Day Trips

There's drupelets a-plenty at the Bella Vista Ranch pick-your-own fruit farm.

Central Texas blackberries
Central Texas blackberries (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Bella Vista Ranch outside of Wimberley isn't your ordinary pick-your-own fruit farm. Besides rows of blackberries, raspberries, figs, and tomatoes, the ranch has an olive tree orchard. With the help of Mother Nature, or at least without Mother Nature's wrath, Bella Vista hopes to become the first commercial olive oil producer in Texas.

John Dougherty plans on his little spread about an hour southwest of Austin becoming the gourmet chef's best friend. In Europe, olive oil is sold directly from family farms that have been producing their special creation for generations. The oil is excellent quality, and each is unique, Dougherty says. "It's good for you and good-tasting."

Olive oil is a natural fruit juice, Dougherty says, and it needs a little aging, but actually has a limited shelf life. "The fresher the better," he says. Before his first crop has even been processed there already has been a lot of interest in the product. He hopes that once the cooks of Central Texas discover the joys of cooking with fresh olive oil, they'll never go back to the grocery store shelves again.

Dougherty hopes the cooking community will beat a path to his door. And what a beautiful drive the chefs of Austin will have getting there. From Dripping Springs the route takes RR 12 south 10.6 miles to Jacob's Well Road (turn right at the VFW rodeo grounds on CR 182) and then the next right onto Mount Sharp Road.

Bella Vista Ranch is between the Dancing Waters Inn and Lookout Mountain, a favorite place to watch the sunset. The area is classic scenic Texas Hill Country with rocky hills covered in juniper and oaks surrounding fertile valleys and fields. "There is a lot of similarities in the soil structure [between the ranch and] Italy," Dougherty says.

He purchased the former goat ranch specifically for its agricultural potential. On the back acreage Dougherty runs 16 head of the "world's friendliest Red Brangus." "My wife is from downtown San Francisco, and she always wanted to own some cows," he says.

After 20 years in the computer industry the Doughertys ended up in Austin in 1990 and decided they wanted a lifestyle change. At first they thought about buying a vineyard in California and then considered planting a vineyard at Bella Vista, but the dry county laws prevented them from selling their wares at a winery.

After six months of cleaning up the property, the Doughertys moved to the old ranch house in 1996. "We spent the next year and half preparing the land and learning about olives," he says.

While living in California in the 1980s, Dougherty had become interested in growing olive trees. "Reason said [growing olive trees in Texas] could work," he says. With an efficient drip irrigation system and modern farming techniques, the buds of a first crop are already the size of a walnut.

"I've never actually spoken to anyone who has tried to raise olives in Texas," Dougherty says, "but everyone has told me that I won't get a crop. My theory is that it has been attempted, it didn't work, so they gave up." In January 1998, Dougherty planted 800 olive trees.

Looking more like the seasoned farmer that he has become than the computer salesman he used to be, Dougherty faced his first big challenge the first winter. On December 28, 1998, a blue norther blew across the Hill Country. The day had been near-perfect, with temperatures in the 70s. That evening the thermometer dropped below freezing.

Within a couple of hours Dougherty lost 550 trees. "It was a typical demonstration of what was happening to olive growers in Texas," he says. According to his estimates, really cold blue northerns only come through the area every three or four years. Even though there is no effective way to protect the orchard, once the trees get a little older they will be better able to survive the capricious Texas winters. Eventually, the weather that affects the local peach crop will have about the same effect on his trees.

"This is a working ranch," Dougherty says, "but it's an experimental station, too. We've proven that olives will grow in Texas. It's more difficult, but it can be done." The new olive press from Italy will be ready to process the first crop in the late summer. He is a little disappointed that the crop is so small, and there will be limited amounts of the oil available.

Raspberries are currently getting near the end of their season, but the 300 plants will have a second crop around the first of October. He also has salad tomatoes as well as a kind that is perfect for sun-drying or making tomato paste. Bella Vista harvests their blackberries earlier than most Texas farms -- from the first of May through the first of June. If you go to pick your own fruit, prepare for the Texas heat in fields.

It's a good idea to call the ranch to see what is available before making the drive. Dougherty can be reached at 512/847-6514 or visit the ranch's Web page at www.bvranch.com.

Coming up this weekend ...

Lookout Mountain on Mt. Sharp Road outside of Wimberley is taking reservations for their summer nature tours through August, Thursdays-Saturdays. Lunch is served at the lodge 11:30am-2pm with the Sunset Dinners by reservation only. 512/847-5010 or www.lookoutwimberley.com.

Lavender Festival at Becker vineyards outside of Stonewall hosts special events centered on three acres of Lavender fields, July 14-15. 830/644-2681 or www.beckervineyards.com.

Coming up ...

George Washington and the American Republic is a touring exhibit at the San Antonio Central Library, 600 Soledad, through Aug. 9 The special showing was organized by the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. 210/207-2500.

Harvest Weekends at Messina Hof Winery and Resort in Bryan sends visitors into the vineyard to pick grapes, then a grape stomping, followed by lunch in the estate's dining room. Weekends, July 20-Aug. 12. Reservations required. 979/778-9463 or www.messinahof.com.

Shakespeare at Winedale is one of the best events in Texas. Staged by students from UT, the performances always offer a unique twist on the bard's tales, weekends July 19-Aug. 12. v 979/278-3530 or www.shakespeare-winedale.org.

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