On Way to the Port

Dear Reader,

Today I took a trip out to Stone House Vineyards and Winery to pick up some Scheming Beagle, my favorite Texas port-style wine.  Made from estate Norton grapes using the traditional solera method of blending, it is a serious competitor with other tawnies… from all over the world.  I mean, it’s phenomenal.  And for around $20 a bottle, it’s a helluva deal for the quality.

Being in the neighborhood, I headed over to a part-time residence of mine from last year’s research trips, Krause Springs.  They have an enchanting little butterfly garden, sonically decorated by huge wind chimes, dripping off of the trees.  And under one of these is stretched a rope hammock.  You can lay on it in the late afternoon and be bathed in gentle sun while six 7-foot chimes reverberated over your head like Tibetan bells.  Fountain water and birds from the nearby trees sing back up harmonies.  Say what you want about my hippy nature, but I swear there are few places more peaceful on this planet.

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On the way between these two stops, I passed 26612 Haynie Flat Road and spotted signs for fresh organic tomatoes, homemade salsa, bread and local jams, all just demanding a u-turn.

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Soon after I entered the gate, an SUV followed and Kathleen Henderson popped out, saying she had been delivering a pie.  Her farm stand was organized like a small outdoor grocery store with pastas, oils and vinegars from The Spicewood Food Company, little garden supplies and canned goods.  Kathleen was extremely welcoming, answering all my questions and explaining the origins of her products.  She was passionate about the heirloom tomatoes, passionate about the organic garden she was preparing, passionate about her pies.  I got swept up in her excitement and checked onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, salsa, and jam off of my grocery list while she bagged my purchases in little paper lunch sacks ($20 even).  We chatted a little longer about last weeks’ wind and I felt all my tight city-muscles relax, breathing that country air and enjoying a simple conversation.

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And I write you now from this hammock, encouraging you to head out on your own Texas wine country adventure, even if just for the afternoon.  There are unique opportunities all over the state.  In East Dallas?  Head over to Tara Winery in Athens.  If it’s a Wednesday or a Saturday, check out the Athens Farmers Market.  I hear it’s stellar.  In West Dallas, take a short trip out to Arché and Blue Ostrich Winery and catch a meal in the little down of St. Jo.  Or maybe take a whole week to learn how to make your own cowboy boots at Chappell Boot Shop in town.  Houston?  Head south to Haak Winery for Blanc du Bois Madeira made in the resident estufa, or to the coast to watch the sunset from Lavaca Bluffs Vineyard’s porch.  If you’re into incredible architecture or spiritual traditions, be sure to visit  the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Temple on the way down, an incredible structure made out of hand-whittled Italian marble and Turkish limestone.

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Wherever you’re coming from, find your own form of farm stand and discover your personal peaceful hammock.  Because, as today reminded me– yes,Texas wine is about what’s in the bottle, but it’s also about the journey and the roads in between.

Margaret Shugart

education in Texas tasting rooms

After finishing this edition’s tour of Texas wineries, I have headed to France for the summer to lead cycling trips with an active touring company.  Luckily and blissfully, this assignment starts in Provence and the Southern Rhône where we travel through Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Beames-de-Venise, as well as lesser known Rhône Villages and parts of Ventoux.

I won’t write much about France in this venue because this blog is about Texas and the people we meet with the book, but I would like to take note of my first visit to the wineries in the region and here’s why: they are not so different from Texas.  In fact, it was drinking wine at tasting rooms in Texas that helped me understand what is happening here, more so even than if I had spent this time in Napa Valley, or maybe anywhere else in the United States.  The more I learn, the more I believe Texas is, quite simply, more like Europe than anywhere else in the country (and for many more reasons than just the varieties grown).

The steward of the first tasting room I entered in Gigondas sorted through my strangely accented French to offer an English interaction, which was fortunate because his bi-lingual wine terminology was much better than mine.  I asked a lot of questions, similar to ones I ask when meeting with Texas wine makers and grape growers, and he was just as eager to talk about it as anyone.

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I was shown maps of microclimates, given explanations of terroir and blending techniques across different vineyards, enlightened on different vine training techniques that echoed what I learned at home.  For example, here in the Rhône, Mouvedre is head-trained (a Roman technique where vines are taught to grow upward with no wires, so that they look like goblets) because its cordons naturally reaches toward the sky and because the technique produces better fruit… just like Tannat, also head-trained by Bending Branch Winery.

Head trained Mourvedre in Gigondas, France

John Rivenburgh explains head trained Tannat vines and Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas

The education I received from wise Texas wine folk like Bobby Cox helped me understand why blending grapes from various microclimates adds layers of complexity to a wine.  And pioneers like Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards and Winery helped me understand why setting up a vine library is a good start to a vineyard, or even something to maintain for the entire life of someone’s estate.

And when the wine steward and I got more comfortable, he tested me on a white blend in which I identified 2 of the three grapes (Viognier and Roussane, missing Grenache Blanc) because these grapes are little rockstars in our state and I have tasted very true renderings of their character by our own wine makers.

I am not saying this to brag on myself.  Anyone could do this.  I am saying this to point out something marvelous about Texas tasting rooms: they are educational venues, opening visitors to world wines.  As the pioneering minds of the Texas wine industry are broadening their plantings past the big California three (Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay) and honing in on what this climate and soil can best support, we are being exposed to a vast array of varieties somewhat novel to the American palate, and pronunciation: Tempranillo (think Spanish- does not rhyme with armadillo), Mourvedre, Tinta Cao, Carignane, Cinsault, Vermentino, Albariño, Aliagnico, Dolcetto, etc.  They are beginning to increase in popularity and notoriety because they grow well here and show beautifully from our soil.   And because of this happy trend, Texas tasting rooms are putting them into people’s mouths, both to drink and to say.  This, I believe, is educating our visitors to a much wider world of taste and understanding, tapping Texas wine tourists into a global market, in a way I don’t think even most of California can do.

At the end of my lovely visit with this Gigondas winery, I explained that I was from Texas and interested in wine there, too.  The steward said he had actually met several Texans who visited his tasting room, and that they knew quite a bit about the Gigondas varieties.  Perhaps they studied on their own, but I like to think they had exposure to local renditions as well, and took that knowledge abroad to explore the grapes further.

So my challenge to you, good drinker, is to visit a local winery or two and go for the grape variety you’ve never heard of, then ask your wine stewardess a little about its background.  It’ll take you on a journey around the world through your taste buds.  I think you’ll be delighted at how much there is to learn here at home.

Margaret Shugart

scenes from the North Texas wine trails

The roads of North Texas are shockingly beautiful.  Dallas/ Ft. Worth metroplex, you have a  treasure in your backyard: charming escapes from the city, both in its limits and in the vast rolling countryside that spans out in all directions from the twisted highways and fast moving traffic.  There were roads in Northeast Texas so sparsely traveled, I didn’t see a vehicle for 20 minutes at a time.  And the scenes were so breathtaking, I nearly ran my car off the road on several occasions (on the drive to Sugar Ridge Winery, I actually did… just a little).  Varying shades of green, from the deep darks of pine, to the bright, nearly neon shoots of spring; patches of blue from our State flower, waving in the wind; entire meadows of yellow mustard flowers, so tall they look like childhood-fantasy clouds, hovering above the lush grass.  Faded red barns and old ranch houses, spotted cattle and horses that race cars alongside their cedar fences.  Below are a few scenes from these drives, but photos cannot do the beauty justice.  It is something to be experienced.

Texans, don’t miss the opportunity to explore these wine trails.  They are much more than you think.

wildflower seasondirt road excursion on the way to Collin Oaks Winery

trees starting bloom at Brushy Creek

enchanting bridge on property of Collin Oaks Winerygood taco trucks are everywhere. by suggestion of Rachel Cook at Brushy Creek

sunset over Wales Manor vineyards

view from the new tasting room at Blue Ostrich Vineyard and Winery

endless beautiful empty roads

on the way to Sweet Dreams Winery