By Josh Noel
Take a small sip and swallow. Then scoop some habanero jelly onto a cheap cracker, chew, sip the rest of the wine and swallow the whole mess.
Sure enough, it is delicious – sweet, spicy and salty, finished with a bright, dry alcoholic flourish. But wouldn’t that make the French wince?
“Yeah, they wouldn’t like it one bit,” said David King, 50, the bushy-haired redhead pouring samples in Dry Comal’s quaint, low-ceilinged tasting room. “But it’s a flavor combination we discovered a long time ago. Quite tasty.”
They do things their own way at Hill Country wineries, and it is a distinctly Texas kind of way. Pride and craft are obvious in most bottles. With few exceptions, the wines I sampled at half a dozen tasting rooms were memorable for one good reason or another. But Hill Country wineries remain rooted in a laid-back Texas casualness.
Fifteen years ago there were a handful of Hill Country wineries; now there are more than 60, 10 of which opened last year. Because the dirt is shallow and rocky, few grow all their own grapes, and some grow none, buying from farmers elsewhere in Texas or some other Western state. A few refuse to dabble in the grapes that won’t grow in their finicky soil, such as cabernets or merlots.
But if not always a broad palate, Hill Country has something else that fuels its burgeoning industry: People want to be there. Unlike dusty and desolate west Texas or smoggy, sprawling Dallas and Houston, Hill Country – a plot in the south-central part of the state – is lush by Texas standards, cut by miles of diving highways, rocky cliffs and twisted junipers. Most of the wineries encourage long, relaxed tasting sessions, offering five or six samples for about a dollar a glass. Some have bed-and-breakfasts. The Texas Hill Country Wineries tourism bureau encourages a road trip of it, offering passports to be stamped at every new vineyard.
“When my sister told me we were going wine tasting in Texas, I said, ‘Oh, that should be great,’” said Stacey Roesberry, 24, of Portland, Ore., recounting her sniff of sarcasm. “But it has been great.” Indeed: Her passport was full.
Then there are the locals who swear they are privy to wine’s finest secret, such as Texan Robert Gornichec, 47, of Boerne, who stopped by the Sister Creek Vineyards in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Sisterdale, 45 miles north of San Antonio, on a weekday afternoon.
“I was a French-wine snob,” Gornichec said. “This gives it a run for its money.”
Hill Country Texans seem to think a wine rivalry is forming with California – and, dare it be said, France – though, of course, the Californians and French probably would laugh, sneer or both at the thought.
“Texas has outdone Napa,” a Sister Creek employee told me. “They would probably disagree, but I have a lot of customers from Napa.”
One thing Hill Country might have over Napa – and France – is a refreshing earthiness. Take, for example, the Driftwood Estate Winery, which sits at the top of a steep dirt and stone road just outside the town of Driftwood. It doesn’t look like much at first. Then you come upon the cozy tasting room and expansive vineyard below, and realize you’ve found a gem of a place. There you can spend a couple of hours relaxing in the warm Texas sun with a bottle of whatever catches your attention that day, a block of cheese and a box of crackers.
“I tell people never to apologize for the wines they like,” said Phyllis Metzger, 59, who poured samples the day I visited. “We get people here saying, ‘I like sweet wine.’ Don’t apologize! There are no wine snobs here.”
(Driftwood did have one or two sweet wines.)
Places such as Driftwood are fostering a new generation of wine drinkers. Niki Bertrand, 28, of suburban Austin, who is a funky mix of attitude, charm, tattoos and blond dreadlocks, became a Driftwood member during her first visit and now gets free tasting privileges when she visits.
“I’m no expert, but I know what I like – no Kendall Jackson or Beringer,” said Bertrand, a landscape architect. “I like this.”
It’s hard not to savor the weird joy of wine in Hill Country. Especially when you leave a winery with a couple bottles and hear, “Thanks, y’all.” Won’t hear that in Napa.
If You Go:
Texas Hill Country is home to more than 60 wineries, and most are worth checking out. You will like some better than others, but the search is half the fun. Several also have bed-and-breakfasts, giving you a place to lay your head after a long day of wine tasting. Here were some of my favorites:
-Becker Vineyards, Stonewall: beckervineyards.com, 830-644-2681
-Driftwood Estate Winery, Driftwood: driftwoodvineyards.com, 512-858-9667
-Dry Comal Creek Vineyards and Winery, New Braunfels: drycomalcreek.com, 830-885-4076
-Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg: grapecreek.com, 830-644-2710
-Mandola Estate Winery, Driftwood: mandolawines.com, 512-894-3111
-Sister Creek Vineyards, Sisterdale: sistercreekvineyards.com, 830-324-6704
More information is available at www.texaswinetrail.com.
©2009, Chicago Tribune.
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