A Taste of Texas
World-class wines are taking root in the heart of Hill Country. Contributor-slash-sommelier Seth Eli Barlow heads south to swirl and sip
JUST A FEW MILES north and west of Austin, Texas, the Pedernales River becomes one with the Colorado at the end of a 106-mile slink that carries it through the eastern edge of Hill Country. It’s a roiling stretch of land, cliffs that come up, reaching for the sky, red rocks against blue firmament. Cactus, sage, post cedar, yucca, coyote, roadrunner, white tail deer. An ecosystem all its own. But that’s not why we’ve come. We’ve come because this is the deep and drunken heart of Texas, where vines are money and grapes are gold.
I was once told by a master sommelier that the Texas wine industry is “the wild wild west of wine.” It’s true in a way—the cost of land is less in Texas than in the famous wine-growing valleys of California or Oregon, allowing growers and winemakers more financial freedom to experiment, to try a new technique or to plant something new. The varietals grown there are unique in the scope of American wines. The heat is too oppressive for grapes like chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot gris, so the winemakers of Texas have had to look to the sweltering Mediterranean coast for their inspiration. They started with tempranillo from Spain and French viognier and have continued experimenting from there. Grapes that have been all but forgotten in their native Portugal, Spain or Italy are finding a new home in the Lone Star State.
These days, there are over 4,000 acres of vineyards planted across the state. Less than 2 percent of the final product, however, is ever exported, and as a result, its wines remain largely unknown outside Texas. Which is why we’re here—me and my friend Keegan Sparks, our road trip’s resident DJ and, like me, a sommelier.
What do we expect to find in Texas? I’m not sure either of us know. Of course, an industry so young won’t have the history, the refined terroir of other parts of the country or the beloved Old World. But what might Texas taste like? It’s the question that’s brought us here. I’ve always thought that wine was, more than anything, something secret, something hidden, waiting for me to find at the bottom of a bottle. Whatever Texas has in store for us, we plan to enjoy the discovery.
FIRST STOP: CALAIS WINERY
We’re past it before we know we’re lost. Calais Winery is hidden from the highway. It’s on purpose—it’s built into the hillside, to protect it from the heat. There are no signs. They like it that way. We turn around in a driveway and double back, almost missing it again before we pull blindly onto a gravel road and hope we’ve made the right guess.
Stepping out of the car, we wander over to the barn-like doors set into the dirt. I give them a tug, and they lurch open.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust from the sunlight.
I can see now, but I still can’t tell where the voice is coming from.
I’m 15 feet into the room before I spot him. Benjamin Calais. He’s French, an expat who moved to Dallas to work in software engineering and almost immediately began making wine as a pastime. He opened his winery in 2015, though he’d been making wine since 2008. He comes out to greet us from behind a row of barrels, which is all the room seems to be. Barrels are stacked double-high on every wall. There’s no furniture, only a filling station and a tasting table, which consists of a board slung atop—what else—two other barrels.
He began by buying small plots of land when he could afford them and using the processing plants of other wineries before he could afford his own. He built his current winery himself, by hand. It’s a shoe box-cum-winery. The entire process happens in a single room, no smoke, no mirrors.
It’s been a busy day for him. He’s preparing for a massive event to celebrate Bastille Day the following day, and we’re his only appointment. He’s constantly brushing his hair off of his face—the loose brown curls seem to anchor themselves to his forehead, a testament to the relentless Texas heat.
He first pours us his rousanne. It’s a white grape, native to France’s Rhône valley, as so many of the grapes in Texas are. It’s hearty and heat resistant, and Ben has turned it into a dame, regal and stately, with natural flavors of baked apple and beeswax. Next, he pours us a rosé of cinsault that’s flamingo pink in the glass and tastes of strawberries and watermelon. It’s the perfect tonic to the heat outside.
The tasting comes to a halt, however, when we reach the malbec. It was grown in the Texas High Plains, an area in the state’s panhandle just south of Lubbock, and it’s taken on a dramatic and decidedly feminine quality. There is a dustiness to the wine that softens its tannins and cradles delicate flavors of violets, lavender, and plum. It’s strong but graceful, Wonder Woman in liquid form.
Back in the car, we debrief. What did we like, what didn’t we? Our immediate first impression? “Why can’t we get this back home?”
PRO TIPS: On your way to Calais from Austin, veer off Highway 290 and make a pit stop at Duchman Family Winery. Their extensive list of wines harkens back to Italy with robust reds (be sure to taste their montepulciano) and a dazzling array of white wines. The fact that their winery and tasting room are designed after an Italian villa adds to the effect. If all that sipping gets you hungry, head five minutes down the road to the venerable Salt Lick BBQ, where you can get a real taste of that famous Texas brisket. (It’s both BYOB and cash only, so come prepared.)
SECOND STOP: KUHLMAN CELLARS
Highway 290 is billed as the Texas Wine Highway. It stretches out west from Austin to Fredericksburg and beyond, cutting through to the heart of Hill Country. Every few miles we pass a winery, or at least sign directing us down a gravel road to one. On the 60 miles of road we’ve covered since Austin, we’ve seen few actual vines growing close to the highway. But acres of them greet us as we turn into Kuhlman Cellars, bright green rows full with even brighter green fruit just weeks away from harvest.
We’re on the verge of being late, but Jennifer Beckmann, the winery’s sommelier, doesn’t mind. She ushers us to a table with several other guests at the far end of the tasting room. Tasting “room,” however, is a bit of an overstatement. It’s also the winery and storage facility, with only a 20-foot-tall rack of barrels separating visitors from the bottling area. It’s one of the best things about the wine industry in Texas, and Kuhlman Cellars in particular: the transparency of the process. From first press to final bottling, the wine moves little more than 100 feet.
Jennifer centers our tasting around the science of wine and food pairing, explaining how acids, sugars and salts all work together to alter the way we experience wine. She breaks down the sometimes complex discernments of wine in ways that make me wonder if, in a different life, she might have found herself in front of a high school chemistry classroom. Once everyone’s first glass is full, she instructs us to sip the wine then take a bite and sip again. We repeat the process with five wines, marveling every time as the personality of the wine changes with each bite.
The tasting’s standout wines are both white, a demure rousanne and a sprightly white blend called Calcaria. It’s a blend of aromatic viognier and trebbiano and is named for a the local limestone rock formations. The wine carries a touch of sweetness behind its heady, almost candy-like aromas, but on the palate, especially after we taste the tomato-and-onion chutney pairing, it turns symphonic, with waves of melon, pear, tangerine and wildflowers. It’s one of the best white wines we’ll find all weekend. (Later, I’ll regret not buying a bottle.)
After the tasting, Jennifer takes us on a more detailed tour of the winery. It’s still a short tour as there are only so many places to go in a single room. I ask her what drew her to Texas (aside from her husband), and she tells me that she wanted a change from working as a sommelier in restaurants. She admits that, in its own subtle, almost uncanny way, Texas has swept her off her feet. She says she likes the “authenticity” of the wine here.
It’s an appropriate word. I’m starting to notice that in almost every bottle you can taste the Texas.
PRO TIPS: Pedernales Cellars, 6 miles west on Highway 290, is one of the wineries whose wines began to bring the wider wine world’s attention to Texas. (National Geographic ranked them as one of the top 10 wineries to visit in the springtime.) The best time to visit is Saturday afternoons when live music is played on the spacious patio overlooking the expansive Texas plains. If you’re feeling peckish, visit Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City for a wide variety of sandwiches, pizza and burgers. And beer, of course. They’ve got an extensive list of house-made brews including the Comanche Moon Pale Ale, the Screw Loose Blonde and the fruity 25 to Life IPA.
THIRD STOP: WILLIAM CHRIS VINEYARDS
Turning out of the Kuhlman driveway, we head less than two miles down the field- and fruit-stand-studded highway to William Chris Vineyards. The eponymous Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett have almost 40 years of combined experience in the industry, but it wasn’t until 2008 that they released their first vintage under a joint label. Their winery sits roadside in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it community of Hye on the site of a 100-year-old homestead. Turning onto the property is almost like stepping back in time.
We’re greeted by Lisa Flick, a tasting-room ambassador who takes us into a repurposed 1905 farmhouse, and sits us down at a table in what must have once been a bedroom. Before she even opens a bottle, she gives us a heaping plate of cheese and fruit. Maybe she could hear our stomachs growling, or maybe she anticipated that we’d be stuck out here with no real restaurants to speak of for several miles in any direction.
As she pours our tastes, she talks about her love for each one. Her eyes light up at our reactions to them, like she’s watching someone else gain knowledge of a secret she’s known for far too long. She’s soon joined by Anthony Harvell, the winery’s director of sales. He’s come bearing gifts of BLTs that can only be summed up as slabs of bacon with sides of bread, and something I’ve only ever heard of: a pétillant naturel, known commonly as a “pét-nat.” Pét-nats —which, it bears mentioning, are both the most old-school and the most modern things I’ll encounter this weekend—are made by taking still-fermenting wine and capping it in a bottle. The resulting wines are raw and assertive, and opening one is a bit like an alcoholic version of Schrödinger’s cat. One never knows quite what’s in the bottle until it’s opened.
There are only a handful of pét-nats made in the U.S., and, if I weren’t tasting this at the source, I never would have guessed this one was made on the side of the road in Texas. The wine itself is a rosé, unfiltered so that its sediment swirls around the bottle in a helix, tiny strands of wine DNA. Anthony pops the cap and lets us each have a taste. It’s strong, almost masculine, like it might be the first of all the sparkling wines to throw a punch. I love it. So special. So rare.
The still wines we try are also exceptional. Bill and Chris are among the leading producers of mourvedre, a hearty grape from southern France. They’ve bet heavy on it and on sangiovese, an Italian red grape, to be the next “it” varietals in the state, and their current vintages seem to be paying off. Anthony shares a bottle of a new, single-vineyard sangiovese with me. Unlike most wines which are blended from a variety of vineyards, this one was harvested entirely from a single hillside just a few miles away. It really shows off the terroir—the unique effect that a single patch of land can produce in a wine—of Texas.
After we’ve finished our wines, Anthony takes us into the winery’s storage area where barrels are stacked up to four high as they wait to be filled or as they age the wine already in them. He quickly opens one of the barrels and pours each of us a glass. It’s another single-vineyard mourvedre from the 2014 vintage that’s spent almost two years in oak. It’s dark and earthy, with the oak lending it an ample dose of cinnamon, clove, cardamom.
“You want to see something weird?” he asks, though he doesn’t give us the chance to answer before he’s opened another barrel and is pouring us another glass, a cinsault rosé.
“This was a mistake,” he says, “we just forgot about this and so it never got bottled.” They’ve left it sitting here as an experiment, and after so much exposure to oak, the wine has begun to take on new characteristics. It’s now creamy, its flavors becoming rounder, less decisive. It reminds me of the juices left at the bottom of a fruit salad, a conglomerate of berries and citrus, each flavor indistinguishable on its own.
“Did we just save the best for last?” I ask Keegan as we pull out of the parking lot.
“Yeah, I think we did,” he says. “Was that good planning on your part or did we just get lucky?”
I don’t answer as I steer the car north. We decide to take the back roads, through rolling hills and farmland. Barns and pastures, and yes, even the occasional vineyard. It’s often said that the first ever vineyard in North America was planted in Texas in the 1600s. And while I’m not sure if we’ll ever know how true that is, it’s Texas’ wine-growing future that I’m more excited about.
I came here not knowing what I’d find—a young industry, of course, but also the makings of a great one. Great wine isn’t just juice. Great wine is people. Great wine is a sense of place. The greatest wines on this planet are those that capture in a tiny glass bottle the history of the earth it came from and the love and frustration of the person who made it. Will Texas one day make great wine? Of course it will. But for many, it already has.
PRO TIPS: Becker Vineyards is the largest winery in Hill Country, and most people in the industry will admit that if it were not for the Beckers, the Texas wine industry wouldn’t be what it is today. Their tasting room sits amid beautiful fields of lavender that make for a stunning spot to sip a glass of viognier. If you’re in need of a change of scenery, visit Pedernales Falls State Park, where the Pedernales River flows among house-sized slabs of limestone. If you happen to visit after a storm, you’ll see the falls, but otherwise, you’ll find an idyllic waterhole ready for swimming.
WINE (COUNTRY) PAIRINGS
Great wine is always in need of great food. Here are some of the best places to eat local while drinking local in and around Austin:
Apis Restaurant and Apiary
Regularly ranked as one of the best restaurants in Texas, Apis is inspired by the colony of bees that resides on the far side of the property and the role they play in the local environment. A constantly changing prix-fixe menu is supported by an extensive wine and cocktail list. For adventurous eaters, the “signature tasting” menu is available with or without wine pairings. It features 15 courses of the best food in Austin—from foie gras and octopus to 175-day-aged Wagyu beef—from chefs Taylor Hall and Adam Brick. (23526 Highway 71 West, Spicewood; apisrestaurant.com)
Taking its name from its location in downtown Austin’s converted Seaholm Power plant, Boiler Nine offers three unique dining spaces over its three floors: an underground lounge, a contemporary eatery and a rooftop patio among downtown skyscrapers. An extensive wine list complements a menu that’s driven by a massive wood-fired oven. For those looking for stronger libations, two different bars on two different levels serve two different menus of cocktails at all hours of the day. (800 W. Cesar Chavez St., Austin; boilernine.com)
Lenoir takes the staple of outdoor dining in Austin to new heights with their idyllic backyard wine garden. In the dining room, a prix-fixe menu in three courses is served nightly with an ample menu of cocktails, wines, and beer, to enjoy inside or out. Bonus: They also own Métier, a cook’s supply store right next door that specializes in the best knives, tools and barware, as well as vintage kitchen equipment. (1807 S. 1st St., Austin; lenoirrestaurant.com)
Celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2016, Dai Due was founded on the idea of using locally sourced ingredients to show off the best of Texan cuisine. It boasts a wine list of exclusively Texas-grown juice (same for beer), and a not-to-be-missed brunch menu. They also run a traditional butcher shop on the premises six days a week for all of your carnivorous needs. (2406 Manor Road, Austin; daidue.com)
Otto’s German Bistro
A jewel in the heart of Hill Country, Otto’s is located in historic Fredericksburg. It specializes in German food, brats and schnitzel, with a wine list to match. Though dinner here is a highlight of any visit to Hill Country, Otto’s brunch offerings are the best for miles. (316 E. Austin St., Fredericksburg; ottosfbg.com)