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Hill Country Vintage

World-Class Wineries Flourish in Our Backyard

by Beth Goulart

Somewhere along the 90-minute drive past the grape fields of the Hill Country, all memories of Austin fade. The green pastures and panoramic views of wildflower-spattered hills undulating before a brilliant indigo sky can lull even the most harried city mouse into an idyllic state.

Don't be fooled. Serenity is a front at the two dozen wineries in the Hill Country. Under their practiced Zen cover, these vintners are abuzz. Academics, the Texas Legislature, Mother Nature and even a celebrity chef have helped the industry boom, and the results of such enological progress are showing in the glass.

With Texas Wine Month in October, folks around the nation are taking notice. A New York City restaurant called Hill Country Barbecue and Market opened with a Texas-only wine list. The Los Angeles Times tasting panel dubbed three Hill Country wines "standout." The vineyards themselves, bringing home coveted awards from across the country, are struggling to keep pace with demand. There are even mumblings about "the next Napa." In our own Texas Hill Country, the wine industry is red hot.

"Texas wineries are winning awards all over the country," says Rebecca Robinson, executive director of the Food & Wine Foundation of Texas.

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In 1973, Ed Auler was practicing law in Austin while his wife, Susan, was busy chasing after their young son. He had recently inherited his family's Hill Country ranch and began managing its operations, but the ranch was suffering from a lagging cattle market.

Ranching had become "more a way of life than a profitable endeavor," says Susan. "We wanted to be sure that we kept passing the ranch on to future generations," as Ed's parents and two generations before them had done. Seeking to increase its profitability, the Aulers traveled to France to shop for cattle they might cross-breed with their existing Angus herd.

On that trip, they detoured south to sample some of France's famed wine. As they drove through the Rhone valley, with its rich red soils and craggy hills, Ed mused, "'It sure does look like the Hill Country here,''' Susan recalls. All told, she adds, "We spent three days looking at cattle and three weeks in chateaux."

By 1974, the bottom fell out of the cattle market. The following year, with encouragement from Texas A&M, Ed sowed an experimental test plot of 13 varieties of grapevines and the Aulers opened the Hill Country's first vineyard, Fall Creek. With no experience in grape growing, they sought advice from the University of California at Davis, widely regarded as the premier viticultural authority in the United States. The university, however, had little wisdom to offer. "'We can tell you how to grow grapes,'" Susan recalls being told, '''but you're going to tell us what does well there.'"

Ed's observation about similarities between the geography of the Hill Country and that of France's wine regions proved prophetic. Indeed, Hill Country has sandy loam soil, ideal for grape growing, and plenty of slopes, which promote drainage and maximize the effect of sunlight on vines. The climate here is often likened to that of the Mediterranean, with typically hot, dry summers and mild winters. It's similar to France's southern Rhone valley, where the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are made. Limestone substratum, which promotes drainage and beneficial soil chemistry, also underlies both the Hill Country and the southern Rhone valley.

With such a natural head start, the Hill Country was ripe to become the next big wine region, and by 1980, Ed had given up his law practice. "This is the last thing we thought we'd be doing," says Susan. But before long, she adds, "We were up to our necks in grapes."

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Today, the Aulers are far from alone. The many and varied wineries of the Texas Hill Country possess a vast collective knowledge about growing grapes in this region. The newfound expertise stretches from Fall Creek, which tips the production scales with an output of some 40,000 cases of wine annually, to Stone House Vineyard in Spicewood, which produces just hundreds of cases per year but is bringing home such coveted prizes as the gold medal from April's San Diego International Wine Competition.

Claros, the peppery red table wine that earned the esteemed distinction, represents an approach to grape growing that's unusual in the Hill Country. It's made from a variety of grape called Norton, which is native to the Americas, as opposed to Europe. Angela Moench, Stone House's founder and co-owner, plants Norton exclusively because it's more disease-resistant than other varieties. "And we thought it would make an interesting wine," she adds.

Most casual wine drinkers are better acquainted with what are known as the vinifera – famous European grape varieties including French superstars like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot. Those grapes yield wines that the Aulers of Fall Creek have sworn by for decades.

On an overcast day, Vicky-Louise Bartier oversees bottling of Flat Creek's 2005 Super Texan, a blend of mostly Sangiovese, known best as the primary ingredient of Italy's Chianti wines. (The name plays on the moniker Super Tuscan, coined when Italian winemakers bucked national winemaking regulations by blending wines in unapproved ways.)

Bartier, an Australian-born and -trained winemaker who has won hundreds of awards for her work in Australia, Europe and the United States, believes grapes that thrive in regions with high night temperatures will yield the best results in the Hill Country. She includes Sangiovese in that category as well as Semillon, popular in Australia, and Shiraz, thought to have originated in the Middle East. So far, her theory seems to be panning out: Super Texan won a bronze in the San Francisco International Wine Competition in June.

On bottling day at Flat Creek, a trailer housing a mobile bottling line pulls up next to the winemaking facility. As the day wears on, bottles are filled, corked and labeled, then packed into cardboard cases. The cases are stacked on waiting pallets, where they will rest as the wine ages.

"The only thing stopping us from making more wine," Bartier says, "is we've nowhere to make it. We've outgrown the facility." Expansion plans for Flat Creek, built in 2000, include its own bottling line, storage space for new oak barrels and stainless steel tanks-essential components of the winemaking process-as well as an entertainment pavilion for winery events.

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Each spring, crowds descend on the wineries during the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. But autumn-when the harvest winds to a close and the vines begin to color toward dormancy-draws a steady supply of vino-loving day-trippers.

Special events, such as concerts, tasting classes, grape stomps and art exhibits, take place year-round at Hill Country wineries. A half dozen times a year, the wineries work with one another to organize "wine trails," which encourage visitors to drop in on multiple wineries for day or weekend excursions.

The Fredericksburg Food & Wine Fest on Oct. 27 and the Texas Fall Fest & Wine Auction in Horseshoe Bay from Nov. 2-4 present great opportunities to check out Hill Country wines. They aim to educate the public about the increasingly high quality of wines being made right in Austin's backyard.

"We're still fighting that perception out there that Texas wines aren't quality wines, but the quality is there," says Robinson of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. She organizes events to spread good news about the industry.

The continued success of the Hill Country wineries relies on maintaining and improving that quality, so the foundation invests heavily in educating winemakers. "We do a summer school for vintners every year called the Wine/Texas Symposium," she explains. "We fund a legendary winemaker from a hot climate to spend the day with Texas vintners to evaluate their wines, share information and troubleshoot."

One legendary Texan trying his hand at winemaking is Damian Mandola. He and his wife, Trina, along with another couple, opened Mandola Estate Winery in Driftwood last summer with the objective of producing Texas wine from Italian grapes.

It's the latest incarnation of Mandola's tradition of blending a pinch of Texas with a scoop of Italy. His previous ventures have included two cooking shows on PBS, a handful of cookbooks (including Ciao Y'all) and Carrabba's Italian Grill, the restaurant chain he founded in Houston with his nephew, Johnny Carrabba, in 1986. The restaurant at Mandola Estate Winery, Trattoria Lisina, just opened a few weeks ago, featuring a top-notch wine list including Mandola's labels as well as others.

It's a good time for wineries in the Hill Country, Mandola says. "There's a lot of research and a lot of support."

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Statewide, perhaps the biggest supporter of the wine industry has been the Texas Legislature. In 2000, only 40 wineries operated in the entire state. They produced a little more than a million gallons of wine, contributing $81 million to the state's economy. In 2001, 2003 and 2005, the Legislature passed laws to fund promotion of wine research, education and marketing as well as to loosen regulations on wine sales, even in dry counties. The wine industry now contributes nearly a billion dollars to the state's economy, according to Dacota Julson, executive director of the Texas Wine & Grape Grower's Association.

The rate of expansion doesn't appear to be slowing down. "Statewide, we have increased the number of wineries in the last three years," says Julson. Some 140 wineries operate in the state now and 3,500 acres of grapevines grow here, including more than 500 acres in the Hill Country. More than 2 million gallons of wine are sold by Texas wineries annually, she adds.

Some suggest that the region's enological successes could grow to proportions on the scale of California's Napa Valley. Others dismiss such predictions, citing everything from too-vast terrain to a lack of local winemaking skill. But Susan Auler remains optimistic about the future of the Hill Country, with its acclaimed restaurants and chefs, folkloric scenery and world-class wines.

Fall Creek sends less than 10 percent of its sales out of state, though it's not for lack of demand, says Susan. It's because the Aulers believe in fulfilling orders here first. "We're both native Texans," Ed being "at least fifth-generation," she says. "We are fiercely loyal to our state and everything it stands for."

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