the I-90 stretch

One unfortunate change in this edition: the far west Texas, Big Bend portion of the wine tour has shrunk a little.  There’s a winery in Del Rio (Val Verde Winery) and two in El Paso (Zin Valle Vineyards and Star Canyon Winery), but the ones in between- Luz d’Estrelle and Blue Mountain, are not currently open.  Luz is currently for sale due to divorce and Blue’s been closed for quite some time.  All the same, the stretch of I-90 between Del Rio and El Paso is not devoid of exciting wine happenings and is, without a doubt, well worth the journey as a bridge between these two winery-housing towns.

If you’ve never seen the communities that run across that vast stretch of road, you are missing one of the most unique cultures in Texas society, and certainly some of the most striking scenery…

Coming out of Del Rio, pass over The Pecos River High Bridge, the tallest highway bridge in the state.  Breath-taking from all directions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then starting in Sanderson, an unexpected town in the middle of seemingly nowhere, you begin to encounter perplexing dichotomies of old West and modern.  Further into Marathon, a tiny town of less than 500 people, you’ll find the historic hotel, The Gage.  Owned by billionaire oil-man J.P. Bryant from Houston, the Gage maintains its historic feel (ghosts included), while boasting a modern upkeep.  Its restaurant has been home to CIA chef Paul Peterson (now in Austin) and always carries a decent wine list.  Other small places in town like The Famous Burro offer local food and a lively night out, often complete with some local guitar and an inebriated sing-along, enjoyed all under a shockingly bright starred sky.

Next stop, Alpine, is home to Sul Ross University and carries an eclectic flavor of academia, ranchers, artists, political activists and young families.  The local grocery stores- Porters and Blue Water Natural Foods– have a surprisingly diverse selection of wines.  And local restaurants like the Reata, carry a decent wine list as well.   There’s also interesting vineyard growth happening nearby.  A test vineyard directly off I-90 at the entrance to the housing development Alpine Estates is overseen by Sul Ross University.  It was used for variety experimentation and to test disease-resistant rootstock and although it is not currently being studied, there is talk of renting the land and vines for grape production.

Then south of town, off 118, Times Ten Cellars (located in Dallas and Ft. Worth) has Cathedral Mountain Vineyard, 8 acres of Tempranillo, Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Franc.  Kert Platner, part owner, explained it’s the ideal place to grow grapes.  With mineral basalt/ volcanic soil, dry climate and wide swings in diurnal temperatures (an average of 30 degrees between day and night), the grapes ripen beautifully and produce delicious fruit.  Platner admitted that harvesting, on the other hand, is a logistical nightmare.  Nine hours from Dallas, with no labor force and no cell phone service, physically picking and moving the grapes has provided a real challenge.  Even so, he believes this plot produces some of the best, cleanest fruit in the state.  They are not planning to open a winery in the area, due to lack of foot-traffic, but are proud of their West Texas wine, even naming their tasting area in Dallas the “Alpine Room.”

On next to the darling of modern society in Far West Texas: Marfa, Marfa, Marfa.  Thanks to Donald Judd and his minimalist art foundation, Marfa is now the retreat of New York artists and explorers.  On any random night, one can find a mix of New Yorkers, ranchers, folks up from Mexico, college students, minimalist artists and Texas tourists altogether watching, say, Robert Earl Keen playing with David Byrn in the corner of a small, concrete bar.  The musical selection and celebrity sitings are legendary.

There are several incredible restaurants in town, like the Miniature Rooster, Q Cafe and Wine Bar, and Maiya’s Restaurant, all of which boast well-rounded wine lists.  But the crème-de-la-crème is, by far, Cochineal.  Owned by Tom Rapp and Toshifumi Sakihara from New York, they offer over 250 wines by the bottle.  The wine is procured under the most careful conditions, its temperature monitored for its entire trip to Marfa.  Want a Riesling from Alsace? Available. Curious about wines from Austria?  Hungary? Chile?  Fancy a Sauterne after your gourmet meal?  Yes, Yes, and Yes. Beyond an oasis in the desert, Cochineal carries one of the top wine lists in the state.

On the way out of Marfa, send a special love-note from the post office in Valentine, Texas and carry on another 3 hours to El Paso for two more wonderful Texas wineries.

And that’s just sticking to the path.  Venture a half-hour to the north of Alpine and find Ft. Davis, a tree-filled retreat and doorway to McDonald Observatory.  Another ½ hour north and you can swim in Texas’ largest spring fed pool, Balmorhea State Park.  Or head south from Marathon for 80 miles to visit Big Bend National Park, the 14th largest and 3rd least

visited National Park in the nation.  With 3 mountain ranges fading into its borders, you can see some of the most diverse terrain on any nationally preserved area of land.  From there drive west to Study Butte, Terlingua Ghost Town, Chinati Hot Springs, Aqua Fria and Candelaria- all remote and stunning with a silence that makes your ears ring; the sort of places that stay under your skin for years to come.

For an incredible Texas vacation bookended by Texas wineries, start at Val Verde Winery and head west.  You never know.  With more traffic flowing through, we might soon see a winery along the path again.

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Bill Elsey, born of Texas wine

I met with him in a warmly-lit, cellar-like room: the offices of wines.com, soon to be “The Red Room,” speakeasy wine lounge in downtown Austin.  Young, dedicated and clearly driven, Bill’s passion for wine spills over into his mannerisms and gentle speech.  From Director of Sales at wines.com and personalwine.com, to certified sommelier with the Court of Masters Sommeliers, the “Sommelier on a stroll” for the 2011 Austin Wine and Musical Festival, and Texas’ Top Sommelier in 2011, his list of qualifications and awards is growing quickly.

Part of his success is certainly due to his unbending focus on the subject.  Preparing for a national competition for TopSomm through the U.S. Guild of Sommeliers, he admitted to studying at least an hour a day during the week (in addition to his job), plus 8 hours solo on Saturdays and with a group on Sundays.  It takes a remarkable person to dedicate themselves to such intense study… of anything.

And part is certainly fueled by an unstoppable passion, sparked right here at home in the Texas wine industry.

Bill, a native of Wimberley, Texas, graduated in 2006 with a B.A. in History from Monmouth College in Illinois, moved back to Texas and started a weekend job in the tasting room at Mandola Estate Winery, where he caught the “wine bug.”  He quickly moved into a full time position, then was promoted to run the wine program in Mandola’s restaurant.  When the Mandola and Duchman families separated, he stayed with the Duchman Family Winery managing the tasting room, public relations and marketing, as well as helping with the hands-on tasks of harvest and wine making.  During that time, he formed deep connections in the Texas wine industry and stayed close to the trends and changes in grape growing, wine making and tourism.  He worked with the Mandola and Duchman families for 5 years, before making the career change to wines.com.  We had an enlightening conversation about Texas wine (which appear throughout future blogs), and it was clear that,even with this move, his roots are still showing.  We are lucky to have such a dedicated professional connected to the industry.

He continues to grow in his wine career, preparing for the Advanced Master Sommelier test, producing videos about trends in the wine industry, and progressing in certifications with the Society of Wine Educators.  He is on a determined and sure path to success.

All of this started with a weekend job at a Texas winery tasting room.

How inspiring.

Wes Marshall in the Hill Country

Click here to read what Wes Marshall has to say about William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Woodrose Winery, the new Messina Hof Hill Country tasting room and Spicewood Vineyards, all making “Sancerre-ly Impressive Texas Wine.”

Best Friends

Do you have a pet?  Or are you in love with someone else’s?

If so, I bet you feel about yours the way I do about mine: this is the cutest creature on Earth.

And good for us, because Zin Valle Vineyards has a way for folks to show off their favorite animals.

Every year in late October, they support the Humane Society of El Paso with a fundraiser and auction off “Man’s Best Friend Merlot”.  The highest bidder wins the chance to put their pet’s portrait, as painted by local artist Robert Carlson, on the next year’s label.  All funds from the auction, plus a portion of the bottle sales throughout the year, goes to finding local pets good homes.

Maxine

They continue the charity into November by hosting a run benefitting the Humane Society called the “Grape Race“.  There is an 8K category and a 1 mile walk, followed by a catered dinner and live music, a great community event.

Zin Valle is an excellent example of the ways Texas wineries and vineyards give to their local communities and benefit this great state as a whole, and they are only one of many.  Lightcatcher Winery donates Wine Tasting Certificates to local auction events.  Spicewood Vineyards hosts a Half Marathon and 10K in December to benefit “Toys for Tots”.  The Austin Wine and Music Festival is the collaborative effort of many wineries, raising money for “Operation FINALLY HOME,” a charity that raises money for custom-made, mortgage-free homes for wounded and disabled veterans.  And coming up soon, Singing Waters Vineyards will be hosting “Cherish the Children” in conjunction with St. Boniface Episcopal school in Comfort on February 9-12th, an art show and benefit (visit their page for more information).

This is just a tiny sample.  Almost every winery donates to charity and most contribute to various causes throughout the year, giving directly back to their local community, supporting those who need it.

One of the many, many ways spending your money at a local winery not only supports local business, but the community as a whole, creating close ties and keeping money at home.

Cheers to Olive You, Val Verde!

Quiz
(yes, our first blog comes with a quiz, and it’s not about wine)

What is the best age at which to use your olive oil?

When it is:
A)   immediately pressed
B)   at least one year old
C)   aged to five years
D)   like a fine wine with high tannins: generally speaking, the older, the better

The answer is: A

The fresher your olive oil, the better it tastes and the better it is for you.  After one year on the store’s shelf, or your own, it starts to lose its phytonutrients, break down and become rancid.

So what is the best way to get quality olive oil?  Just like any fresh ingredient: buy local.

That is exactly what Thomas and Michael Qualia are preparing to make possible at Val Verde Winery in Del Rio.  Not only were they pioneers in the Texas wine world (as the oldest winery in Texas and the only winery in Texas from 1949-1976) they are now helping to pave the way for a new industry: fresh-pressed, local olive oil.  With a grove of 10 year old trees on the property, they saw the potential of a new product to compliment their wines and began to expand their plantings.

Fall of 2011, they experimented with a harvest from their established trees and entered in the Artisan category at the First Annual Texas Olive Oil Tasting and Showcase.  Out of the gate, Val Verde took 3rd place out of 9 entries, a promising beginning.  They were then featured in the PBS special “El Camino Olive Oil Trail” which aired January 7th on KRLN Channel 9, bringing attention to this new and exciting wave of agriculture in Texas and Mexico.

Val Verde’s newly planted trees are expected to produce mature fruit this year; 250 of those trees will be ready for harvest in fall of 2012.

When asked how much will be sold to the public, Michael answered, “Whatever our family doesn’t use, we’ll sell.”

And they are well on their way.  With 500 trees in the ground and an award already under their belt, the stage is set for an excellent first year.  The olives will be hand picked (with a harvest party following for volunteers) and pressed immediately after, creating the freshest product available.  It will be a worth a trip to the winery; these bottles are bound to sell quickly!

Michael and Tommy Qualia

For more information on Texas olive oil, visit texasoliveoilcouncil.org

To learn more about the production “El Camino Olive Oil Trail”, visit elcaminoolivetrail.com