As I mentioned in a recent post, the little town of Johnson City is doing some flexing and becoming quite a destination in Texas Wine Country. I have NEVER visited the area of the Hill Country that encompasses the 290 Wine Trail and not visited the town of Fredericksburg. Like never. But that’s exactly what happened on my most recent trip out there. And for context, the Texas Hill Country encompasses a big area – it’s 31,000 square miles! But in this case, I’m generally talking about the 30 mile stretch along Highway 290 between Johnson City, TX and Fredericksburg, TX, which is the heart of the wine region.
Fredericksburg, with all its charm and historic German influence, is what made me initially fall in love with the Texas Hill Country. But as the wine region continues to grow, the area needed additional towns to grow and provide much needed infrastructure to support the increased tourism. During my trip, I was able to stay at Carter Creek Winery Resort & Spa, which provided a great base to explore the Johnson City end of the 290 Wine Trail.
Wedding Oak Wine Train
My latest Texas wine trip actually started with a ride on the Wedding Oak Wine Train!
And I still don’t know how the hell I don’t know this was a thing! At any rate, my wine bestie (MyVinoRules) and I had a blast. It was seriously the perfect way to begin my Texas Hill Country wine adventure.
The ride is on a neat vintage train that takes you from Cedar Park (a suburb of Austin) to Wedding Oak Winery in Burnet. During the ride, you do a wine tasting flight with staff from the winery. They also provide a light snack to go with some of the wines.
What I did not know was that you could also bring your own nibbles for the ride (folks showed up with everything from breakfast tacos to meat and cheese and beyond). Some even had rolling coolers! Note to self and I will absolutely be prepared next time!
The middle part of the trip is a visit to the beautiful Wedding Oak Winery. We had lunch there and enjoyed a bottle of rose.
We also had a little time to walk around the town square and Main St. After a couple hours in town, is was time to board the train and head back. Such a fun time and great for all sorts of people – couples, mother-daughter groups, groups of ladies hanging out.
Sandy Road Vineyards
It is no surprise that I loved the wine at Sandy Road Vineyards. Winemaker Reagan Sivadon is the long time associate winemaker at Ron Yates Wines and Spicewood Vineyards, whose wines I just adore. So I was quite excited to experience this new project from him and his family.
And I can say that it delivered on both the unique setting as well as the delicious, well-crafted wines. They have a couple of tasting options, but I was all in when I saw the treehouse tasting option. I was skeptical about going up into the treehouse, thinking it would be too warm and that I would literally melt all over the place. Dramatic much? But that was not the case at all. We were blessed with a delightful southern breeze (which I’m told is the norm) which made me want to hang out even longer.
I tasted an Albariño, Sangiovese Rosé, Pet Nat Rosé (90% Grenache & 10% Prieto Picudo), Sangiovese, Mourvèdre, & Tempranillo. Y’all – I so enjoyed this portfolio! And Andrew, who did my tasting, was so knowledgeable and had so many interesting tidbits to share. A great brain to pick for sure.
Fave Wines: If I’m picking favorites (and it’s tough) I’m going with the Pet Nat & Mourvèdre. Tasting: VIP Treehouse Tasting above the vines $30; Seated Pavilion Tasting $20.
Pedernales Cellars has been around long enough that I’m on the verge of considering them OGs now. They are known for their Spanish and Rhône varietals, but they also dabble in Bordeaux and Italian varietals from time to time as well. To be sure, their award-winning Tempranillo (it’s over half of their estate vineyard!) and Viognier (they have the saddles to prove it) are the stars of the show.
But, I have also enjoyed tasting through different things in their portfolio. A recent Chenin Blanc blew me away and I’ve also enjoyed a lovely (and quite unique) Graciano from them. During this trip, I was able to meet with winemaker Joanna Wilczoch and drink a couple of things that’s she’s trying her hand at, including a very exciting sparkling Montepulciano as well as “joven” style Tempranillo.
And while you’re there, you might as well hang out for a while. The estate sits on 145 acres of oak-shaded land, with unparalleled views of the beautiful Pedernales River Valley. It’s hard not to just sit and enjoy the views and a bottle of wine for hours on end.
Fave Wine: “Joven” style Tempranillo (limited release). Tasting: Tasting Bar $25; Weekend Reserve Tasting $40
Slate Theory Winery
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I was super stoked to see such an impressive and fancy underground cellar in the Hill Country from the folks at Slate Theory Winery. Heck, in the state! But it was even better that the beautiful facade was not just all style – there was some true substance to the wines as well. And I loved that it is a family affair. Four of the owner’s seven kids are involved with the winery.
Fun fact: The owner’s daughter has a doctorate in psychology and when dad decided to get into wine (without much experience) she mused that it “will be just like a demonstration of the blank slate theory as we don’t know anything about wine other than how to drink it.”
While I loved the vibe of the sleek tasting room (and definitely want to go back and hang out) I did the Cave Tasting during my visit. The tasting takes place in one of the unique, intimate seating “rooms” located in the underground barrel cellar. You can even rent out the entire cave.
And speaking of the cave, the initial thought was to build an underground cellar to “save money.” Well, as they say, “The best laid plans…” During the construction process, they ran into some really thick granite that had to be pulverized, which made the project cost considerably more expensive. But the result is over 9300 square feet of stunning beauty. From the living walls, custom lighting (each one different) and hand-carved wood touches, it’s such a elegant space.
When it comes to the wine, Slate Theory has a wide variety of options as they make over twenty wines per year. Anywhere from five to six are blends, with the rest varietal wines. Today, a significant amount of wine is produced from their estate vineyard, with the plan in the near future to have 100% of production sourced from the estate. I enjoyed Albariño, Viognier, Cinsault Rosé, Tempranillo, Tannat, Merlot, Petit Sirah, and several red blends. To be sure, the reds are where they shine. Wondering what the deal is with the labels? Their vibe is a “combination of art and historical psychology” and they pay homage to the importance of mental health. Definitely a cause I can get behind.
Fave wine: I swooned over a red blend called Zealot which was comprised of Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc. Tasting: Production Tour which includes a walk through the caves $45; Cave Tasting $50; Tasting Room $25.
Southold Farm + Cellar
If you want low-intervention, hands off winemaking (and great food pairings) head on over to Southold Farm + Cellar. After my first visit, I was intrigued and just hate it took me so long to return. As much as I loved my first visit, I’d have to say things have gotten even better, so perhaps it was worth the wait.
Natural is the key word here and that has been their philosophy since the beginning. Multiple passes through the vineyard to get the best fruit, all-natural spontaneous fermentation, no commercial yeasts, and an all-around low intervention approach leads to wines that are rustic, lively, complex, and so exciting to taste. Cerebral stuff here y’all.
On my most recent visit, I did their “Prologue” experience which is a tasting that features a 4 wines paired with a set of 4-5 composed dishes. I think food is truly the best way to showcase these wines. I’d been covering this particular tasting in my monthly “Texas Wine Roundup” series (link) and was thrilled to try the latest iteration of the tasting. True to form, Southold tries to source as many local Texas products as they can for their kitchen. And y’all, these pairings were the business! I would have never paired some if these things together, but it totally worked!
1st course – Sugared Texas pecans, Texas olives, Fredericksburg peaches with olive oil & sea salt (who knew?!), local cheese from Orobianco Creamery + ‘Love Amongst Wolves’ Picpoul Blanc. Yeah, this Picpoul came home with me.
2nd course – Burrata salad w/ watermelon, cantaloupe, serrano peppers, opal basil (more floral note) + ‘Beautiful Vulnerbility’ (white blend of Picpoul Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, and Trebbiano). Seriously an ah-mazing salad! So fresh and delicious! And I love, love their commitment to producing more white wines in the Texas High Plains. A textural marvel.
3rd course – Blistered Okra with a take on jardiennere sauce + ‘Forgone Conclusion’ Alicante Bouschet. This is one of those parings I would have never tried, but boy did it work. The wine screams for smoky bbq and worked so well with the char and smoke on the okra. Yum!
4th course – Pork belly (seared and then flash fried so crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside) w/ sea salt + zucchini and squash succotash + ‘Trust The Pain’ Lagrein. As a fan of Alto Adige wines, I was excited as hell to see this Lagrein!
Y’all, I ate very damn bite and drank every drop of every course. This is unusual for me, but this tasting was so well done.
And yes, go for the wine and stay for those views! You seriously can’t miss me with a swing and their large patio with comfy porch swings overlooking the hill country will make it hard to leave.
Fave Wine: Picpoul Blanc. Tasting: Current Releases $25; Prologue Food & Wine Tasting $60
I was so excited when I’d heard that we had a new female winemaker in Barbara Lecuona at Siboney Cellars. She and husband Miguel actually started the winery back in 2017, but made the move to Johnson City and opened their tasting room in 2022. So they weren’t really new, but new “to me.” At any rate, it was a happy discovery. I visited them on my most recent trip out to the Hill Country and really enjoyed the gorgeous, limestone-terraced 52-acre site.
As a fan of Merlot (I seriously hope people aren’t still on the anti-Merlot wagon) I was thrilled and intrigued that they recently planted their estate vineyard with Merlot. They planted both Italian and French clones (to hedge their bets) in the limestone soils and I cant wait until the vines are ready. They currently source their Merlot from the famous Newsom Vineyards in the Texas High Plains. In addition to the Merlot, I also had an opportunity to taste their Sauvignon Blanc, White Rhône Blend (Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne), Red GSM Rhône Blend, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
My tour and tasting were conducted by Miquel, who was just so engaging and a wealth of information. He and Barbara actually met during wine school in Philadelphia and I swear that between the two of them, they’ve done just about everything in wine. And as a person with 15,000 pictures, I loved that Miquel also has a marketing and photography background. He has some amazing photographs on display at the winery.
Whether you enjoy the beautiful, modern, light-filed tasting room with floor to ceiling windows or the cozy, covered outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards, you’ll find there’s not a bad seat to be had. Down the stairs and out to the vineyards is another great setting which I can’t wait enjoy again with Mr. Corkscrew.
They have two large oak groves in the middle of the vineyards with views for miles with ample seating and an outside bar. Once a week, they do their Thursday Twilight Tasting under the lighted oaks. And with Miguel being Cuban, they also incorporate a robust cigar program – which is why I need to bring Mr. Corkscrew. They are also welcoming of the entire family and even do scavenger hunts for the kiddos. With all they have put into the impressive property, there is more to come. They are currently building out production and barrel spaces as well as a new members lounge.
Fave Wine: The Merlot of course! And I’m so excited to see what expression of Merlot they create from their own estate in the near future. Tastings: $25 Classic Tasting of 5 wines in tasting room; $40 Premium Estate Tasting & Tour; Thursday Twilight Tasting features bottle service as well as cigar and port-style wine paring.
Legit some of the state’s grape whisperers, Farmhouse Vineyards grows fruit for around twenty of the state’s wine producers including some of the largest wineries all the way down to tiny, boutique producers. In addition to growing premium wine grapes, eight generations also farm 7,000 acres of cotton, peanuts, black eyed peas, hemp, melons, pumpkins, various grains, and dorper sheep. While their business was founded as a farming venture, several years ago they took the leap and started making in-house wines.
To be sure, ground zero for the business is in Brownfield, home of the farming operations. This is where the growing magic happens as well as serves as the site for their main tasting room. But recognizing the tourism heart of the industry was along Highway 290, they opened a tasting room in Johnson City in a renovated Airstream dubbed the “Tipsy Trailer.” Of late, the Hill Country site has shifted to a cute renovated farmhouse complete with a marketplace of tasty goodies. Plus, it’s one of a handful of tasting rooms in downtown Johnson City that you can walk to.
I loved that their signature varietal is Malvasia Bianca and they make dry, sparkling, and sweet wines with it. In addition to Malvasia, I tried a couple of rosé wines (one a blend and one 100% Mourvèdre), three different red blends, and a surprisingly tasty sangria. I think bottled sangria is the devil so yeah, I was proven wrong when I so enjoyed theirs. Go figure! And ever the growers, I love that they have info and exhibits in the tasting room that talk about their different vineyard sites and the soils. After your tasting, the porch just beckons you to enjoy a bottle along with some charcuterie.
Fave wine: I loved both the sparkling Malvasia and the Bloom rosé which is made of 100% Mourvèdre. Tasting: $20 for a tasting of 6 wines.
You know when you meet someone, and you know that these are your kind of people? I definitely felt that way when I met Henry Crowson, owner and operator of Crowson Wines and dad Ken Crowson. It was like stepping into a family member’s house and kicking back over a bottle or two of wine. These guys are cool as a fan and I loved it there. Yes, we talked about the wine, but we also talked about our families, our kids, the state of the world and more. Tastings are done by appointment only – just text or email – and are conducted at either the long, communal table or in the living room style area. Add in some tunes on vinyl that Henry plays in the background and I seriously didn’t want to leave.
According to Henry, he makes “selfish wine” because he makes what he likes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. These are what I call “no wines” in that there are no extras. There are no additives or sugars, no acidification, no chaptalization, no commercial yeast (wild yeast fermentation only) and for Henry, there’s an additional “no” – no blends. He makes only varietal wines. If you want the teeny term, these are so-called natural wines. His goal is to make provocative wines that make you think and that create conversation. I always enjoy these cerebral wines and love dissecting them and even more, pairing them with foods. And important to me, these wines are on the lower alcohol side. Looking ahead to the future, he’s planning an estate vineyard in Hill Country that will be planted to Sangiovese and Malvasia.
During our tasting, we started with a Malvasia Bianca, followed by a couple of rosé wines (one of which was a Rosé of Pinot Noir that Henry likes because it has no earthly business being in Texas) and ended with two reds – Montepulciano and Malbec. Accustomed (trained) to never drink the wine, only taste and spit, I was going through my routine when Henry gave me a hard time and reminded me that he got up early to open the wines. Fair enough. After that, I drank all the wine. You know, like most normal people do.
My fave: The Malvasia Bianca (another one!) that sorta lead me down the path of “adult lemonade” with some tart lemon and grapefruit and called out for some white fish ceviche. Tasting: Seated tasting (by appointment only) of five wines $18.
Pebble Rock Cellars
If there is any producer whose future I’m damn excited about, it is Pebble Rock Cellars. This was one of those portfolios where I seriously enjoyed and appreciated every single wine. And I enjoyed talking to the people behind the knew just as much.
Robert and Lydia Nida created Pebble Rock Cellars not only with a desire to make delicious wines, but also as a means to educate others and pay it forward. As they like to say, the concept originated with “a penguin, a proposal, and a rock.” Lydia’s favorite animal is a penguin, which was the inspiration of the name of the winery. When Gentoo penguins find their mates, they present them with a pebble for their egg nest. When Robert proposed to Lydia, he decided to make like a penguin and hid her engagement ring in a rock and presented it to her like a pebble. And so it was that they named their winery and released their first wines in 2019.
While only three years old, both Robert and Lydia are well-versed in the world of wine. They both have experience abroad in several European countries, and have spent a fair amount of time working with local Texas wineries. In addition to running their own winery, they act as winemaking and vineyard consultants and are all about being a resource for those who are interested in pursuing the wine business. Even with their own employees, Robert and Lydia ensure that they provide exposure to various parts of the business that may be of interest.
That same approach to educating others shows up in their tastings. Each quarter, they choose a topic of interest related to wine and incorporate that into the experience. Whether it’s harvest, lees aging, or exploration of the senses, they cover a wide variety of topics.
The Pebble Rock tasting room is located in a charming, refurbished yoga studio in Johnson City. The duo is also planning to expand the space in the near term as well as build out an outdoor seating area. During my visit, we tasted Sparkling Rosé of Mourvèdre, Albariño, a European-inspired white table wine comprised of Albariño and Roussanne, Rosé of Sangiovese, Sangiovese, Sagrantino, and a Madeira style wine comprised of 100% Blanc du Bois. Right out the gate, the sparkling wine was sublime and each successive wine was as compelling as the one before. This is truly the next generation of Texas wine doing the damn thing!
Fave wines: Sparkling Rosé of Mourvèdre and Sagrantino. Tasting: $25 for tasting of current wines by reservation only.
Ron Yates Wines
Ron Yates is one of those infectious personalities that really draws people into Texas wine. I love his passion and belief in the Texas wine industry and what it can be. An experience studying abroad in Spain (which included exposure to Ribera del Duero) sealed the deal for Ron Yates when it came to wine, particularly Tempranillo. After returning to Texas, going to law school and even starting up a record label, he just couldn’t get the thought of the wine country lifestyle out of his mind.
While I’d visited his sister property, Spicewood Vineyards, during my Texas Wine & Lake Views experience, his eponymous Ron Yates Wines property had continuously eluded me. Well no more! I finally made my way over there and had such an awesome visit with Ron. The winery is located in Hye, TX which is right next to Johnson City. I tasted a really nice selection of red, white, and sparkling wines. While so many of us associate Ron Yates with Tempranillo (and his are so damn good), of late I’ve been smitten with his Pet-Nat (he’s even making one with Mencia) and Grenache wines. As a winemaker, he’s always looking to push the envelope and “play a little,” trying to see what works in what is still an unknown terroir in the grand scheme of things. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had any Texas Mencia!
In addition to the pet-nats, I also tasted some Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Tempranillo (of course) and a couple of red bends – one a Bordeaux style and another “Friesen” red blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The Friesen wine was named for John W. Friesen, the owner of Friesen Vineyards, from whom Ron sourced the grapes for his 2017 Tempranillo that won Top Texas Wine at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo 2021 Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition.
After you complete your tasting in the tasting room, it’s a must to go out and enjoy the extensive covered patio or the seating area at the edge of the vines. But from what Ron has told me, this may not look like this for much longer as he’s planning a major expansion of the tasting room as well as the estate vineyard. In addition to adding more Tempranillo to the estate, he’s also planning to plant some Macabeo, Picpoul and Petite Sirah. Can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
My Faves: Mencia Pet-Nat and Friesen Red Blend. Tasting: $15 for a tasting of current selections.
I never thought I’d see the day that I would take a trip to Texas Wine Country and have it revolve around Johnson City. As an FYI, In addition to the places I visited (Crowson and Farmhouse), there are other tasting rooms in town including one from Southold Farm + Cellar as well as one on the way from Lost Draw Cellars. The future seems mighty bright for Johnson City, Texas.