Snakes on the Plains: Texas Rattlesnake and Texas Wine
Any of you that have seen the Samuel L. Jackson movie “Snakes on a Plane” or even just the movie’s trailer (see below) knows the feeling you get at the mere mention of the word – Rattlesnakes. They are venomous critters that have a healthy dose of attitude. They also don’t usually go well with the average person’s psyche when confronted in confined spaces and especially if confronted at a dinner table.
Anxiety ran high for my wife and me as I drove north from Fredericksburg, Texas, with our mission set: Hunt rattlesnakes, eat rattlesnakes and pair rattlesnakes with Texas wine. Our destination was Sweetwater, Texas, home of the annual and world’s largest rattlesnake round-up that has been run for over fifty years by the Sweetwater Jaycees. For the first time, I was offering the roundup a new dimension: Wine and food pairing.
Sweetwater was only a four hour’s drive from Fredericksburg and our path took us through a part of Texas that most people have not traveled and perhaps even fewer understand. It was a lesson in Texas geology, history and weather covering topics like the formation of the Edward’s Plateau, the Llano Basin and the red bed sands of north central Texas. My wife read as I drove and we touched on the old, now-gone Spanish Mission San Saba near Menard, Texas, and the Native American pictographs near Paint Rock, Texas. As we approached Sweetwater, banks of tall wind turbines loomed over the countryside perched on high ridges. A spring storm was brewing with a gusting wind that brought a ten degree drop in temperature, blowing red dust on the horizon and a blackening sky overhead.
It was an early morning the following day as an orange glow peer over the horizon as we made our way to the round-up site and registered for the rattlesnake hunt. We witnessed the weigh-in as local ranchers and farmers came early to deposit their snakes into the holding pens. There the snakes slithered and coiled awaiting their fate: Measuring, milking, skinning and cooking. Just after ten o’ clock we donned our snake chaps, tested our snake hooks and tongs, and caravanned with about twenty other hunters to a nearby ranch. We kicked up clouds of red dust as we rode our trusty white steed that wears the BMW brand.
The reception from the snakes was a bit cool. We were advised that the particularly cold wet winter in Texas this year was keeping them deep in their burrows. I found this interesting as my wine growing friends in these parts were singing the songs of joy this year as the prolonged cold wet winter usually means good things for grapevines in the coming vintage. After about three hours of prodding into just about any and every hole we could find, our group came back with only six or seven snakes. One wasn’t even a rattler and, after taking pity, it was returned to the wild to tell its compatriots of its miraculous escape. Yet, we were fulfilled with the experience of the hunt, as there was not going to be a snake shortage back at the round-up. My main purpose for coming to the festival this year was actually rattlesnake eating and wine pairing.
After arriving back at the round-up venue, I brought out by stash of Texas wines, claimed a plate of breaded and deep fried rattlesnake and proceeded to chew, savor, swirl, sniff and taste as the arena announcer gave the play-by-play. He admitted to the crowd that this was the first time in the fifty-two year history of the round-up that they had a wine tasting and a TEXAS wine tasting, at that.
The tasting went pretty much as expected with the light white rattlesnake meat and its simple preparation pairing well a dry white wine. I selected a Texas-grown Viognier from Mandol Estate Winery to represent this wine category. Viognier has become the signature white wine of Texas and is rapidly becoming in Texas what Chardonnay has been for a long time in California. Texans try it and like it. Best of all, the name is relatively easy to pronounce – “VEE-ON-YAY”.
I also tried to pair the rattlesnake with two other wines: A white wine made from the Muscat grape and a Rhone-style red blended wine. However, the strong aromatics in the Muscat and the heavier body of the red blend overpowered the light and delicate characteristics of the rattlesnake meat. However, there were other ideas for rattlesnake recipes, the most interesting of which was a suggestion for rattlesnake gumbo made with smoked sausage that would derive a deeper character gained from a dark rue. I reckoned that this recipe would pair well with the red Rhone-style wine that I brought with me (Llano Estacado Signature Melangé).
Other interesting rattlesnake recipes and wine pairings were:
Rattlesnake Fajitas– Cut the rattlesnake meat into strips and marinate it in a mixture of teriyaki sauce and chopped jalapenos then grilled it on a hot skillet; salt to taste. This spicy dish will pair nicely with an off-dry or semi-sweet white wine such as a Texas Muscat blend (Brennan Vineyards Austin Street Three White Chicks), Chenin Blanc (Becker Vineyards Fluer Sauvage or Martin’s Vineyard Chenin Blanc) or Blanc Du Bois (Haak Vineyards and Winery).
Rattlesnake Pie– Add chopped rattlesnake meat with chopped onion and sauté in butter until browned and then add taco spices and put in a baking dish. Combine Bisquick with milk and eggs and pour mixture over the top of meat. Bake until the Bisquick is done and serve with sour cream, pico de gallo lettuce and guacamole. Pair with a Texas sweet red wine (Pleasant Hill Collina Rossa).
Snakes on a Plane (edited version)