Twenty years ago, the bucolic rolling hills southwest of Austin were dotted with ranches, a well-known family barbecue operation, and a lone vineyard. These days, the Driftwood area is bustling with new housing developments, busy wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms, in addition to event venues and three culinary hot spots. The once-sleepy gateway to the Hill Country now offers attractions that make it a prime destination for dining, recreation, and special events. Take off down a winding country back road to discover wine, food, and camaraderie.
Driftwood Estate Vineyards4001 Elder Hill Rd., 512/858-9667; www.driftwoodvineyards.com
Driftwood Estate boasts some fine wines as well as one of the most spectacular hilltop views of the Hill Country you're likely to find. However, make sure to check out their website for rules and regulations before you go – they can't always accommodate large tour buses and are not operating a public park where unsupervised children or unleashed dogs would be welcomed. That being said, there is a lovely picnic area and an inviting tasting room.
Trattoria Lisina13308 FM 150, 512/894-3111; www.trattorialisina.com
Tue.-Thu., 4-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 11am-9pm
A visit to Trattoria Lisina is like entering the embrace of the big, exuberant Mandola family who've invited you to dine at their country estate. This place is geared toward all family configurations, with an attractive, tree-shaded playscape for kids with excess energy and a comfortable patio with a pleasant fountain for folks who would prefer a quieter dining experience. The busy kitchen is open and the food here remains reliable – hearty, robust, and rustic. I'm always partial to the osso bucco, but the Mamma's Meatballs here are as good as you're likely to find anywhere in Central Texas. And don't leave without a cappuccino and a serving of sfinci, little cinnamon sugar drop doughnuts with bowls of honey and custard for dipping.
Wimberley Valley Winery2825 Co. Rd. 183 (Lone Man Mountain Rd.), 512/847-2592; www.wimberleyvalleywine.com
Though Wimberley Valley Winery has been producing wines in the Hill Country since 1983, for years they operated a tasting room in Old Town Spring. Due to increased traffic in the Driftwood area, they now have their tasting room at the vineyard.
The Salt Lick18300 FM 1826, 512/858-4959; www.saltlickbbq.com
While Austin's new artisan barbecue crowd may look down on the venerable Salt Lick, you've got to give props to any country barbecue outfit that's rapidly approaching its 50th birthday, has always been cash-only, and allows customers to BYOB. The Roberts family has to be doing something right here to have such loyal crowds year after year and national accolades from the likes of celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio, and Michael Symon. These days, the Salt Lick is all about maximizing the property – there's the rustic Pecan Grove party facility on the banks of Onion Creek, the more elegant Thurman's Mansion wedding venue on a hill overlooking the valley, and 50 acres of vineyards growing grapes to make wines that pair well with their food. There's a pretty impressive symmetry at work here.
Salt Lick Cellars18300-C FM 1826, 512/829-4013; www.saltlickcellars.com
Sun., noon-9pm; Mon.-Thu., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-9:30pm
Second-generation Salt Lick owner Scott Roberts has lots of plans for developing the prime ranch property that has been in his family since soon after the Civil War. One of those plans was a vineyard to produce barbecue-friendly wines. The Salt Lick now has 50 acres planted in vineyards, and they showcase a selection of wines in their own tasting room that are produced under contract with other wineries. Longtime local wine expert Jay Knepp is on hand to assist you. Barbecue Red, anyone?
Hays City Store8989 FM 150, 512/722-3905; www.hayscitystoretx.com
Mon.-Wed., 11am-9pm; Thu.-Fri., 11am-10pm; Sat., 9am-10pm; Sun., 9am-9pm
After years as a busy corner convenience store and gas station known for breakfast tacos and food from the Sysco truck, the Hays City Store has recently been reborn as a Texas comfort food restaurant with a shaded beer garden, a full bar, and friendly country hospitality. Longtime Austin hospitality professionals Tamra and Travis Tindol provided skilled customer service at such eateries as Z'Tejas Grill, Flores Mexican Restaurant, and the Salty Sow before they bought the shuttered convenience store property last year. Their version of the Hays City Store debuted in the spring of 2015. The neighborhood has definitely noticed and the crowds are flocking here, especially for weekend brunches. We sampled a little of everything from the brunch menu (shrimp and grits, migas, chicken-fried steak and eggs with gravy, handmade onion rings, and chili cheese fries) and found the food to be made-from-scratch, flavorful, and satisfying. The Tindols and their crew will make you feel right at home. This place is definitely worth a stop anytime you're out this way.
Duchman Family Winery13308 FM 150, 512/858-1470; www.duchmanwinery.com
Mon., noon-6pm; Tue.-Thu., 11am-8pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-9pm; Sun., 11am-8pm
Though the Duchmans started out as partners with the Mandola family when the winery was founded in 2004, that partnership has long since dissolved. The winery continues to make fine wines in the Italian and Southern Rhone style, some of which are based on grapes grown on the property and others made from grapes purchased from grape-growing regions around the state. The Tuscan-inspired buildings on the property fit perfectly into the Hill Country landscape, making the winery a popular destination for special events.
Fall Creek Vineyards18059-A FM 1826 512/858-4050; www.fcv.com
Mon.-Sat., 11am-7pm; Sun., noon-5pm
Though the main vineyards and winery facility are still on their primary property near Tow, Fall Creek Vineyards is the newest wine player in the Driftwood area. The Aulers have turned a former ranch home into a classy and comfortable location in which to enjoy their highly esteemed wines. The tasting room evokes an upscale Texas ranch aesthetic with substantial furniture on polished concrete floors, highlighted by limestone and wood accents. The attractively landscaped front patio is great for hosting small events – there was a kid's birthday party complete with a petting zoo the day we visited. The property also features a cottage with accommodations for four and a pool surrounded by flagstone walks. They're set up to handle wine tasting parties, corporate events, weddings, or weekend getaways.