Day Trips

Dry Comal Creek Vineyards and their user-friendly wines.

Winemaker Franklin Houser
Winemaker Franklin Houser (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Dry Comal Creek Vineyards is pretty enough to be nestled on the hillside of a California valley or strategically placed in the rolling hills of southern France. We're fortunate enough to have this scenic little winery semi-secluded in Central Texas six miles west of New Braunfels.

The guts of a winery isn't its scenic location, but the quality of its product. In its first two years of production, Dry Comal has produced seven wines that have won 14 medals in competitions around the state, including the silver for the 1999 Sauvignon Blanc and bronze medal for the 1998 White Veritage at the prestigious Texas Open wine show. Not bad for a winemaster who is a "recovering lawyer."

"I try to make user-friendly wines," says Franklin Houser, the winery's proprietor and chief vintner. He bought the 103-acre ranch in 1975, as weekend retreat for his family to "chase cattle, shoot guns, and throw rocks at each other."

After nearly 40 years of practicing law in San Antonio, Houser turned his shingle to the wall and moved to the country. In a front page story in Texas Lawyer magazine about his change in occupation, the former UT law student opened both barrels at the state of jurisprudence in Texas. "I enjoyed practicing law, but it's no longer a profession," he says. "We deserve anything anybody says about us [lawyers]."

At first the little rock building beside the ranch house was supposed to be his office when he retired to become a country lawyer, but he discovered a vocation he loved more. Most of the soil in this part of the Hill Country is a thin layer of dirt mixed with lots of cliche and rocks. But in the protected valley around the house where the Dry Comal Creek had deposited centuries of silt, the soil was deep and fertile.

Houser decided to try an acre of grapes, and "they grew like crazy." He increased the planting to 4,000 plants over five acres with remarkable results. Most grapevines take four to five years, in the best of circumstances, before they are productive. After only a year and a half, his vines were producing commercial-quality grapes.

By the summer of 1998, the office was turned into a winery. That first year they produced 900 cases of award-winning wines. In the summer of 2000, the winery processed 40 tons of grapes with only 25% purchased from other vineyards. Houser makes his wine in what he calls "Texas style." "I let the wine go where it wants to go," he says.

Among the winery's offerings it is hard not to find one that you don't like. Houser's wines tend to be full of flavor and fresh-tasting with a distinctive fruitiness that is often absent from grocery-store wines. Besides being an award-winner, the Sauvignon Blanc is unusual from most other wines of that type. Houser puts the batch through a secondary fermentation with half of it in new French oak barrels to enhance the flavors. During a tasting at the winery, the server called it their "wow" and recommended it with spicy foods.

Dry Comal Creek is the only winery in Texas making a French Colombard wine. A semi-sweet wine with a crisp flavor best enjoyed cold before or after a meal, this is one of Houser's favorites. A popular wine during the 1950s and '60s, French Colombard was a victim of its own success when California wineries began producing it as a jug wine in large quantities. Americans' palates soon shifted to the drier Chardonnays. Houser says that the French Colombard grape is still the most popular grape grown in California with the concentrate being used to flavor baby food. "French Colombard grape juice would enhance the taste of anything," he says.

Over the years, even the style of the popular Chardonnay has shifted. In the 1980s, led by California's Kendall-Jackson winery, the white wine's flavors became more subtle and brisk. Houser's 1998 Chardonnay reflects the popular style with a hint of a Texas accent. The 1999 version of the same wine is more reminiscent of the earlier style with more rounded and smoother taste.

Houser says that the difference in the production between the two vintages of the Chardonnay was that the later version included a large percentage of grapes that had turned to raisins on the vine. The dried grapes were caused by Pierce's Disease, a bacteria that attacks the grapevine and kills it.

Several Hill Country vineyards have been destroyed by the disease that doesn't affect humans, but destroys the vines' ability to transmit water. Spread by leaf-eating insects, there is no cure for the scourge once it begins to spread. The lack of a good freeze over the past five years has not diminished the bug population. Last summer's drought helped a little and this winter's cold spell will help hold off the inevitable. "There's not much that can be done," Houser says. "It's like trying to hold back a flood."

For the consumer, it will mean higher prices for the popular vinifera grape wines. West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona will still be producing the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes for Hill Country wineries. Houser will be replanting his vines with Black Spanish grapes that were first brought to Texas by Spanish missionaries. Look for his new Texas-style port wine added to his already impressive wine list.

Dry Comal Creek Vineyards is off of TX 46 between U.S. 281 and New Braunfels at 1741 Herbelin Road. Free tastings and tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5pm. For more information, call 830/885-4121 or go to www.drycomalcreek.com.

Coming up this weekend ...

Old Gruene Market Days attracts nearly 100 vendors and thousands of shoppers to the historic district north of New Braunfels, Feb.17-18. 830/629-6441.

Mardi Gras! in Galveston includes parties, parades, and live entertainment around the island city, Feb.16-27. 888/425-4753 or www.mardigrasgalveston.com.

Coming up ...

Ft. Martin Scott, east of Fredericksburg, has reopened as a historic site and public park. Self-guided walking tours are available Tuesday through Sunday, 10am-5pm. 830/997-9895.

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