Sunday, November 26, 2006

Texas vino options expanding: Dry Comal Creek Winery makes nice Central Texas options

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).

Friday, November 24, 2006


It's true, I am an autodidact: Several items in this quiz I knew because I learned them outside of school. Truth is I didn't pay much attention in high school at all - a little more in college, though I never finished. Wonder what questions I missed? I found this quiz via Cigars, Donuts and Coffee.

You paid attention during 91% of high school!

85-100% You must be an autodidact, because American high schools don't get scores that high! Good show, old chap!

Do you deserve your high school diploma?
Create a Quiz

UPDATE: Kathy got 97% right. She's obviously the brains in the family.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's Always Christmastime for Visa

The payments that we're making are the gift that keeps on taking, and leave us buried deeper every year.
- Austin Lounge Lizards

Just in time for the holidays Consumers Union has released a song and video by a bunch of talented Austinites aimed at convincing Congress to pass laws against usury. The Austin Lounge Lizards wrote and performed the catchy tune, "It's always Christmastime for Visa," and Austin's own Animation Farm did the graphics. My wife Kathy runs online promotions for Consumers Union and thought this song and video would be a good hook to help promote federal credit reform legislation that needs support. More than 25,000 people have already taken action, and you should to - go here to see the video and tell Congress you support restrictions on usurious credit card rates.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Jensen vs. DallasBlog: Should Thanksgiving be replaced with 'day of atonement'

Left-wing UT-Austin Prof. Robert Jensen called on Alternet for making Thanksgiving a national day of atonement, and on DallasBlog this was received as a big joke.

I'm not a tremendous fan of Jensen's; I agree with him sometimes, but I often think he take extremist vews just for show. On the other hand he tends to expand the terms of debate and usually doesn't hurt anything, and there's that whole First Amendment thing, after all, so I don't usually let it bother me.

What I don't like, though, is when provocations offer reactionaries opportunities for backlash that they use to slam a wide variety of folks who don't agree at all with Jensen or others on the extreme left. Just as important, I also think we should be respectful of history, should view it as a teacher, not a club with which to pound our enemies. That's probably why impulse overcame wisdom and I responded to DallasBlog in the comments (somewhat) defending Jensen. Here's what I said:
Read the excellent and profoundly disturbing history "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" for a sad description of what we should atone for on Thanksgiving.

Indeed, one can view the Pilgrims as America's first illegal immigrants. Uninvited and unwanted, they entered in opposition to the residents' wishes and under the authority of no native law.

One thing I'll say for Jensen, I think most of us need more atonement, actually. One of the things I liked about Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March was that he billed it as a day of atonement, of introspection for black men, and that focus resonated and was embraced by a lot of folks, with positive results.

Pride goest before a fall, whether it's black pride, gay pride or perhaps especially, as with Thanksgiving, nationalist pride. We live in a great nation built on 400 years of slavery, genocidal extermination of its former residents, not to mention imperial military conquests that seized half the mainland territory from Mexico by force, plus a bloody Civil War that only ended after Gen. Sherman brought the phrase "total war" (read: routinizing mass war crimes against civilians) into the modern vocabulary.

We have much to be thankful for as a nation. But if our thanks aren't tinted with humility for the suffering, pain and loss which enabled our presently dominant position [in the world], such celebrations risk indulging in hubris, encouraging an unjustifiedly unexamined, rank nationalism that ill serves us, IMO.

So I don't know about a fast - I like my stuffing and pumpkin pie - but I like that somebody's reminding the public that Thanksgiving celebrates a history with very complex meanings, not just simplistic, nationalist ones. Best,
I don't agree with Jensen we need to "replace" Thanksgiving. I think it's fine to give thanks. I think giving real, earnest thanks implies the humility that Jensen wishes were more commonly expressed during the holidays. If we are truly thankful, it's because we know that we do not deserve grace but have been offered it anyway. It's because no one can repay those old debts, those sins cannot be erased, but they can be forgiven.

You can't wag your finger and lecture people into bevaving more humbly. All you can do, I think, especially for a teacher, is demonstrate such behavior yourself and hope your example inspires others.

UPDATE: More from Robbie at Urban Grounds.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Polemicist online in html

This is flattering ... and a little scary. ;)

The student group UT-Watch has now posted nearly all the issues online from a short-lived (1989-'92) alternative student magazine founded by me and Tom Philpott, Jr. at UT-Austin called Polemicist. The student-written zine focused entirely on investigative reporting (by some very green student-reporters cutting their chops, I should add) about the University of Texas and its environs.

We began publishing just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but for some reason the epigraph on the masthead from Karl Marx, "A journal must have polemic, if it is to struggle," wasn't always taken in the ironic sense it was intended. The real source of the magazine's name wasn't Karl Marx, though, it was actually a George Bernard Shaw quote that I'm sure Tom remembers but I've long since forgotten.

Polemicist was a free handout in central Austin paid for 100% from advertising that maxxed out at around 15,000 circulation. However, it was published before the Internet era, so that means the UT-Watch folks (I think primarily Austin Van Zandt) had to re-type those suckers to get them into html.

Thanks Austin and UT-Watch, that's an amazing compliment that you'd think these old stories were important enough to archive online, even though part of me is a little scared to look and see what in the world I might have written as a student 16-17 years ago - and about whom. God help me ... indeed, God help us all.

UPDATE: Funny to read my collegiate writing again. Among opinions I've backed off of, somewhat, in my more moderate middle age: Against school spirit, a three tiered attack against jingoism in the young.

Friday, November 17, 2006

That means there are 155 impostors out there ...

Lots of people ask if I'm related to Jim Henson, or Drew Henson the football player (no to both) and there's a Scott Henson, it turns out, who's one of the designers of X-box games (not him, either, to my knowledge). But I thought this was an interesting bit of trivia:
LogoThere are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Carts before horses: K-State whips UT

Okay, maybe I jinxed the Horns' football team speculating too soon about a possible national championship bid. No sooner had I authored that blog post than the Longhorns lost their star quarterback to injury and a tough road game to Kansas State, taking them out of national title contention.

Kathy and I went to see the movie Borat Saturday night, and when I came home during the third quarter I was surprised to find Texas and K-State tied 21-21. I was then stunned to watch the Wildcats score three times in what seemed like the next five minutes - Boom, Boom, Boom!

With Colt McCoy at the helm, the Longhorns might still have pulled it out, but the situation was too much to throw a true-freshman backup into with no preparation. I'm amazed the final score (45-42) was so close.

So no national title shot for the Horns this year. Damn it - I spoke WAAAY too soon.

I'll still be shocked if Texas doesn't win the Big XII and earn a spot in a BCS bowl game. And with all this young talent, if they can keep their stars from turning pro early, next year's team should be awesome.

Friday, November 10, 2006

UT's botched scheduling may cost Longhorns national title shot

I've watched all the top college football teams except Michigan play at least once, and I'm convinced the Texas Longhorns probably have the best one loss team in college football. Quarterback Colt McCoy is loads better than he was in Texas' loss to Ohio State, and a rematch of that game with a more veteran QB would make for a great storyline. I think Texas would win.

But as this writer points out, Louisville's loss probably won't be enough to get Texas into the national championship game because Florda ranks slightly higher than us in the BCS computer polls.

Who is responsible? I think it's whoever at the UT Athletic Department decided to schedule the University of North Texas and Sam Houston State to play one of America's hottest football properties this year.

There's a lot of football left to be played, and Florida (or UT, for that matter) may not win out. But Texas is already stuck with teams like Baylor and Rice weighing down the annual strength-of-schedule meter. Why do the Longhorns schedule Division II patsies in football that harm the team in the computer rankings?

Texas does the same thing in baseball and basketball, too, but it doesn't matter because at the end of the year a tournament decides everything. In football, style points count, as does every week's opponent.

In that light, scheduling two Division II schools in a year when Texas has a real chance to repeat for a national title was a disservice to the players and team who worked so hard to earn it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sunk in Lucre's Sordid Charms

I thought the old pictures on this site are just wonderful.

For instance, check out these playing cards:

City council approves red light camera scam

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and that goes double for the system of cameras the City of Austin voted today to install to give tickets to red light runners.

Vendors will pay for the cameras to be installed, then take a percentage of the profits. So do you think those vendors (or the city, which anticipates a big revenue windfall) have any interest in actually reducing red light running? Not a chance - the more red lights are run, the more money they make. In other cities municipalities actually lowered the length of yellow light times in order to increase revenue.

Most studies on the subject not paid for by vendors find that the number of injury accidents stays about the same when red light cameras are installed, or sometimes increase. The state of Virginia banned municipal red light camera use because a statewide study showed they were sending more ambulances to auto accidents, not less, after the cameras were installed. Other states have followed suit.

People don't run red lights on purpose, they tend to do it by accident, and cameras won't help that.

Councilmember Mike Martinez, in particular, came off simultaneously arrogant and ignorant on the subject, declaring criticisms of the camera scheme by the ACLU central Texas chapter "not substantive," but refusing to debate the topic. Not only was he being an asshole, he was flat out wrong: ACLU presented the council with a plethora of legitimate studies and other documentation, while councilmembers (according to results from an ACLU open records request) received all their data from industry lobbyists. City staff hadn't even bothered to contact more neutral sources.

Martinez should be ashamed of himself. IMO he bared his ass and came off as though he didn't care what the facts were - he just wants the extra income. What invertebrate cowardice! If the city needs more money, show some balls and raise taxes - don't try to mulct citizens through the back door.

City Council claims that this is about "safety" are an obvious canard. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M says there would be a greater benefit in accident reduction - they estimate 40%, according to testimony at the hearing - simply by increasing yellow light times by one second. Another proven method is to add a visible counter to traffic signals at high-risk intersections that counts down the moments until the light changes - most red light running happens because drivers are guessing when the light will change, and the counter takes out all the guesswork, dramatically reducing accidents.

But the city isn't looking at increasing yellow light times. Why? Because it would decrease camera revenue.

This is nothing but a scam. More later on some of the legal aspects, but for now if you're interested check out past coverage of this issue from Grits for Breakfast when the matter was before the Texas Legislature.

UPDATE: See Statesman coverage and comments from the public.