There has never been a better time to visit Texas’ Hill Country wine region. The crush has been completed, the crowds are depleted, and the weather is simply gorgeous. The past decade has brought unprecedented growth and change to the unique AVA (American Viticultural Area), so we sent D Magazine dining critic Eve Hill-Agnus to scout out the best Old World vintners and new winemaking revolutionaries. She came back with 15 favorites that are open for visitors. Here’s her guide to where to go, what varietals to try, and which tasting room has the ultimate view.
A tour of Texas Hill Country wineries is a mix of old and new: the old guard that began planting varietals suited to our unforgiving climate, those that dialed into a sense of place, and a newer crop that is pushing the wine scene forward.
HILL COUNTRY WINERIES
Founded 1995 | Fredericksburg
After Dr. Richard and “Bunny” Becker found the perfect log cabin retreat away from their San Antonio home, they had to decide what to do with the land. They were inspired by travels in the lavender fields of Southern France, whose terrain and climate reminded them of Texas Hill Country. Richard became one of the pioneers of Texas wine, starting with varietals he enjoyed and researching what grows here. For 25 years, the winery has grown estate sauvignon blanc, semillon, grenache, malbec, merlot, petite syrah, syrah, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon. Becker was the first Texas winery to produce viognier, now one of the state’s signature whites. Careful cooperage emphasizing tight wood grain for softer tannins, unlike the French Limousin region’s looser-grain barrels, helps balance oak and fruit. Stand on the stone porch, and catch the scent of lavender carried by the east-west cross breeze that cools the vines.
Curbside pickup: Mon.-Thurs. 10 am-5 pm; Fri.-Sun. 10 am-6 pm.
Founded 2007 and 2016 | Spicewood
Tempranillo was Ron Yates’ muse. The shorts- and sandal-clad vintner, who wakeboarded and water-skied on Lady Bird Lake and went to law school at St. Mary’s University before starting a record label, fell in love with the grape on a trip to Spain in the late ’90s. But the vineyard he ended up buying turned out to be uncannily suited to the sauvignon blanc with which it was already planted—and with which he immediately began to win awards. Try the 2017 vintage, crisp and classic, with the racy minerality you’d find in a Sancerre. Spicewood Vineyards, off the beaten path at the end of a country road, is estate-focused. But for his new eponymous Ron Yates winery and tasting room 35 miles to the southwest, Yates sources grapes from all over the state, based on close relationships with growers. Todd Crowell, the winemaker at both, modulates style. Think an expressive tempranillo for Spicewood—smoky, leathery, laden with brambly fruit—while the style is elegant and unusually reserved at Ron Yates, more cool blueberry with additional time in French oak. Yates recently released two frisky pétillant naturels, all effervescence and fun. Come May, you’ll want to return for a paella in Spicewood’s vineyard.
Bottle service and limited tastings: daily 11 am-6 pm.
Founded 2010 (Opened to public 2014) | Stonewall
The thing to do here is to take in the view of the rolling hills and enjoy a bottle of rosé accompanied by Marcona almonds dusted with herbes de Provence, which the winemaker’s mother sent from France. Bénédicte Rhyne, the Burgundy-trained winemaker, has worked to make rosés in the style of Provence’s lean, strawberry-scented rosés. She produces dainty, taut Southern Rhône Valley rosés with vibrancy and depth, whether crisp and light or refreshing and effervescent. Wines have names like Alluvé and Gypsum, which draw attention to terroir and soil types, and Hensell, which is named after the pink sandstone that underlies Gillespie County’s aquifer. Owners Chris and Jennifer Cobb began in 2010 with an experimental vineyard on a farm they bought near Fredericksburg, a mere 11 acres with varietals planted one per row to see how they grew.
Bottle service and tastings with online reservations: Thurs.-Sat. 11 am-6 pm; Sun. 12-5 pm.
Founded 2018 | Johnson City
In his tiny tasting room, Henry Crowson is making low-intervention, “natural” wine—unfiltered and unrefined, with a light touch. It’s not wild, though the yeasts are. The young winemaker, who worked at William Chris and helped found a whiskey distillery, adheres to a philosophy of minimalism, capturing the energy of place through the yeasts that come in from the vineyard (one of the defining precepts of naturally fermented wine). “It excites me that whatever yeast is there was meant to be there,” he says. He makes a gorgeous malvasia bianca and a funky, skin-contact roussanne in amber or orange hues. He channels his love of experimentation into a full-bodied zinfandel made with the French technique of carbonic maceration that yields Beaujolais. Sometimes his choices for his diverse repertoire come from a sense of place, in terms of what will grow well here, and sometimes they come from sense of style, playing with method. What will define Texas wine, he hopes, is variety born of diversity of terroir.
Tastings with reservations.
Founded 2009 | Comfort
Bending Branch is synonymous with tannat. Owner Robert W. Young became enamored of the Basque grape and its potential. He wanted more color extraction and thought it could be done. With his chemistry background and enology-school experience, he figured out how. At his winery in Comfort, he uses modern techniques like cryomaceration (a freezing method that increases tannins and color compound extraction), flash détente (tannin-releasing heating), and whole-cluster fermentation to yield deep, inky tannats and an estate cabernet whose smokiness pairs well with brisket. Also noteworthy are a crisp, melony, award-winning picpoul blanc and a new tannat rosé made frizzante style, which playfully expresses the grape’s range. For tannat nerds: the 2017 Texas Tannat blends three Texas vineyards and three fermentation styles for a dark, lush, velvety wine.
Curbside pickup: daily 12-5 pm.
THE HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
Founded 2009 | Fredericksburg
It may hold a vintage Gulf gas pump in the corner, but aside from the legacy oil-and-gas in-law connection that allowed them to land a tasting room in Fredericksburg, Lost Draw is all about moving forward. In its bag of tricks is Andy Timmons, who was awarded the T.V. Munson award, named after one of Texas’ great grape figures, and is one of the most influential growers in the High Plains. He works with his nephew, winemaker Andrew Sides, a Texas Tech graduate who is making some of the best wine in the state. Aside from growing for others, their portfolio includes exceptional whites—albariño, roussanne, marsanne, viognier, picpoul blanc, and the proprietary Arroyo Blanco blend—in addition to malbec and tannat. Look for the popular Spritztown, a play on Fredericksburg’s nickname, and counoise rosé and red, which highlight an unusual Rhône grape for single-varietal wines.
Curbside pickup: daily 11 am-5 pm.
THE LONG ISLAND TRANSPLANTS
Founded 2012 (Refounded 2016) | Fredericksburg
At the top of a hill, behind their modern home (pictured), is the tasting room modeled on a farmhouse that Regan and Carey Meador left behind in Long Island when they returned to Regan’s native Texas in 2016. An arrow marked “wine study” points from the bottom of the slope up to the white farmhouse. It is outfitted with Edison light bulbs and has views across valleys to both the north and south. The couple wanted to continue to make their Southold Farm + Cellar wine, but they knew they’d have to figure out all new grape sources. Yet you’ll find one last vintage from Long Island, Suitably Stunning, a Champagne-style sparkling rosé. Regan is joined in winemaking by Adrienne Ballou, and theirs is of the low-intervention variety, responding to the grapes and the process. Carefully sourced Hill Country fruit undergirds the wines now, but rootstock will be grafted in the spring. Whimsical names like Little Pieces of a Big Soul, made from touriga nacional, or Sing Sweet Things, an albariño, underscore the fact that time and place conspire to make every bottle different. Choose one, and settle into a swing on the back porch.
Bottle service with reservations: Fri.-Sun. 12-5 pm.
Founded 2004 | Driftwood
Many, myself included, consider Duchman vermentino and monte-pulciano to be wines that changed their view of Texas winemaking. Duchman entered the stage in 2004 with sophisticated wines from Italian varietals, which we would begin to see as common parlance, though they were not household names before. They became synonymous with excellence. In the hands of winemaker Dave Reilly, Duchman’s wines brilliantly showcase the varietals, whether the magical vermentino, delicately tropical, aromatic, and vibrant; a smoky, nimble aglianico; or a dainty trebbiano dry rosé. Reilly likes elegant wines that beg to be drunk with food. He highlights the new style of winemaking, in which masterful restraint and finesse create distinction without getting in the way.
Curbside pickup, bottle service, and picnic meals: Mon. 12-6 pm; Sun., Tues.-Thurs. 12-7 pm; Fri., Sat. 12-8 pm.
Founded 2018 | Stonewall
On land that belonged to the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch, this lovely, bucolic tasting room nestled under shading oaks was the dream of Erin and Tony Smith from Austin. The pieces fell into place when their kids and their spouses joined them from Dallas—one son-in-law a sommelier, the other a former corporate attorney who trained to become a winemaker. John Rivenburgh, the tannat king who was part of that varietal’s revolution, and whose Kerrville Hills Collective they’re using to make the wines, provided guidance. From a deep, dark tannat to the dazzling 2019 clairette blanche, a first for their estate and a first in Texas, it’s baby steps to pétillant naturels and sparkling reds. They’re genre-pushing and want to be part of the story of learning what grows well in Texas. Their accomplished wines are now part of the expanding universe.
Tasting room: Fri. 12-5 pm; Sat. 12-6 pm; Sun. 12-5 pm.
Founded 2008 | Hye
No wine country tour would be complete without William Chris Vineyards, which produces thoughtful, exquisitely precise wines. Decades ago, while standing in the property’s oak grove, founders Chris Brundrett and Bill Blackmon were two of the first to commit to using 100 percent Texas grapes. Old and new still mingle here, as the new tasting room’s world of concrete and glass joins the original farmhouse from the former turkey farm. The vineyard’s portfolio is deep, running from its standout single-vineyard mourvèdre, redolent of black cherry, plum, and leather, to Mary Ruth, a dainty, aromatic white blend of malvasia bianca and blanc du bois named after Blackmon’s mother. Numerous scene-broadening winemakers get their start here.
Bottle service and educational food pairings by reservation: Mon.-Wed. 10 am-5 pm; Thurs.-Sat. 10 am-6 pm; Sun. 11 am-5 pm.
THE IBERIAN EXPLORER
Founded 2010 | Johnson City
Doug Lewis, who cut his teeth at Pedernales Cellars, is the wunderkind making wine with Portuguese grape varietals like touriga nacional, tinto çao, and arinto. He favors low-intervention techniques on the Round Mountain Vineyard he leases, and he also takes advantage of grapes from carefully selected local growers. His portfolio includes port; a vinho verde-style white made with chenin blanc and blanc du bois (sometimes cut with albariño or muscat); and tinto çao, which he shapes into an age-worthy wine that mingles elegant black fruit, licorice, and tobacco. The winery’s coat of arms hails from his father’s family, the Lewises, reflecting Welsh or Viking—not Iberian—roots. The crest speaks to a desire for an Old World approach to wine, one focused on the relationships between vineyard, grower, and winemaker that express terroir. “If we have a pretty simple way of making wine, the vineyard speaks for itself,” Lewis says.
Curbside pickup with pre-order: Wed., Sat. 11 am-3 pm.
Founded 2005 | Stonewall
This winery has one of the most picturesque views along Highway 290. A century-old agave plant at the entrance welcomes visitors to an old farmhouse and a new winery built into a hillside. For me and many others, Pedernales presented the albariño and viognier that were revelations in the mid-2000s. David Kulkhen’s precise winemaking, informed by the esteemed University of California at Davis enology program, helped make Pedernales part of the cohort (along with Duchman, William Chris, and others) that raised Texas wine to the international level of competition. His wines are elegant. Beautifully cultivated grapes find expression in blends, like the GSM Melange, with its Texas twist; or single-varietals like the viognier, with its luxurious weight of satin.
Tastings with reservations and curbside pickup: Mon.-Thurs. 10 am-5 pm; Fri., Sat. 10 am-6 pm; Sun. 12-5 pm.
SLATE MILL WINE COLLECTIVE
Founded 2016 (Rebranded 2020) | Fredericksburg
Recently, and with new ownership, Slate Mill Wine Collective established itself as a custom crush facility—an incubator model that provides smaller brands with access to equipment and cellar crews. The winery was crafting already under the 1851 Vineyards label, named after the founding date of the winery’s original flour mill. But then they brought on rising-star winemakers who are examples of what collectives allow. Like Randy Hester, a sort of voluntary prodigal son, who brought back to Texas more than a decade of experience in Napa to infuse the scene with his precisely crafted C.L. Butaud wines (big reds and unctuous whites). Or sommelier-turned-winemaker Rae Wilson, who, in 2014, launched Dandy rosé, a bright, dry, Provençal-style rosé slam dunk that catapulted her. A new label, La Valentía, will favor site-specific older vines. Wilson’s involvement with Andrew Sides of Lost Draw Cellars on The Grower’s Project label highlights a desire to tap Texas wine’s vast potential and sustainability through specifically nurtured, small-production growers’ fruit. Also on the roster: Slate Mill’s own winemaker and Tatum Cellars founder Josh Fritsche, who until earlier this year was at William Chris. Try his work in Slate Mill’s lime-bright, mouthwatering trebbiano or in Tatum Cellars’ gorgeous mourvèdre with bold black fruit. Note: Dandy rosé and C.L. Butaud are available through their sites and at Central Market in Dallas. Tatum Cellars wines are available at Slate Mill.
Tastings: Thurs.-Sun. 11 am-6 pm; Sun.-Mon. 12-5 pm. Production tours by appointment only.
THE MAD GENIUS
Founded 2008 and 2019 | Hye
Benjamin Calais is the French génie fou with piercing blue eyes and unruly hair who is making Bordeaux-style reds and elegant, oaked whites on land that’s bare save for a French flag and a “cave” dug into the earth. He is obsessed with and passionate about cabernet sauvignon, and so he has done the hard work of seeking the sites where it grows, sourcing from the highest elevations in Alpine and the Davis Mountains AVA, braving frost and hail. He’s able to deliver cabernets that rival those from France or Napa Valley, using single vineyards that express themselves powerfully. But also a picpoul blanc, a sauvignon blanc from some of the oldest semillon vines, and a mourvèdre-heavy rosé meant to age or drink with food. On top of a nearby hill is Calais’ other venture, French Connection Wines, which he debuted just over a year ago with two sommeliers, one of whom is his fiancée. Here, his precise winemaking is focused on lighter varieties of reds, whites, and rosés, like a beautiful, limpid counoise rosé. Nosh on boards with triple crèmes and jambon de Bayonne, and “la vie est belle” feels true.
Calais Winery: curbside pickup Fri. 12-4 pm, Sat. 11 am-5 pm, Sun. 12-4 pm; tastings by appointment at Bryan’s on 290. French Connection Wines: tastings with reservations Fri. 12-6 pm; Sat. 11 am-6 pm; Sun. 11 am-5 pm.
Founded 1975 | Driftwood
Susan and Ed Auler’s winery has been sitting prettily in Driftwood, across from Salt Lick BBQ, since 2014. But the couple has been growing grapes in Tow since 1975, when hardly anyone was growing grapes in Texas. Susan is a grand dame of Texas wine, and she is still an influential winery owner. Ed was instrumental in claiming the Hill Country AVA appellation in 1990. Now, with a Chilean winemaker, they continue a roster of consistently outstanding quality. With a GSM, cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre, sauvignon blanc, and a grenache rosé, the roster focuses on French varietals—both Rhône Valley and Bordeaux. A surprising chardonnay is creamy and beautifully structured, an example of how a winemaker can coax intrigue from a grape not built to thrive here.
Tastings: Mon.-Sat. 11 am-7 pm; Sun. 12-5 pm.