Save a few, the wineries that comprise East Texas’ Piney Woods Wine Trail, a scattering of more than a dozen, are small and niche. One makes wines exclusively from Muscadine grapes; another fruit wines. Their idiosyncrasies reflect passions beckoning off wine’s beaten path.
In the tiny town of Hawkins (incidentally the birth and final resting place of Lillian Richard, the face of the Quaker Oats Company’s Aunt Jemima for two decades), I crunch onto a gravel road to find Fairhaven Vineyards, where the vines are just starting to leaf.
History is the thing here, as master horticulturist R.L. Winters carries on the work of 19th-century Texas viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, preserver of heritage American vines and indefatigable breeder of robust hybrids that have largely gone unsung.
Grapes are hand-watered, hand-harvested, and sometimes hand-crushed in tiny batches (they may only produce 10 cases a year of the smaller varietals). You’ve likely never heard of Lomanto, deep purple with the tart-jammy notes of blueberry. Like others in Fairhaven’s Texas Heritage Series—all award-winning—it has a subtle wild flavor that reminds you it was recently bred from wild, native vines. You’re tasting history. “That’s our niche,” Winters’ wife Katherine says. “We’re the historical cuckoos.” Winters is also hybridizing his own varietals.
Next, I head to Kiepersol Estates, skirting Tyler via the new Loop 49 through more lush foliage, with a stop first in Mineola for Farmhouse fried pies that are a paragon of their kind—flaky, just salty and sweet enough, made from a family recipe that’s a closely guarded secret.
Surrounded by 63 acres of vines, Kiepersol feels every bit the estate. It’s the vision of South African-born Pierre de Wet, whose daughter Marnell brings Napa training to her work with wines that are complex and balanced, whether a delicate red blend or a gorgeous, crisp white. A new passion has taken shape in the distillery dripping with fig ivy: a small line of spirits includes the remarkably smooth, award-winning Pierre’s Rum, aged in the estate’s port barrels.
Dinner at Kiepersol is capped off with tawny port and cherries jubilee, flambéed tableside, followed by a sleep between smooth white sheets. It was transporting. It’s hard to say later, when the Dallas skyline rises before me, that I’m truly back from the wild.