape Creek also seems to have done a good job of capturing some fruit flavors in its wines, which is hard to do with Old World style wines. Honestly, it makes me a little suspicious that they may be using some additives, but that is pure speculation on my part.

My favorite wine from Grape Creek was their Cabernet/Syrah blend, although their Sangiovese based blends were quite nice as well.

Becker Vineyards

My next stop was supposed to be Inwood Estates, but they closed for a private event of some kind that I wasn’t invited to. Becker was a fallback. They make wine widely distributed throughout the state, but what I’ve tried has never blown me away, although I do think their Texas Claret is solid, and a good deal, too. I’ve found it at HEB for less than $12. The Becker wine you see on shelves is almost never made from enough Texas juice for them to be able to legally print “Texas” on the front of the bottle. I don’t have anything against California wine (according to my Vivino taste profile, it’s the region I tend to reach for more than any other), but why would I want to drink reject California juice from a Texas winery?

Despite my misgivings about the producer, I headed in anyway. I had heard that, even if you don’t enjoy their wine, their tasting room is something to behold. That ended up being true — the facilities were beyond nice. Plus, the tour, which ended in the impressive cellar library, was free of charge.

I was initially pleased when I noticed that the wines included in the tasting were actual Texas wines. I ended up largely disappointed with them, though, as well as the tasting experience in general. Our host was kind, but not all that knowledgeable, and seemed incredibly defensive when I brought up the fact that most Becker wine you see on store shelves isn’t made out of primarily Texas grapes. She claimed that Becker only uses Texas grapes in their wine, except in extreme situations, like in 2013 when bad weather destroyed the vast majority of fruit across the state. At this point, not wanting to be confrontational, I smiled, nodded in agreement, and apologized for my ignorance. (Amusingly enough, the small motel I was staying in treated me to a bottle of 2014 Becker Cabernet Sauvignon that very night. It, of course, was not able to legally be labeled with the Texas AVA.)

Even Becker’s higher end wine, like their Raven series, failed to impress. It mostly seemed overly juicy, unbalanced, and strange. I think the biggest contributor to the strangeness was the insane amount of lavender smells they had dripping off of every surface in the tasting room. The smell was so overpowering I found it difficult to get an honest taste of the wine. I’d like to try some of their nicer stuff in a more neutral setting, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to spend $40 on a bottle just to find out if the wine was actually not great, or whether the flavors were overpowered by the lavender plants, lavender candles, and whatever else they had in that place that smelled like lavender.

4.0 Cellars

This place isn’t a winery, but a tasting room for three well regarded wineries throughout the state: McPherson Cellars, Brennan Vineyards, and Lost Oak Winery. Normally, I’d skip a place like this, but I’m a big fan of both McPherson and Brennan, and was curious to try some wine from Lost Oak.

The facilities themselves are sleek and modern, which is a nice break from all of the tasting rooms that try to pretend like they magically transported directly from Tuscany. The hostess was great, and all of the wine I tried here was at least good, and at best fantastic. I liked trying wine from Lost Oak, but they ended up sticking with me the least. I got the impression that those wines were trying hard to emulate the California style of wine, instead of embracing the more rustic, gentle, peppery flavors Texas wine excels at.

The wine from McPherson and Brennan, on the other hand, plowed right into this territory, and were better for it. One strange surprise was an Italian style blend called DBS from McPherson. The grapes for this wine were sourced from New Mexico, and tasted very similar to grapes grown in the Texas High Plains. Even though the goal of this trip was to drink wine from Texas, I’ll never say no to trying something from somewhere interesting.

For a more of what is becoming a traditional high end Texas wine, I turned to a Reserve Tempranillo from Brennan. Lots of earth, pepper, leather, and tobacco here, with just a hint of fruit. If it decides it wants to, Texas might just become the new Spain.

William Chris Vineyards

This was, by far, my most anticipated stop of the trip. William Chris, a boutique winery with low production numbers and a monstrous reputation, is the granddaddy of all Texas producers. Interested parties currently have to get on a waiting list to join their wine club, and reservations are required if you want to attend a tasting over the weekend. This winery is at a point where they could probably blow up if they wanted to, but I get the impression that they prefer staying small and focused.

I’m happy to say that their wines did not disappoint. The tasting started with their most fruity and accessible, the 2014 Mary Ruth, which, to me, tasted like a fruit bowl covered in honey. Next, we moved on to their Cinsault Rose, which might just be one of the best Roses I’ve ever tried. Bright, expressive, and balanced, but not sweet. After the white and Rose, it was time to play hardball. Their red wines on the tasting list, which included the Hunter, Mandola Field Blend, and Mourvedre, were all lively, complex, and terroir driven. The Hunter struck me as packing the most punch. It pleased me to discover that William Chris’ reputation was well earned.

Not wanting to leave, I also tried their dessert wines. First, they poured a Fortified Roussane. It reminded me of a Madeira wine made from the Blanc du Bois grape by Haak Vineyards in Santa Fe (closer to where I live), although this was more balanced and drinkable. We finished with their Jacquez Port style wine, which was as syrupy, sweet, chocolatey, and as delicious as you’d hope. If you’re in the area and you can only stop at one winery, make sure it’s this one.

This is all of the red wine Benjamin Calais is currently producing.

Calais Winery

The most boutique of all the wineries we tried. Our host at William Chris named Benjamin Calais an up and coming high quality winemaker in the area, so we decided to check it out. The name hadn’t come up during any of my research in the year previous. I called ahead and was given some directions, because even with GPS the place had proved hard for people to find. When we arrived, I saw why. The winery looked like a long garage dug into the ground. If a sign advertised the building as a winery at all, I didn’t see it. We knocked on the large wooden doors, slightly worried that we were walking into some kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre scenario. Luckily, the only things inside were an eclectic young French guy and a little bit of wine.

He told us right away that he was sold out of most of his stock, so only a few of the wines we were trying were available for sale. This news bummed me out, but hanging around for the tasting ended up a great choice. Benjamin was passionate about wine, extremely friendly, and hands-on to a ridiculous degree. He has no employees and does everything himself, including building his small winery.

The wines themselves were fantastic, subtle, and alive. Some smaller wineries like to brag about how few cases of wine they produce, but it’s hard to imagine many producers being able to “beat” Calais’ tiny numbers. One of the best wines I tasted this trip was his Italian style blend. Total production: two barrels, or about 50 cases worth. The only way he’s been able to sustain such low production numbers without going bankrupt, according to him, is by doing consulting work for other wineries as his primary job. Running his own tiny winery seems to only be half of his life. Pretty impressive, for a young guy who moved to Texas from France and is doing everything on his own.

I hope he continues to find success, I’d love to keep trying new wines from him.

Pedernales Cellars

Pedernales was some of my first high quality Texas wine I tried, so I was looking forward to getting into their tasting room. Much to our surprise, like most of the places we stopped at this weekend, they were slow, which was great for us. I worried that the week before Christmas everyone would be vacationing and drinking in the Hill Country, but, for whatever reason, this ended up not being the case at all.

The beautiful grounds at Pedernales beg you to relax, and the tasting room is elegant but welcoming. In terms of size, Pedernales falls somewhere between Becker and William Chris. You can find some of their wines around the state, but you’re going to have to go to a specialty shop to do so, and you’re only going to find a few of their higher production bottles.

We were presented with the option of the normal tasting, or a more expensive one hosted by a “sommelier in training.” We opted for the nicer one, mainly because we got to sit down for it. I’m glad we did, as our sommelier was a lot of fun, and very knowledgeable. Although, to be quite honest, I had enough alcohol in me to enjoy the company of just about anyone at that point.

Their wines, which center around the Tempranillo grape, were mostly very good. Maybe a little fruitier and more New World style than the smallest producers we sampled. I enjoyed the Valhalla blend, and, perhaps because of the amount of wine I had ingested that day, I also liked their holiday Glogg Port style wine.

My trip down Wine Road 290 enlightened, excited, and frightened me. On the one hand, I tasted exactly the kind of wine that most of the world doesn’t think Texas can make: interesting, complex, and terroir driven. Some of the wineries making those interesting, complex, and terroir driven wines even appear to have some amount of financial success. On the other hand, the wineries that seem to be prospering the most also seem to care the least about wine, and the most about presentation and mass appeal. Other parts of the country have proven capable of balancing these things (California is the home to both Ridge and Franzia, after all), but it is yet to be seen if there’s enough room in the Texas market for both.

I sure hope there is.

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