Open Road

How to Explore Texas Hill Country Like a Pro

Uncorking the pleasures of a tasting tour through the Texas Hill Country

By Geneva Diaz Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Grapes at Adega Vinho

In the past year, I’ve become a huge fan of Texas wines. The taste of fermented grapes is just more appealing when you can buy a bottle that is made from the very vineyard you’re visiting. Fortunately, the Texas Hill Country—the epicenter of our state’s wine scene—is easily one of the most beautiful areas around to visit. Rugged hills, vineyards of grandeur, and exceptional sunsets all make for a delightful road-trip escape—and high-quality vino is the berry on top.

Starting in Houston, I headed west along US 290, and an hour of music and two episodes of my favorite podcast later, I was in the small unincorporated town of Driftwood—the gateway to Texas wine country. 

Day One

Stepping out of the car for the first time since Houston, I was fully prepared to hop from vineyard to vineyard to do tastings, which would require a lot of drinking. Luckily, I wasn’t required to drink every sample; it’s acceptable practice to spit it out and/or pour some wine out into a dump bucket spittoon. But most of the time, I caved, as the wine was quaffable, and the conversations with the people serving them were friendly. I’m shocked that I got out of town without joining another wine club.

Fall Creek Vineyards

My first stop was Fall Creek Vineyards, where founder Susan Auler and her husband, Ed, are considered pioneers in the Texas wine-growing industry from the late ’70s. As I walked inside the tasting room, I felt as if I were being invited into someone’s home, a recurring pattern at many wineries on my visit; here, there was a fireplace, a TV to feature University of Texas football games (the Aulers are UT alums), and even a pool in the backyard.

Sitting with Susan and director of winemaking Sergio Cuadra, I began to taste the first few wines from what would amount to scores of varietals throughout my visit. One thing quickly became clear: my relatively untrained palate could not possibly handle remembering every wine I tried, and they would eventually all blend in together. 

Susan and Ed Auler founded Fall Creek Vineyards in 1975.

Luckily, there’s no right or wrong way to appreciate wine. After Fall Creek and a quick visit to Duchman Family Winery (also in Driftwood), I drove out to Stonewall, where Andy and Michael Bilger, brothers, winemakers, and co-owners of Adega Vinho Winery, emphasized that the most important thing is understanding your own tastes and preferences, rather than attempting to memorize names of grapes and producers. “So much of it is about personal taste, rather than some objective standard of what’s best,” Andy said. 

Picking grapes at Adega Vinho

After I tasted some of their Portuguese-focused wine (because that’s what they like to drink), Michael took me out to the vineyard to see and eat grapes straight from the vine, noting that I was consuming the very fruit we drank inside the tasting room some 30 feet away. 

“When you visit the Hill Country, there’s a huge opportunity to learn about the different growing regions, history, and environment,” he explained. “If you don’t know anything about Texas wine, your visit will, without a doubt, consist of a cultural, environmental, and social education. For those who do know a lot about Texas wine, I think you’re going to be blown away by the quality amongst both small and large wineries.”

Following Adega, I closed out the day tasting at Pedernales Cellars, one of the larger and more well-known wineries in the area, located just down the street and overlooking the Pedernales River valley—a lovely sight for sore eyes.

Day Two

After a restful sleep at the Stonewall Motor Lodge, I set out 10 miles back east to Sandy Road Vineyards, located off the beaten path and a few miles up Ranch Road 1320—it’s a bit easy to miss, as there’s no signage. Winemaker and owner Reagan Sivadon was up in his treehouse-terrace tasting room, waiting to pour what became my all-time-favorite glass of rosé, a pétillant naturel. This was literally a treehouse overlooking the vineyard—a unique and highly recommended experience, but be sure to make a reservation, even if it’s for 10 a.m. like mine was. That’s one thing about the Hill Country: it’s laid-back, and the rules of the outside world don’t always apply. 

Sandy Road's treehouse tasting room overlooking the vineyard

I sat talking story with Sivadon about his land, which has been in the family for over 100 years. “We do all the labor ourselves,” he said. “My kids grew up running around the farm, and my 9-year old son really wants to be a farmer, so I’m teaching him now.”

Later that day, I visited a few wineries in Hye: Ron Yates Wines (sister winery to Spicewood Vineyards), which has been producing award-winning wines since 1992; William Chris Vineyards, another large establishment known for their global efforts to uphold the integrity of each wine-growing region; and The Hill at Hye, a tasting house of Kerrville Hills Vineyard wines. Visiting a mix of smaller, newer, and more well-established wineries helped me appreciate the ethos of collaboration among Texas winemakers: although they do compete, it’s never cutthroat. 

John Rivenburgh, a wine consultant and owner of The Hill at Hye

Image: Geneva Diaz

John Rivenburgh, a wine consultant and owner of The Hill at Hye, may be the ultimate example. “Over the years, I got the reputation of doing anything to help out a friend,” the president of Texas Hill Country Wineries told me as I sat tasting in his storefront. “And for the most part, a lot of wineries here are really good about working with each other.”

He takes the same approach to wine tasters. “I go out of my way to be helpful, and when we take people through a tasting, my number one thing is to treat people like they were tasting wine in my own kitchen,” Rivenburgh said. “Make them feel comfortable, and let them know it’s OK to say you don’t like a wine.”

So Much Wine, So Little Time

Wherever I went over two more blissful days of chatting with friendly winemakers, the same tune was sung. You hear about one vineyard bottling at another winery, but that winery blends grapes with a larger vineyard, and so forth. Some of the grapes used to make wines are sourced from the Texas High Plains (where 90 percent of Texas grapes are grown), as growing grapes in a young viticultural region like the Texas Hill Country isn’t always easy. It just involves more collaboration.

After all, Texas is Texas. And if you’re like me, you’re more than happy to relax among the rolling hills, maybe learn a little about winemaking, eat some great food, and drink so much wine that your tongue turns purple. It’s simply too much fun.

Traveler's Tips

When to Go to the Texas Hill Country

There’s really no wrong time to visit the Texas Hill Country, but fall—when the weather is relatively mild, grape harvesting has just passed, and Texas Wine Month is celebrated in the area during October—tends to be the best time to go. Peak hours of tourism for wineries, restaurants, and shops are Friday through Sunday; many establishments are closed on Monday and Tuesday. Hours of operation vary by winery, so call or check websites for up-to-date hours before visiting.

Tips to Consider

  • Be safe, and book a driver. You’ll get more personal attention if you visit on a weekday; the tasting rooms get crowded on weekends. 
  • Many wineries require reservations for tastings, so plan ahead. Two to three winery visits in a day should suffice.

Take a stroll along Main Street in Fredericksburg.

What to Do in the Texas Hill Country

Even the most oenophilic among us may want a little variety to pair with their wine tasting. Here are a few ideas for other ways to while away your time in the Hill Country.

  • Pay respects to Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Park in Stonewall. You are sure to see a group of longhorns nestled under the trees.
  • Dance the night away at the historic and somewhat hidden gem called Albert Dance Hall and Ice House outside Stonewall, south of US 290 on Ranch Road 1623—where live music, delicious burgers, and cold beer await. 
  • Just 17 miles north of Fredericksburg, take a hike up the large granite dome suitably named Enchanted Rock; local Tonkawa, Apache, and Comanche tribes believe the rock possesses a haunting spiritual power.
  • You can’t visit the Hill Country without taking a stroll along Main Street in Fredericksburg, where stores like Leathers with Style and Felt Boutique Hats and everything from turquoise jewelry to German baked goods await.

Where to Stay in the Texas Hill Country

  • Stonewall Motor Lodge is a classic 1960s roadside motel that sits between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. Now a restored Texas boutique hotel with a vintage vibe, the property also has four RV lots open to rent, as well as cabins available. Don’t forget to open up a bottle of wine and relax on the second-floor observation deck to catch the sunset.

    Stonewall Motor lodge is a classic 1960s roadside motel that sits between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. 

  • You could stay at Carter Creek Resort and Spa for a weekend without ever having to step off the property. The resort has a winery and tasting room, as well as a brewery serving both wine and beer, to complement a robust, steakhouse-style menu. In addition to the food, they offer soothing spa treatments, an outdoor swimming pool, and a fitness center.
  • Enjoy a rustic-style B&B in historic Fredericksburg at the Cotton Gin Village, featuring stone-walled cottages, lush landscapes, and an on-site restaurant. Breakfast comes freshly prepared in a picnic basket at your doorstep, featuring a delicious rotation of home-cooked items like cinnamon rolls, breakfast tacos, chocolate croissants, and bacon pepper-jack quiche.

Where to Eat in the Texas Hill Country

  • A nice place for a quick bite as you head into wine country is Rolling in Thyme & Dough, located in Dripping Springs. The Turkey in Thyme Sandwich has a homemade pesto on a bread of your choice (nine different loaves) that stays lingering on the back of your tongue for hours. Plus, they have gifts for sale such as local art, toys, tea accessories, and jewelry.
  • If you’re already in the thick of the wine country, heading west past Johnson City, the tasty food truck Hye Thai is a great bet. Their banh mi in a bowl is made with grilled pork (or sub other proteins), fresh herbs, house-pickled vegetables, and fresh jalapeños served with rice and a bed of spinach topped with kewpie mayo. 
  • Hill & Vine, located in Fredericksburg.

    For dinner, Cotton Gin Village’s on-site restaurant, Cabernet Grill, has an impressive menu with a romantic ambience (just like their cottages). Each culinary creation features fresh ingredients carefully prepared by their award-winning chef, Ross Burtwell. Order the jumbo lump crab gratin served with red chile garlic butter, asiago cheese, and breadcrumbs, the wild arugula salad with roasted beets and pecans, and the peach cobbler with lavender ice cream for dessert. If you haven’t had enough wine, the selection is 100 percent Texas. 
  • Another dining option with a more lively scene is Hill & Vine, located in Fredericksburg. Throughout the menu, owners Sarah and Jesse Barter pay homage to family members like Sarah’s father, Al Stinson, who was a chicken farmer in Grapevine for many years. So farm-fresh chickens feature prominently on the menu, as do fried roadside pies, served with local peaches, spiced pecans, crisp puff pastry, and Texas rum—a tribute to Jesse’s grandmother. 
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