The resident wino is unbothered by the audience gathered around him. He is lying in the grass, pressed up to a fence. His name is Blake, and he is a four-year-old white rhinoceros who lives in a large enclosure on the grounds of Rhinory, a winery near Fredericksburg that opened in 2019. Blake is a soldier in the battle for rhinoceros conservation; Rhinory’s owners became committed to the cause while on a visit to South Africa prior to opening the winery and subsequently partnered with the International Rhino Foundation to host him here in Texas. But he is also a spectacle, as I suspect rhinos are even to other wild animals. Several visitors hover a few feet from him, watching as his minder contentedly pets him through the fence, a cloud of dust rising where palm meets leathery skin.

Back in the airy tasting room, guests are sampling wines, including a Sangiovese made from Texas High Plains grapes and a beautiful cabernet sauvignon from South Africa. The wines could surely draw visitors on their own, particularly if sipped during the golden hour, when the meadow beyond the patio takes on a Thomas Kinkade luster. But Rhinory is just a few steps from U.S. 290, the Hill Country highway that takes travelers past such splendors as the 290 Wine Castle at Chateau de Chasse (a winery, hotel, and event space styled as a hilltop fortress) and through downtown Fredericksburg, with its Bavarian fanfare. On a road already lined with oddities, why not a rhino?

In fact, Texas wineries seem determined to draw visitors by using every tool in their belts, including but not limited to often exemplary wines. And they’re succeeding. A 2022 economic-impact survey commissioned by WineAmerica, a national industry association, estimated that the state’s 443 producers draw 2.02 million tourist visits annually, mostly in the Hill Country (though the High Plains and Panhandle produce more grapes). 

But the crowds are a relatively recent phenomenon. The Texas wine industry might have been born in the seventies, but it endured a long and awkward puberty. Julie Kuhlken, a co-owner of seventeen-year-old Pedernales Cellars, a boutique winery eighteen miles east of Fredericksburg that showcases Spanish- and Rhone-style wines made from Texas-grown grapes, says it wasn’t until a decade or so ago that she noticed a shift. Before that, she says, “it felt like every article I read about Texas wine was ‘I tried Texas wine ten years ago, and it wasn’t very good.’ ” Texas wine was a punch line. In 1975 Susan and Ed Auler founded Fall Creek Vineyards, in Tow, 82 miles northwest of Austin. She remembers how at that time, fine wine was thought to come from Europe and nowhere else. Even California wines weren’t taken very seriously. “I learned about wines in France,” Auler says, “so I have to say, I was a little bit suspect when all these California wines were developing.”

But decades of effort by champions of the burgeoning Texas industry (including Auler, who created the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, in the eighties), as well as the gorgeous vistas of the Hill Country—a deeply, deeply discounted Tuscany—drew visitors to the region from surrounding cities. More businesses arrived, and so did more good wines, which began to win awards and show up on national rankings. Today Texas wine finds itself in the role of the nineties high school rom-com protagonist, shyly walking into prom having cast off her glasses and monkish attire to reveal the face of a homecoming queen and, in wine parlance, good legs. 

hill country wines
Cheers at Becker Vineyards, in Fredericksburg. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth
hill country wines
A windmill at Fat Ass Winery and Ranch. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

The Hill Country has its share of destination vineyards, and I can easily spend a whole afternoon at well-regarded wineries such as Becker or William Chris, both near Hye. But to sample a wide selection of Texas wines and meet a maximal cross section of Hill Country tourists, one must take the 290 Wine Shuttle. Every fifteen minutes on Saturday, with military efficiency, one of its twenty buses is dispatched from the Inn on Barons Creek, in Fredericksburg. Carrying parties of bachelorettes, birthday groups, honeymooners, and the rare hard-core connoisseur, the vehicles zip up and down 290 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Patrons can hop on and off different shuttles at their leisure—they typically visit three or four wineries—so one’s fellow riders shift kaleidoscopically throughout the day. Owner Mike Kinchen says the buses carry several hundred guests each weekend, most of whom are between the ages of 21 and 32 and hail from, in descending order, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.

On a sunny Saturday in April, the wine shuttle dress code is Easter Sunday church service, with strong notes of woooooooo! Aside from myself, a friend, and several couples, the rest of the riders—all of them in sundresses—belong to the same bachelorette party. Their leader wears heart-shaped pink plastic sunglasses and a wide-brimmed Gucci straw hat. The higher the hair the closer to God. The wider the hat brim, the harder it is for God to see you slamming moscato for eight hours straight.

The ride to the first of the shuttle’s seventeen stops is quiet, as I imagine a bus headed to an orgy would be. Groups talk among themselves in hushed tones. A man in a blue floral button-up and khaki shorts, his long legs sticking out into the aisle, is suffering. “I want you to consider what I’m going through right now. I’m just too damn big for the shuttle,” he says sharply to his companion. A woman from the be-sundressed bachelorette group frets about motion sickness in a whisper to her seatmate. “Just sit up front next time,” her comrade whispers back.

Once on the open road, we cross paths with the first of several pink vehicles we’ll see throughout the day. These belong to Brooke Rogan, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in Fredericksburg and has her own wine-tour business, Brooke’s Bubble Bus. She started it in 2020, after purchasing a pink bus in El Paso on a whim. Since then her fleet has grown, with two more buses and seven limos.

Rogan says some of her customers are seeking a serious education in wine, and in those cases, she’ll curate an elevated tour with vineyards such as Becker, where guests can see the tanks and barrels, and Slate Theory, where visitors can enjoy tastings in an underground wine cave. But she also has clients for whom learning is tangential to having fun. Some don’t even like wine and just enjoy going along for the ride. “We’re trying to capitalize on everything and make sure everyone’s having the best experience,” she says.

After disembarking at two wineries, one of which presented us with a tasting we could have curated for ourselves at Twin Liquors, we hop back on the shuttle and immediately notice a shift in the vibe. This bus is shimmering with a warm camaraderie typically limited to bathroom lines at bars. A group in matching T-shirts, the script on which is so curlicued as to be indecipherable, slowly exits the vehicle, some of them dancing while doing so. As we depart, a woman swears loudly as the bus jostles over the lip of the parking lot. Music is blasting from a speaker hanging like a beehive from one of the shuttle’s handrails. Kinchen says the drivers are allowed to play whatever they want, as long as the lyrics don’t have any curse words. As the bus slowly rolls toward the road, the music briefly stops. “What the heck!” a woman yells, in a wail instantly truncated by the next track, Lee Brice’s “Soul.” “Holy mother of Moses, I just wanna buy you roses,” another sings along.

Then “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” starts playing, and anyone who was straddling the fence between a gentle afternoon buzz and being duhhh-RUHHH-hunk topples into the bushes on the other side. Every rider scream-sings along, except a lone male guest in the front, who is sitting as close to the male driver as he can, as if for safety. He nonetheless looks amused, perhaps experiencing the same fascination I feel when I go to Home Depot. When we pull up to Mendelbaum Cellars, which sells mostly Israeli wines (“Is-raeli good!”), the driver silences Cyndi Lauper just long enough to announce “Mendelbaum” in a Bueller-esque monotone. Then he simply restarts the track, and everyone begins singing along again.

hill country wines
Brooke Rogan snapping a picture of a party in front of one of her many pink vehicles.Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

The official attitude of many Hill Country tasting rooms toward the bachelorette contingent? Depends on the group. “You’ll get four or five of them, they’re all great,” says Kuhlken. “They’re asking questions, they’re having a good time. And then you have that one group. And it’s just like, ‘Oh, wow, this is gonna be a difficult tasting.’ ” My friend and I disembark next at Grape Creek Vineyards. A few women ahead of us approach the host, and moments later they turn around. “Back on the bus!” one of them calls out to the others, like a general instructing her troops to retreat. Grape Creek requires reservations for large groups, a tactic employed by some wineries to help contain the joie de vivre of rowdier delegations. Many also require groups to order food with tastings, and some have areas where they can seat loud parties away from those who have come for quiet contemplation of the varietals. Several on the 290 Wine Shuttle’s route have requested that the vehicles turn off their music upon arrival.

Other wineries are extra welcoming to the more rambunctious groups. Down the road from Grape Creek, Fat Ass Winery and Ranch makes no effort to contain the joie. “Bring your bride to Fat Ass!” a scrolling message on the winery’s website advertises. “She will receive a free tasting and a free frozen drink. No reservations needed!”

I had detected subtle hints of derision toward Fat Ass from some Texas wine professionals. “I mean, I haven’t been to Fat Ass,” one told me a week before my visit, speaking the name as one would a canceled celebrity’s. Inspired by owners Gail and Jennie McCulloch’s corpulent donkey, Jackson, Fat Ass opened in 2014. Gail remembers hearing “some comments” about the name. The couple’s son and daughter-in-law in Austin, for instance, disapproved: “They wanted us to call it ‘Silver Creek Vineyards,’ or whatever.” But he and Jennie stuck to it, and on the day we’re there, as many visitors are buying Fat Ass merchandise as are buying bottles of wine.

Though Fat Ass offers dry varietals, its specialty is sweet wines. It’s known for one called Country Peach, our server tells us as we stand around the crowded bar. We hear her tell the women next to us to expect to taste “Skittle” in the white sangria. Meanwhile, other guests hover behind visitors who look as though they’re about to settle up—bees waiting their turn to sip Fat Ass’s nectar.

We order a dry tasting and a sweet tasting. My companion declares the dry tasting “normal,” if a bit sacramental, but the sweet tasting is an extravaganza. I was raised by wine snobs and have had few opportunities to sample sweet wine; here, I am a child trying ice cream for the first time at a sleepover. My friend looks stricken when the server introduces the first wine as “lemonade-like,” but I am aquiver like a dog about to receive dinner. It does taste like lemonade. If I’d had access to it in college, I would probably be dead. My friend detects notes of Capri Sun in several samples and says contemplatively of the Country Peach: “It would make a good spritz. By a pool.”

When I ask Gail why he and Jennie decided to specialize in sweet wines, he laughs: “If I was gonna drink a dry wine, I’d have to put four packs of Sweet’N Low in it.” Then he explains that the average person who walks into a winery is going to say they like dry reds. “If you don’t say you want a dry red, then you are not sophisticated. Especially if I don’t know anything about wines, I don’t want to come across as not knowing anything or being a novice. So they’ll all say, ‘I’d like a dry red.’ But once they do our tasting—we have people who leave with dry wines, and we have good dry wines—most of them leave with sweet wines.” The couple next to us buys three $28 bottles of another peach-inflected offering, the moscato. We walk out with two souvenir glasses, a wine slushy, and, for me, the beginnings of headache.

Gillespie County, at a Glance

Population: 27,477 
Number of permitted wineries: 84 
Texas’s first designated intrastate viticultural area: Bell Mountain, north of Fredericksburg 
Sum paid for charcuterie board: $35 
Median listing home price: 21,786 charcuterie boards

There are plenty of wineries for lovers of the dry stuff, though. John Cedillo III, the general manager (and now director of hospitality) of William Chris Vineyards, about eight miles east of Fat Ass, says the citrusy, floral white wine it offers as a greeter glass helps manage expectations. “It doesn’t get more fruit forward than that,” Cedillo says. If visitors are hoping for something sweeter, they’re likely to be disappointed. Cedillo has considered offering sorbets and Italian ice options to satisfy the lucrative lust for wine-based frozen treats. But wine Slurpees are just not William Chris’s niche, he says, and he’s glad operations like Fat Ass are around to satisfy the slushy seekers.

Julie Kuhlken, of Pedernales Cellars, also appreciates that Fat Ass gives tasters something that her operation is unlikely to provide. She remembers driving by Fat Ass when it first opened and seeing its sign touting peach wine: “I was like, ‘Well, that is truth in advertising.’ ” Pedernales has one “off-dry” muscat-based wine, but everything else is dry-dry.

Our final ride, back to town, is boisterous. “Everyone on this bus is a better driver than you,” one woman calls out to the driver, who has done nothing wrong. “I could drive this bus,” another passenger, only half paying attention, calls out in enthusiastic assent. The driver looks serene. 

Gail later tells me that he wanted Fat Ass to be a cross between a winery and a honky-tonk, relaxed and welcoming. And in this, the state’s disparate and sometimes unhinged offerings (Gail has developed a peanut-butter-and-jelly wine which, he insists, people love) are united. Even the area’s more upscale wineries are inviting and affordable. “I think the Hill Country is just as beautiful as Napa and much more approachable,” Cedillo says. Fortune reported in August that the cost of a standard wine tasting in Napa has hit $81. On 290 you can explode your palate for $10.

And Napa doesn’t even have a rhino.  

Lauren Larson is a writer based in Austin and a former Texas Monthly editor.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Don’t Napa My 290.” Subscribe today.