The slow start of summer offered the perfect excuse for a recent Saturday trip to the Hill Country, where the winery trail has been growing as fast — and as thick — as wildflowers. Drive along U.S. 290, and you feel as if you encounter a new winery every few hundred yards, which is a good thing if you enjoy wine as much as my friends and I do. But wine alone didn’t make up all of our day’s agenda.
Every good food trip starts with a snack or even something more substantial, so we headed north on U.S. 281, looking for a place to have breakfast. We ended up at Sandra’s Cantina in Spring Branch where I couldn’t resist trying the Egg Enchiladas plate. Just typing this is making me hungry all over again. Imagine fluffy eggs tucked inside corn tortillas before being draped in a thick coating of a sauce made of refried beans. Cheese, grilled onions and jalapeños along with a few slivers of ripe avocado finished off the plate.
Well-fortified, we made our way through Johnson City, where the proliferation of wineries begins. We headed past Woodrose, Williams Chris and Hilmy Cellars and ended up at 4.0 Cellars, a collaborative effort among Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery and McPherson Cellars.
The impressive facility has only been open for about 13 months now, said Jesse Barter, director of retail operations. It features a generous, shaded porch area with plenty of rockers where you can while away an afternoon while looking out over the manicured lawn and freestyle landscaping. There’s also a covered area where live music can be enjoyed on weekends or large parties can be held.
As beautiful as the setting is, the real story of any wine cellar is in the bottle. So, we settled down to a tasting of six dry wines that 4.0 features. (Well, most of us opted for the dry wines; two went for a sweeter wine tasting and seemed as happy with the result as we were.)
White selections included the Brennan Vineyards Viognier, an old favorite with plenty of ripe stone fruit flavor and a bouquet of honeysuckle blossoms, and Lost Oak’s Quartet, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnel. That’s right, Chardonnel; it’s is a fairly new varietal that’s a hybrid of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. (Lost Oak has plans of bottling its own Chardonnel, Barter said.)
Winemaker Kim McPherson has introduced a new label, Chansa, which features wines only for sale at 4.0 and his other winery, McPherson Cellars, in Lubbock. The Chansa Roussanne, with its tea aroma and savory lemon drop flavor, showcases a rising star on the Texas grape-growing scene.
The reds on our included McPherson’s DBS, a lively blend of Dolcetto, Barbera and Sangiovese, and Lost Oak’s Crimson Oak, a red blend with plenty of forward fruit flavors. The Brennan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon integrated bright red fruit with soft tannins into a real pleasure.
At the center of the massive tasting room while we were there, Pat Brennan of Brennan Vineyards served as a genial host, answering people’s questions and talking with the visitors, many of whom ended up going to the racks at either end of the room for some liquid souvenirs to take home with them.
We debated stopping across the street from 4.0, where Inwood Estates has opened a winery with a bistro soon to open, but we headed off to the Pink Pig, just a few miles down the road and next to both the Fiesta Winery tasting room that opens July 4 and the just-opened Six Shooter Cellars Winery. I’ll admit I had been dreaming of Rebecca Rather’s Triple Chocolate Threat Cookies since my last Hill Country visit. So I was sad to learn that they were out of those dangerously delicious cookies that day, though our server did tell me the recipe was in Rather’s first cookbook, “The Pastry Queen.” I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’d be able to make my own Triple Threats soon. And I wisely drowned my sorrows in a salted caramel bar, which has now become my latest obsession among Rather’s creations.
What was meant as a quick stop in downtown Fredericksburg turned into a nice shopping trip at Der Kuchen Laden, the kitchen goods wonderland where Bob Oberhelman’s Bell Mountain winery now has a tasting area. Afterwards, we went next door and down below for lunch at the Rathskeller, where a plate of pork loin with brown gravy and sauerkraut made for a great lunch.
We headed out of town on Route 87, where we made one last stop, and it was not a winery. Instead, we dropped in on the Pedernales Brewing Company, makers of Lobo Beers.
Master brewer Peter McFarlane and his partner, Lee Hereford, are on hand Saturday afternoons these days to offer tours of the low-key facility, where 14 employes now work, making and bottling a pilsner, a pre-Prohibition lager, a dark lager, a hefe-weissen and an English-style IPA.
On the day we were there, McFarlane led us into the tank room, which bore a strong resemblance to many a winery. It’s true, the brewer said, that the same tanks are used to hold the precious liquid before bottling. But the process is a lot faster for beer than it is for wine. Most brews take four to five days to make, while lagers take twice as long, nine or 10 days.
I won’t reveal all of McFarlane’s secrets or stories, but he did address the importance of consistency. Each bottle of Lobo Texas Lager has to taste the same, which can be hard, requiring thorough knowledge of ingredients, which include barley, malt and hops and which can vary from batch to batch. Yet consistency is what the customer expects. It’s also been what beer lovers have appreciated most about Lobo Beers. Though the brewery is only a little more than a year old, it has won a devoted following and its audience continues to grow, thanks to sales at H-E-B, Spec’s and other stores.
McFarlane offers a few reasons why his staff is happy to report to work each day. They’re insured. They’re challenged in various roles, so that nobody gets stale. They’re given a case of beer each week to take home with them. Plus, they get a beer at lunch and two at the end of their shift. So, if you’ll work for beer, you may want to check Pedernales Brewing Company to see if there are any openings.
Or you could indulge your desire to make your own beer by getting a kit and giving it a try at home. That’s how McFarlane got his start. The next time you’re in Fredericksburg, drop in at the brewery and ask him about Old Green Face, his first brewing effort. Maybe he’ll tell you over a tasting of his Lobo Negro, a dark lager, or the Pedernales Classic India Pale Ale.
If you’re going to Fredericksburg:
10354 E. U.S. 290, Fredericksburg
The Pink Pig
6266 E. U.S. 290, Fredericksburg
Der Kuchen Laden
258 E. Main St., Fredericksburg
260 E. Main St., Fredericksburg
Pedernales Brewing Company
97 Hitchen Post Trail, Fredericksburg