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.