I made no secret that I didn't enjoy many of the events I covered at the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festivals in 1996 and 1997, although the opportunity to hear the legendary Robert Mondavi speak last year was worth the entire weekend. This year, I decided to attend strictly as a paying customer, steering clear of the expensive, crowded functions in favor of smaller events.

The Thursday vineyard luncheons were new offerings this year, attracting more than 75 people each to Becker Vineyards and Fall Creek Vineyards. These parties featured winery tours and delicious lunches prepared by Central Texas chefs and complemented by Hill Country wines. The one that I attended at Becker was a great success. An open surrey provided tours of the vineyard while chefs from the Navajo Grill in Fredericksburg, Guadalupe River Ranch Resort in Boerne, and Polo's at the Fairmont in San Antonio put the finishing touches on a delightful three-course meal. Once the guests were seated on the winery's deep, shady porch and the food was being served, the winemakers from Hill Country Cellars, Bell Mountain Vineyards, Becker, and Messina Hof discussed their individual wineries and the wines poured with each course. Dining with Bob and Evelyn Oberhellman of Bell Mountain, I learned about the challenges involved in growing pinot noir grapes in Central Texas (and anywhere else, for that matter). The Oberhellmans can tell how many Californians have moved to Central Texas by the increase in the number of visitors at the winery. "They're used to visiting wineries," Evelyn told me, "and on weekends they really come out." Dr. Richard Becker spoke modestly about the great reception his Viognier is experiencing and told us about the stand of wild mustang grapevines that initially led him to believe his Gillespie county acreage might make a good vineyard. Though there are still some mustang grapes on the property, the ones nearest the vineyards had to come out because they harbor the dreaded phylloxera. The Manigolds of Spicewood Vineyards in Burnet County provided everyone with a list of stores and restaurants that carry their wines because it's against the law to serve tastings as their winery is in a dry county. Hill Country Cellars winemaker Anne Welch invited folks to their Guest Chef Luncheon Series which begins this month on Saturday, April 18 with a lunch prepared by the Inn at Brushy Creek in Round Rock. Subsequent luncheons will be held on the third Saturday of each month through the summer. Call them at 259-2000.

Later in the weekend, I ran into local wine writer and sommelier Sarah Jane English and heard about her new website. Wine enthusiasts can check it out at At the Saturday seminar on the future of the Texas wine industry, it was encouraging to hear all the panelists discuss "terroir." This French term refers to the concept of making wine that will be the best possible expression of the area from which it comes, taking into account such factors as soil types and microclimates. This could just mean the end to undistinguished chardonnays and cabernets and a future of more distinctive Texas wines. From all reports, the Saturday night dinner and the Sunday fair offered local purveyors and chefs plenty of networking opportunities. It ranged from Boggy Creek farmer Larry Butler sharing information about the organic certification process with J*One*S rancher John Jones to amused Austin chefs helping to plate up the Saturday night dinner who observed a genuine, French prima donna hissy fit demonstrated by visiting chef Jean-Louis Palladin when some of his plates exited the kitchen with the squab reduction sauce touching the foie gras terrine. Some nights I really miss still being in the kitchen.

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