High Noon in the New Old West
By Mark Stock
Texans are used to being told what they can’t do. It’s just that they rarely listen.
From the Battle of Alamo and pre-statehood to secession in 1860, from oil discovery at Spindletop to walking on the moon, Texas practically invented deviation from the norm. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the nation’s second largest state is now the nation’s second fastest growing wine region.
Like Oregonians, Texans embody a stubborn, pioneering spirit—one that outlasted years of hardship when the West was being explored and developed. The two states share a wealth of stunning scenery, a large slice of which remains untouched or barely grazed by human hands. That lead-first-follow-never philosophy rubs off on what’s being produced in wine country, doubly so in Texas where the wine still basks in the lengthy rural shadows of corn and cattle.
The landscape of West Texas is as barren as it is expansive. Every stretch of Interstate 10, from El Paso to Kerrville, offers 360-degree views framed by jagged, rocky mountains—the towering teeth or spine of some ancient creature.
To the north, near Lubbock, rests the High Plains AVA (American Viticultural Area), a high-lying sea of sandy, loamy soil where the majority of Texas’ grapes are grown. At 3,000 to 4,000 feet, with summer temperatures averaging over 100 degrees, the panhandle is trying territory. Most of the fruit is irrigated, despite its age, and the rocky earth begs for brave, vigorous rootstock.
There’s a certain masochism here—a rugged think-with-your-gut lifestyle that has hoisted the Texas Department of Transportation’s original catchphrase into a statewide mantra of gritty individualism. “Don’t mess with Texas,” it declares proudly. This is, after all, the land of lone stars. A place where names like Kick Butt Cabernet are affixed to wines to make them manly enough to drink. “Texitage,” is how Fredericksburg Winery labels their Meritage wines, or blends.
While a good portion of the winegrowing is done in the high plateau, the wine trail resides in Central Texas, just outside of the capital, Austin. Fredericksburg—Texas’ answer to McMinnville—is the epicenter of all things wine in Hill Country, located precisely where the bullseye would be if Texas were a giant target. Here, sandwiched between heavy German influence and cowboy culture, is a warming wine industry.
In 1991, with a Texan (sort of) in the White House and the economy in recession, the Hill Country AVA was born. The sprawling land mass is one of the largest viticultural areas in the country, second only to the Midwest’s Ohio River Valley AVA, and it is southeast of the High Plains AVA.
Driving down Highway 290, you hardly know you are in wine country. Blue signs indicate where one can taste, while handmade sandwich boards advertise fresh pecans, tomatoes, even margaritas. The grape vines are hidden, tucked back and away amongst the grassy fields dotted by stout oaks so symmetrical they could be props. The descriptor most often flung at tourists is “Tuscany in Texas.”
Whereas Oregon Wine Country is used to being called the “Napa Valley of 30 years ago,” Texas Hill Country could easily wear the phrase “The Willamette Valley of 15 years ago.”
Area wineries tend to work with a wide range of varietals, still sniffing out a local star. Fredericksburg Winery, in the heart of the city it’s named after, crafts everything from orange Muscat to Chardonnay to Sangiovese. The 31-year-old winery occupies a building that must have been a bank in its previous life, operated by three brothers self-described as “the good, bad, and ugly.”
Inside, beyond stacks of bottles and trivets and T-shirts for sale, sits a large bar table. Three flights are available, categorized by sweetness levels. The wine labels here quantify this with a 1-to-10 scale. Instead of terms like “tannic,” “round” and “feminine,” I’m hearing adjectives like “syrupy,” “fruit-filled,” or “a six on the sweetness scale.”
Many of the wines are, in fact, syrupy and fruit-filled, but one has to be reminded that the sun simply does not rest here. Almost every year, harvest in Hill Country wraps up before Labor Day.
Between New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, there’s quite a German presence in Central Texas. Many Germans fled their embattled nation in the mid-19th century, landing in Texas where there was no shortage of land. Their presence was so strong Germany even considered a sovereign sister nation within the Lone Star state.
Today, spaetzle and bratwurst are poplar menu items on most of Fredericksburg’s menus and the townspeople eagerly await the annual Oktoberfest celebration. Moreover, German pragmatism blankets the town of roughly 11,000, carving the way for viticultural sentiment that, in general, classifies a good vintage as one that produces fruit.
Currently, Hill Country appears to be at a crossroads Oregon never really encountered. Many, many grape types can grow in the endless valleys of North and Central Texas. While production levels are typically low for the wineries, the scale seems to favor the commodity side of the grape and not yet the artisanal. This can tantalize in the form of cheap to nonexistent tasting fees, moderately priced wine and exciting, perhaps even unheard of, blends. Of course, this can also blur any sense of regional enological identity.
Where Oregon can learn from Texas is in the department of growth.
Some 24 wineries now trace the Texas Wine Trail alone. Many more exist in or just outside of the High Plains AVA. In all, more than 200 wineries call Texas home, and with industry growth having happened so recently and abruptly, there’s a shortage of Texas fruit. Numerous Texas wineries are buying fruit from elsewhere, like New Mexico or California. Estate wines are somewhat rare; the concept “terroir” rendered arbitrary.
But there are many reasons for Hills Country’s flowering popularity. The Italian reds produced here are consistently strong. The Syrahs and Tempranillos are equally wonderful, and Moltepulciano is beginning to take hold in small pockets here and there.
At Grape Creek Vineyards, the future of Hill Country is well underway.
Established in 1985, the Tuscan-style winery weds southern hospitality with classic architecture and a modern tasting room. Young vines surround the new building, still a year away from producing any wine-worthy fruit. Blends are their specialty, aged in the oldest underground barrel room in Texas. As in Oregon, many of the winery owners in Texas drifted from other professional arenas, burnt out treating patients, designing web sites or—especially in Texas’ case—drilling for oil.
The agricultural history in Hills Country is as deep and rich as the oil reserves of West Texas. Still transitioning into viticulture, much of the valley patchwork is devoted to cattle ranching, corn growing and fruit and nut farming. The area is a fertile oasis in a vast plot of land once considered the Wild West.
Hats off to the area historical societies for their preservation of the region’s bucolic backbone. Fredericksburg flaunts it without hesitation, its stone clad buildings adorned with white wooden balconies—the setting for a classic Western film. This is immediately and undeniably Texas.
In the tasting room, modesty is king. Even at Grape Creek, where many of the house wines wear several medals and high rankings, it’s never the wine alone doing the talking. Tasters are treated as though they’ve never tasted before, which makes for a warm, inviting, and potentially repetitive experience. The absence of tasting notes in Hill Country, or a very minimalistic version thereof, encourages conversation and keeps tasters from presumptuously throwing flavors atop their palates.
Decorated Oregon wineries may slip too easily into the habit of simply pouring the wine in the tasting room. Sure, an overbearing bartender can be exhausting, but a tasting room is inherently social, and some communication is in order. That could mean nothing more than a simple comment about one’s shirt, or a “Where ya from?” Of course, it can be intrusive when the pourer thinks you’ve never handled a glass before, and she swirls your wine for you, but it’s a small price to pay.
So I was delighted when the woman behind the counter at Fredericksburg explained the chilly temperature of the red blend she was pouring into the glass.
“Room temperature is relative,” she noted. “Besides, it’s better this way.” She was right. The blend of 75-percent Zin and 25-percent Sangiovese, perhaps liable to taste too powerful, was constricted just right by the slightly cooler temperature. The wine’s sweetness carried it through.
If Texas wine country truly absorbs the slow food movement, as Oregon cities like Portland, McMinnville and Ashland have done, the transition into artisanal would likely occur all the quicker. Nearby Austin boasts some wonderful restaurants, a burgeoning produce market scene and headquarters for the popular Whole Foods Market chain, but Oregon remains in an epicurean league of its own.
Yet, Texas may not be after such a scene. Barbecue wears the crown in the hills of Texas, and despite forming a wonderful partnership with big reds like Merlot and Sangiovese, it will always be the food of bib-wearing populists. Upon leaving Fredericksburg, I notice that the solitary posh cocktail lounge in town has folded—only remnants hanging in the window in the form of a “for rent” sign.
When it comes to American wine, no two regions are mirror images of one another. Some have soared. Some have crashed. Some simply want to survive, while some simply want something sellable. Hill Country is a blend—a Texitage, if you will—of many of these approaches. More than anything else, the popular wine region has its own personality—scenic, stubborn, captivating, rustic, youthful, charismatic.
Oregon and Texas have become leaders of the domestic industry and it’s up to us to foster each other’s growth, even if that means telling ambitious Texas winemakers what they can’t do.
That way, we can sit back with our glasses and watch them do it.
Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.