Venturing into the Bluebonnet Wine Country and the History of Southeast Texas

Saturday morning was crisp and the roads clear following Friday’s record breaking early snowfall in the Houston area. The overpasses that brought mortal fear the night before were thawed; a great morning for taking in a wine trail. However, southeastern Texas area does not have the reputation of being wine country. Most people think that wine country is synonymous only with California’s northern region around Napa or Sonoma. Some enlightened individuals even know that Texas is the fifth largest wine producing state and that the Texas Hill Country has been identified as the second fastest growing wine and culinary destination in the USA. But, Houston and the surrounding territories have not, so far, conjured up visions of a wine touring experience. News Flash! Things are changing, and changing rapidly.

Yesterday, I took to the road with other “trail riders” on the Bluebonnet Wine Trail (http://www.texasbluebonnetwinetrail.com) in the historical region to the immediate northwest of the Houston metropolitan area. This area adjoins Washington-on-the-Brazos [where the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico was signed and where the first government of the republic resided]. It includes rolling hills, a mix of tall pines and hardwood trees, and attractive olde-thyme towns like Brenham, Bryan, Magnolia and Montgomery that were near the “heart beat” of the new Texan republic. The Texas Bluebonnet Wine Trail, Holiday Trail is open to participants December 5-6, 2009 and December 12-13, 2009. You still have another weekend to use your ticket.

A summary of my experiences yesterday are given below:

Colony Cellars

Within forty-five minutes from northwest Houston, I was in Waller, Texas, and stopped at the first winery on the trail map: Colony Cellars (www.colonycellars.com), a rustic family run winery and estate vineyard of Don and Ruby Corley with a list of twelve hand crafted wines to sample. With this extensive of a list, there is a wine to enjoy for everyone in your party. The wines are categories as Texas Crisp (dry), Texas Smooth (off-dry), Texas Sweet and Texas Random Harvest. The latter category included interesting “BonnyDoon-like” blends of the wineries odds-and-ends that made for the most interesting tasting. During Don’s explanation of his wines, he made a quick draw with a gadget that was like a combination small tennis racquet and electric cattle prod that zapped an unsuspecting fly in mid-air.  I thought, now this is something you are not likely to see at a California winery!

Based on my tasting, Colony Cellars strengths were their dry white wine and random harvest red made from locally grown French-American grapes. If you want to skip some of their wines, expect a sad look and an apology from the tasting room staff. But twelve wines are lot to sample, with their system, you can quickly find the style you like.

Pleasant Hill Winery

Just a short drive west and north, I stopped in at Bob and Jeanne Cottle’s place: Pleasant Hill Winery (www.pleasanthillwinery.com). Bob has been making wine for over ten years, successfully making the transition from part-time to fulltime winemaker. He now has a winey intern, Jarratt Irwin, care of the Texas Tech University’s new wine degree program. Jarratt plans to grow and make wine near Amarillo, Texas, upon completion of his degree.

Bob makes wines from local Gulf Coast varietals such as Blanc du Bois (white) and Black Spanish (red) but also has a vineyard in West Texas in the Fort Davis Mountains where he grows his classic grape varietals. I sampled Pleasant Hill’s classic Collina Bianca white blend, a new Sangiovese – a light and zingy red wine, and the developing medium bodied, but flavorful Cabernet Sauvignon from their Fort Davis Vineyard.

My prize for the day’s top food and wine pairing went to Jeanne Cottle for mastering Emeril’s Seafood Ceviche recipe. It was complete with his signature hit of cayenne pepper and paired with the Pleasant Hill Fort Davis Sauvignon Blanc which offered color and earthy light citrus tones to complement the lime and cilantro in the seafood dish.

By this point is was obvious that several of us were making the same Bluebonnet Wine Trail circuit; making us fellow trail riders of sorts, taking an extended definition of this word from Texas tradition. We ended up seeing each other at every winery where I stopped.

Windy Winery

Leaving Pleasant Hill, I re-engaged the highway to go north to Messina Hof Winery, but quickly realized that I could make an interim stop at newcomer Windy Winery (www.windywinery.net). This winery and adjoining vineyard are the creation of August and Linda Meitzen.  Like many new wineries they are experiencing first-hand the shortage of Texas grapes. They make wines with both Texas-grown grapes and those purchased from out of state, not because they want to, but because they have too until they can grow or purchase the supply of Texas grapes that their winery demands.

I was impressed with August’s winemaking ability. He indicated that he started decades ago as an amateur; first making beer and kit wines before he started a vineyard in the Texas Hill Country and progressed to making wine from Texas grapes. All of the wines at Windy Winery are well made and include classic varietals (like Chardonnay), locally grown hybrids (Blanc du Bois and Black Spanish) and even a native American grape (Muscadine). My Best of the Bunch picks were Windy Winery’s dry and sweet Blanc du Bois wines (called Desert Rose and Yellow Rose, respectively) which had great aromatic expressions of this grape that is rapidly gaining acceptance with wine drinkers in Texas. August also makes one of the better Black Spanish red table wines that I have tasted, bar none, complete with notes of elderberry and cherry.

I left with a holiday cookie made by Linda that included some of their Blanc du Bois wine.

Messina Hof Winery and Resort

After my way point stop at Windy Winery, I drove on up north but nearly drove off the road looking at an unexpected white, snow-covered field. However, when I stopped, got out of the car, and gained a better perspective, it turned out to be a field of Texas cotton ready for pickin’.

When I arrived at Messina Hof (www.messinahof.com), it was obvious that this was a happenin’ place. The parking lot was full and there was a gang of people hanging out of the tasting room, which was abuzz with activity – tastings, tours, presentations and the food and wine pair offered to wine trail visitors. The place was packed, but things were well organized by the winery staff. It was obvious why Messina Hof was voted the Best Texas Champion Winery 2004 through 2007 by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

I sampled a Gewürztraminer-infused, panko-encrusted, raspberry chipotle cheese ball with the Messina Hof Merrill’s Vineyard Riesling. Quite a good match and first runner up to Pleasant Hill. The wine was a dry Riesling with a tight citrus aroma followed a tart lemon drop flavor and a clean mineral finish.

I talked to Events Manager, Kelly Shelton. She mentioned that when she left a long standing restaurant job on the east coast for Texas wine country, her friend and associates laughed and thought that she had gone crazy. However, Kelly mentioned that since sending back samples of wines from Messina Hof, her old friends are not laughing any more, and eagerly await an opportunity to visit Texas wine country.

Retreat Hill Winery and Vineyard

Turning back southeast to make the return circuit home brought me to another new establishment, Retreat Hill Winery (www.retreathill.com) where I just missed its owner and winemaker, Billy Cox. But, the winery staff was very cheerful and welcomed us in for a sample of some of Billy’s home-smoked, pork tenderloin rubbed with Texas olive oil and rosemary from his garden. This preparation was paired with the 2009 Retreat Hill Blazin’ Blush, a real, honest-to-goodness Texas White Zinfandel made from grapes from the Palasios Family Vineyard  in Austin County, Texas.  They mentioned that when this wine was made and bottled, they also made some red Zinfandel that is still being oak aged and it should be released in about a year. Their white Zin recently won a bronze medal in the 2010 Houston Rodeo Wine Competition, so they are very optimistic that the red version should be wonderful….let’s be there for the release.

To fortify the wineries limited early production, Retreat Hill also provides wines from other Texas wineries such as Red Caboose Winery (www.redcaboosewinery.com ) and Haak Vineyards (www.haakwine.com) and offers wines made for them with grapes from Oregon. Oh, if we could only annex a state with 10,000 acres of quality wine grapes (or grow more of our own) wouldn’t life in Texas wine country be grand!

Retreat Hill Winery and Vineyard offers claim to a location between Hempstead and Navasota, just two miles of the historical location where George C. Childress, principal author of the Texas Declaration of Independence, sought refuge from the advancing Mexican forces at the home of Jared Groce. It was at “Groce’s Retreat” that Childress penned the Declaration, which was signed on March 2, 1836, at Washington-on-the-Brazos.

Heading Home

My first visit with many of the wineries in this new wine country of Texas was engaging and fun, made only better by the clear, crisp and sunny day. For Houstonians, wine country experiences do not have to involve long distance travel to foreign countries or cross country flights to California. It doesn’t even require a four hour drive to the Texas Hill Country any more. The wineries on the Bluebonnet Wine Trail are literally in our backyard. Come join the fun on the trail next weekend.

It was a full day. My apolgies go to the wineries that I missed, but I will be back soon…I am sure.

Join the Wine Trail

To participate in the Bluebonnet Holiday Wine Trail, all you have to do is purchase a single trail ticket or a ticket-for-two, and it is all done online – that’s convenient. Then, you can enjoy a glass of specially-selected wines, paired with a terrific holiday foods sampled at each winery on the trail. As an added bonus, have your ticket stamped at four participating trail wineries and receive the wine trail’s first commemorative holiday keepsake crystal wine glass. These 24-ounce Pinot Noir glasses feature the Texas Bluebonnet Wine Trail logo. This holiday trail package, worth almost $70 per person, is yours for the low single ticket price of $30 or ticket-for-two price of $45, plus tax. Click here to purchase your tickets online:

http://www.retreathill.com/store/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=5&zenid=h5j269ddvrfmqhg6m9alsj1mk3

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