Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Texas Hill Country is the Place to Be! -- UPDATED Prize Package!

It seems the rest of the wine loving world is catching on to something I already knew: the Texas Hill Country is AWESOME! As most may already know, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named the Texas Hill Country one of the top ten wine regions to visit.

So how well did my go-to retreat stack up? Well, the top ten list offers some of the best known wine regions, like Mendoza in Argentina (one of my dream vacations), Sonoma in the US's #1 wine state, the US's #2 wine state -- Washington -- funniest named city (Walla Walla), the red clay vistas of Australia's Barossa Valley, a well known wine region -- Languedoc -- in France, and Umbria in Italy. It also has wine regions that are also beautiful escapes, like the Aegean Islands in Greece, Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe (in my circles, Mexican wine has been a current topic of conversation), and Baden in Germany. So all and all, Texas has found itself well placed and deservedly so.

And I have to admit, I was totally happy with the accompanying piece detailing the wonders of Texas' blooming wine country. First, they spotlighted one of of favorite restaurants, Pecan Street Brewing. Sean and I started going here when we found out that they have extensive gluten-free offerings (since Sean suffers from Celiac disease). We fell in love with the variety in the menu, and the great tasting food draws us back again and again. We have also enjoyed Salt Lick BBQ, though we were surprised that it was cash only. The article does forget to mention that Salt Lick has its own Texas wine.

It was the wine section that made me smile. Many of the smiling faces I regularly see out and about in the hill country shared their enthusiasm with the magazine. Bending Branch, one of my favorites if you haven't guessed by the number of articles I have done about them -- is prominently featured. Some of my other wine clubs -- Pedernales Cellars and Lewis Wines -- make an appearance. Perissos in Burnet is also mentioned. Too bad they didn't say anything about nearby Inks Lake State Park; a visit to the park and a glass wine at Perissos is a great way to spend a day. They also mentioned Flat Creek. Every time I visit, I get nostalgic; I spent many summers, holidays, and random weekends in nearby Lago Vista. My grandparents had owned a house with a view of Lake Travis. Before they moved, it was easy to swing by the winery, as their house was about 15 minutes away.

On the hiking trails at Inks Lake State Park near Perissos

The best part of the article, however, is the giveaway. For the next month, visitors to the Wine Enthusiast website can try their hand at winning one great hill country vacation. The vacation package includes: 
  • Round-trip flights and transportation for two to Texas
  • Up to 8-night accommodations at local B&Bs and winery accommodations in the Texas Hill Country
  • Guaranteed visits at up to 12 wineries
  • Select exquisite multi-course wine-and-food dinners 
But that is just the overview. Thanks to the generosity of the many hill country wineries and organizations, there are many rare special treats:
  • A night at Flat Creek Estate, plus a tour of the property, a wine-tasting experience, and brunch at Bistro Restaurant.
  • One night’s stay at Bending Branch Winery, including a tour hosted by the winemaker and an intimate lunch.
  • Two night’s stay at Becker Vineyards’s Lavender Haus—an 1,800-square-foot private property, complete with a patio and fireplace.
  • Four nights at Cotton Gin, featuring a dinner for two at Cabernet Grill, where Executive Chef Ross Burtwell specializes in fresh seafood dishes, wild game and ranch fare.
  • A multi-course wine pairing dinner for two at The Bistro at Flat Creek Estate prepared by top-notch Executive Chef Sean Fulford.
  • Dinner at Otto’s German Bistro—an upscale eatery serving Germanic cuisine, classic cocktails, craft beers and New World and Old World wines.
  • An afternoon with the winemaker at Lewis Wines
  • Lunch and cellar tour with the vintner at Pedernales Cellars
  • Tour of and tasting at Perissos Vineyard and Winery lead by the owner/winemaker
  • Cellar tour with a barrel tasting at Grape Creek Vineyards
  • A tour through three Texas Hill Country wineries hosted by Hill Country Bike & Wine.
  • Gift Baskets packed with a variety of Go Texan products to take home, concierge service and car rental service.
  • Car service will be provided for one day and a rental will be provided for the remainder of the trip. A driver can also be requested for the duration of the trip. The Texas Hill Country strongly advises against drinking and driving. Drink responsibly. 
Four more Texas Hill Country Wineries  have added to this great prize.
  • Wedding Oak has added a tasting and tour at the winery (which is lots of fun). They have added a unique gift, a food and wine pairing at the Wedding Oak tree. That would be a very romantic visit. 
  • Stone House Winery has now provided one of their famous Stone House dinners.
  • William Chris Vineyards is offering a wine appreciation and cheese pairing class. This should be a great treat, as the winery supports Texas made cheese.
  • Finally, Fall Creek is providing a tour and tasting at their beautiful winery, but they also are providing lunch at their perfect spot on Lake Buchanan. 

For me, I started to ponder some of these wonderful prizes. I wondered, where will the guests stay at Flat Creek and Bending Branch? Can you really stay at the Lavender Haus at Becker? Is the Bike and Wine tour going to be on a bike (because I have thought about doing that)? The list could go on.

Lake Travis seen from Balcones Canyonland National Refuge near Flat Creek
Also as the prize grows, I ponder how someone will get to do all this wonderful fun in just 8 days. So, to Wine Enthusiast, I ask that you choose me. I will be able to enjoy all of this, as I live within 2 and an half hours from any of these wineries.

Now I have had the chance to enjoy a small but of this, but nowhere near all of it, so of course, I have done my share to win the trip (this blog post will be worth 10 entries!). I won't need the airfare -- Bending Branch is just over 30 minutes from my house -- but I still would love to win this package. I would like a chance to sit down with some of the winemakers that I don't get to talk with regularly. I want a chance to spend some quality times wandering the winding hilly roads, without the worry of having to race home at the end of the day. Honestly, this contest is an escape. I may escape here often, but a long escape here would be perfect.

So here is to Wine Enthusiast recognizing what I have always known: the Hill Country has great wine, great places to stay, wonderful food (and reasonable prices too), fun things to do, and best of all great people. They have had a chance to sample our wines and enjoy what we enjoy all the time. Our secret is out.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Great Texas Pairing; Wedding Oak Tasting at Vinously Speaking

Last summer, I conducted an interview up at Hye Meadow. I finished up earlier than I expected, so I headed next door to Hye Market, curious to see which winery would be sampling in the tasting room. I was very happy to see Wedding Oak Winery there. I had wanted to try their wines for quite some time but had not made it out to San Saba. That Friday afternoon tasting was just a beginning for me. This weekend was just another page in my chapter on Wedding Oak Winery with a tasting at their newest retail outlet, VinouslySpeaking.

During this weekend’s regular Saturday wine tasting and pairing, Vinously Speaking joined forces with Wedding Oak. We tasted through seven of the current Wedding Oak wines. These wines were paired with cupcakes from Melissa Deal Guytia of Dealicious Cakes. Unfortunately owners Mike and Lynn McHenry were not able to attend; the winery was involved with two other local events on Saturday. Instead, their son came down to talk about the wines and was later aided by the winemaker Penny Adams.

The tasting provided a strong showing of whites. The Terre Blanc – made from Marsanne and Rousanne grapes from the McHenry’s vineyard – is currently very bright with a nice, light acidity; it was refreshing and soft at the same time. The lavender and honey cupcake it was paired with set off the softer, more herbal and floral notes in the wine. Honestly, it was my favorite pairing. Also of not, the Terre Blanc and Terre Rouge are normally wine club only, so it is quite a ctach to pick them up at the shop. The other whites, which are often sweeter – have softened as well. The sweetness, which is usually a nice afterthought, is now a subtle underlying element. I like this turn, as it provides complexity in the wines. Among these wines included the Viognier and the Bridal Veil, both made from High Plains grapes.

The reds are really coming to a full body place right now. The minerality and earth is starting to move forward in these wines.  The standout here was the Tioja. It has gained a more rounded balance since I last tasted it (relatively fresh in the bottle at only a few weeks). Being paired with a bacon and cheddar cupcake helped accentuate the almost limestone nature hidden in this fruit forward Tempranillo blend. The Terre Rouge is my favorite due to its more naturally well rounded nature – the less common varietals in the blend add nuances that I always go for – came across well (another wine that mostly comes from the McHenry vineyards). Penny mentioned how she likes the recent changes in the Regency Bridge, which I wish I noticed more. She also told me they will have a VERY limited Tempranillo and a few other new reds later this year, probably towards summer.

The pairing ended with the always fun Bridal Blush. It is still coming off as the sweetest of the wines, but the sweetness tastes more like barely ripe strawberries. This of course paired well with my favorite cupcake, the strawberry cupcake. Normally I go with the chocolate, which paired with a red, but the strawberry had great flavor without any artificial sugar taste, bringing out the richer fruit flavors in the wine. It would have made a great dessert.

Original Art for Wedding Oak Winery by Leanne Holley
In the end, the best pairing of the day was Vinously Speaking and Wedding Oak Winery. Vinously Speaking loves supporting Texas wine, especially Texas wine that has character while also being a great sipping wine. Wedding Oak is a huge supporter of local businesses, so a small family and friend run wine shop is just what they would want. I am glad I suggested the two; this is a great pairing that I was glad I didn’t miss.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sipping Port: Wine Road 290 Port & Pairings

This past weekend saw the start of the 2014 wine season in the Texas Hill Country. The first Wine Road 290 event -- Port and Pairings -- drew Sean and me out to sip some fortified wine and nibble on sweet delectables. If this first event is an indication, 2014 will provide lots of fun.

We were blessed. As I write this the day after, the clouds are keeping a dreary pall on the day after some brief sprinkles, and the promised warmth is being kept at bay. That was not the case yesterday. The weather cooperated, providing a comfortable day with abundant sunshine. When we started before noon, there was still a crispness in the air that we stopped noticing as the the sun warmed everything. So of course, as the day wore on, more and more people found their way to the wineries along Highway 290.

Wine Road 290

For those unfamiliar, Wine Road 290 is an affiliation of wineries more or less on the stretch of Highway 290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City. Not every winery along thew way is a member, but most are, including 4.0 Cellars. The group participates in six scheduled events throughout the year. These events are all pairing events.

For each themed event, the winery pairs one of their wines with a specific food choice. Sometimes the focus is on the wine, as was the case this time: the wineries paired one of their ports (or another wine if they didn't have a port) with a food item of their choice. Other events, like February's Rajin Cajun, will focus on food. In a case like this, the winery will choose a food pairing that matches the theme and pair a wine with that food.

Oftentimes when wine trails offer events like this, there is a fee or a needed ticket. That is never the case along Wine Road 290. No ticket is needed and the pairing is always free. Some wineries make the tasting completely free. In many of these cases, a separate tasting area is set-up with the food and the wine. For others, the food pairing is free but the wine tasting may not be; in those cases, a tasting must be purchased as well. Often, if a tasting is required, many wineries will add the pairing wine as a special bonus, a free additional taste with your tasting.

Port and Pairings

When I went out on Saturday, I stopped by my all-time favorite places. I drank great port at two of my spots, got to try a young port still in barrel at another, and sipped on a nice red wine at the last. It all depends on what wines the winery has available. All provided wonderful sweets that paired well with the wines.

As for the sweets, most wineries made their own. This is always a treat because most of these wineries have some incredible cooks hiding among their ranks. And if you needed further proof of that, just check out ABC's The Taste to see Hill Country winemaker Don Pullum (Mason County grape grower, winemaker for Sandstone Cellars and Akashic Vineyards, and consultant to [Wine Road 290 winery] Torre id Pietra, Fly Gap, and Pontotoc) as he wows the judges with his culinary delights. Some wineries also opt to bring in professional culinary talent to provide the pairing; one winery I visited did that. Among the member wineries, Grape Creek usually enlists the services of local chef Russ Brutwell of Cabernet Grill; I recommend visiting them during an event if the opportunity arises.

Ready Ports -- Pedernales Cellars & William Chris

From left to right: Flourless chocolate cake, Pedernales Ruby Port, and El Rey Chocolates
 During my time out I tasted two well received ports, the Ruby port at Pedernales Cellars and the Jacquez from William Chris. At Pedernales, the Ruby port is a blend of Texas grapes to create a bright, fruit forward port. In the kitchen at Pedernales, they baked up a brownie with port icing and a flourless chocolate cake (both using El Rey chocolates) that brought out the rich flavors that are subtle in this port. They also had my favorite local shop, Chocolat, prepare a beautiful chocolate covered cherry.

Port Brownies and chocolate covered cherries from Chocolat
In Hye at William Chris, we sipped on the Black Spanish Jacquez. This robust port with a mix of caramel and fruit notes was my favorite pairing of the day. A supple and simple buttermilk pie made the port darken and soften, bring out the more nutty flavors in this already rich wine. I could have sampled this all day. A side note on William Chris: in the next few months, at least one sparkling Blanc du Bois will be available with a second one later on.
Homemade Buttermilk Pie and Jacquez

Port in Training -- Hye Meadow

Also in Hye, the newest winery to the trail, Hye Meadow, provided one of the most unique tastes of the day. Winemaker Jeff Ivy brought out his new Syrah port for sampling. The wine has only been in the barrel since October and will remain their for two whole years before bottling. Since this wine is far from ready, Jeff rolled out two barrels to the winery's scenic back porch. It was exciting to taste an infant port. The nose shows a lot of potential character with my favorite go-to notes, such as nut and caramel with some rich chocolate. The taste though is a right now a darkened berry that is full and alive. I would liken the taste to a bold red rather than a port; however, right at the tail end I noticed a hint of that aroma. I have high hopes for this port, and I can't wait to see how it progresses.

Winemake Jeff Ivy with the Syrah port
Though the port was the star, I can't leave out my favorite baked good of the day. Owner Mike Batek brought brownies from a family recipe. This moist and rich brownie was a treat all on its own, but it did bring out that chocolate note in the fledgling port.

Beautiful Brownies
And for those that can't wait for the port, the next month or so will see the release of some incredible new reds, including Tempranillo, Dolcetto, and Aglianico among others.

A Taste of Wine and Chocolate -- Hilmy Cellars

Our last official Wine Road 290 stop was at Hilmy Cellars. Though there will be a port n the future, there isn't one yet. Instead, the crew there brought out the new Politics and Religion -- a supple red blend -- for the pairing. Kuntry Kunfekshuns brought out some final sample but also paired their Choco Krossie with the wine. This chunk of chocolate brought together rolled oats, nuts, and some cayenne for a fine snack. To be honest, I could have eaten that all day long. 
Choco Krossie in the afternoon sun
 This confection provide a more earthy base -- thanks to the nuts and oats -- that worked well with the young wine (Politics and Religion hasn't been in the bottle long). The wine is currently a bit tight -- a good decanting helps bring this wine out -- so pairing it with a stronger chocolate helped to even out the very bright fruit notes that dominate what will be a subtle and seductive red blend. Though I didn't save my bite, I now wonder if it would have also paired with the winery's very fine Gewurtraminer.

A Sunny 2014

By the end of the day, we slipped out of a very busy and bustling Hilmy. Though are first few stops were a bit quiet, for a Saturday, by the end, the day brought lots of eager folks out to taste great sweet wine and delicious treats. January is often a slow time out along the trail, but that was far from what we saw. It looks like 2014 is off to a great start. And it tasted terrific too.