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May 27, 2017

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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Merlot
by Adem Tepedelen
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 6.1

The hills are alive with the sound of meat

images by Adem Tepedelen

You don’t go to Texas to try the local wine. It ain’t a Sideways kinda place, you West Coast pantywaists. Spit bucket? That’s for Skoal. Maybe.

However, if for whatever reason you do find yourself in Texas, aim your ride at the Hill Country, north of San Antonio and west of Austin. It’s the green, leafy area in the heart of this massive state that looks the least like what everyone thinks Texas should look like. No dust-filled Wild West towns. No big saguaro cacti baking in the sun. And definitely no tumbling tumbleweeds.

Many of the Hill Country’s quirky little towns - Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Boerne - were established in the mid-1800s by German settlers who had the good sense to make peace with the local Comanche Indians...and then actually honor those treaties. Today the two cultures still celebrate their heritage together with a surreal powwow, where lederhosen-clad octogenarians watch the Comanches perform sacred dances in full tribal regalia. Bratwurst mandatory; peace pipe optional.

But the Hill Country’s character comes as much from the unlikely mingling of Old World and New World as it does from a collection of oddballs and mavericks who’ve settled there in the last 150 years. And the place is better for it.

Really.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the last Texas Democrat you’re likely to see in the White House any time soon, grew up in the Hill Country on the banks of the Pedernales River (say “purd-a-NAL-iss” so the locals don’t beat the shit outta ya!) in a town that bears the name of his ancestors, Johnson City. His wife, Lady Bird, was largely responsible for the blankets of ostentatious wildflowers - tansy aster, shooting star, gayfeather, Turk’s cap, curlycup gumweed, winecup, etc. - that appear like Technicolor hallucinations alongside Hill Country highways every spring. Her highway beautification program mandated that thousands of pounds of seeds be spread throughout the state. Texas wines may not attract visitors to the state, but apparently, a whole mess of purty flowers do.

Johnson City, an easy hour outside Austin via highway 290, is a good first stop on a road trip through the Hill Country. Actually, before you hit the town, take a little detour down RR 2766 to Texas Hills Vineyard . (You may not go to Texas just for the wine, but ferchrissakes don’t drive past it!) You’ll know you’re there when you happen upon a herd of runty white goats in a field next to the vineyard. Owners Kathy and Gary Gilstrap will probably be pouring when you enter the modest tasting room, so you can ask them yourself why the hell they started making big, demonstrative Italian-style wines in the heart of Texas. Their estate-bottled Due Bianco (made with semillon and a fruity wallop of pinot grigio) is the kind of cool pear-melon refreshment that food will only spoil. Find the shade of a big ol’ Texas live oak on the banks of the Pedernales and enjoy tutto solo.

Ronnie’s Pit Barbeque located just south of the turnoff to Texas Hills, has distracted many a visitor to Johnson City. And with good reason. The Gilstraps, who’ve clearly made it their business to know such things, swear their estate-bottled “Super Texcan” sangiovese (enhanced with cabernet sauvignon) is the only wine to stand up to Ronnie’s profoundly smoky brisket. The deep, rich color and equally intense flavors give it plenty of backbone to stand up any T-bone, no matter how bloody. Lyndon B. Johnson National Park, the state’s shrine to its rarest politician, is worth visiting on your way outta town. Johnson’s boyhood home, as well as those of his relatives, still stands next to fenced-off fields of longhorns that bear signs warning, “Do not climb on fence. Longhorns are dangerous.”

Good ol’ Texas advice for pantywaists.

Go west of Johnson City on 290 and you’re headed toward the heart of the Fredericksburg appellation. The first evidence of this incursion is a sign pointing you to Becker Vineyards . Even if you don’t stop by their saloon-style tasting room - which is bustling on the weekends - don’t leave Fredericksburg, the Hill Country or Texas without trying some of their firm and fruity, pan-Euro selection of wines - gewurztraminer, viognier, muscat canelli and more, including a zinfandel that’s as spicy and smooth as an illicit Cuban cheroot. (Or Eva Mendes. Hmm, preferably.)

A couple miles west of Becker on 290 you’ll have to make a difficult choice: turn right into the Grape Creek Country Market , where the mesquite smoke from their barbecued meats hangs heavy in the dining area, or left to the Grape Creek Vineyard , (no relation) just up the hill. If you’re smart and haven’t already stuffed your gob fulla brisket back at Ronnie’s, you’ll get a whole pile of smoky, spice-rubbed meat (I recommend the turkey thighs, pork cushions and a coupla baby back ribs) and a few sides (potato salad and maybe some slaw) from the market. Carry the greasy mess up to the vineyard’s outdoor patio for a wine country picnic, Texas style. Wash it all down with Grape Creek’s Cabernet Trois, a three-cab concoction with just enough zip and bell pepper bite to take the heat off your gullet. Do not kiss your companion, unless it happens to be a longhorn.

Next stop: Fredericksburg. Highway 290 turns into Main Street, so finding downtown is a no-brainer. The area’s German heritage is a bit obvious - Der or Das in front of every name. Skip the Fredericksburg Winery, which seems to be housed in a soulless old five-and-dime store (think Woolworth’s). Spend more than a few minutes looking around the dreary space and you’ll hear the same tired spiel from all the drones who work there.

Go down the street to Cuvee Wine Bar and Bistro , where you can sink into the living-room-style leather sofas and chairs, or sidle up to the bar and talk Texas wines with owner/sommelier Len White. Sure, the name and atmosphere may be more Sonoma than San Antonio, but Len’ll give you the skinny on which Texas blanco will take the sting out of the habanero/scotch bonnet piri-piri Cuvee serves with its fat-and-juicy grilled prawns.

If you’re gonna spend a night in the Hill Country, don’t bother with the frilly B&Bs and guest houses in downtown Fredericksburg. Drive out to the county airport and get yourself a room at the Hangar Hotel . This converted hangar (that features a deck overlooking the runway) is a semi-posh ‘40s-themed spread, with a great martini bar and a chromed-out diner-style restaurant.

And that may, in fact, be reason enough to travel to Texas.

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