Day Trips

Mandola Estate Winery pairs handmade Italian-style wines with a Texas accent to an Old World-style Italian market and restaurant

Mandola Estate Winery winemaker Mark Penna
Mandola Estate Winery winemaker Mark Penna (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Mandola Estate Winery, outside of Dripping Springs, pairs handmade Italian-style wines with a Texas accent to an Old World-style Italian market and restaurant. Founded by the Mandola family, who also operate the popular Austin eatery under the family name, the winery announced its first release last month after more than four years of preparation.

"Food and wine are meant to be fun," says Mark Penna, the winery's winemaker as he led a small tour. "We're starting a quiet revolution here in the Texas wine industry," he says. "We want to set new trends and draw attention to Texas wines."

Starting a winery was a long-held dream of her husband, says Trina Mandola. Damian Mandola has been a fixture on the Houston restaurant scene for more than 30 years. He opened his first restaurant as a college senior in 1975. Damian's Cucina Italiana was a hit in the downtown Houston theatre district when he helped start the chain of Carrabba's Italian Grills with his nephew, Johnny Carrabba. In March 2006, Damian and Trina opened the Mandola Market at North Lamar and 47th Street in Austin.

The Mandolas partnered with their Houston neighbors, Drs. Stan and Lisa Duchman to bring the million-dollar Hill Country winery facility on line. "They keep telling me not to quit my day job yet," says Stan Duchman, a Houston cardiologist with a passion for wines.

"The really hard part of starting a winery is finding a good winemaker that you can work with," Duchman says. Penna has the rare mix of expertise and pleasant personality.

With a thick beard and glasses, Penna looks more like a college professor than a winemaker. "Don't get me started talking, or I'll bore you with the minutiae," he tells the tour group with a laugh. A 1990 graduate of Texas A&M, Penna has more than 20 years of winemaking and vineyard management experience on the High Plains south of Lubbock.

Despite the warning, Penna's winery tour is anything but boring. As he walks around the new winery, his demeanor seems to alternate from being in a cathedral to being in a play room. He's respectfully having a lot of fun, and when he starts talking about experimenting with traditional Italian blended wines, his eyes sparkle.

"We'll be working entirely in Italian varietals," he says. "Italian grapes do very well in Central Texas and on the High Plains." So far, they have planted 8 acres of Montepulciano, Moscato, Barbera, and Sangiovese grapes. Eventually, more than 20 acres of vines will surround the winery built to look like an Italian villa. Produc-tion is targeted for 20,000 cases a year.

With its high ceilings, the tasting room looks like a grand dining room. Visitors can belly up to the bar to sample the first six releases from the new winery. Using the equipment at the nearby Driftwood Winery, Mandola Estates began making wine while the vineyard and winery were being built.

The initial releases are respectable. Using grapes from California, the winery's Viognier and Pinot Grigio are excellent light wines for hot Texas weather. Penna says the Viognier will eventually be discontinued, and that they have started buying Pinot grapes from an organic cotton, peanut, and grape farmer outside of Lubbock.

The winery's Sangiovese and Syrah are also on the light side, with the Syrah being the more interesting. Under the Canto Felice label, the winery mixes Sangiovese, Syrah, and Pinot Grigio grapes for a lightly sweet wine that is easy and fun to drink.

Penna made only 290 cases of the 2004 Nebbiolo, a classic Piedmont grape that is rather rare in the States. It is a robust wine that gives hints at the new direction the winery is taking Texas winemaking. The Nebbiolo grape can also be very difficult to work with in the field and in the fermenting tanks.

Mandola Estate Winery is down the road from the Salt Lick Barbecue on FM 150. The tasting room opens Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm, and on Sunday, noon to 5pm. For information, call 512/858-1470, or go to Trina Mandola says they hope to add a restaurant at the site by June 2007.

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Mandola Estate Winery, Mark Penna, Damian's Cucina Italiana, Carraba's Italian Grills, Driftwood Winery

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