Texas Hill Country is the second most visited wine region in the United States today. Only Napa Valley receives more visitors on an annual basis.
The expansive multi-county area west of Austin is home to dozens of wineries and the Highway 290 corridor from Johnson City to Fredericksburg is literally packed with possibilities. The question for the curious visitor is where to turn in, because the invitations all look pretty good from the road.
As a Texas resident for 16 months now, and I have much to learn about Texas-made wines. The good news is I am a fast and motivated learner, especially when I love the subject. Therefore, I do have a few significant findings to share with other wine lovers, and visitors to Texas Hill Country.
Tasting Texas Terroir
One of the things I enjoy about wine and visiting vineyards, a.k.a. wine tourism, is the pursuit of terroir. The objective is to sense what a particular place produces. Here’s the question…What do the soil, the climate, and the vines give a winemaker to work with and how has she decided to express this in the wine?
Making wine is part art, part science and a good bit of good fortune. Wine expresses both the terroir and the point-of-view of the winemaker. This makes wine a fascinating beverage, as well as a favorite intoxicant.
In Texas, a great majority of the fruit is grown in the Texas Panhandle, near Lubbock, and shipped hundreds of miles to Hill Country wineries where the grapes are made into wine and bottled for consumption. Therefore, when you visit a Hill Country winery, it’s highly likely that you will experience the terroir of an entirely different place.
My first question upon arrival in the tasting room is often, “What estate wines do you have available?” Sometimes the answer is none. Other times, the answer is an array of hot weather varietals like Tempranillo known to thrive in the Hill Country heat.
Three Kind Finds
If you want to get right to the good stuff, find Lewis Wines a few miles west of downtown Johnson City on Highway 290. Lewis Wines “proudly produces wine from 100% Texas grapes.” Their tagline is “Real. Texas. Wine.”
Lewis Wines 2017 Estate Rosé — $35
This is the second vintage of rosé produced from the Estate Vineyard, which was planted in 2014. The vineyard has very shallow, well-drained clay soil over limestone, resulting in wines with richness, weight, and texture. The Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão were hand harvested at night, whole cluster pressed, then fermented separately in stainless steel.
Ron Yates 2016 Cinsault Rosé — $22
We enjoyed a bottle of this locally-made wine
at lunch in Johnson City. The light and bright Texas High Plains fruit was an ideal compliment to my deep fried flounder.
The Ron Yates winery is west of Johnson City, situated on 15.8 acres abutting Highway 290 in Hye, Texas. The acreage is currently planted with four acres of Tempranillo grapevines, with an additional six acres of estate vineyards planned for grapes such as Graciano and Petite Sirah.
Signor Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir — $44
The kind folks at Lewis Wines directed us to Signor Vineyards, a Texas Hill Country winery that works in partnership with Weisinger Family Winery in Ashland, OR. Signor Vineyards near Fredericksburg ships Texas-grown fruit to Ashland to be made into wine and bottled. The bottles then come back to Texas in refrigerated trucks, along with bottles of wine made from Oregon fruit.
As it happens, Oregon pinot noir is my favorite wine in the world and this Rogue Valley vintage is a classic with hints of raspberry on the finish. Our ability to buy it locally and support this unique interstate connection is also a good thing.
Kickin’ Facts and Countin’ Dollars
Texas was home to the first vineyard in North America, established by Franciscan monks circa 1662. The oldest continually operating winery in the state is the Val Verde Winery, in Del Rio, established in 1883 by Italian immigrant Frank Qualia.
The wine industry in Texas accounted for $2.27 billion to the state’s economy in 2016, employing more than 12,750 fulltime workers and paying them $528 million in salaries and wages. In addition, more than 1.8 million guests visited Texas’ 400 wineries in 2016 and while there spent $482.9 million.
Jessica Dupuy, a certified sommelier who covers wine regularly for Texas Monthly, says, “In the past ten years, we’ve seen a significant boost in quality. New, savvy winemakers are setting the standard for wines that reflect a distinct flavor for the regions in which they’re grown. I think in the next decade, we’ll be talking about wine tasting like Texas in the way that we talk about Oregon or Washington.”
Place shapes people and people shape culture.
Texas writer and literary lion, Larry McMurtry, knows all about this premise. In fact, he has spent several decades making this geocultural reality his own truth and his books are both products of and reflections of The West.
In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas is a book of nine essays by Larry McMurtry. The book was first published in 1968.
As a new resident of Texas, I love to hear the stories of this place, and I want to hear from the state’s best storytellers.
It’s interesting to me how dated some of the material is—for instance, he describes Austin, but he does so over 50 years ago and the description, while insightful, is of another city. I blame the fact-based form more than the writer. At the same time, some of the things McMurtry says about other parts of the state ring as true today as I imagine they did then.
Like this one:
In Dallas, a flavorless Protestantism seems to have yielded superpatriotism as by-product. The Dallas true believers have made conservatism a religion-surrogate: they hate liberals the way passionate religious dogmatists once hated heretics.
And this one:
The South is memories, memories—it cannot help believing that yesterday was better than tomorrow can possibly be. Some of the memories are extraordinarily well packaged, it is true, but when a place has been reduced in its own estimation no amount of artful packaging can hide the gloom.
We suck at conflict resolution in this country. We suck because we generally lack the skills as individuals, and we almost always lack the collective will do to the right thing as a nation. The price we pay is, therefore, sky high. Until you resolve the conflict in the right ways, it lingers and festers.
When I lived in rural North Carolina as a teenage boy, my friends would constantly remind me that The South was gonna rise again. I would nod and then ask, “Then what?” No one said they’d reinstitute slavery on Day One. It didn’t need to be said. It was nevertheless understood.
Today, nuance is napping. Today, we do need to say what is. For me, this is what is: I believe We, the People, need to atone for our two original sins—slavery and genocide—and until we do, we’re going to keep paying too high a price as a society. Atonement and restitution will not wipe away racism. This is about acknowledging the damages done. It’s too important to leave the next generation. The time is now to take these immense and long-overdue first steps.
Money Doesn’t Make The Man
McMurtry also examines class in 1960s Texas.
Amid the bland Texas middle class, our vulgar rich can seem baroque and delightful, and indeed, certain of them are delightful. As a class, however, they exhibit all the difficulties of the desperately confused, and they are dangerous in proportion to the amount of power they wield. They are frequently very able and very strong people, but I have yet to meet one whose abilities or whose strength counterbalances his insecurity.
That’s casting some serious shade on your fellow countrymen. Of course, this is often the work of a conscious writer. The dark side is the side that needs words to light it up. Thankfully, McMurty has excellent words to express his deepest thoughts.
I know not which “dangerous men” the author has in mind in the above passage. I do know he shows no indication in his book that he thinks highly of President Johnson, who at the time of the writing, held immense power and did not always use it wisely.
I’m sure there were other men that McMurty considered when he took out his knife pen. He did not write about the Bush family in this book, as that family’s Texas story didn’t fully emerge until the 1980s when Goerge Bush became Vice President, and then President. Even if they had emerged in time, the Bush family are Yankees who emigrated to West Texas for the oil. They’re Eastern prospectors, or they were.
Cowboy Love and Longing
The theme of the collection is the disappearance of the Old West, and with it, a way of life lived by a few short generations of cowboys. The McMurty clan lived this life, and Larry McMurtry saw it fade away and in its place, he witnessed the rise of modern Texas.
Now that it’s 2019, we can argue about what parts of modern-day Texas are worth celebrating and keeping. We can also turn to more books, fiction, and nonfiction by The Bard of Archer County. A friend has recommended Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond.
Prose In Accordance with the Land
“A lyricism appropriate to the Southwest needs to be as clean as a bleached bone and as well-spaced as trees on the llano.”
Damn. That is fine advice for a writer to dispense and for another writer to soak up.
Food is an expression of culture and the perfect medium for sharing one’s culture. Philosophers throughout the ages have waxed poetic about the nature and value of food. I like what Wendell Berry said:
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.
Following our move to Austin in March 2018, we started to experience some of the local food and beverage traditions, from margaritas and queso to Live Oak-smoked meats (at The Salt Lick in Driftwood). Last year, I recorded my early impressions in an article called First Bites: Bat City’s Best Tacos, BBQ and Pasta.
Now, it’s time to update the list!
Austin Eats This Up
El Chipiron: This tapas bar on S. Lamar is the gin and tonic capital of Central Texas. The gin is from Spain and the craft cocktails are served in a large red wine glass. The food is also spot on, and I like the location and the easy-going vibe.
Sway Thai: The top floor at Sway Thai’s new location on Bee Cave Road features one of the best views of the city from anywhere in the city. This is swanky Thai with valet parking and menu items not seen before. It’s hip, but not pretentious, and the food and drinks are delightful.
Pieous: Sourdough-crust wood-fired pizza, housemade pastrami, and excellent salads in a friendly, casual environment in Dripping Springs…SOLD!
The Switch: BBQ is a religion in these parts and everyone has their favorite smokers. The Switch is an offshoot of Stile’s Switch and a nice change of pace from the buffet-style dining that is common to BBQ restaurants. At this new Dripping Springs establishment, you get to sit in a plush oversized booth and order classic items, or you can venture into some new twists on the standards like a smoked turkey BLT.
Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ: This is the food truck’s food truck. People line up at this S. Manchaca shrine to smoked meats. The great thing about Valentina’s is how the meats they smoke are then used in tacos and tortas. This is the finest of fusions.
Yuyo: Peruvian cebiche, unlike its kissing cousin ceviche, does not soak in citrus until the fish is plated. Essentially, cebiche is crudo plated in a delicate citrus sauce. This stylish yet comfortable restaurant on Manor Road also serves delicious empanadas, craft cocktails and more.
Ramem Tatsu-Ya: Get in line, it’s well worth the wait. Ramem Tatsu-Ya is educating people on what ramen truly is. “It’s the soul food of Japan.”
Cruzteca: This is our local go-to for classic Tex-Mex. After outgrowing its food truck beginnings, the restaurant is now located in a Sunset Valley strip mall. I get the enchiladas with ranchera sauce and crispy taco. It is delicious every time. So are the house margaritas.
Uchi: This is a WOW restaurant for special occasions. Do you have a sushi fanatic in your world? Uchi will rock their world, of that I am utterly confident. Inventive is the first word that comes to mind when I consider their menu. I highly recommend the Machi Cure (smoked yellowtail on yucca crisp with Marcona almonds and Asian pear). The cottage setting on S. Lamar is also a portal into another, more Japanese, world.
Jester King Brewery: Take me home country roads. Jester King makes experimental farmhouse ales and serves wood-fired incredible pizzas on their 165-acre country estate west of the city. This is beer and pizza on an entirely different (higher) level. The property features several bars with unique taps, so it pays to wander around a bit and to save room for another glass.
The Civil Goat: Tucked into a nondescript location on relatively rural Cuernavaca Road, this coffee roaster has the beans and the avocado toast to go with them. In all seriousness, their avo toast is definitive, and I love the lost neighborhood vibe of the place. I feel like I’m in the Santa Cruz mountains when I’m there.
Better Half Coffee & Cocktails: Another ham biscuit, please! This is my favorite place for morning coffee meetings. The coffee is great but the ham biscuit dripping with honey is something to behold and then devour. I also love their easy parking on 6th Street and the large back yard for sunny day sippin’.
Some other notable restaurants that could easily be added to this list: Loro, Perla’s, Contigo, El Naranjo, and Home Slice Pizza. There are also several restaurants we’d like to try for the first time, including Emmer & Rye, Lenoir, Buffalina, Jeffrey’s, and Foreign & Domestic.
Last March, we sold our house in West Linn, Oregon and moved to Austin, Texas. Positive change and forward motion have been a big part of 2018. We call it our year of the pivot.
When it was time to move (after months of preparation), we embarked on an epic road trip from the Pacific Northwest to the American Southwest. The highlights started in Ashland, Oregon where we spent two lovely wind-down days at Lithia Springs Resort, soaking in their healing waters.
Palm Springs was our mid-way destination and literal turning point (from south to east). We spent three incredible days and nights in the desert with our close friends Lotus and David, who generously opened the guest wing of their home to us and showed us around their town.
North By Southwest in ’18
- Palm Springs
- Silver City
- Las Cruces
- The Domain/East Austin/Oak Hill
- Salt Lake City
- Deer Valley
- Spring (2)
- Port Aransas
- Palo Duro
- Ransom Canyon
After a night in Tucson, we arrived at The Murray Hotel, an historic art deco hotel in downtown Silver City, New Mexico. Silver City is an artist’s colony and university town at the doorway to the Gila Mountains. It’s a charming place, in an authentic, non-manufactured way. I look forward to going back to Silver City for more.
We arrived in Austin on March 16th, the second Friday of SXSW and the night before St. Patrick’s Day. The hotels were booked solid but we found an expensive room several miles north of the city in a new neighborhood called The Domain. It was not our scene, so we quickly shifted to an amazing rental house in East Austin. The historic home had been remodeled and it just felt SO AUSTIN, which was a great feeling and an affirmation.
After 10 days of looking intently for a new home to rent, we discovered an awesome ranch house in Western Oaks with a fenced yard and lots of trails for Lucy. Also, a community pool! Home sweet home.
In July, we met the Shafer family in Deer Valley, Utah for a vacation. We went rafting on the Weber River, played disc golf at Solitude (where I felt the altitude big time) and we played ball golf with Sarah and Travis at Wasatch Mountain State Park in Heber. We also saw Ricky Skaggs backed by the Utah Symphony with my mom.
Texas presents unlimited exploration opportunities and we are just starting to see what’s over the next rise. In October, we ventured south to Port Aransas on the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Chisti. In November, we drove eight hours northwest to Palo Duro State Park in the Panhandle for two nights of cold camping with Ski and Sara. We also made two trips in fall to Houston where my uncle, aunt, and cousins live.
Years in place: 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 |2008 | 2007 | 2006
Austin makes a strong impression on the newcomer. It’s sunny and warm, the people are warm and friendly, and there are seemingly a million places of interest for the food and beverage lover to consider and discover.
Both Zagat and WalletHub rank Austin high on their lists of best cities for foodies. And Easter Austin does a great job keeping close tabs on the daily developments here. We’ve also picked up several recommendations from new friends in the city.
I’d like to list some of our early favorites.
Amazing Restaurants in Austin, Texas
Suerte: This new Mexican fine dining restaurant on E. Ceasar Chavez features three different ceviches on the menu. They also ground their own masa from locally sourced heirloom corn. Need I say more?
Fresa’s: This restaurant’s “Pollo al la Carbon” or chicken on charcoal is simply the best. In fact, there’s no better preparation of chicken on the planet. Mix in the frozen avocado margaritas and the sun porch full of happy people, and a new favorite is born.
The Salt Lick: Drive to Driftwood, TX and enter BBQ Holy Land. Do it today. It’s B.Y.O.B. at The Salt Lick, so bring a sixer and mosy up to some bison ribs, turkey, sausage, and more. To top it all off, the blackberry cobbler is divine.
Andiamo Ristorante: Tucked into a midtown strip mall, this classic Italian restaurant is built to please. The dishes here are carefully constructed by a master chef who transports diners to a romantic village in Italy.
Excellent Restaurants in Austin, Texas
Evangeline Cafe: Real New Orleans-inspired food in SW Austin! I’ve had the catfish po’boy and the fried shrimp po’boy so far. The roast beef po’boy is next in line.
Stile’s Switch BBQ: It’s hard to rank high in a city devoted to smoked meats, but I can’t wait to return to this spot for turkey, brisket, beans, slaw and more. It’s all super tasty.
Via 313: This “Detriot-style pizza” is a standout pie that Austinites will stand in long lines for. Order it extra crispy and wait your turn!
Juniper: This stylish Italian spot on E. Ceasar Chavez served us a great brunch on their shaded patio. Our server was slightly off-putting, but the food made it easy to overlook.
Hummus Among Us: This Israeli street food comes from a cart in East Austin. If you want the perfect falafel, and I do mean perfect, this is your place.
The Funkadelic: This cozy breakfast and lunch spot on S. Lamar provides innovative treatments on Americana classics like waffles, pancakes, and the burger.
Outstanding Coffee Shops in Austin, Texas
A friend in Portland suggested that I might not miss much about the Rose City, other than the quality of the coffee. I smiled at the suggestion but had to inform her that Austinites are nearly as fanatical about their coffee.
Patika: This funky and friendly place on S. Lamar serves a lovely avocado toast along with some of the city’s most delicious caffeinated brews.
Stouthaus: Great coffee shop with a dozen craft beers on tap. This coffee-before-beer combo is a lot more common in Austin that other cities, and it makes perfect sense.
Flightpath: Classic coffeehouse vibe thanks to the tables full of UT students and local hipsters. Great service and coffee too!
It’s important to note that Austin is not a pretentious place, and the restaurants and coffee shops in the city support and reflect this reality. On the rare occasion that there is a touch of pretense in the air it stinks like cheap perfume, and the place gets nixed from the list.
In the personal trivia category, Darby and I went our first date together in Austin during South By Southwest, March 2003. We dined at Carmelo’s on Second Street downtown. We recently learned that the restaurant closed in 2017. Later that first night met friends for drinks at Lala’s. The bar where it is Christmas every day of the year remains open for business.