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Jun 29, 2017

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An American in Paris, Texas
by Chad Davidson
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.6

Wining and Wincing in the Lone Star State

Actually, there were three Americans, two Italians and a Russian. Long Story. Big Story. Texas-Size. The skinny is this: My girlfriend and I took our two Italian friends to Austin, where we met up with Stacey, my hateful attorney friend from Houston and his Russian girlfriend, Tanya. Goal: To tour a few Texas wineries whose wines I've never tried. We set air-conditioning on high, cranked the Willie Nelson and headed out gunless and wine-thirsty into the Lone Star State.

Given such mythic town names as Paris, Italy, Florence and Palestine, our expectations of Texas were high. The state also has large pockets of German and Czech communities. Indications that wine in Texas should be a winner. Indeed the Texas wine industry is soaring. In the last 20 years more than 450 growers and 26 wineries have sprung to life. Of those 26, 10 are located in what's called the Hill Country -- the area in and around Austin (deep) in the heart of Texas.

It makes sense, then, for the wine lover to be situated there. In fact it makes just good sense for anyone traveling in Texas to be situated there, as the Hill Country is, for me anyway, the finest and most contradictory part of Texas. It's the finest part largely due to Austin, a wonderful city with eccentricities galore. It's the most contradictory part because it looks nothing like the rest of the state. Huge hills and beautiful rivers abound. A liberal hotbed in the center of one of the most right-wing states in the country, this area teems with hippies, ex-hippies, intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, Stevie Ray Vaughn freaks and just plain freaks. I love it. The Hill Country's the heart of Texas literally, politically and aesthetically. And Austin, while being the literal capital, remains the state's cultural hatching ground. Go there.

In the car in front of us, Stacey's in the midst of a heated argument with the latest traffic signal to impede our progress. I can see Tanya's Russian despair fomenting from the passenger's side. Gigi, one of my Italian friends, taps me on the shoulder as we finally slide away from the intersection: "You sure it's worth all this? I mean, after Montalcino, Italy, what can Texas do?" I ignore and drive on. First stop: Slaughter-Leftwich Winery.

Slaughter-Leftwich. Ah! The name alone beckons us. "It's the wine I was drinking on our ill-fated outing three years ago," Stacey proclaims, as we get out of our cars. (He was fined for drinking on the streets in Denton, Texas, where I lived.) Drinking on the streets is legal in many Texas towns... before midnight. "Remember? 12:15 am and the communist tickets me." And with that omen I should know what we're in for: A high-ceilinged, drab, concrete building set in brush on a hill overlooking Lake Travis outside of Austin. From the second story tasting room window, the hint of a great view hides among the brown trees. Inside is sweltering with the three worst syllables of a Texas summer: NO-A-C.

After waiting for the lone wine room guy to set up shop, we approach the bar. He's never heard of Wine X magazine (the next bad omen). What follows are some of the worst wines I have ever tried: A horrible blush to begin, an even worse sweet red concoction they call cabernet, followed by the flagship (a sinking one, I think) weedy chardonnay. The bad wines are quickly followed by an even worse sales pitch: "This wasn't a good year for us," their spokesperson tells us.

What. Ever.

"Bravo, Texas!" Michela, the other Italian, declares mockingly as the faux oak doors shut behind us. Now I'm panicking. It's been a year now that I've wanted to write this piece, to show off the state that's (sort of) grown on me. I begin to think that it's more like a fungus growing on me -- some chicken-fried phylloxera -- rather than a benevolent botrytis. Stacey's dumbfounded. His niche Texas wine has turned sour on him. He threatens lawsuits subconsciously. My girlfriend, a true Texan, lowers her head.

"Welcome to the United States of Texas," the billboards should read as you cross the state border. Even for a full-blooded American like me, Texas remains in many respects its own country. It's a flag-flying, gun-loving, boot-wearing state. Hat brims are wide, belt buckles inordinately large. So what kind of wine are we expecting from the only state in the union that, by law, may fly its flag as high as the stars and stripes?

Texas Big Gulp

For those of you who still think Texas is all about cows and oil wells, well, you're right. But darn it if some "coalcher" ain't acreepin' in der. Dallas is a virtual wine mecca, with even gas stations boasting huge and obscenely cool wine selections. Wine bars (yes, wine bars) are starting up. Downtown Fort Worth's very own Grape Escape boasts a great selection as well as the latest in trendy food. Heck, even the Dallas-Fort Worth airport has La Bodega Winery: a tasting room and Texas wine retail outlet. Ask where La Bodega is located if you've got a layover. And of course, Houston, San Antonio and Austin all follow in much the same manner regarding good wine and the locating of it. It's happening.

Fried, Sweet and Meat

While you enjoy this transformation and listen to varietal differences of cab and merlot through the dry Texas twang of your tasting room guy or gal, remember that no one needs another California. It takes a while to establish a "wine identity" in the world. Texas is still trying to teach itself what wine is. And it's still trying to figure out how to pair wine with its three basic food groups: fried, sweet and meat. (Incidentally, shiraz with barbecue, any wine over 14 percent alcohol with chicken-fried steak, and riesling after the rodeo -- as long as no one named "Bubba" sees you doing it. Remember: Texas is still experimenting -- a technique that put every other great wine region on the map. Internet information: http://www.texaswinetrails.com

The next stop is Cana Cellars. The long drive, pocked with longhorns, promises something much better... perhaps a real Texas experience. Dodging the cattle, we ease through the squat haystacks and live oak and inch up to the winery. I use the term "winery" loosely, as it turns out to be merely a nice farmhouse. The tires crunch to a halt on the gravel. A murder of crow startles into the sky left of us. We've arrived. A basketball hoop directs us to the cellar door. We note the casks to the left as we enter, the tasting glasses hung to dry at the end of the long cellar. Someone was drinking here recently. A good sign.

We walk in and are greeted by a jovial teenager who, when I declare my Wine Xness, disappears to find the owner. Deena Turner greets us and vows to right the wrong that Slaughter (aptly)-Leftwich imposed on us. Of the lot we tried, the merlot shined. The others were decent, with no oddball sweet reds or funny names. Classic varietals, great wine and good prices ($8 - $15). This could be the "mom and pop" wine of Texas with the right marketing. The stainless steel casks right outside the tasting room make it a homey operation. In fact this winery's immersed in the Turner Ranch. Translation: very low distribution.

Don't go looking for this one in your neighborhood. But do look for it in the Hill Country, or give the Turners a ring. (Information follows.)

Things are looking up.

The last stop is fittingly Hill Country Winery -- a boutique setting. This place is merchandising heaven. Hill Country everything. Even a little wine. We've entered near closing time, but the two wine roomies are content to let us taste on. This operation's a bit more professional and much more akin to the way in which California wineries operate. Oddly the Port is nicest here, with a chardonnay rating high with the Italians. Prices range from $10 - $20, with a kicking-and-screaming reserve cabernet in the mid $20s. Stacey buys one of their chocolate-infused cigars. He's a lawyer, remember.

So that's what we found out. Now let me tell you what I already knew. Hill Country Winery, like many wineries in Texas, doesn't grows its grapes on location but rather in and around Lubbock. Cana and Slaughter-Leftwich do the same. The pioneer Lubbock winery, Llano (pronounced "Yaw-no") Estacado, heads the current surge and produces wine equal in many ways, I feel, to those from California. Look for the signature red and cabernet -- anomalies in such a hot, humid state. What's more, Llano's wine is humbly priced at $7 - $14.

The great part is that the high plains around Lubbock lend themselves to a more moderate growing environment: More cold fronts and less humidity. Grapes and their wine do well there. The bad part is that Lubbock is nowhere near a metropolitan area. If you want an afternoon jaunt out to the wineries in Lubbock, you'll need a jet. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough good reasons to venture into that part of the state (Amarillo-bound) when Austin, San Antonio, Houston and even Dallas are sprouting wineries that, many times, are using the same Lubbock grapes anyway.

Another winery close to the Austin area is Fall Creek, whose sauvignon blanc merits a few Texas-sized superlatives: really dry, really crisp and really fresh. Fall Creek is a major operation with a fairly high distribution -- the main reason we didn't choose it for our tour. The wine can easily be found in any Texas wine store and continues to astonish critics, novices and a fair number of country folk. Fall Creek and all of the wineries we visited are on what the Grapescholars of Texas call the Highland Wine Trail. But there are four other important trails that lead to some of the other heavyweights of the Texas wine industry. Following are very brief descriptions of the other four.

West of Austin, and still within easy striking distance, the Enchanted Trail leads to Sister Creek Winery (killer cab) and Becker Vineyards (time and again an award-winning chard). This is a quaint area of German communities with Fredericksburg as the "major" (population 6,934) city. It's worth a day to explore. Next is the Brazos Trail, close to Houston. Wine lovers visiting the largest city in Texas might want to get out and explore this area before suburbs devour you alive. The highlight of the Houston-area wineries, at least the big dog, is Messina Hof, whose sauvignon blanc shocked me by getting national exposure. I've tried one of them. If you like clove, you'll love it. If not, not. They concentrate mostly on sweeter German style wines and in fact produce a few different rieslings.

The Munson Trail departs from Dallas and highlights Delaney Vineyards in, get this, Grapevine, Texas. I've tried many Delaney wines, and they're good drinkingÉ if a little expensive. Put it this way: After roping a few dogies, the extra buck or two for Delaney is worth it. It's a classy operation, with a beautiful Frenchy winery and grounds within minutes of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. As an added bonus for "y'all" who travel to Grapevine during the month of September, the city holds a Grapefest every year showcasing Texas wines and international newcomers. There's the obligatory cigar shop (quelling Stacey's hatefulness, if only momentarily), fried food galore and carney rides for the "youngins."

The remaining two trails aren't for the squeamish, for the Palo Duro Trail is in Lubbock (nowhere in particular), and the Pecos Trail is near the Mexican border, southwest of the lovely hamlet of El Paso (nowhere proper). Unfortunately for all concerned, some great wineries are out there. As stated, Llano is the big boy in Lubbock, but there's also Pheasant Ridge (good chardonnay and cab). Down on the border, a few eagle cries from El Paso, St. Genevieve (with French money and help) is producing drinkable and very cheap wine that doesn't come in a jug or box -- something long since past in areas like California. So, if you're caught in Lubbock or El Paso, head directly to the wineries; they could be your only salvation and provide the only wine within hundreds of miles.

Some stylistic concerns: Texas is hot. Yet what gets planted there is mainly cabernet, merlot, chardonnay and riesling, none of which does all that well in hot, humid locales. Okay, maybe in Lubbock. However, from the investigation I did, it seems most wineries are going after the young wine market: Lots of the wine that sells (merlot, chard, cab) along with tutti-frutti white zins, blushes, late-harvest syrupy rieslings and that sweet red stuff formally known as Sweet Texas Red Table Wine. Blecch! In short, they want the wine that'll sell immediately and not the kind that might perhaps grow better in the region and in the long run. For instance, look at Australia's success with shiraz. Duh! It seems simple. Hear me, Texas: Rhone wines, not Rhine and Bordeaux wines!

Alas, Texas hears me not.

But what have I told you? Like Gigi quipped: "It's not just mediocre wine at high prices, is it?" How nice a wine can we expect from such a barbecue-intensive state? What kind of white goes well with chicken-fried steak? After a long day at the rodeo, what chilled sparkler do you reach for? Go ahead and laugh, but these are valid questions in Texas. Luckily for us, like I said, Texas is full of wonderful contradictions: Cowboy hats and Gucci purses, Einstein minds and Deliverance accents, East meets West (coasts, that is). Indeed Texas is booming economically. And because of that, the veritable "Texan" is probably only every fourth person you meet. Between them come Californians and New Yorkers, Washingtonians and Floridians. And with all that "foreign" (in Texas, "farren") influence and cash, the wine industry's definitely going to keep growing. Yeehaw!

So, when in Texas, rent the big truck, let break the belt straps with the five-pound buckle, buy the cowboy hat, get yourself to a Willie Nelson concert and, most importantly, drink the wine. You'll be surprised what good wine they're making in Texas. And so close to the United States.

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