Day Trips

Texas Hills Vineyards brings a little bit of the southern European charm to the Texas Hill Country. From the Mediterranean architecture of the winery's tasting room entrance to the flavor and style of the wines, a visit to the vineyards outside of Johnson City is reminiscent of a journey to the Italian countryside.

"Italian-style wines tend to bring out the fruit flavors more than other wines," explains Gary Gilstrap, owner of the vineyards. In his introduction to the winery at the Texas Wine Trail Web site (, he sums up his philosophy on wine and food by saying: "In Italy the meal has a purpose of its own, and that purpose is not simply to feed the body. We in the U.S. tend to plan meals that are efficient in our use of time, while the Italians plan a meal that will take hours to consume and one is expected to be content, in many ways, after completion of the meal."

Every three weeks or so, Gary and his wife Kathy host guests at the winery for a catered "Evening at the Vineyard." Held on the patio overlooking the grapevines, the leisurely meals can go late into the evening. Each course is paired with a wine that complements the flavors of the food. The chef always gets a standing ovation at the end of the evening, Gilstrap says.

"I'm kind of a gourmet chef myself," says the former pharmacist who has a keen appreciation for good food and wine. "When you put the two together they are even better," he says. "We enjoy teaching people the right food with the right wine. When you accomplish that perfect pairing it is really a beautiful thing."

The vineyards were planted in 1994 with the first full harvest four years later. Already the little winery has made a splash on the Texas wine market. Their wines have drawn the attention of wine experts around the state and have won prestigious awards for a young vineyard. Their Moscato, a lightly sweet wine in the classic Italian style, has placed in all four wine competitions in which it has been entered.

The vineyard's signature grape is a Pinot Grigio. Popular in Italy, Texas Hills was the first commercial planting in Texas. The grayish grape grows in tight clusters about the size of a fist. The juice makes a crisp, fruity white wine that is perfect for summer picnics.

Another award winner for the winery is their chardonnay. A crisp, full-bodied wine with distinct fruit flavors that it is representative of the Gilstrap's method of wine making. Rather than letting the oak barrels dominate the flavor, he allows the natural fruit flavors to remain prominent.

The vineyard also produces a Sangiovese grape that is also an import from Italy. Primarily used in Chianti wine, the Texas-grown grape produces a nice, dry wine with a subtle aftertaste. On the horizon is a blend that Gilstrap calls Tre Paesano or Three Peasants or Countrymen. It will be a mixture of cabernet, merlot, and syarah grapes that promises to have a mellow fruit flavor with nice berry overtones and a slight hint of white pepper from the syarah grapes.

Gary and Kathy fell in love with viticulture in their travels around the world. As a computer consultant to pharmacies, Gary studied wineries during his free time. A friend with a winery in Tuscany has helped the couple develop their unique style of wines. The chemistry of wine making isn't that much different than medical chemistry, he says.

The Gilstraps wanted to establish their winery in Texas and briefly considered West Texas and the Lubbock area. While driving the beautiful back roads between Pedernales State Park and Johnson City, Gary saw the "for sale" sign on the former pasture.

He had the soil tested and was ready to put an offer on the land, but was told it had already sold. Texas Hills Vineyards almost died on the vine until a couple of months later the real estate agent called him back to say the land was for sale again.

On a slight hill, the 20 acres of grapevines are framed by the hills and stands of live oak trees that give the farm the look of a picture postcard. The natural slope of the land is perfect for good drainage without letting the roots dry out. The Gilstraps practice what they call "sustainable organic" farming. There is no way the crop can be totally pesticide-free, but they can reduce the amount of chemicals used in the vineyards as much as possible, he says. During the off-season, they grow legumes and rye to replenish the organic matter in the soil.

Texas Hills Vineyard is one mile east of Johnson City on RR 2766. For a scenic drive from Austin turn off U.S. 290 onto RR 3232 toward Pedernales State Park and then make a left on RR 2766 toward Johnson City. The tasting room is made of rammed earth, a mixture of caliche and cement, with walls two feet thick that helps maintain a constant coolness. The gift shop offers wine souvenirs as well as tastes of the Gilstraps' eight wines. The Evenings at the Vineyard meals are full through July, but reservations will soon be available for the fall series.

The winery is open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sunday, noon-5pm. For information, contact the winery at 830/868-2321 or

Coming up this weekend ...

Peach Jamboree & Rodeo in Stonewall celebrates the summer crop of peaches with entertainment and food made from the local harvest, June 16-17. 830/644-2735.

Texas Heritage Music Jazz Festival at Kerrville's Point Theater offers a variety of music all day, June 18, 830/367-3750.

Juneteenth Celebration in Georgetown's San Gabriel Park honors the emancipation of Texas slaves with a barbecue and entertainment, June 19. 512/863-3228.

Coming up ...

Blues Festival in Navasota pays tribute to local legend Mance Lipscomb with a benefit for the scholarship fund in his honor with lots of music, arts & crafts, and related events at the VFW Hall, June 23-24. 936/825-6600 or 800/252-6642.

Texas State Bluegrass Festival at Canton's First Monday Trade Days Park brings musicians and music lovers from all over for a weekend of serious fun, June 20-24. 903/785-5394.

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