Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
51° F Dallas, TX

TRAVEL Vintage Texas

To produce French-style wine in Texas is a vintner’s dream.
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I’ve never had an itinerary for a trip to the Hill Country before. Usually, I just put my brain on automatic for 200 miles down 1-35, stop to eat Mexican food in Austin and then wander out toward Fredericksburg to enjoy the countryside, a little German food and some beer. The trip I took this time was a tour of the new Texas wine country. But it started in the same way as any trip to Austin-flying down the highway past the Elite Diner in Waco and the Inner Space Caverns, then slowing down around Georgetown for the final slide into town.

My personal mission (with my husband as co-pilot) was to visit four wineries in a long weekend, eating and drinking my way through the Hill Country before returning to Dallas. Our first stop on a Friday afternoon was the Slaughter Leftwich winery.

To get to Slaughter Leftwich, you go way out past Hippie Hollow, hang a right and twist around and up the limestone and cedar hill until a final turn brings you to a stone barn of a building. It’s an incredible roller coaster ride through the hills out FM 2222. We studied the wine-making apparatus-stainless steel vats and oak barrels and all-then climbed the stairs to the tasting room with its view of Lake Travis to share a glass of new Sauvignon Blanc with amiable wine-maker Russell Smith. This is a family business owned by Lubbockite Scott Slaughter, his sister Sally Slaughter Foster and mother June Leftwich Head; while they make their wine in Austin, they still grow most of their grapes in West Texas.

Like most Texas wineries, Slaughter Left-wich is small, producing 12,000 cases last year and selling most of it in the Lone Star State. Their 50-acre vineyard was planted in Lubbock in 1979; the first Texas Char-donnay was produced in 1982 from Slaughter Leftwich grapes. Like the other wine-makers we met on our trip, Smith is passionate about his work. Recognizing that the Texas wine industry is in its infancy, that Texans as a rule prefer iced tea or beer to the fruit of the vine, he maintains that “we don’t need customers, we need friends.”

After our tour, we had dinner at Hudson’s On The Bend, Jeffrey Blank’s unique heart-of-Texas restaurant in a rambling old ranch house. Hudson’s is famous for its smoked foods, especially game, seasoned with herbs from the rambling gardens out back.

After a night at the Ziller House, we headed west from Austin towards Fredericksburg. It’s a smooth four-lane road, pleasant driving through peaceful, parklike country. The highway led us past goat farms, through peach orchards, over Tow head Creek, through Grapetown and purple thistles, over dead armadillos and the Pedernales River, on through Fredericksburg before turning toward Enchanted Rock. To the east, an odd mound and the slight rise around it called Bel! Mountain are Texas’ first wine-growing appellation, designated a Viticultural Area in 1986 by the federal government to indicate the specific conditions that produce quality wine in this five-acre area-the elevation, moderate climate (temperatures not over 92 in the summer) and mineral-rich soils.

Here, Bob Oberhelman, owner of the Bell Mountain/Oberhellmann Vineyard, is living his dream. The former Dallas food broker moved to Fredericksburg four years ago, his heart set on making worldclass wine. His 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon won the Star of Texas Grand Award in the Lone Star Wine Competition. In the tasting room we slurped and clucked an oaky 1988 Pinot Noir, a spritzy young Pinot Noir Blanc and an herbal 1989 Fume Blanc.

Gastehaus Schmidt, a reservation service handling log cabins and old inns for bed and breakfasts, had chosen our Fredericksburg cottage for the weekend. We planned to use it as our home base as we zigzagged around the Hill Country.

Church bells woke us in the morning. We ate the danish on our breakfast tray, then it was off to Grape Creek Vineyards in Stonewall. Grape Creek doesn’t offer regular tours; instead, whenever people drop in, someone takes them around. Tours are as long or short as the group’s interest indicates. This is a family-run business: Ned and Nelwyn Simes are the owners, and their son and his wife, who moved back from their Montana ranch with their kids to work at the vineyard, make Grape Creek a three-generation operation.

After we looked at the only underground cellar in Texas (where all the wine is aged in oak barrels), we sipped wine on the deck as the Simes talked about the life of the vintner and the dream we kept hearing about along the winery road: to produce fine French-style wines in Texas.

The next morning we meandered north from Fredericksburg, through Llano to the tiny town of Tow, home of Fall Creek, the big daddy of the Hill Country wineries. A long drive, lined with rows of cypress trees, leads to the new tasting room; on spring Saturdays there may be 400 to 600 visitors, with tours of the winery every 20 minutes. It all began when Ed and Susan Auler went to France to shop for Charolais cattle but ended up spending most of their time looking at vineyards. The thought kept running through their minds that the land they were looking at looked a lot like their ranch back on Fall Creek. In 1974 the price of cattle plunged so the Aulers dived in and planted Old-World vinifera vines. Now the walls of the winery are covered with blue ribbons and medals.

Fall Creek is a role model for all the other Hill Country wineries; their wines have achieved the quality and recognition everyone is aiming for, which means the dream of Texas vintners’ is slowly coming true.

The drive home to Dallas felt the way a trip back from the Hill Country always feels-uphill all the way. But we had bought a bottle of the Fall Creek 1991 Grand Cuvee Texas Chardonnay to add to the 1989 Grape Creek Cabernet Sauvignon and the Ober-hellmann 1991 Johannisberg Riesling already packed in the Jeep’s trunk. What better souvenir of a good time than a taste of where you’ve been?

HOW TO GET THERE

For information about these and other Texas wineries: Texas Department of Agriculture, Marketing Division. P.O. Box 12847, Austin, Texas 78711. (512) 463-7624.

Slaughter Leftwich: 4209 Eck Lane, Austin, Texas 78734. (512) 266-3331.

Oberhellmann Vineyards: HC 61, Box 22, Fredericksburg, Texas. (512) 685-3297.

Grape Creek Vineyards: U.S. Highway 290 at South Grape Creek, Stonewall, Texas. (512) 644-2710.

Fall Creek Vineyards: Tow, Texas. (512) 476-4477.

WHERE TO STAY

In Fredericksburg: Gastehaus Schmidt reservation service, 231 W. Main, Fredericksburg, Texas 78624. (512) 997-5612.

In Austin: Ziller House, 800 Edgecliff Terrace, Austin, Texas 78704. (512) 462-0100.

WHEN TO GO

Harvest in Texas is in July or August (depending on the weather), and that’s always an interesting time to visit. Call ahead for tour information.