This Post includes an Introduction to the Texas Wine Industry and a Review of Three US Highway 290 Wineries: Calais Winery, Becker Vineyards and Pedernales Cellars
Grapes have grown naturally along rivers and streams in Texas for thousands of years. Texas is the site of the first vineyard established in North America by Franciscan priests circa 1662. In 1833, the Val Verde Winery of Del Rio was established by Frank Qualia, an Italian emigrant. Over 20 commercial wineries were in production in Texas prior to prohibition, but only Val Verde Winery continued after the 1935 repeal and remains the oldest continuously operated winery in Texas today.
However, no treatise on the Texas wine industry would be complete without drawing attention to the legendary grape taxonomist T.V. Munson of Denison, Texas. He took action to save the European wine industry after it was devastated by the root louse phylloxera in the 1800’s. American grape species were resistant to the pest and in cooperation with the French wine industry, Munson developed phylloxera resistant rootstocks. He organized dozens of land owners who collected 15 wagons of dormant stem cuttings for shipment to France. These vines became the breeding stock which saved the European wine industry. The rootstocks used throughout the world today originated in Europe from these native Texas grape cuttings. For his profound effort, T. V. Munson was awarded the Legion of Honor, Chevalier du Merite Agricole, by the French Government in 1888.
Prohibition dealt a hard blow to the Texas wine industry which didn’t revive itself until the 1970’s when Dr. George Ray McEachern received a grant for grape test plots from Texas A&M University. The 1970’s era enjoyed the winemaking expertise from industry pioneers Dr. Bobby Smith, Dr. Clinton “Doc” & son Kim McPherson, Bobby Cox, Paul Bonarrigo and Ed Auler. Respectively, their wineries are La Buena Vida in Springtown, Llano Estacado in Lubbock, Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock, Messina Hoff in Bryan and Fall Creek Winery in Tow, all of which remain open and thriving today. Kim McPherson later opened McPherson Cellars in Lubbock.
Texas has 8 AVA’s (American Viticulture Areas), is ranked as the 5th state in U.S. wine production with over 4,000 acres of producing vineyard farmland, boosts upwards of 400 wineries and contributes more than $1.88 Billion to the state’s economy. The wine industry has a major adversary in the Texas weather: vine-beating hail, drought and bud-killing late freezes. Yet, according to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, manages to grow 95 different grape varieties statewide.
The following three wineries are all located on Highway 290 in the Texas Hill Country between Fredericksburg and Johnson City and are an hour plus drive from either San Antonio or Austin.
- 8115 US 290 West, Hye, TX, 78635
Wineries come in all sizes in Texas. The Gypsy decided to begin this post with one of the smallest because the wines are some of the best. Try as she might, this reviewer cannot do justice to the superb quality of every Calais wine we tasted; recommending that you make an appointment and find that out first hand.
Proprietor and winemaker Benjamin Calais grew up in Calais, France, a major ferry port township in northern France that overlooks the Strait of Dover. He moved to Dallas for a tech position in engineering in the 2000’s. In his spare time, Ben rekindled the hobby of winemaking that began in Bordeaux. He soon realized that not only was fermenting grapes a natural fit for this Frenchman; he was developing a full-throttle passion for the craft and wanted to share it with the world. Ben’s first winery opened in 2008 in the Deep Ellum region of Dallas.
Through industry networking, Ben was meeting winemakers from far and wide and felt a kinship with the supportive & collaborative spirit of the wine community of the Texas Hill Country. He found land in Hye and relocated his operation. To take advantage of natural insulation and cooling, he excavated a “wine cave” into the limestone hillside. It is 11 foot at its deepest point and is built out of reclaimed cedar from a horse barn in the Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas. While plans are underway for an on premise vineyard, currently this intimate abode is the site of the entire operation including the tasting room. While sipping Ben’s elixir, Cabernet Franc bubbled in a fermenter just feet away.
Calais winery is a one-man operation meaning Ben controls the process from sourcing the 100% Texas grapes to labeling the bottle and every step along the way. Production is kept small by design to assure no detail goes un-pampered. Let us pray that Texas weather agrees with grape growing because 2013 did not, and rather than make an inferior product, Calais Winery skipped production that year. Ben ages both his red and white wines in top quality, medium toast French oak barrels that he purchases from a specific area of central France. While his portfolio includes Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, these varietals were sold out upon my visit however; you can bet I won’t miss out on their next release. We were fortunate to taste a dry rosé of Cinsault, a Roussanne aged 18 months in French oak, the Cuvee des Pierres Malbec, the Cuvee du Ruisseau Merlot and the newly released Roussanne 43% / Marsanne 35% / Viognier 22% blend. All grapes were sourced from select growers in the Texas High Plains area. Each wine unveiled pure finesse and sophistication, demonstrating Ben’s masterful winemaking prowess. The 2014 Cuvee de Gaston won “Best Rose” at the Texas Monthly Blind Tasting.
Events at Calais Winery
:Cave Tastings – Two levels of experience are offered, each taking place in the underground wine cellar. Calais leads the tastings himself and spices it up with storytelling and a slice of Ben’s homemade artisanal crusty bread. The stylish wine stem only adds to the pleasure. To maintain the casual yet informative sessions, attendance is limited and reservations are required for both.
Tasting in the Cave – $15. Friday by appointment, Saturday 11-5 and Sunday 12 – 4. Call or reserve on line
Winemaker’s Table – Reserve a place at the farm table located in the back of the cellar for an intimate 90 minute tasting with the winemaker as he discusses traditional French winemaking methods and techniques. Gain an understanding of how old-world wine is crafted with new-world flair as you taste through five currently released wines. Held Saturdays at noon and 2pm. The cost is $45, seating is limited to 8 (Note: The Winemaker’s Table is suspended during fall harvest)
Wine Dinners – Hosted several times throughout the year. These events take place in the cellar where exquisite cuisine is paired with Ben’s latest or upcoming wine offerings. Join their mailing list to hear about these events.
- 464 Becker Farms Road, Stonewall, TX 7867
- 1(830) 644-2681
When you visit Becker Vineyards, you have no doubt who owns the establishment. Dr. Richard and wife Bunny have always been hands-on in all aspects of daily operations. In the 1980’s the Becker’s enjoyed frequenting the few wineries on the wine trails in those early years and went on the hunt for a log cabin to renovate. Their dream came true in 46 acres of undeveloped land with sandy, pre-Cambrian soil on US Highway 90. Like a genie-in- a-bottle, out swirled the vision of a very small, boutique winery. Planting began in 1992 and their first harvest was in 1995. Fast forward to 2016 and Becker Vineyards is a 100,000 case/year operation with 50 employees, including winemaker Jonathan Leahy, General Manager Bret Perrenoud, Chef Gino Gabriel and an Event Coordinator. Their wines are fully distributed throughout Texas, have garnered countless awards and accolades and have graced the dinner table at the White House and renowned James Beard House.
In addition to grapes, the 46 acre Estate grows lavender fields, Stonewall peach orchards, native wildflowers, artichokes and seasonal hay. The Becker’s own two satellite vineyards and contract with more independent Texas grape growers than any other winery in the state. Their motto is “Supporting Texas Wine and Texas Grown Grapes”. They produce wine from upwards of 20 different grape varietals and routinely feature tasting room exclusive offerings.
Amenities and Services offered at Becker Vineyards:
Guided Tours on Weekends
The Reserve Wine Library Tour is available most Saturdays at 1pm. Includes viewing the 64 tank, 2000 barrel production area with state-of-the-art Italian bottling equipment. Savor both a barrel and vertical, single-vineyard Cabernet tasting in the underground Barrel Cellar complete with an artisan cheese pairing. Seats are limited to 20 and tickets must be purchased in advance thru their website
Verandah with outdoor bar offering a view of lavender fields and an antique windmill
Wine Club with two levels (Standard and Red Premier); both enjoy flexibility in quantity and pricing. Each year Wine Club Members may reserve a VIP Tour-Wine and Cheese-Tasting with up to 10 additional guests
Large Groups: The opulent Lavender Haus Reception Hall is an 1800 square foot, 104 seat indoor facility offering guests a climate-controlled, year round location for wine tastings, lunch or afternoon celebrations, corporate events or winery hosted dinners
The Lavender shop showcases skin care products, sprays, candles & herbs d’ Provence
- 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall, TX 78671
- 1(830) 644-2037
Pedernales Cellars draws its name from geography and history – the Pedernales River runs through the Texas Hill Country, and “pedernales” means flint in Spanish. The inspiration came when the owners serendipitously found an old flint Indian arrowhead in the vineyard and part of an Indian flint stone ax on the winery site.
Pedernales Cellars is owned and operated by a sixth generation Texas family. The story began in the early 1990’s when Larry and Jeanine Kuhlken planted the family vineyard located north of Fredericksburg along the Llano Highway in the Bell Mountain AVA, the first Viticultural area designated in Texas in 1986. When their children and spouses entered the family business, Pedernales Cellars opened its doors in 2005 concentrating on Rhone and Spanish varietals. Pedernales Cellars sources the majority of its grapes from their original Kuhlken Estate Vineyard and the remainder from Texas Hill Country and Texas High Plain growers. Son David Kuhlken is the winemaker.
The family and staff are committed to sustainable agriculture and for those familiar with my blog, you know that this topic pulls on the Gypsy’s heart strings – Recent Posts: Sustainability: No Longer an Option and Compare and Contrast: Sustainability / Organics /Biodynamics. Pedernales’ cellar and case storage facility utilizes a geothermal cooling system that reduces energy requirements by half. They use “re-coopered” wine barrels, further repurposing the barrels into furniture and other products available in their tasting room. The majority of glass and cardboard waste used in the tasting room is recycled and the winery building uses CFL and solar lighting rather than incandescent lighting.
Conservation measures in the vineyard include promoting natural pest management through the use of local species and minimizing water use through ground cover management. Compost from the winery is recycled back into the vineyard. Stewardship of the land extends to all reaches of the property. Through removing cedar overgrowth and invasive plant species, previously lost seeps and springs have been reestablished making a better habitat for the native Hill Country wildlife.
Pedernales wines have garnered awards and accolades from a host of Texas competitions and beyond including Top Texas Wine by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Wine Competition, a Grand Gold at the Lyon International Wine Competition, and a Gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Wine Tastings are offered daily except major holidays and include the wine glass. While sipping you can meander in their well-stocked wine accessories gift shop
Reserve Wine Tastings are available on Saturday and Sunday. They include library wines, Estate-blends and older vintages of award winning wines, led by a wine professional. Reserve in advance. $25 per person
Sip a glass while relaxing on the expansive outdoor patio with a panoramic view of the Pedernales River Valley
Wine Club Members have exclusive weekend access to the Wine Club Lounge located in the historical farmhouse on the winery property. Members are also invited to exclusive club release events, barrel tastings, and club pick-up parties while receiving priority discounts on wine and merchandise.
With upwards of 2 million visitors spending $5 million annually on the Wine Trails, it is a well-known fact that wine is a trompe-de-force in the Texas retail market. So pack a picnic and spend the day unwinding with friends or family in some of the most beautiful landscape away from city hustle and bustle while sipping nectar of the Gods. And if you happen to find yourself romping thru a field of wildflowers, you’ll know you did something right!
The Texas Grape Growers Association – www.texaswines.org
“A Texas Grape and Wine History” by Dr. George Ray McEachern