Driving north from Boerne to New Braunfels on HWY 46, looking forward to an evening of German food and music but still with a little time to kill, Kathy and I stopped into a small Texas winery - the Dry Comal Creek winery - toward the end of the day just before closing time. We didn't intend to go there, but I was glad we did. We'd passed a non-descript sign that just said "Winery," heading onto a gravel road, and followed it down through the cow pastures until we spotted the telltale grape vines indicating we'd found the spot.
It was serendipitous we wound up there. Kathy and I had been in San Antonio earlier in the day at their monthly, last-Saturday Houston Street crafts festival. At a booth for the Poteet winery, I happened to pick up a brochure from the Texas Department of Agriculture identifying 95 separate Texas wineries primarily clusterd in four regions - in West Texas around Lubbock, in Northeast Texas from Grapevine north toward Wichita Falls, in Central Texas in the southern Hill Country (where we were), and in Southeast Texas from Bryan down to Orange near the Louisiana border. (They've actually got a great version of that brochure online, complete with links to the wineries' websites, where available. Here's another website specifically featuring Hill-Country area wineries.) When we saw the "Winery" sign we pulled out that brochure, identified which one it probably was, and decided to turn the car around.
Kathy and I chatted for quite a bit with elderly proprietor Franklin D. Houser, who started the winery in 1998. He grows Black Spanish grapes and another specialty varietal on site for blending, but like many Texas wineries buy much of their "juice" for traditional brands like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and others from California. He said some Texas wine purists were disdainful of wines that weren't made of 100% Texas grapes, but that California had "more juice than they knew what to do with" and it was of high, consistent quality.
Houser said that importation of California grape juice was the Texas wine movement's dirty little secret, but that he saw nothing wrong with it. He just wanted to make the best wine possible, he said, whatever it took to do it. He suggested that Texas wineries claiming they didn't buy juice from brokers were probably fibbing - when a Texas heat wave kills your crop, you don't have a lot of choice if you want to stay in business. Houser said much of the skill involved in creating a good wine began after the grapes were harvested, anyway, and that since business was booming - he sold all the wine he could make - he tended to ignore his purist critics and focus on making good wine.
Astonishingly, Mr. Houser said that 90% of his wine sales were made at the winery site itself, which has a nice patio where folks can sit and taste the wares. However there are a number of Austin and other central Texas sites where you can purchase their wines. He said they sold wines to HEB stores, but only the ones that actually had their own in-house wine stewards.
When you start to sample them, there are some surprisingly good Texas wines out there. One of my favorites comes out of Lubbock: Llano Estacado Winery's "Signature Red," a nice blend that stacks up nicely alongside any red wine in its cost range, and many more expensive ones. But among Dry Comal Creek's nice array of blends and varietals, I think I found a new favorite Texas white to go with Llano's Signature Red: the Dry Comal Creek Vineyard's "Bone Dry" French Colombard, described in their brochure as "fruity, crisp, clean, smooth. Balanced on a razor's edge, incredibly delicious." That's a pretty accurate description - I thought this wine was really nice - as good a white wine as I've had for twice the money (the wines ran about $14 per bottle).
Dry Comal Creek also makes a nice Sauvignon Blanc that includes hints of citrus fruit, cherries, mango and kiwi. Even more interesting - the Fume Blanc, he said, was essentially the same wind aged for six months in Ameican oak casks. You could really taste the difference between that six months' aging and the effects of the oak on the wine's flavor. I liked them both, especially the Fume Blanc, but Kathy didn't prefer them as much as the "Bone Dry" and "Demi-Sweet" French Colombard.
We didn't try their red wines - Kathy prefers white so we focused on those. But Dry Comal Creek also offers some red wines including blends using "Black Spanish" grapes, described as "a long-neglected native grape expressed in a dry dark red, smooth, rich mellow style with character aroma and flavor not found in any other red wine."
The winery was a nice diversion on our day trip this weekend - we left the place with three bottles of the wines we most preferred, one of which we're about to have with dinner, and a couple of new wines to add to the list of regular buys. Next time you're near New Braunfels, stop in and visit them to taste their wares if you have a spare hour (or sit down on the patio and enjoy a bottle or two if you've got longer than that).