Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Magic of Texas Hill Country Wineries

Yesterday was one of the most pleasant days in my recent memory. I got to spend it with three of my favorite people: my wife Jill, my ten-month-old daughter Evelyn, and my visiting cousin Aleena, who was in Austin for a conference. Wanting to show my Yankee cousin a real slice of the Lone Star State (and dispel any images of oil rigs and cowboys), Jill and I decided to take her for an excursion along the Hill Country Wine Trail.

It certainly was a good day for it. After weeks of rotten weather, the skies had cleared and the temperature had risen into the seventies. Humidity was nonexistent; you could have spent the whole day outside without breaking a sweat. The air was so fresh it tasted delicious just to inhale. And the sky put on a fine show. Unless you've spent time in the Texas Hill Country, you can't know just how lovely the big blue sky is. Nothing's in the way out in the Hill Country- no trees, no mountains, no buildings. Just a great and majestic dome of perfect blueness.

We had planned to visit only two wineries but, as it happily turned out, we had time to squeeze a third in. Our first stop was at Becker Vineyards, founded in 1993 and now one of the pillars of the Texas wine industry. Becker Iconoclast is the best-selling wine in Texas; Jill and I make it a point to always have a bottle on hand. I was disappointed to find that they were out of Prairie Rotie, a Rhone-style blend I have always enjoyed. As it turned out, we tried seven wines: the Viognier, the White Wing (a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend), the Reserve Cabernet Franc, the Reserve Cabernet-Syrah, the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Raven (a Malbec-Petit Verdot blend) and the Barbera-Merlot blend.

All of these were good wines, but the real standout for me was the White Wing. Americans don't drink too much Semillon, the primary white varietal produced in the Bordeaux region, and hardly any vineyards in America produce them. It's really too bad, because I love Semillon. Blended with sauvignon blanc in the style of classic Bordeaux white wines, it's a delight for the palate.

We spent about an hour lounging around on the ground outside the main building, sipping on glasses of Iconoclast, enjoying the wonderful weather, chatting with each other and random strangers, and watching Evelyn frolic about in the grass. It's impossible not to be in a good mood at such a lovely place, on such a lovely day, with a glass of such lovely wine in one's hand.

Our next stop was Grape Creek Vineyards, which prides itself on being "Tuscany in Texas". It's long been one of my favorites, for not only does it make wonderful wine, but the winery facility itself is quite lovely and a nice place to spend time. As usual, there was live music. The crowd seemed to be enjoying itself quite a bit.

We had six wines at Grape Creek: Rendezvous (a Rhone-style blend), Cabernet Trois (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Ruby Cabernet), Cabernet-Syrah, Bellissimo (one of those so-called "Super Tuscan" wines), Mosaic (a nice Bordeaux-style blend), and a Riesling. Of these, my favorite by far was the Rendezvous. I was told that it was won two gold medals at San Francisco Chronicle competitions and this surprised me not at all. It was an outstanding wine.

Then again, I'm a sucker for Rhone-style wines. I've always thought Rhone wines are the unappreciated middle child of French wines. Bordeaux and Burgundy get all the attention. Bordeaux is the eldest child, strong, well-behaved, always determined to live up to expectations. Burgundy is the youngest child, a bit wild and unpredictable but absolutely brilliant. The Rhone is the more quiet and unassuming middle child that often gets forgotten, even though it's just as good as the other two. Rhone wines are one of the great comforts of life.

Our third and final stop was the Messina Hof Winery. The original Messina Hof is out near College Station and the one in the Hill Country has only been open for a few years. Its wines are very good and the facility is very nice. It was getting on to the evening by the time we arrived; it would be dark before we left. I tried five wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine called Reflections of Love (a Bordeaux-style blend) and finished the tasting and the day with a glass of their tawny port. The Reflections of Love was very good and all of the wines were well worth drinking.

We were getting a bit tired by this point and it was time to head home. Evelyn, the little trooper, had gone for a long while without a good nap and was starting to get a bit cranky. She had done amazingly well all day, though, smiling at and flirting with everybody she saw, practicing her walking (she took her first steps just recently) and clearly having the time of her life. Once the car got back on the highway and turned towards home, though, she was out like a log.

All in all, the best wines of the day were the White Wing at Becker and the Rendezvous at Grape Creek. But everything we had was enjoyable. By the end of the day, I was reflecting on how far Texas wines have come in the last fifteen or so years. I've been coming out to the Hill Country wineries since the mid-1990s and the improvement has been nothing short of extraordinary. Give it another decade, and I think the wines of the Texas Hill Country will be competing with the best of California, France, and Italy.

God Bless Texas, and God Bless Texas Wine.

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