Touring Texas Wine Country
How to best explore the area between Johnson City and Fredericksburg.
The Hill Country has matured into one of the top wine destinations in the world, and we aren’t the only ones saying as much. But with a few dozen wineries dotted around the Fredericksburg area alone (and a handful tucked along the backroads in places like Sisterdale and Comfort), it can be overwhelming deciding which ones to visit if you’re planning a short trip. Below are a few answers to the questions I’m asked most frequently about how to plan a weekend winery road trip to the Hill Country.
This will be the first in a series on touring the best wine destinations in the Hill Country. The next in this series will be published later this month.
How many wineries can I realistically visit in one day?
This depends on how many people you’re with. A weekend getaway for two? You can probably fit in four to five. Touring in a large group? The ideal number is probably three; limiting the number of stops allows everyone in the group to have time to tastes, savor, buy wine, and load back in the car/bus/van for the next stop.
Know Before You Go: Tastings include three to five wines (potentially more if you reserve time for a special tasting and tour at different wineries). Try to start relatively early, like 11 a.m.; don’t forget to eat lunch (you will be consuming a fair amount of alcohol, after all); and be sure to stop and smell the, wait for it, rosé.
Should I drive myself or should I hire a tour company?
If you plan on drinking, do not drive. Period. If you insist on taking your own vehicle, assign a designated driver.
Know Before You Go: There are number of reasonably priced tour options that take you to the wineries of your choice. The drivers often tell you a bit about each place (these companies are typically quite familiar with the area’s wineries), and most will help you carry purchases to the car, where they will store them in a cool, conditioned compartment. Some tours will even arrange boxed lunches for a convenient meal to enjoy at one of the wineries along the way.
For a large group, Texas Wine Tours runs a few fifteen- and twenty-passenger limousine buses, and they can also arrange smaller limo and town car options for more intimate grops. For smaller groups looking for an expert guide, take a ride with former cellar rat, Clint Thomas, of Cellar Rat Wine Tours, who worked with William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, and Grape Creek Vineyards. Or, for more of a hop-on-hop-off experience, take advantage of the 290 Wine Shuttle that leaves every twenty minutes from the Fredericksburg Visitors Center taking wine enthusiasts to the various wineries with pick-ups and drop-offs in twenty-minute intervals for $19.99. (The shuttle runs on Saturdays only from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.)
What are the must-see wineries?
This will depend largely on your personal palate, but this short (and by no means comprehensive) list of wineries along the U.S. Highway 290 corridor heading east to west—with a couple off-the-beaten-path suggestions—offer a range of tastes, from sweet and fruity to robust and structured.
One of the newest wineries to arrive on the scene, Lewis Wines is the collaboration of business partners Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb, two young entrepreneurs who jumped feet first into the grape-crushing tub of Texas wine. Focusing primarily on varietals that thrive in Hill Country and High Plains soils, you’ll find bold red wines with beautiful color extraction and structure, as well as a few great refreshing white wines. Call ahead; the winery currently only offers tastings by appointment only.
Top Picks: 2010 Texas Red Wine Mourvedre Blend, 2013 Texas Chenin Blanc
Tasting Fee: $10 (waived with purchase of one bottle of wine)
Located in the small little town of Hye, between Johnson City and Stonewall, William “Bill” Blackmon and Chris Brundrett produce craft wines using fruit grown all over Texas. They offer tastings in both intimate rooms of their 100-year-old renovated house and in an expansive adjoining modern tasting room. Drinks can also be enjoyed on the front porch. (On the weekends, they have music showcases.)
Top Picks: 2012 Mourvedre (red) and Enchanté (red blend), 2013 Blanc du Bois (white) and Mary Ruth (rosé)
Tasting Fee: $10 (waived with the purchase of three bottles of wine)
An old standard in the Hill Country wine scene, Pedernales Cellars originally started with Larry and Jeanine Kuhlken, who planted a vineyard near Fredericksburg in 1990. The winery took off under management by their son, David Kuhlken, and son-in-law, Fredrik Osterberg, who together built on the concept of a full-scale winery. Today, Fredrik runs the operations, and David makes the wine. Stop by for an unscheduled tasting or, for a more intimate experience, take advantage of the winery’s new Reserve Room (reservations required). Viognier and Tempranillo are Pedernales’ bedrocks, but if they are offering their red and white wine blends, they are not to be missed.
Top Picks: Texas Tempranillo Reserve, Moscato Giallo
Tasting Fee: $12.95 for tasting room, $25 for Reserve Room
One of the oldest wineries in the region, Becker Vineyards was started by Dr. Richard Becker and his wife, Bunny, in the early eighties. It’s one of the most trafficked wineries on any given weekend, understandable given that it’s also one of the prettiest, especially when the adjacent lavender fields are in full bloom. The winery produces a wide variety of wines made from Texas grapes, as well as some using varietals grown out of state.
Top Picks: 2011 Canada Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 Claret
Tasting Fee: $10 for six samples.
This unique venture is a combined partnership of three of Texas’ top wineries: McPherson Cellars of Lubbock, Lost Oak Winery of Burleson, and Brennan Vineyards of Comanche. This sleek tasting room opened a few years ago to give Texas wine lovers a chance to make a one-stop visit to sample some of their best portfolio offerings.
Top Picks: McPherson’s 2013 Roussanne and Les Copains Red Wine Blend; Lost Oak’s 2013 dry Riesling and 2012 Syrah; and Brennan Vineyards’ 2012 Viognier and 2011 Tempranillo
Tasting Fee: $10 to $20 depending on selection
Another hardy standby on the 290 Wine Trail is Grape Creek Vineyards, which offers a Tuscan-inspired wine experience. You can easily stop in for a quick tasting, but, as is the case with several area wineries, the tasting and barrel room tour gives that more intimate experience. Ask for the Texas Appellation wines.
Top Picks: 2011 Rendezvous (Red Rhone blend), 2010 Estate Epiphany (Red Italian blend)
Tasting Fee: $12 (waived with purchase of wine or wine club membership)
You’ll have to drive about half an hour out of the way to reach this little Hill Country gem, but it’s worth the added effort. Bending Branch Winery, with its two tasting rooms, has firmly captured the attention of wine experts across the state for its rich and robust red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and the lesser known French grape variety, Tannat. And they’ve got a bright and perky white wine made from French “lip stinger” grape, Picpoul Blanc.
Top Picks: 2011 Texas Tannat, 2011 Tempranillo
Tasting Fee: $10 (waived with the purchase of two bottles of wine)
Wineries to Watch:
Hye Meadow Winery recently joined the stable of wineries along the 290 corridor with a great selection of Washington state wines and a handful of Texas wines. Other highly anticipated additions include the July opening of Dallas winery transplant Calais Winery, a fall opening of the new Kuhlman Cellars and Lost Draw Cellars, and the new wine venture from celebrated Spicewood Vineyards, Yates winery, which is scheduled to break ground in coming months.
Where should I eat and stay?
Their are numerous B&Bs, boutique hotels, and guesthouses in the Fredericksburg area, a long list that can be pared down using online reservation services such as BedandBreakfast.com or local operator Gastehaus Schmidt. On either site you can narrow down a search for just about any kind of accommodation you’re looking for.
And no need to stop your wine tour for dinner; most of Fredericksburg’s restaurants offer area wines, like Otto’s German Bistro or The Cabernet Grill, which uses local ingredients and offers a Texas-only wine list.