Thursday, November 17, 2016

Wine Country Enjoyed in Texas

Story by Dan Weldy, Director, The Wine Traveler
This is a longer version of an article also published by United Airlines Rhapsody magazine

It was a quiet Monday morning in Fredericksburg, Texas just before noon the day after the big crowds of weekend tourists had gone home.  Yet, there was a couple from Maryland in the tasting room of Lost Draw Cellars enjoying a wine tasting served by the owner Andrew Sides.  The visitors were on a four- week driving tour of Texas and they heard there were wineries in this part of the state so they added Fredericksburg to their route.  Ordering wines to be shipped home, they seemed pleased with the Texas wines they tasted and being in the company of the owner-winemaker.

In his tasting room just a block off downtown Fredericksburg, Andrew described how he shares ownership of a small plane with other wineries in the region so that they can fly back-and-forth to the High Plains of West Texas to tend to their vineyards, a one hour flight to avoid the lonesome four hour drive.  While there are vineyards in the general vicinity of Fredericksburg, the rural High Plains around Lubbock is where they are cultivating most of the vineyards, he explained. 

Lost Draw Cellars Vineyards in West Texas
Texas Hills Sangiovese 

The discovery of Fredericksburg and Texas Hill Country as a winery destination is fairly recent for people from outside the state and the country.  However, Texans have been coming to Fredericksburg as a weekend getaway for decades. The arrival of wineries in this region over the last twenty years has made the experience all the more enjoyable, attracting a new group of visitors who seek out places where local food and wine can be explored and enjoyed.

Fredericksburg is an old town founded by German settlers in the 1840’s.  In the next century it became popular with tourists for its German heritage, unique shops, natural beauty and a reputation as the “Peach Capital of Texas.”  Now they have cool wineries, art galleries and farm to table restaurants too. Willkommen signs still greet people as they roll into this small town with 11,000 residents. Several long standing German Restaurants downtown still prepare weiner schnitzel, bratwurst, danishes and other Bavarian dishes.  There is an annual Kielbasa Festival in October so the German heritage is alive and well. 

Octoberfest in Fredericksburg

The Wineries

Fredericksburg is in the heart of Texas Hill Country, a region that is now home to about fifty wineries. 

One of the pioneers of this emerging wine region is Gary Gilstrap, owner and winemaker at TexasHills Vineyard, started with their first vineyards in 1995 and known today as the largest winery that only uses Texas grapes.  Before he opened his winery, Gilstrap was a pharmacist, chemist, software engineer and inventor. As wineries began to become established around Fredericksburg in 1999, he invited about a dozen of his neighboring wineries to a potluck dinner where they decided to form Fredericksburg Wine Road 290Today, Wine Road 290 is a 30 mile stretch of highway that runs from Johnson City to downtown Fredericksburg and just beyond.  “It was a meat and potatoes start,” says Gilstrap. 
Texas Hills Kick Butt Cab

There are now 15 wineries along Wine Road 290 including Grape Greek Vineyards, a beautiful estate that evokes whispers of “Tuscany in Texas.”  Owner Brian Heith and his team have cultivated a following of wine club members and regular visitors who are so passionate that wines are sold only through the winery.  Their guided tours on a tram through the vineyards and winery are popular. 

Grape Creek Vineyards patio
Grape Creek Tram for touring

Becker Vineyards was founded by Dr. Richard Becker, a surgeon in San Antonio and his wife Bunny.  Established in 1992, Becker is one of the original four wineries in Fredericksburg and today they are among the best known and highly respected brands in the state of Texas. 

Richard and Bunny Becker, founders of Becker Vineyards

 Fat Ass Ranch and Winery is a new cult winery popular with millennials.  The tasting room is decorated with repurposed farm equipment, implements and even silos (as bathrooms) offering a one of a kind atmosphere.  In harmony with the region’s heritage for peaches, their Peach Wine is most popular. 

Fat Ass Ranch and Winery selections

Wineries have also been established in small towns closer to the state capital of Austin, in little towns such as Spicewood, Driftwood and Dripping Springs.  Duchman Family Winery offers a gorgeous property in Driftwood and is one of a group of five wineries now gaining recognition for making exceptional wines from Texas Grapes. 

Texas Fine Wine at Cabernet Grill

The Accommodations
There are many hotel options in Fredericksburg but one of the most unique is the Hangar Hotel located adjacent to the local airport.  Built in 2004, the property has fifty guest rooms within a WWII military hangar overlooking the runway.  A vintage 1940s classic diner, 8000 square foot conference center with an old theater marquee to announce arriving parties, and the Officer’s Club Bar allow guests to step back in time. 

The Hangar Hotel with fifty luxury guest rooms

Most notably, Fredericksburg now offers over 900 guest houses and bed and breakfasts, ranging from private log homes to private cottages.  These accommodations are found in town or in the country and are most often sold out on the weekends.  Mid-week visits are recommended for a slower pace. 

Texas Cuisine and Culture

Fredericksburg boasts many dining options from Tex-Mex favorites to international cuisine.  Old German Bakery offers Bavarian specialties, one of several classic German restaurants downtown.  Otto’s offers new American cuisine with a German flair.  Burger Burger is an independently owned restaurant that the locals recommend for a burger fix and music on the patio.  

CabernetGrill is casual fine dining set on beautifully landscaped grounds with lodging on the property.  Cabernet Grill Owner, Ross Burtwell changed to a Texas-only wine list recently.  Wine sales at the restaurant went up by 30%, he says. 

Fredericksburg has a wealth of high end art galleries.  Enjoy a stroll with a glass of wine to view bronze sculptures, paintings, wood works, photography, antiques, and jewelry, featuring both Texas and national artists.

Twenty art galleries are found in downtown Fredericksburg

Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and famed WWII Admiral Nimitz are natives of this area. The Lyndon B. Johnson State and National Historical Parks and the National Museum of the Pacific War are popular educational attractions in their honor.

Luckenbach, established in 1849 is a short drive outside of Fredericksburg where at one o’clock, seven days a week folks can gather to hear live music and enjoy a truly Texas experience with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine, amongst the chickens and roosters who roam freely on the grounds. Operations Manager Bobbie McDaniel says the dance hall is rented for everything from Texas Two-Step gatherings to line dancing clubs on holiday from Germany. 

As an emerging wine region, Fredericksburg and Texas Hill Country will continue to grow.  The Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association reports 7,000 acres planted in Texas vineyards today which ranks in the top five of the U.S. states.  What’s astounding is that the acreage has grown 200% over a two year period, according to Executive Director, Debbie Reynolds. 

Barrel tasting at Becker Vineyards

“The fact that these wineries have clustered make it convenient and easy for people to tour wineries,” says Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO, Ernie Loeffler.  “Being in easy driving distance to 20 million people in Texas makes this a popular destination,” he says.  While Texans from Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio are regular visitors who arrive by automobile, those from further away can find air travel with international airports in Austin AUS and San Antonio SAT. Both provide excellent service with Texas-based Southwest and American Airlines as well as United and Delta. 

Fredericksburg has a reputation as a good place to come and have a good time. The wine country destinations are only broadening that appeal. 

Fredericksburg Food and Wine Festival

Photo credits:  Steve Rawls, Jonathan Bedford, Robbyn Dodd, Julia Ermlich, Claire McCormack

Story posted following a Wine Traveler visit to Fredericksburg, OCT 30-NOV 3, 2016

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