Napans might get a chuckle out of the claim by Texas Hill Country that it’s the second wine destination in America, but the crowds filling the wineries less than an hour from Austin and San Antonio look just as happy as those visiting Napa Valley.
Many of the wineries are as attractive as those here; the rolling hills coveredwith vines are lovely, and many of the wineries can offer amenities not allowed here.
On top of that, the wine is pretty good. Texas growers and wineries have overcome many challenges to produce wines that may not compare with Napa’s best cabernets, but they’re well made and imminently drinkable with food or alone.
The Hill Country spreads mostly east of Fredericksburg, a historic town that negates every stereotype of Texas you can imagine. It was founded by Germans fleeing the turmoil of European’s mostly ill-fated liberal revolutions of the 1840s. They ended up in Texas just as it won independence from Mexico and became part of the United States. Until World War II, German was the common local language and was used in schools.
The typical local food is German-American, not Tex-Mex or barbecue, though you can find that there. Think wiener schnitzel, the prototype for chicken-fried steak, sausages, beer and decadent pastries.
The music? Where do you think the Tejano conjunto bands got their accordions and polkas?
The architecture is different, too, with buildings made of big limestone blocks that stayed cool in the summer (and I suspect, the winter, too).
Unlike Napa, Fredericksburg was a tourist draw before it became a wine destination. People came to shop on the bustling long Main Street filled with art galleries and antique shops and to eat the hearty fare.
The small city and nearby country boast hundreds of guest cottages, inns, B&Bs and a few modern mid-range motels outside the downtown.
Historic sites abound, too, including the supremely ugly restored Nimitz Hotel with its peculiar steamboat prow, the old church and meeting house, and an interesting pioneer complex and many buildings dating to the 1840s.
A new attraction is the impressive Museum of the Pacific War. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, a Fredericksburg native, was commander in chief of the U. S. Pacific Fleet for U.S. naval forces, as well as commander in chief for the Pacific Ocean areas for U.S. and Allied air, land and sea forces during World War II. So it’s fitting that the museum of the Pacific War is attached to the Nimitz Museum, which is devoted to his life.
The Pacific Museum, which could take days to really absorb, is named after President George W. Bush, who served as a navy pilot in the war. He was shot down twice; a cameraman aboard a submarine happened to film one rescue, and it’s on view.
Not far away in and near Johnson City are the boyhood home of Lyndon Johnson and the surprisingly modest Texas White House he often used during his presidency. It sits on the Pedernales River, locally called the “Perdenales.”
Wine grapes arrive
A few more recent pioneers than those early Germans started planting grapes in the area a few decades ago. The climate is mostly Mediterranean with hot summers and it receives less rainfall than Napa Valley, but it presented many challenges to growing fine wine grapes. Most early growers planted tough hybrids like Norton, Baco Noir and Spanish Black and even native grapes after their European wine grape vines died.
They make ports and other wines from those grapes, but now have most of the grapes shipped in, largely from the Texas high plains around Lubbock, a dry area at higher than 3,000 feet, like Mendoza in Argentina and comparable to eastern Washington in growing conditions. Washington wineries mostly also ship grapes or must from this dry area to Seattle, where many wineries prosper.
When I visited the Hill Country a decade ago, most of the vines were hybrids, and many of the wines substandard. Even with decent grapes, the local winemakers, many amateurs gone pro, needed time to learn how to best use them, and to be honest, basic sanitation and winemaking.
It was the way Napa Valley was when I first visited in the late 1960s — some great wines, a lot of good ones and some wretched.
As in Napa, the standard has changed. Almost all the wines tasted on a recent visit were good or better, if few reached heights. Only a couple were technically defective, though some reflected limitations of growing conditions, including perhaps slightly premature picking in fear of the weather.
In general, I’d characterize them as European in the good sense. The whites were mostly crisp and clean, not over-oaked. The reds were less intense than those we expect here, but good wines and good matches for food, especially at the better restaurants, not the German-American tourist places where beer is almost required drinking.
A number of things have happened to make growing vinifera wine grapes practical in the Hill Country, though they still get a lot from northwest Texas.
For one, they’ve learned what grapes are best suited for the area: Spanish, Italian and Southern French varieties, not cabernet and chardonnay. Reach for a tempranillo or sangiovese or viognier instead.
Secondly, they’ve learned to live with Pierce’s Disease and the glassy-winged sharpshooters, which are native to the area. They use insecticides to kill the bugs. The systemic compounds applied through the roots via irrigation kill the pests but don’t have much effect on beneficial inspects, including the many local predators.
They’re also researching vines tolerant of Pierce’s Disease, including hybrids that are mostly vinifiera developed by Andy Walker at UC Davis, which works closely with the Pierce’s Disease Research Center in Fredericksburg because Pierce’s Disease is a big threat in California, too.
The climate remains a challenge, however. Sudden spring frosts can kill over-anxious buds and shoots, which growers discourage with late pruning to slow budding and fight with wind machines and water spray as they do here.
We tasted a number of wines while in the area and also visited four wineries. All four could be plopped down in Napa Valley by one of Texas’ famed tornadoes and would fit in perfectly.
Becker Vineyards is one of Texas’ oldest, most respected and biggest with an impressive stone winery surrounded by vineyards. Laura Bush loved their chardonnay, which is as oaky as the stereotypical Napa version, and served it at the White House.
They make a wide assortment of wines and we tried them according to our tastes. Most were fine, but none of those I tasted were exceptional.
At the other three wineries, the owners, who were often the winemakers, led us through chosen wines.
Torre di Petra awaits its stone tower, but the attractive stone building shouts “winery.” Owner Ken Maxwell came from a high-tech background with a dream to have a winery. Sound familiar?
In addition to making good wine, the winery hosts music on weekends and is a popular destination.
Along with Mediterranean varietal wines, it produces an interesting blanc du bois, a hybrid grape developed to grow in Florida, where conditions are even worse. One example had light Muscat scents and a delicate taste with none of the funky smells of older hybrids. Maxwell thinks it could be a good workhorse white grape in the region.
Another winery was Grape Creek, which is by a real stream with the same name. Founded in 1985, it was bought by former Fortune 500 executive Brian Heath in 2006 and has extensively upgraded the facility with a rustic-looking stone visitor cellar and new winery. It has the oldest underground cellar in the area.
The wines are $15 (cabernet franc rosé) to $40 (red blend). The winery also has a small B&B.
Pedernales Cellars has a cellar that’s cut into the side of a hill and mostly underground, plus a simple but attractive tasting room. It’s a bit out of the way, but only a short walk away from the luxury Rose Hill Manor inn and restaurant, probably the best we enjoyed during the visit.
The Kuhlken family planted grapes in 1995, and son David and his brother in law, Fredrik Osterberg, started the winery; their wives also help out.
Setting a price of $50 for their top wine, a mostly Bordeaux blend, they threw a challenge to other local wineries. The wine is popular, however.
All the wineries we visited charged for tastings, just like here, including sweet as well as dry wines. Many visitors prefer the sweet wines and were not embarrassed to say so.
I had a great time visiting the area. I don’t know that I’d make it a prime destination on its own, but if you’re headed that way, I’d certainly recommend you take a few days to visit. I combined my trip with seeing my 93-year-old uncle and 89-year-old aunt, who are going strong in San Antonio.
Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas
Most people probably have heard Waylon and Willie signing “Luckenbach, Texas.” Since it’s only 13 miles from Fredericksburg, we had to visit.
The “town” consists of a country store selling beer and souvenirs, a historic giant dance hall and a collection of rustic structures down a side road on the way to nowhere.
Every night, it hosts singers — and a cowboy poet when we were there — hanging out in back under a giant oak tree full of chickens — they’re safe from most predators there, but wear a hat.
Enjoy a beer or two while you relax or look around; a local bought me a Lone Star to welcome me to the place.
On Fridays, they have country-music dances, sometimes bringing in big acts, but generally they’re family affairs. This isn’t the Bible Belt and the German tradition persists in love of been and dance,
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings can’t really schedule a concert there because the last time they did, more than 10,000 people showed up, but it’s certainly worthwhile to make a short detour to lay back. “Out in Luckenbach, Texas there ain't nobody feelin' no pain.”