When David Kuhlken’s parents, Larry and Jeanine, retired to a sweet patch of land north of Fredericksburg in the early ’90s, they decided to plant a few acres of vines and harvest grapes. 

“They planted the grapes to make the wine that people wanted to buy, and what people were drinking then was Cabs and Merlots and Sauvignon Blancs,” said Kuhlken, who gets a bad-acid flashback look on his face when the conversation turns to “oaky, buttery” Chardonnays.

To make a complicated story simple — and everything about winemaking is complex — Texas tried to be California.

Fast-forwarding about 30 years, Kuhlken is the winemaker and co-owner with his sister Julie of Pedernales Cellars in Stonewall, one of more than 80 small to middling wineries in the Texas Hill Country that is making some lip-smacking wines with bountiful depth and character — robust reds, crisp whites, and bright rosés.

About a decade ago, but especially in the last five years, a new breed of Texas winemakers — some educated at viticulture programs at Texas Tech and Texas A&M universities, others disciples of Texas wine pioneers such as Clinton “Doc” McPherson (McPherson Cellars), Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo (Messina Hof), Ed and Susan Auler (Fall Creek), and Richard and Bunny Becker (Becker Vineyards) — began making dynamic wines and building what is today a $13.1 billion industry — by cleansing their palates of Napa Valley.

Texans began focusing on grapes — from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, and the Rhône Valley in the south of France — that come from climates and grow in soil structures comparable to the high plains of Texas around Lubbock and to the Hill Country.

At wineries about an hour’s drive from San Antonio, budding connoisseurs can sample and buy wines made from grapes with exotic names such as Tempranillo, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, Counoise, Montepulciano, Viognier, and Tannat.

“We decided we’re going to work with whatever grows best in the state, in order to make the best wine we can,” said Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman (pronounced Duke-man) Family Winery in Driftwood.

It’s enough to make drinkers such as Brett Taaffe, a 44-year-old CPA from Houston, consider becoming full-fledged oenophiles, or, at the least, wine club members (more on that later). 

“In the last year, I’ve become a huge fan of Texas wines,” said Taaffe, who was sampling wines at the Lost Draw Cellars tasting room in Fredericksburg on a recent Friday afternoon. “In the past, I’ve wanted to support Texas wines, but I’d drink one, and think, ‘Hmm, that it wasn’t so great.’ But Texas wines have matured. They’re authentic. They’re real. I have a friend in Houston who owns an icehouse, and I got him to buy a couple of cases of white. It just hits the spot on a hot and humid day.”

Jennifer McInnis Fadel, general manager of Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, puts it succinctly: “If you haven’t drunk a Texas wine in the last 10 years, you haven’t drunk a Texas wine.”

The estate vineyard and cabana at Bending Branch Winery in Comfort. Credit: Courtesy / Bending Branch Winery

But don’t take her word for it. In the 2021 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, sort of the Super Bowl of North American wine quaff-offs, 50 Texas wineries came home with 259 medals. That’s from a field, heavily dominated by California, of nearly 6,000 wines from a thousand wineries. Fourteen of the Texas wines were Double Gold (unanimously gold by  judges). And 11 gold medal wines were considered Best of Class when judged against other gold medal winners in the same wine category.

“We are definitely changing hearts and minds,” said Leah Derton, chief marketing officer at William Chris Vineyards in Hye.

Cofounder Chris Brundrett, the Chris of William Chris Vineyards, was named to Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2020” list. According to the magazine,  “He produces serious wines from grapes like Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot, which thrive in Texas soils, as well as wines that are seriously fun, from pet-nats to cans of Yes We Can Sway Rosé.” 

It should be noted that while Hill Country vineyards are thriving, with more than 1,000 acres under cultivation, most Texas grapes are still grown on the high plains of West Texas, where fourth-generation cotton farmers have turned over some 3,000 acres to vines planted in the sandy, caliche-based loam. Warm days are capped off by chilly nights, the kind of diurnal sweater-weather that produces a perfect sugar content in fruit.

“We stay in close contact with the farmers all throughout the growing season, and when it reaches the optimal Brix [a measure of sugar content], they put the harvest on a truck,” Reilly, of Duchman, said.

A tour of a winery can be a fascinating experience; there’s a lot of stainless steel — crushers and big fermentation vats — although some wineries are using concrete “eggs” to ferment whites for a truer profile of the fruit. 

All wineries have rooms kept at cool 55 degrees with row upon row of stacked oak barrels for reds — the harvest of two or three years past. If you’re lucky, a winemaker will produce a curved glass tool called a wine thief, open up the small aperture in a barrel called the bung hole, and give you a taste of a wine still being nurtured.

Texas has a long history of winemaking. Spanish priests planted vineyards in West Texas around El Paso for sacramental wine in the 1650s. European immigrants cultivated cuttings brought with them from their homelands, and at the turn of the 20th century, Texas had 50 working wineries. Nearly 3,000 acres of vines produced some 100,000 gallons of wine, according to Natalia Velikova, associate director of the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University. 

But Prohibition shut down the Texas wine industry, which which wasn’t able to rally until the 1970s, around Lubbock; Llano Estacado Winery was founded there in 1976.

Today, Texas is the fifth largest wine-producing state, pouring 4.3 million gallons, after California, Washington, New York, and Oregon. (California remains the Big Kahuna, producing a whopping 700 million gallons.) Texas also comes in fifth in the number of wineries, with about 350, and, remarkably, the state has the second most visited wine region — the Hill Country — after Napa Valley.

Grape-growing regions are called AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, with specific geographic and climatic features. Texas has eight of them; the southernmost is the Hill Country AVA, which encompasses 9 million acres west of Austin and north of San Antonio.

Which brings us to the concept of agritourism, and it has nothing to do with watching wheat grow. Texas wineries attract 1.7 million tourists a year, including regular guys like Gil Rios, 39, an Austin entrepreneur who’s trying to get a travel company off the ground. Rios recently bought three bottles of red in the Duchman Family Winery tasting room. 

“I’m probably about a 3 on a scale of 5 as far as connoisseurship,” Rios said. “I’m not a big sniffer, and I don’t use terms like ‘hints of leather or tobacco.’ But I like the ritual when the day is over of having a glass of wine. I’m learning more about the science behind wine; I’m going to make steak and shrimp tonight, and one of these reds will be terrific with that. The beauty of it is all these wineries are just about an hour away. My wife and I like to come out and visit multiple wineries and sample their wines. It’s fun and relaxing. And the setting is gorgeous.”

Kuhlken, of Pedernales Cellars, points out that having two large cities on the Hill Country AVA’s doorstep — and Dallas and Houston within driving range — is what’s made wine “the dominant tourist intent in the Fredericksburg area.”

“And it’s driving a lot of investment, not just in wineries, but in hospitality as well, lodging and restaurants,” he said.

David Kuhlken of Pedernales Cellars is photographed in the winery barrel room. Credit: Courtesy / Pedernales Cellars

Competition among small winemakers is fierce, but it’s not cutthroat: “None of us is so big that we can’t benefit from collaborating and sharing information,” said Kuhlken.

Hill Country wineries, most of which produce fewer than 50,000 cases annually, depend on wine aficionados like Rios and Taafe, the Houston accountant. While you can find some Texas wines in the local liquor store or at H-E-B, they are most likely to be cheaper blends, not the wines you sample in the tasting rooms, where a good bottle of reserve typically goes for around $30 or $40. 

Boutique wineries just can’t compete with the big boys (i.e. California brands) in the retail market. They don’t have the grapes, or the price points. So, they treat you like Bacchus in their tasting rooms, presenting relaxed settings with beautiful views, an expert guiding you through a series of several wine offerings. 

Their bread and butter is the wine club, which normally features several bottles of wine delivered to your doorstep on a quarterly basis for a discount price.

“Ninety to 95 percent of our production is in the wine club or the tasting room. It’s everything,” said Ron Yates, a St. Mary’s University-trained lawyer who opted to “get his hands dirty” growing grapes and producing wine at Spicewood Vineyards in Spicewood, between Austin and Fredericksburg.

“We make Texas wines for Texans. The key going forward will be to reach out to other states. Now, we’re winning national and even international medals, and we have wine writers coming in from all over the country. That was unheard of maybe just five years ago.”

For all the positive steps taken by Texas winemakers over the past half-century, it’s a crucial time for these small businesses. 2020 was a tough year for wineries due to shutdowns during the pandemic. “Horrible!” was one Hill Country winery sales director’s way of putting it. Right now, there’s a shortage of not only glass bottles, but corks.

Not surprisingly, alcohol consumption was up during the pandemic. Women, especially, were drinking wine at a 13 percent higher rate than before COVID-19.

New habits evolved during the pandemic, too, wrote Texas Tech’s Velikova in an email. Virtual tastings became popular, as wine drinkers logged in to meet winemakers, critics, and celebrities from the comfort of home. 

“Virtual tastings are likely to stay,” Velikova said. “It’s a way for small wineries to build brands, connect with consumers, and remove geographic boundaries that small wineries face, especially in remote Texas locations. In response to these new trends, many Texas wineries have already discovered new approaches and developed creative ways to engage with their customers.”

Used to be, the Hill Country was known for deer-hunting, antiques, and German festivals. Those are still big draws, but the grape has opened up a whole new set of expectations.

“I got into this business 15 years ago with the attitude of let’s just make good wine,” Kuhlken said. “I like to think that the wine has gotten better every year. I think we can compete nationally because we’re really dialed into what we do. We make a Tempranillo that really tastes like a Texas Tempranillo.”

A small sampling of Hill Country wineries:

Bending Branch Winery, Comfort

Tasting of five wines, $25
Tannat, a grape from southwest France, is BB’s signature fruit. Try the recently released 2018 Estate Tannat, made from Texas Tannat grapes grown just down the road in Center Point at the Lost Pirogue Vineyard. The 2019 Single Barrel Picpoul Blanc, from a grape happy in France’s Rhône Valley, is the winery’s signature white, with aromas of tropical mango and nectarine muddled with mint. It rests a few weeks in Kentucky’s finest bourbon barrels, adding balance, depth, and complexity.

Pedernales Cellars, Stonewall

Barrel tour and tasting, $75
Tempranillos are the winery’s backbone reds. Try the 2018 Texas Tempranillo Reserve, with hints of blackberry, black cherry, leather, and cocoa. On the white side, you can’t go wrong with the 2019 Viognier Reserve, with flavors of peaches and honeysuckle.

Spicewood Vineyards, Spicewood

Friday Night Wine Down, with three wines and live music, $40
Tempranillo, native to Spain, is the “grape of Texas,” says winemaker Ron Yates. Try the 2016 Estate Tempranillo, with aromas of fresh ground pepper and plums along with flavors of blackberries and black currant.

William Chris Vineyards, Hye

Winemaker’s tasting, $20
The 2017 Mourvèdre Farmhouse is a dark and smoky red with flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and plum underneath a perfume of violets, black pepper, and dried sage. Not a fan of pink wine? You will be after tasting the 2020 Cinsault Rosé, a beautiful medium intensity rosé.

Duchman Family Winery, Driftwood

Six wines and tour of facilities, $17
Duchman brings to mind a Tuscan villa transported to the Hill Country. Try the 2017 Duchman Family Montepulciano, a dark red wine made from a grape grown in central Italy, or the 2019 Vermentino, from a grape widely planted on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia and the northwest Italian region of Liguria.

Lost Draw Cellars, Fredericksburg

Wine and cheese tasting with four limited-release wines, $35
The 2019 Viognier is a dry, floral, full-bodied white wine with origins in the Rhône Valley. The 2020 Counoise Rosé is a very old variety from southern France, often used to add spice and acidity to the famous appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It loves the heat and has found a home here in Texas. This rosé has the spiciness of white pepper along with apricot, nectarine, honeysuckle, and pink grapefruit.

Steve Bennett

Steve Bennett has written about arts and culture in San Antonio for more than 30 years.