Texas Hill Country

Small-town hospitality in the Lone Star State
Tim Fish

The Texas Hill Country wine region starts out just north of San Antonio and stretches halfway to Fort Worth, some 15,000 square miles.

In Texas, they just don’t do small.

Yet thinking small is the only way to savor a true taste of Texas Hill Country. It's the third-largest American Viticultural Area, dwarfing any in California, so there's just too much territory for even an overachiever to cover. Follow the lead of the folks in Austin and Dallas and head to Fredericksburg, one of the Lone Star State’s most charming towns and the Hill Country's unofficial capital of food and wine.

Fredericksburg (population 11,000) is an anomaly in rural, small-town America. While its cousins across the country offer Dairy Queens, hamburger joints and, if you're lucky, a family-run diner, Fredericksburg has more than 70 restaurants, some of which achieve distinction, and two wine bars within walking distance of each other.

Why Fredericksburg has become popular with the food-and-wine lovers of Texas is easy to understand if you know the lay of the land.

Hill Country has been a refuge for big-city dwellers for decades. It rises gradually up from the plains, offering some relief from the heat and humidity of lowland Texas. Creeks and rivers carve crooked designs into layers of deep limestone. Scrappy oaks and mesquite offer shade, and in the spring and summer, bluebonnets, poppies and other wildflowers cover the countryside like tie-dye.

Located in the heart of all that, just less than 70 miles from Austin, Fredericksburg offers its own particular appeal as a destination. It was founded by German settlers in 1846; over the years, as Main Street filled up with gift shops and German restaurants and biergartens, the town's Willkommen became known throughout the state.

The old ways, however, are changing. "The town is definitely in transition," said Dawn Savanh, whose restaurant, August E's, is one of the area's new generation of upscale establishments.

While German traditions remain a force in the Fredericksburg area, other influences have arrived over the years. The National Museum of the Pacific War, dedicated to World War II hero and native son Adm. Chester Nimitz, began attracting visitors in 1967. The art scene is small but thriving, particularly the Benini Sculpture Ranch in nearby Johnson City, which has 140 acres of large-scale outdoor art. Peach and pecan trees prosper in the area, as witnessed by the many produce stands that line Highway 290.

Spanish missionaries established the first vineyards in the state in 1662, but the modern wine industry in Texas Hill Country began in 1975 when Fall Creek Winery, located about 80 miles north of Fredericksburg in Tow, planted its first vines. Today there are 25 wineries scattered around the hills, and it's possible to visit most of them in a weekend.

One of the first wineries to crop up near Fredericksburg was Grape Creek, which produced its first vintage in 1989. Fredericksburg was approved as an AVA in Texas Hill Country that same year. While tiny by Hill Country standards, it's almost as large as Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, though the two regions are dramatically different. The growing season in Hill Country is considerably warmer while having less sunshine and more rain and humidity. Pierce's disease has become a threat, forcing wineries such as Grape Creek and Fall Creek to replant vineyards.

It's not a terroir that seems particularly suited to producing world-class wine, but Texans don't give up easily. While Texas ranks fifth in the nation in terms of volume of wine produced, the quality of the wine continues to lag behind that of other high-volume U.S. regions. The Germans popularized sweet wines around Fredericksburg, and many wineries continue to specialize in ports and sugary versions of Muscat Canelli and other wines. Some producers, such as Alamosa Wine Cellars and Fall Creek, manage to make clean, easy-to-drink dry whites when the vintage cooperates.

One success story in Hill Country is Becker, in Stonewall. Richard Becker and his wife, Bunny, started the winery in 1992 and have since planted 50 acres of vines, everything from Viognier and Chardonnay to Syrah and Petit Verdot. Even though Becker has a busy career as an endocrinologist in San Antonio, the winery is a hands-on affair. He does most of the winemaking, having cobbled together a collection of used equipment, and he even designed much of the winery himself. "Our kids call this Château Shoestring," Becker said.

Despite the limitations, Becker is producing some good wine. The best so far include the hearty Texas port, a Bordeaux-style blend and a Cabernet-Syrah that gushes pure fruit.

For the inns and restaurants of the area, the wineries play an essential role in making the region a popular destination.

"Probably 80 percent of our guests go to wineries," said Patti Vander Lyn, innkeeper at Rose Hill Manor. "It's huge with them."

While Fredericksburg is nearly overrun by motels and bed-and-breakfasts, Rose Hill and Settlers Crossing are the premier accommodations. Settlers Crossing is unique, a small village of historic houses and log cabins that have been restored and decorated with homey country antiques. Rose Hill is an attractive plantation-style inn that's also home to one of the city’s best restaurants, Austin's.

Eating seems to be one of the main activities in town, and there's plenty of wiener schnitzel and fried catfish to be had. Yet restaurants such as August E's and Navajo Grill are raising the quality bar with contemporary Southwestern menus that incorporate worldwide influences.

If there's room for improvement at Fredericksburg restaurants, it's in the wine lists. The pickings can be downright slim, although the lists do reliably offer a smidgen from Texas, California and France, and prices are generally reasonable. One of the best wine experiences can be found at Lincoln Street Wine Market, a cozy wine bar.

Maybe sommeliers and better wine cellars will be the next evolution in Fredericksburg; as the town becomes increasingly gentrified and an influx of discriminating visitors spurs the need for new hotels, golf courses and high-end shops, it would be a logical step. Fredericksburg, after all, is a small town that’s accustomed to thinking big. But then, it is in Texas.

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