Central Texas’s Hill Country has long been a destination for foodies seeking some of America’s best barbeque. Tucked away on winding, oak tree-lined roads or in one-traffic-light towns, bastions of smoked brisket have lured the palates of many discerning carnivores. However, cattle country is quickly becoming wine country. As the US’s fifth largest producer of wine, the state’s vineyards and their grand tasting rooms are starting to outnumber roadhouses deep in the heart of Texas.
"In 2003, there were 45 wineries in the state of Texas. We now have over 217," said Robert Champion Jr, of the Texas Department of Agriculture. "We are seeing incredible growth. [Hill Country] draws more than one million visitors a year and that's being conservative."
The heart of Hill Country lies about 70 miles west of Austin. Stonewall and Fredericksburg are home to one-third of the area's nearly 30 wineries including the state's most well known, Becker Vineyards (464 Becker Farms Road, Stonewall; 830-644-2681; www.beckervineyards.com). But many of Hill Country's newest wineries are popping up much closer to Austin - only about 30 miles away - making it even more convenient for city dwellers seeking the wine country experience.
Along the banks of Lake Travis, beyond a row of tall cypress trees, is Stone House Vineyard (24350 Haynie Flat Road, Spicewood; 512-264-3630; www.stonehousevineyard.com). While most of Stone House's 11 wines are made in Australia's Barossa Valley, birthplace of proprietor Angela Moench, the property's 6.5 acres of native North American Norton grapes produce Stone House's Claros and a Port-style dessert wine.. Extending out from the modern and airy tasting room, the outdoor covered patio offers live music every Saturday afternoon from spring through autumn, keeping with Austin's slogan as "Live Music Capital of the World".
Wine and music come together again at Spicewood Vineyards (1419 Burnet County Road 409, Spicewood; 830-693-5328; www.spicewoodvineyards.com), owned by Ron Yates, a music manager and marketing executive. On a recent Saturday, Yates zipped in and out of the crowded tasting room while guitar riffs from surround-sound speakers bounced off the wood-planked ceilings. Yates bought the existing vineyard, which now includes a tasting room and a pavilion for private events, in 2007 and has since been producing purely Texan Semillon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Merlot Rosé.
"[The area] has very much turned into a destination for wine tourism," said Amelia Sweethardt, who grew up in Dripping Springs and is the co-owner, along with her three sisters, of Dripping Spring-based Pure Luck Farm & Dairy. The dairy's artisanal, organic goat cheeses grace the tables of some of Texas's most upscale restaurants. "One of the reasons for our success is definitely being so close to Austin. We have this phenomenal market just built in by what the city is and how receptive its people are."
Robert Fritz founded the Solaro Estate Winery (13111 Silver Creek Road, 832-660-8642; www.solaroestate.com) in Dripping Springs on the same property his family bought in 1909. "It was sort of a historic German farm," said Fritz. "It was very self-sufficient. It had its own blacksmith shop, sawmill, a sugar cane and molasses mule-drawn mill, and we didn't want to see that lost." One hundred years later, Solaro Estate Winery produced its first vintage and today grows the Montepulciano and Barbera varietals on its eight acres, and sources grapes from other parts of Texas to make nine additional wines including Tempranillo and an orange Muscat dessert wine.
Nate Pruitt who founded the Bell Springs Winery (3700 Bell Springs Road, Dripping Springs; 830-483-9463; www.bellspringswinery.com) just down the road from Pure Luck, built a tasting room a few meters from his home to pursue his passion for wines. "It has become an expensive hobby, but there is so much potential in Texas wines especially in this area," said Pruitt, who grew up in near California's wine-rich Santa Ynez Valley and still sources much of his grape juice from there. He later blends, ferments and ages them at his winery. He has purchased six acres near Stone House vineyards in Spicewood where he plans to plant Syrah and Sangiovese grapes.
Perhaps the most opulent of the area's wineries is the Duchman Family Winery (13308 Farm to Market Road 150 W, Driftwood; 512-858-1470; www.duchmanfamilywinery.com). Perfectly manicured grounds with flower-lined pathways lead to a cavernous tasting room that is attached to the winery's processing and fermentation rooms. Most of the winery's solely Texas-sourced grapes are turned into Italian-style wines like Dolcetto and Vermentino. Duchman's property also houses a Tuscan-style trattoria, helmed by famed chef, restaurateur and former winery partner, Damian Mandola.
Of course, if osso buco or fresh pappardelle with lamb ragu seem a bit too inauthentic for a Texas experience, the iconic barbeque restaurant Salt Lick BBQ recently opened Salt Lick Cellars (18300-C Farm to Market Road 1826, Driftwood; 512-829-4013; www.saltlickcellars.com) right next door. Until the restaurant's own 35-acre vineyard is mature enough, other local wines can be tasted and bought at Salt Lick Cellars and brought over to the restaurant.