The Definitive Guide to America's Most Unexpected Great Wine Destination

Contributor
The 290 wine trail, through the Texas Hill Country, offers many good things to drink (along with occasional deception)
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Andrew Chalk

This article is about wineries on, or near, U.S. 290

You have toured Napa Valley’s famed Highway 29, right? The wine trail where it takes 45 minutes to cross the road in the summer (such is the volume of traffic)? Well, an attraction billing itself as the “#2 Wine Destination in America”  is taking shape in central Texas. It is the 290 wine trail, or Wine Road 290. Estimates put the number of visitors at over two million people per year (compared to only 3.3 million in much-better-known Napa).

The term “290 wine trail” is my own. It refers to the stretch of U.S. 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. To put that on the map, Austin and San Antonio are each about one hour away by car. The term “Wine Road 290,” on the other hand, is copyrighted and owned by a corporation started by Gary Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard in 2008, in cooperation with eight other wineries. Some 15 properties are now involved. From east to west, these are: Texas Hills Vineyard, Hye Meadow Winery, William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Woodrose Winery and Vineyards, Hilmy Cellars, Becker Vineyards, Torre di Pietra, Grape Creek Vineyards, Fiesta Winery, 4.0 Cellars, Rancho Ponte Vineyard, Lost Draw Cellars, Fredericksburg Winery, and Chisholm Trail Winery.

Wineries are eligible to join the official group if they are within five miles of Highway 290 and within 40 miles of Fredericksburg; are within the Texas Hill Country American Viticulture Area (AVA); produce at least 1,200 nine-liter cases (totaling 2,853 gallons) of wine on premises, from grapes, per calendar year; have wine-making equipment substantial enough to produce said volume at the facility; are bonded by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau; hold a current winery permit from Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission; maintain an operating tasting room within the Wine Road 290 designation; and participate in all WR290 events. (Not all the wineries on U.S. 290 are members of Wine Road 290.)

The stretch of U.S. 290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City has become the Texas wine destination of choice for the state's residents, and on any summer weekend you can find yourself in a steady stream of wine tourists at any point along the route. It isn’t a parking lot yet, but it is clear where the trend is heading. The asking price for frontage land along 290 has gone from about $7,000 an acre in 2005 to $75,000 an acre in 2014.

That's largely because this is where wineries want to be to meet their customers. Wherever they make wine, they are all setting up sales operations here. In March of last year, at the first Texas Hill Country Wineries symposium, the organization's executive director, January Wiese, announced that there were 16 permits for wineries along the 290 wine trail in process at that time, effectively doubling the number of wineries on the route.

Although they're only 30 miles from one another, the two towns at either end of the stretch are vastly different. The picturesque town of Fredericksburg was popular before the winery boom started in the last decade. As you walk down Main Street, there is a Chase Bank with the word “private” between the words “Chase” and “Bank.” It manages the investments of the retired natural resources executives from Houston and the tech moguls from Austin. The detritus of tourism and wealth are everywhere, and growing, as the quality restaurants increase in number, and accommodations (mainly in the form of luxury B&Bs) proliferate. That said, there are simply not enough hotels for the current weekend visitor numbers, and prices reflect the shortage. On a visit this January (one of the quietest months), I found the Hampton Inn was $179 a night. Room rates were 50 percent cheaper in Kerrville, 30 minutes away. Johnson City appears to have no connection with wine or tourism (except for the Best Western on U.S. 281 just outside town). One consequence of being passed by is that retail space is cheaper than Fredericksburg and the right location could suit a new winery starting out on the 290 wine trail.

This article is about wineries on, or near, U.S. 290, regardless of whether they're members. It is an update of a similar article I wrote in 2014. An update is due because so much has changed: The number of wineries on the trail has increased by 25 percent in two years, and there is a headlong charge towards making only Texas wine, rather than reselling wine from elsewhere. As of the 2015 vintage, fully two-thirds of the wineries on the 290 wine trail make only Texas wine. The phenomenon is now so widespread that it warrants a special moniker: 100 Percent Texas Wine. A further 20 percent of the wineries plan to reach 100 percent, and are already close. That leaves just a runt group of 14 percent of wineries still peddling out-of-state juice, typically jug wine from California gussied up in Texas-looking labels.

This update is also motivated by something that motivated the first version: The absence of a consumer’s guide to the 290 wine trail. Existing articles on the subject tend to be general interest travel pieces or posts by bloggers motivated by free wine and largely unconcerned that some operators package California jug wine to look like Texas wine, a practice that is legal if bottles are labeled as “For Sale In Texas Only” (FSITO — pronounced, counterintuitively, as footso). I have never had a good wine with this designation. Many bloggers don’t understand that the sale of bottles of fake Texas wine means reduced sales of real Texas wine — meaning less demand for Texas grapes and thus fewer vines planted and lower farm incomes and employment. (To prevent this consumer deception, what we need is a state law that requires the origin of the grapes be stated on FSITO wine, just as it is required by Federal law on non-FSITO wine.) There is, of course, some good writing on Wine Road 290, but no comprehensive, consumer-first guide. That is what this article strives to deliver.

Before we start, we should consider what the 290 wine trail does not pretend to be. First, it is not the Hill Country. It is just one slice of the Hill Country. If you want to visit properties that are in the top 10 percent of Texas wineries, a trip along 290 will miss some important ones, such as Bending Branch Winery (Comfort), Duchman Family Winery (Driftwood), Fall Creek Vineyards (Driftwood and Tow), Perissos Vineyard and Winery (Burnet), Sandstone Cellars (Mason), The Vineyard at Florence (Florence), or Wedding Oak (San Saba). They are all in (or near) the Hill Country, but they are not (yet) selling on the 290 wine trail. (A fuller list of Texas Hill Country wineries is here.) It is also worth noting that the 290 wine trail is not U.S. 290 — just a (fairly arbitrary) segment thereof — and that not all wineries on the trail front onto the highway. It is often (as we shall see) worth traveling the three to five miles off the 290 to visit them.

Some practical considerations: Tasting begins around 10 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and noon on Sunday. Days start slowly down in the Hill Country, so one way to avoid Saturday crowds is to arrive early. Most wineries do 40 percent of their week’s trade in four hours on Saturday, between about 1 and 5 p.m. If you want individual attention, avoid those hours. I advise doing the route on Friday. All the wineries are fully staffed, and the crowds are virtually absent. All these wineries charge a fee for tasting (usually $10-$15 for a flight of five or six wines). Serving sizes are about two ounces.

Three of the wineries here offer an additional, elevated type of tasting experience for a fee. Each requires an advance reservation. Kuhlman Cellars offers a "Pairing Wine With Food" experience; 4.0 Cellars  offers a "Texas Wine with Texas Cheese" tasting; and Pedernales Cellars offers a private Reserve Tasting. If you are visiting from any distance, these are a no-brainer. Each offers a lot for not much cost, but sign up online in advance.

Note, too, that state law prohibits consumption of outside alcohol on winery premises, though some wineries permit outside food. Use a designated driver or a chauffeur car/limo for the day so you can enjoy the wine responsibly. Bring a cooler with ice to take purchased bottles home. Otherwise, they won’t survive the heat. Most wineries allow (leashed) dogs on the grounds, but not inside the tasting room or visitor center. (Check each winery website for updates on these rules.)

The norm is that tasting room staff are extremely hospitable. Many of the wineries will have at least one knowledgeable member of staff available for technical wine questions.