Wineries to Watch
Flat Creek Estate Vineyard and Winery24912-1 E. Singleton Bend in Marble Falls
Owners: Rick and Madelyn Naber
Winemaker: Craig Parker
Rick and Madelyn Naber grew up in a farming community in Iowa, then lived all over the world while Rick managed multimillion-dollar construction sites. When the travel turned tedious, they decided to retire early and move to the north side of Lake Travis. You can only ski and play with your Harley so long before boredom tiptoes into your life, so they decided to buy 80 acres on the north side of Lake Travis and start a farm. After contemplating all sorts of crops, they decided on raising grapes and making wine. One little problem -- they didn't know how to do either.
Enter Australian winemaker Craig Parker, a 15-year veteran of Australia, France, New Zealand, and California wineries. After a stint with Robert Mondavi (working on Opus One, among others), he followed his sweetheart to Texas and started looking for work. The Nabers snapped him up.
Flat Creek has one of the prettiest locations in Texas and a vineyard that's as carefully manicured as many first growths in France. Parker is making superb wines, using fruit from the Hill Country and the Lubbock area. The first vintage produced a cabernet sauvignon that is fully competitive with anything coming from California in the price range. They also made a scrumptious muscat blanc that just begs to be matched up with food. They've since added a wine they call Due Ami (a delicious dry white made from semillon and sauvignon blanc) and another muscat. Coming soon will be a merlot and a sangiovese. The most exciting wine hasn't even been made yet. In 2001, they planted a grape that Parker should make magic with: shiraz.
McReynolds Wines706 Shovel Mountain Rd. in Cypress Mill
Owners: Mac and Maureen McReynolds
Winemaker: Mac McReynolds
Mac and Maureen met at the University of Chicago in the early Sixties. She was after a Ph.D. in biochemical genetics, and he was pursuing a Ph.D. in geology while also working at the Institute for Computer Research. After she graduated, Maureen served as a research assistant at Stanford for Dr. Paul Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb). While in Palo Alto, she and Mac both fell in love with the Bay Area wine business. Mac got involved in the wine business by engineering solutions to winery problems. Maureen applied for a job as winemaker at Charles Krug, where the owner, Peter Mondavi, informed her that no woman would ever be a winemaker (ironically, his brother, Robert, hired a woman winemaker six months later). Discouraged, she and Mac came to Austin, where, after enough problems to make a disaster movie, they ended up with this nice winery in Cypress Mill.
The McReynolds make five wines, each with distinct flavors. If they're not sold out, be sure to try my two favorite wines. Their sauvignon blanc is fermented in oak and aged in stainless steel (the opposite of most wineries) and has lots of intense tropical fruit flavors. The Cabernet Sauvignon Fredericksburg is redolent of blackberry cobbler and is soft enough to drink on its own. Mac is also making two new wines, a merlot and a sangiovese.
This is a couple with an incredible story. The only way you'll get the details is by going out to meet them. Their winery is accessible from 281 near Round Mountain or by driving all the way down Hamilton Pool Road. You should call for detailed directions and to make sure they are open. Maureen has a job with the city of Austin and Mac is more likely out than in. The trip is worth it, for both the wine and the experience.
Dry Comal Creek Vineyards1741 Herbelin Rd. in New Braunfels
Owner and winemaker: Franklin Houser
During the late 1950s, Franklin Houser was an artillery soldier in Germany. He fell in love with the wine, but when he returned home, he couldn't find any American wine that appealed to him. After graduating from UT Law School, he set up a very successful plaintiff's practice in San Antonio. In the Seventies, he bought 103 acres outside of New Braunfels as an investment. By the mid-Nineties, after fighting for plaintiffs for many years, he decided he wanted to leave law. Franklin's favorite joke is about how to make a small fortune in the wine business (start with a large one). He learned the truth of the joke the hard way.
He planted his vineyard in 1996, and the grapes grew like weeds. The next year, he planted 4,000 vines. His first production happened quick and won immediate awards. Then he found out that Dry Comal Creek's name was a cruel joke. There was a big rain in 1998; the creek flooded and left the vineyard and winery submerged. They pulled everything back together, and, in 1999, Franklin decided to make a bold move -- he decided he trusted the quality of his fruit so much that he would not filter his wines. Seven thousand bottles ended up going through secondary fermentation. Franklin didn't want to put his name on them. They were gone.
In 2000, while checking to see if his cabernet was harvestable, he noticed that the chardonnay was looking a little sickly. Testing confirmed he had a serious problem with Pierce's disease. With production hitting about 10% of what it should be, he ripped out his entire vineyard. Most people would have given up. Franklin doesn't know how to.
Today, the Dry Comal Creek Vineyards are planted with disease-resistant grapes that are a challenge for winemaking. A few bottles remain from his original vineyard, but Franklin now purchases most of his grapes. If he has any left, be sure to try his Cabernet Franc, a splendid bottle of wine with rich aromas. Also, be sure to try his French Colombard, a generally hopeless grape that Franklin has somehow managed to corral into a quality wine.
Chisholm Trail Winery2367 Usener Rd. in Fredericksburg 877/990-2675
Owners: Harry Skeins Jr. and Paula K. Williamson
Winemaker: Paula K. Williamson
Harry Skeins Jr. and Paula K. Williamson were San Antonio attorneys that wanted to move to the country. After visiting the wine areas of Germany and Italy, they decided to try producing wine. In 1992, they found land west of Fredericksburg and bought it. Vernon Gold, a well-known wine consultant, hired on in 1994. Gold carefully taught Williamson how to make wine, and they had their first bottling in 2000. Unfortunately, Gold died before he could taste the first vintage. I think he would have been proud of her work.
My favorite Chisholm Trail wine, their merlot, is sold out at the winery, but might still be available at a couple of stores locally (Grape Vine Market and Steven's Liquor and Fine Wines are possibilities). It is a huge tannic beast of a wine with unusual, nutmeg aromas. My other favorite is their Cabernet Franc Rosé, a wine in the style of France's chinon. Drink it at about 50 degrees on a hot Texas afternoon for cooling relief. There is also a new release called Silver Spur, which is a combination of cabernet sauvignon and merlot that has great promise.
Comfort Cellars Winery723 Front St. in Comfort
Owner: Cathie Winmill
Winemaker: Bob Winmill
Maj. Cathie Winmill and her husband were ready to retire from the service. Her father had made wine while she was growing up in Illinois, and the thought of a little vineyard excited them both. Sadly, her husband fell sick and died. Cathie turned the tragedy into something constructive by launching herself into physical work. She took her rocky, hilly tract of land and sculpted it into a vineyard with her own two hands. Think for a second about how much time and effort it takes to terrace two acres of solid limestone. To her, it was no big deal. With a military love of acronyms, she simply refers to herself as an RRS (Rock Relocation Specialist).
Operating both the winery and covering the vineyard proved too much. Luckily, her brother, Bob, decided to move down to Texas and help out his sister. Now she runs the vineyard and tasting room, and he runs the winery and makes the wines.
The town of Comfort is loaded with antique and crafts shops and draws the appropriate crowd. Every time I've been in the Comfort Cellars tasting room, the customers are asking for sweeter and sweeter wines. Cathie obliges their tastes and makes some very nice wines. One was a total surprise to me. I assumed I wouldn't like their Orange Chardonnay, simply based on its name. Once I tried it, I had to admit I was wrong. They ferment the wine with oranges and leave it sweet, creating a delicious dessert wine.
Be sure to say hi to the cute little Comfort Cellars dog, Raisin.
Driftwood Vineyards21550 RR 12 in Driftwood
Owners: Gary and Kathy Elliott
Winemaker: Gary Elliott
Gary Elliott has had. He started on the family farm in California raising avocados, oranges, alfalfa, and grapes. From there he went to college, then joined the military as a fireman. After discharge, he became a ski instructor in Japan, a tour guide in Asia, more ski instructing in California, then he started a commercial aviation service. When Kathy's father died, she inherited a gorgeous 880-acre farm in Driftwood. At the same time, Gary was offered a job as a pilot for Continental Airlines. After a lot of soul-searching, they chose to move to Driftwood, where Gary tried cattle, hay, and horses, all to no avail. His family back in California had started making some money selling grapes to Beringer, so he decided to plant a few acres of grapes.
It didn't take long for word to get around about the quality of Gary's fruit. Several Texas wineries started buying Gary's grapes and winning awards on the wines. Kathy and Gary decided it was time to make their own wines. Gary set about building a winery and tasting room, locating both on a delightful hilltop overlooking the vineyard.
Driftwood wines reflect Gary's biases. He is against overextracted, fruit-bomb-style wines. He doesn't like to taste or smell too much oak. Gary aims to let the natural flavors of his superb grapes take center stage. His chardonnay is a perfect example. Imagine fruit from California being produced by a French chablis house -- elegance over power, yet with enough fruit to fool you into thinking this bone-dry wine still has residual sugar. Gary's viognier, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is simply world-class.
Driftwood wines are only available at the winery, but it's worth the short trip, between Dripping Springs and Wimberley on Highway 12.
More Hill Country Wineries
Spicewood VineyardCR 409, off Highway 71 West, Spicewood
Fall Creek VineyardRR 2241, west of Lake Buchanan past Tow
Alamosa Wine CellarsFM 430, 3 miles west of Bend
Bell Mountain VineyardHighway 16, 14 miles north of Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg Winery247 W. Main in the Bluebonnet Marketplace, Fredericksburg
Grape Creek VineyardHighway 290 West at South Grape Creek, 9 miles east of Fredericksburg
830/644-2710 or 800/950-7392
Becker VineyardsJenschke Lane, 1.8 miles south of Highway 290 West, Fredericksburg
830/644-2681 or 800/946-9463
Texas Hills VineyardsRR 27660, off Highway 281 South, 1 mile east of Johnson City
Sister Creek VineyardFM 1376, 22 miles south of Highway 290 West, Sisterdale
Pilar Bluff Winery300 Burnet Country Rd. 111, off Naruna Road, west of Lampasas