I’m in New York City, roughly eight hours removed from a sleepless red-eye flight from California. Specifically, I’m in the Chelsea District at Rouge Tomate, a restaurant still basking in the afterglow of receiving their first Michelin star. But I’m not here to eat. I’m here to taste some Texas wines.
I’m in town to do other, more New York things. The wine tasting is purely by happenstance; the product of an event invitation graciously extended to me when its organizer found out my Big Apple plans coincided with the soiree. The notion of a Californian traveling to New York to taste Texas wines for the first time is logistically bonkers, but I can’t help but smile at the quirkiness as I grab my name tag and my glass. I’m also wearing the grin because I’m intrigued as hell.
You see, I have a soft spot for wines made in non-traditional regions. I enjoy the usual suspects like everyone else, but there’s a curiosity within me that seems to only be satisfied when the seemingly odd stuff comes out. The cynic may call this morbid curiosity, but I’m not a cynic in this case. Every time I go off the viticultural grid, I do so with the hope that I find something good. I know I’m not going to find the second coming of Caymus or Opus One, and that’s fine. That’s not what I’m looking for. What I am seeking is something fun, drinkable, and made with passion.
My wife and I make our way through the room. It’s early in the event, so there’s ample space to comfortably bounce from station to station. I don’t recognize any of the labels. I do, however, begin to recognize a pattern as I talk to the people pouring wines from new-to-me entities like Pedernales Cellars, Spicewood Vineyards, and William Chris Vineyards. At one point during the conversation, they mention they’re located in Texas Hill Country, off U.S. Highway 290, several miles west of Austin. They cite Fredericksburg as the region’s hub before narrowing their address to a more specific city like Hye or San Saba. It doesn’t take long to surmise U.S. Highway 290 functions an awful lot like California State highway 29 does in Napa – something that becomes crystal when one of the servers refers to the road as the Texas Wine Trail. Indeed, a day of tooling down this road with a designated driver yields the chance to indulge in a host of tastings. Since Fredericksburg is roughly a 90-minute drive from Austin, doing so is surprisingly convenient should you need a break from the capital city’s weirdness.
When the conversation with the servers turns to the wines, a couple of other patterns emerge. Firstly, most of the folks behind the counters are either the winemakers or the vineyard managers. Secondly, even though some of the wineries have hauled in medals and awards over the years, these people are fully aware they’re not on the same plane as Napa or Bordeaux. They’re fine with this. All they want to do is satiate a passion for creating something unique from Texas soil, and have a good time while doing so. They come across as farmers first and vintners second, and this mindset makes them approachable and engaging in a way that’s somewhat rare in a major league appellation. Their collective persona is very similar to the people you’d come across in Temecula, the rustic Southern California wine region north of San Diego County and south of the sprawling Inland Empire. They, too, don’t seem too serious in their pursuit of medals and accolades. They’re more concerned with making sure you’re simply enjoying their passion project.
Of course, folksiness and charm only get you so far. The kindest of people can also make the crummiest of wines. For the most part, such a dichotomy doesn’t exist this day. The wines we sample are rather good, save for a couple of clunkers. None of them were the second coming of Silver Oak, and that’s perfectly okay. Like I’d mentioned earlier, I wasn’t looking for that large of a revelation, just a tiny slice of pleasant surprise. Besides, the people making the wine would be the first to agree with my overall assessment. At least, that’s the vibe they radiate.
The reason these Lone Star wines work is because they have a firm grasp on what grapes do and don’t work in Texas Hill Country soil. Seemingly everyone pours a Tempranillo, and there is plenty of Viognier, Roussanne, and red blends to share. A mixed bag of other single varietal wines rounds out the day, but these are the outliers; grounds for various noble experiments. This narrow focus works to their favor. It also runs counter to the early days of Temecula, where misbegotten scientific advice convinced them that anything can thrive. Considering Temecula and Fredericksburg are plotted in similar latitudes, it’s noteworthy that the sins of the former weren’t really committed by the latter. It’s also commendable.
The event wraps up and we emerge ready to tackle the rest of the afternoon, which includes a late lunch and a return to the belly of the beast known as Times Square to snag theater tickets. I’m energized by New York’s allure again, but I can’t help but think about next summer. We’re planning a family trip to Texas, and there’s a decent chance we’re going to roll through Austin. If so, I think I may have to take a detour down U.S. Highway 290.