The first time I went to Texas Hill Country as a wine destination was about 15 years ago. It was akin to visiting a small farm, and I left without bothering to dream of what it could become.
If this story were made into a romantic comedy, a montage would now begin of Texas wine makers learning the Texas grapes, testing and finding the grape varietals that were going to work best in Texas, and building beautiful tasting rooms and properties. People from all over the world would hear of the Texas Wine Country region, as the number of wineries grew to more than 260. I would return a decade later, and fall in love.
Today, Texas Hill Country is the second most visited wine destination in the U.S. and yet sits quietly in our backyard. Area winemakers estimate that more than 80 percent of visitors are from outside our region. With so many fun and exciting things to do in Austin, this statistic is easy to understand, but still disappointing given the quality of wines and experiences that await us.
To help you become a true local expert on Texas Wine Country, I’ve compiled this top 10 “best of” list. With it, you can easily pick up a designated driver, grab some friends, and feel secure in your insider knowledge.
Note: many of the places highlighted in this list offered me complimentary tastings or tours, but all opinions are my own. I would like to also thank my friend, longtime Austin wine professional Chris Black, for his expertise and logistical support.
1/ Best View: Southold Farm + Cellar
If your vision of the perfect Texas Hill Country day includes sitting on a swing on the top of a hill, taking in an amazing view, while serenely sipping on your wine, then head to Southold Farm + Cellar. The Southold tasting room is a one-room structure that looks like a comfortable living room. There are magazines and books to browse, a telescope, and a friendly dog to supervise your swinging.
Southold is new to Texas Hill Country, having opened in August 2017. Regan and Carey Meador moved to Texas after their New York state vineyard met challenging zoning requirements.
They opened outside Fredericksburg (Mr. Meador is a native Texan) and brought an new approach to Texas wines with them. The duo tries lighter varietals and focuses on locally-sourced grapes. (Many vineyards mix local grapes with those from other parts of Texas.)
In buying the property for the vineyard, the Meadors secured the hilltop part of a lot, where they placed their home and vineyard. This means the wine is only matched by the views, which are naturally accompanied by a gentle breeze.
Insider information/pro-tips: Southold has received attention in wine circles from publications such as Texas Monthly and The New York Times. Yet visiting them is an insider experience unto itself, since the vineyard doesn’t advertise. Be sure to study the wine names, which are gems. Who can resist a bottle named “Therapy for Liars”?
330 Minor Threat Lane, Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Reservations requested for tastings, which happen on the hour
Tasting room open Sunday, Thursday, and Monday from 12 to 4:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Tasting fee is $15 for 5 wines and $3 for each additional wine
➡️ Keep reading: Day Trip Guide to Fredericksburg, Texas
2/ Best Tasting Room Experience: Kuhlman Cellars
Kuhlman Cellars is my choice for Best Tasting Room Experience. The wine-food pairings are not only exceptional, but fun, inventive and quirky.
Led by noteworthy San Antonio-based chef, Chris Cook, seasonal bites are prepared for each wine in the tasting or “pairing.” For example, the last winter menu included a puffed Cheetos wrapped in salami and dipped in an avocado aioli. This was paired with a merlot.
The Kuhlman Cellars team is intentional in everything they do. They take effort in the food pairing because they believe wine should be enjoyed with food and friends.
Recognizing that people want to experience wine differently, two types of pairings are offered. The casual pairing is done in their indoor wine garden and features a four-wine flight with bites. This communal setting encourages discussion between groups and offers table-side service, for a self-led or private study of the wine.
The signature tasting includes five tasting and bites, and is sommelier-led. This design allows visitors to ask questions, learn more about the wines, and takes place in the barrel cellar (blankets are provided).
Insider information/pro-tips: Kuhlman Cellars is actually named for Kuhlman Creek, a nod to water being the source of life. Chris Cobb and his family own the vineyard, with several family members working in key positions. Do not leave Kuhlman without trying the herbed almonds. These marcona almonds are seasoned with Herbs de’Provence. Trips are made just to secure this key ingredient from Provence. Need to ask a friend for a favor? These are the answer.
18421 E Highway 290, Stonewall, Texas 78671
Reservations requested for tastings
Tasting room open Sunday and Monday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. (last appointments accepted at 4 p.m.); Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last appointments accepted at 5 p.m.); Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last appointments accepted at 5 p.m.)
Casual pairing is $20 and signature pairing is $27.50
3/ Best Summer Sip: Lewis Wines
Lewis Wines takes a bit of confidence to find. After turning off 290, you pass several structures/houses until you come upon the actual tasting room. Employees, who sometimes live in these houses, tell stories of guests walking in as they finish their cereal.
But once you arrive at the tasting room, you’re treated to a large, covered patio under which you can enjoy your tastings. The tasting room itself is small, yet offers ample space to learn about the wide variety of Lewis Wines.
One of these wines, Swim Spot, is what puts this winery on my list. This Vinho Verde is light, refreshing, and perfect for sitting by a pool.
The tasting notes list tacos, breakfast, crawfish, salads, and sandwiches as its food pairs. So basically, it’s the wine of an Austin summer.
Another notable wine is the dessert wine, which is rare in Texas given the mold that must form to help formulate the grapes. Definitely stock up on both when you visit.
Insider information/pro-tips: Lewis Wines’s Viognier is once again available after being unavailable for a bit. With the wide variety of wines, this is a good place to try several different types of wine at once.
3209 Highway 290 West, Johnson City, Texas 78636
Reservations requested for tastings
Tasting room open each day of the week from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tastings are $15
4/ Best Place to Get Insider Information: Lost Draw Cellars
Lost Draw Cellars is the one “best” on this list that is in Fredericksburg proper. The managing team consists of Andy Timmons, his nephew Andrew Sides, and Sides’ father-in-law, Troy Ottmers. All are familiar faces in Fredericksburg and have been part of the community in several other capacities beyond wine. Timmons was a peanut and cotton farmer until 2006 when he turned to grapes, and the Lost Draw tasting room sits on the location of Ottmers’ former business.
After a day of touring, wine making, growing, and other functions related to the industry, this is where industry pros go to relax and be with each other. This means that in addition to experiencing great wine, you can continue your discussion about the wines you’ve tasted, test your theories, and catch up on the latest news, releases, and restocks.
Insider information/pro-tips: If you have a chance, ask Timmons about grapes. He continued his farming success with grapes and is now the second-largest supplier in the state, supplying to many other wine makers. For this reason, be sure to try the varietals utilizing lesser-known grapes.
113 E Park St. Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Reservations requested for tastings
Tasting room open Monday through Wednesday from 12 to 5 p.m.; Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Basic tastings are $15
5/ Best Reason to Keep Dreaming About Your Own Vineyard: Ab Astris
Opened in August 2018, Ab Astris is a labor of family love. As Kristen Nelson tells the story, she and her husband Mike were working as lawyers when her parents, Tony and Erin Smith, approached them about a longtime dream of starting a winery. Nelson recruited her sister and brother-in-law, as well, who now have key roles in the business.
The name Ab Astris speaks to the vineyard being the results of a longtime dream, and the starts aligning just right. Latin for “to the stars” or “there is no easy way from the earth to the stars,” the name is a nod to both the responsibility to make great wine and the alignment necessary for a dream to become reality. In one year, Ab Astris is already making waves.
Insider information/pro-tips: Ab Astris is in Stonewall, just next to LBJ State Park. The team is working on some exciting things that will be announced in fall 2019, so start following them now to be in the know.
320 Klein Road, Stonewall, Texas 78671
Reservations appreciated for tastings
Tasting room open Thursday, Friday and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Basic tasting is $15
6/ Best Late Night Wine: Vinovium
With so many exciting places to visit in Texas Wine Country, you might be wondering about time. How will you fit in all these bests? What is the smartest use of your time? With most vineyards closing in the early evening, there is one that stays open late, with a selection of local wines and great events.
While Vinovium means “wine road,” it’s self-described as a “wine négociant and winery.” What this means is you can go to Vinovium and try many wines, including those made from the grapes and/or blends of other winemakers. Wines at Vinovium are on tap, allowing the venue to offer wine cocktails, a growler program, and a rotating bottle program.
Insider information/pro-tips: In addition to offering several great wine programs, Vinovium events are varied, fun, and entertaining. From open mic nights to a monthly prime rib dinner, to a palette mapping class, there is something for everyone on the wine-loving spectrum.
214 Edmonds Ave., Johnson City, Texas 78636
Reservations not required for tastings
“Growler” room open Monday to Wednesday by reservation only; Thursday and Sunday from 12 to 7 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday from 12 to 9 p.m.
7/ Best Wine: Calais Winery
“Look for the French flag,” Benjamin Calais told me over the phone. “The GPS won’t work.”
Without further ado, our pick for best wine is Calais Winery–hands down. Every detail of the winemaking process is carefully attended to, with Benjamin Calais at the helm.
Calais came to Texas from France as an information technologist. His hobby of winemaking soon led him to open a winery in Dallas, which he moved to Hye about five years ago. Traditional French techniques and materials are used with 100 percent Texas grapes, all intentionally “not rushed,” so time and devotion are other ingredients added to the wine.
Wine lovers flock to this reservation-only vineyard to acquire limited production wines, which are only sold at the vineyard. With some releases, Calais limits the number of bottles one can purchase to make sure more people have a chance to enjoy the wine.
Insider information/pro-tips: Tastings are done in a “cave” that was constructed by Calais to help with the winemaking process. He bought an old barn and used several pieces to construct this cave. We recommend all tastings, but the most quintessential is the “Exposition” or “Cuvee de l’Exposition.” Mention to your wine friends that all are single vineyard wines.
8115 US 290 West, Hye, Texas 78635
Tastings by reservation only
Friday from 2 to 4 p.m.; Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from 12 to 4 p.m.
Tastings are $15
➡️ Keep reading: No Early Mornings at Hye House Bed & Dinner
8/ All-Around Best: William Chris Vineyards
If you can only go to one winery, then head to William Chris Vineyards (after making a reservation). The property, which includes a tasting room, patio area, and several tree-covered picnic areas, makes you realize why people are drawn to the beautiful Texas Hill Country.
Every experience William Chris curates is well-organized and carefully thought out. The tastings are at your own pace, and peppered with anecdotes about the family atmosphere of the vineyard. There is exactly enough information for a wine aficionado of any level, from beginner to part-time sommelier.
After a tasting, I recommend choosing a bottle, ordering a cheese plate from the tasting room, and sitting outside at one of the many patio tables, to contemplate your excellent life choices. Don’t miss the picture frame, which will position the grapes and Texas sky behind you for immediate Insta-fame.
If you’re able, definitely attend an event, specifically a members-event (members are allowed to bring guests). These member events make you feel like you’re a welcome guest at a dear friend’s family picnic, complete with music, games, and–of course–wine.
At a recent dinner visit, I joyfully listened to music, watched children learn (and practice) roping goats, and took a walk among the grapes. Between all this, I sat under a tree with good friends and toasted our good fortune to be in Texas Hill Country on that fine day.
Insider information/pro-tips: William Chris is named for the two founders, William (Bill) Blackmon and Chris Brundrett, whose work ethic is legendary in wine circles. You can often find them on property pouring wine or tending to the appearance of the space. William Chris recently hired a new chef and will be expanding its food program, complete with a new members pavilion this fall.
10352 U.S. Highway 290, Hye, Texas 78635
Tasting room open Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Basic tasting is $20
9/ Best Way to Get Non-wine Friends in the Car: Garrison Brothers
If the talk of wine, pairings, and views has you or your crew’s eyes glazing over, Texas Wine Country also has something for that: bourbon.
Garrison Brothers is our local maker of bourbon whiskey. In fact, it obtained the first stiller’s permit for bourbon outside of Kentucky and Tennessee. The distillery and tasting room is in Hye, Texas, off 290.
Far from a backyard operation (the original method of Texas whiskey production), Garrison Brothers has been gaining international accolades. Certain releases have sent people on desperate search parties to secure coveted bottles.
But there is always plenty of bourbon at the headquarters, where lemonade and iced tea are available for mixing. Guests can then take their newly mixed drink to the tree-shaded area, where there are benches, swings, and lounge chairs.
And when you need a break from the relaxing, jump on a truck-pulled hayride to take a tour of the distillery. The tour covers the bourbon-making process and includes tastings.
On my recent visit, I was tickled to see the group of (mostly male) partners who had been deposited at Garrison Brothers for entertainment, while their wives and partners toured area vineyards. But they were more than pleased with this compromise.
Insider information/pro-tips: Members of the public are able to help the distillers bottle their bourbon. To fortify themselves, volunteers are encouraged to take frequent breaks and tastings. Recent accounts have estimated the wait list is in the thousands. Sign up for the newsletter to access the call for volunteers.
1827 Hye Albert Road, Hye, Texas 78635
Reservations requested for tours
Open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sit and Sip tours are $10
10/ Best Place to Refuel: Pecan Street Brewing
Whether it’s lunch or a snack before heading back to Austin, staying properly fueled is a requirement for any wine trip. For this, my recommendation is Pecan Street Brewing. This restaurant is in Johnson City and serves a full menu of American favorites. On a recent visit, my friend and I shared a burger, as well as chips and salsa. But we were also tempted by the pizzas and chicken fried steak.
In addition to great food, Pecan Street is also a brewery. A seat at the bar will give you a view of the working brewery and beer flights are available. While I usually am wine focused on my trips, I see that a day would be happily passed at this brewery alone.
Insider information/pro-tips: The storefront visible from the street is only one part of the brewery. Be sure to walk through the restaurant to see the biergarten, which opens to a park behind the brewery. If you would like to continue your wine travails, many Texas Hill Country wines are available at Pecan Street Brewing.
106 E Pecan Dr, Johnson City, Texas 78636
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
@theAustinot wants to know:
What is your favorite winery in Texas Wine Country?