Each March we make a concerted effort to head to Austin, Texas for the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival (2011). This four day festival (nearly 20 events to choose from) goes from Thursday to Sunday, usually during the last weekend of the month. Unfortunately this year, we did not arrive until late Thursday night forcing us to miss the Stars Across Texas Gala. This event is a walk around Bacchanalia with world renowned chefs and wines from around the world. Though Texas wines are featured, there are plenty of delicious offerings from California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere. Though, as I said we were unable to attend, the consensus was it was a great event and “better than last year,” which we thought was pretty darn good.
Joseph Phelps – Freestone Vineyards Winemaker Lunch
Our first event was noon Friday at the acclaimed Aquarelle Restaurant Français with winemaker Theresa Heredia of Freestone Vineyards (Sonoma Coast) and Fog Dog, all part of Joseph Phelps. The event was packed in two dining rooms of the restored old home. We started with Fog Dog Chardonnay (Freestone’s second label) and then moved on the highly rated Freestone Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast. This wine is very Burundian in style so the oak and butter flavors from the secondary malolactic fermentation are subtle, leaving enough acidity and minerality to create a good food pairing Chardonnay.
The one disappointment was the main course of crispy duck. While duck should have been an excellent choice to pair with the two Pinot Noirs, everyone at our table agreed this duck was overcooked and too salty. While the Fog Dog Pinot was quite good, the Freestone Pinot was the star. A medium rich Pinot with flavors of dark cherry, spice, black tea and fine leather, we all enjoyed this wine. We finished with a selection of cheeses and the enjoyable 2007 Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Spotlight on Texas Wines and Winemakers
Our next event was the Spotlight on Texas Wines and Winemakers held at the Downtown Hyatt. The food was excellent and the quality of the wines would surprise most and even shock some, they were that good. The winemaker panel was led by June Rodil, Beverage Director of David Bull’s acclaimed new restaurant ‘Congress’ and a former ‘Texas Best Sommelier’, June most recently won the ‘Wine Ride for the Perfect Pairing’. The panel included Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars, Ron Yates of Spicewood Vineyards, Mark Hyman of Llano Estacado, Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards, Dan Gatlin of Inwood Estates and Russell Smith of Becker Vineyards.
The Texan Winemaker luncheon is the brainchild of the always gracious and elegant Susan Auler of Fall Creek fame. We were seated with Dr. Richard Becker and his lovely wife Bunny, founders of Becker Vineyards. We enjoyed chatting with them and learning how they took Becker Vineyards, originally nicknamed Chateau Shoestring, to the 90,000 case winery it is today. Though it was not on our tasting menu, I will say the Becker Voiginer is, in my opinion the best in the state, and one of the best in the US. As a matter of fact, a 9 liter bottle (one case of wine in a single bottle) recently sold at the Houston Rodeo Auction for a whopping $100,000 (not a typo), the most ever for a Texas wine. That is nearly $330 an ounce!
The wine selections were 2008 Rose of Syrah from McPherson, 2007 Spicewood Semillon Reserve, 2009 Llano Estacado Viviana (a white wine blend), 2006 Fall Creek Mertius (Bordeaux Blend), 2007 Inwood Estates “Cornelious” (Tempranillo) and 2009 Becker Vintage Port (Zinfandel). Each wine was paired with a small portion of savory Farm-to-Table Cuisine by Chef Kevin Dee. My favorite pairing was the Llano Estacado Viviana (a white blend similar to Caymus Conundrum, only drier) and Chicken Scaloppini with a Meyer lemon caper sauce. The short ribs with the Fall Creek Meritus (Bordeaux blend) were pretty damn good, too.
Each winemaker stood during their course and spoke a bit about their wine and winery operation. The wineries were from around the state but most were located either in the High Plains near Lubbock or in the nearby Texas Hill Country. All wines were made from Texas grapes, beautifully demonstrating the diversity of Texas wines and improving quality.
Big Dog Reds Tasting
As if a great lunch and Texas wines was not enough, we trundled down the street to III Forks Steakhouse for a tasting of “Big Dog Reds.” A couple of Texas wines (Fall Creek Meritus) and Becker Vineyards (Barbera) showed very well but the real stars of this walk-around tasting were some great California Cabernets. The wines were top notch and the pours were generous. We particularly enjoyed the Quintessa Cabernet as one might expect but there were a few surprises like the Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet which was simply amazing. Another was the Krupp Brothers Verasion Cabernet from the Stagecoach Vineyards in Napa Valley. Finally, we were able to spend some time with Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines. Hope Family makes wines under a number of labels, most recognized being Liberty School. That said, we were enthralled by his Treana Red, a blend of Paso Robles Cabernet and Syrah. Austin is a young enthusiastic winemaker who will continue to rack up accolades for his artistic wines.
The Sunday Fair is the people’s event and lucky for everyone this year, the weather was dry. This outdoor event was held for the first time at the Mexican American Cultural Center in downtown Austin making it more accessible than some of the previous venues. The 2500 ticket event was a sell-out. Most of the wineries that had been at other Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival events were there pouring along with specialty distillers and drink makers. Only in Austin will you find a wine festival paired with a Taco Showdown. In addition, there were over 100 vendors including specialty food sellers and local restaurants with free food tastings.