This may come as a bit of a shock, but it turns out wine is quite nice, and vineyards are pretty places. Who knew?
Robbie brought his friend Emily and me along yesterday on a hike down the Central Texas Wine Trail. Well, you don't actually hike it, you're supposed to drive, though frankly it would be a lot more convenient if all the vineyards were within a mile of each other so that you could simply stumble from one to the next. But then I suppose there wouldn't be enough room to grow the grapes. Really, how inconvenient.
We started out with a printed map listing the locations of about 25 vineyards within a 100-mile radius of Austin. Emily is an old hand at this - she's been on a Napa Valley wine tour, and is already familiar with many of the Central Texas wineries, and knows that she usually likes Sauvignon Blanc and doesn't care much for Sangiovese. She's fancy that way.
I drink wine out of a box.
We started with Driftwood Estates Vineyard, which is a beautiful place just south of Dripping Springs (the locals call it "Dripping" or even "Drippin'"), where Robbie and Emily favored the sweet plum red and I cottoned to the Lone Star Cabernet.
Have you ever done a wine tasting? See, I never had really. My stepfather and grandmother, sisters and I did visit a vineyard in central Alabama once, where they made wine from muscadyne grapes. The facility was spotless and beautiful, and the vineyards spread out lush and green before us. As far as I remember, they didn't charge anything for the tastings or the tour; but, seduced by the heady beauty of our surroundings, we probably bought more than a dozen bottles among us. We brought it back to my grandparents' suburban Birmingham home. It was just awful. We practically had to pinch our noses shut while we were drinking it.
These central Texas wineries have their act much more together. You belly up to a shiny blond wood bar, or sit at a high table in a pale stone room, dusty with newness. You can also relax outside on sloping lawns overlooking the vineyards in the valley below, or on a wooden deck surrounded by oak trees; and - unlike the place in Alabama - you are far from alone; wine tourism is popular, and though you're out in the middle of nowhere, the place is thronged. Visit two or more wineries on the trail, and you'll spot some of the same customers again and again.
You get about six tastings for 5 or 6 bucks - the equivalent of a glass of wine, more or less. You and your companions compare notes and discuss the nose, overtones, and aftertaste of each sample as if you were an elegant bunch who had never seen a box of Franzia in your lives. Then you order a glass and/or buy a bottle of the one that you particularly liked, relax and enjoy the atmosphere, and eventually - this is a highly leisurely pursuit - you head off to the next winery. There are dozens and dozens of them within an hour's drive. We managed to visit two.
After Driftwood we headed to Woodrose Winery outside Stonewall, close to the LBJ Ranch. Driftwood with its hilly vistas had a Tuscan feel, but Woodrose has a deck nestled in the woods behind it, with an acoustic guitarist/singer (most singers are acoustic as a general rule) providing a little ambience. Woodrose has fixed tasting menus laid out in a particular order, because "if you start with the port, nothing else is going to taste good," the woman explained to us. "Your taste buds will be fried."
This is good to know.
But don't be deceived by the inflexibility of the menu. Our waitress - probably an owner, I'm guessing - overheard Robbie expressing curiosity about one of the reds, and slipped a sample of it in for him before the port (which - this is extremely important - comes with chocolate). In fact she very good-humoredly gave all of us a couple of extra samples. My last tasting was a Merlot and she poured a sample for me twice, simply shrugging at me and smiling when I told her she'd already given me my last one. "Damn, she's nice," we agreed as she left.
My pick from Woodrose was the Wicked Red, so I ordered a glass to enjoy on the wooded deck and bought a bottle to take home, too. It's sitting on my kitchen counter. How it feels about the box of Merlot lurking six feet away is nobody's business but its own.