Red, White, and All-American

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, July 2011

The curvy roads look as if they could be in Italy or Spain. The vineyards seem out of place in the rugged landscape dotted with Mesquite trees and where beer is more often the drink of choice. Grape-growing, however, is not new to the area — Franciscan priests established the first vineyard in North America in 1662 on land that would eventually become Texas. Today, the Lone Star state ranks fifth in the nation in wine production with more than 2.3 million gallons produced a year.

Most people think of America’s team or Tex-Mex food when they hear “Texas.” Wine certainly is not the first thing that comes to mind, but the state’s wine producers and grape growers are diligently working together to put Texas on the national winemaking map. That diligence is paying off, too. Orbitz Insider Food & Wine Index named the Texas Hill Country, the largest of the state’s eight designated American Viticulture Areas, as the second fastest-growing wine destination in the U.S. The New York Times has called the area west of Austin a “hidden gem” among wine regions.

And Texas vintners are proving their wines are more than tourist novelties by racking up awards from competitions around the world, including prestigious California competitions where roots of American wines run deep. Earlier this year, Texas wines received 22 medals at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

“My goal is to make reds that will stand up to anyone’s, including California’s,” says Brian Heath, a former Fortune 500 executive who bought Grape Creek Vineyards near Fredericksburg in 2006. Grape Creek is one of 27 wineries along the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail and one of 10 on the popular Wine Road 290 that runs between Fredericksburg and Johnson City.

“I love this business,” says Brian, who has seen Grape Creek grow from 3,000 cases a year when he bought the winery to 15,000 cases last year. “It’s agriculture… it’s entrepreneurship… it’s romance. People leave here smiling.”

Indeed one of Brian’s most recent creations, “Bellissimo” is causing a lot of folks to smile, including him. The wine is evocative of a Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet with a “touch of Mouvedre.” His 2008 Bellissimo won a silver medal at the San Francisco competition, one of eight medals the winemaker took home.

His goals are just as lofty for other Texas vintners as well. He serves as vice president for both the Texas Hill Country and the Wine Road 290 Wine Associations and is quick to tell you that the winemakers work together, even helping newcomers start up.

“We’re like an amusement park,” Brian says with a laugh. “And the wineries are all different rides.”

Winding through the Texas Hill country — and especially along the Wine Road 290 corridor that is reminiscent of Napa Valley’s Highway 29 — visitors find wines ranging from Voigniers and Texas Ruby ports to dry Cabernets and earthy Tempranillos.

“This is the place to be,” says David Prejza, whose Sister Creek Vineyards operates out of a restored 1885 cotton gin just off the 290 corridor in the Sisterdale community. “The Hill Country wineries definitely help each other out.”

Sister Creek has won its own cache of awards from California wine competitions. Both its Muscat Canelli Reserve and Merlot won gold medals at the Los Angeles International Wine Festival.

Tucked away a little farther down Wine Road 290 is Pedernales Cellars, which produces small lots of premium wines using grapes suitable to the Texas climate, including the Spanish Tempranillo. Pedernales’ top-seller is a full-bodied 2008 Tempranillo that gives Argentine counterparts quite a run for taste with its rich mineral finish.

While distribution of Texas wine is still limited nationwide, many wineries ship to Florida, including Grape Creek and Pedernales. In addition, five special self-guided trail events are planned throughout the year to enhance Texas winery experiences. After all, who needs Europe… or even Napa… when enjoyable wine tours run deep in the heart of Texas?

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