It began as a casual invitation to attend a Texas wine-tasting for a reunion, of sorts, with some old high school friends. How could I resist? So, with my 4-year old son properly ensconced at his trustworthy godparents, I set off from Los Angeles to Texas to attend the largest wine festival in the Southwest – The 18th Annual GrapeFest and People’s Choice Wine Tasting Classic in Grapevine.The festival, voted one of the top 100 events in the US and Canada, spans four sweltering days from September 9 – 12, attracting over 241,000 people to charming, downtown Grapevine, Texas, extending 8 city blocks on Main Street filled with arts & crafts, rides, food, music, beer and wine, making for a great festival experience with WINE as the theme, but fun, friends and family as the focus.
With a healthy variety of live music emanating from 3 stages, we began our introduction to GrapeFest late on Friday night for a flash-back of groovin’ tunes with the 70’s cover band Le Freak. It was a little late to be starting the evening, by my 40-something standards, but apparently not too late for the throngs of Texans meandering down Grapevine’s Main Street, poking their heads into retail booths, listening to good music and sipping cold beer and Texas wine, including the popular “sweet wine” preferred by many locals. Yes, Texas is a culture bred on hot summer nights, cold beer, soda-pop and sweet tea – and with a climate hot enough to discourage almost any right-minded cowpoke from sipping a big, tannic red wine, it is understandable. I knew, however, that another world beyond those residual sugar blends existed in Texas, and I was determined to find the ‘sweet spot’ in Texas wines that wasn’t so - well….sweet!
On Saturday we plunged head-first into the GrapeFest experience during the mid-day heat determined to “Savor the Flavor”, the theme of this year’s event. Armed with sunscreen and wine glasses, we diligently marched forward on a quest to soak up all that GrapeFest had to offer. And the first stop (Ahhhh…air-conditioning!) was Su Vino Winery, a new concept in wine as entertainment, where custom winemaking is the order of the day, with an impressive array of varietals from around the globe. We tasted the Oregon Pinot Noir, California Sauvignon Blanc, and my Texas friends loved “Summer Rain”, a proprietary sweet, white wine, while I preferred the Cab/Merlot blend which was quite quaffable. Other varietals didn’t make the mark, the Australian Shiraz was woody and bitter, Pinot Grigio was unpleasant, but all in all – what fun! The concept is simple. Sample and select your “batch” from the tasting bar, then, create your own labels, bottle your wine (1 batch = 30 bottles), take it home, age it and drink it. Voila! Your dreams of becoming a winemaker have finally come true, without breaking the bank! Though doubtful your wine will become legendary, it still seems like a lot of fun.
Leaving the comfort of cool air behind us, we were quickly back on our festival mission, strolling down crowded Main Street searching for our favorite fair foods (think…nachos, tacos, and the newly discovered, Spudzilla - a ribbon cut potato that was divine) – and definitely a little more wine! We found some shade from the blistering Texas sun, and gathered with food in hand on the lush green lawn of the stately JE Foust & Sons Funeral Home, est. 1880, with several other festival-goers, reclining under the shade of a cottonwood tree to enjoy a moment and take it all in, while a whimsical scarecrow on stilts entertained the young and old alike, and a 12’ tall cowboy (on stilts) proved everything IS bigger in Texas.
I'm not one for sitting still for long, so I dashed off to buy a coveted cowboy hat and discovered nearby Bistro Blends of Texas, where oils, herbs and aged balsamic vinegars imported from Spain and Italy are blended into gastronomic delights. The Basic Garlic Parmesan was my favorite - tangy, flavorful with zest of almost sweet Parmesan, until Proprietor David Lewis served up a Raspberry Balsamic Sauce poured over vanilla ice cream. It was divine! Even my friend’s teenage daughter loved it. (“Vinegar on ice cream?” Melissa exclaimed.) We gobbled down our ice cream and headed over to the Grape Stomp to catch the 2-person teams competing for the coveted Purple Foot award. Stomping 20lbs of grapes for 1 minute each, the team with the most juice wins. After watching the competition, I only hoped that the freshly pressed grape juice wasn’t making its way over to our final GrapeFest destination – The People’s Choice Wine Tasting Classic.
People's Choice hosted over 28 wineries representing 120 wines, and I was amazed at the variety of talent and diversity of Texas terroir. As a Texan, born and bred, I must admit I knew little about the history of this great state and the inimitable grape. Winemaking in Texas dates back to the mid 17th century when Spanish missionaries established vineyards near what is now El Paso, and a thriving wine industry took hold by 1900, but the arrival of Prohibition wiped out virtually all the wines in Texas (much like in California), and it was questionable if the industry could recover. But…Texans are resilient and by the 1970’s the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association was formed, boosting Texas’ wine industry growth from 50,000 gallons to 1.5Million annually and promoting Texas wine locally, regionally and nationally. Texas wines today are improving and attracting international attention, though the industry is still relatively young.
With my newly found Texas wine knowledge and a single-minded purpose, I made my way into the event for a 2 hour session of wine-tasting in the Texas sun, in scorching temps. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. So, accompanied by my festival tasting partner and sister, Amy, I sampled my way through the tables and found that some Texas wine makers are well on their way to success. We found wineries hailing from Lubbock to Tow, Bryan to Lampasas, Johnson City to Fredericksburg and, of course, Grapevine, offering varietals from Chenin Blanc to Chardonnay, Merlot to Muscat Cannelli, Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese, and although many wineries produced a “sweet wine” blend (as necessitated by local market demand, I was told), I was surprised by the quantity of excellent dry wines that were poured.
Favorites included Cap Rock Winery 2000 Toscana Rosso, a blend with bright acidity and fruit character of Sangiovese and Barbera grapes, which faired well in the Texas heat, offering aromas of cherry and a subtle hint of spice. Llano Estacado Winery 2000 Viviano another Italianate blend in a Super Tuscan style that combines Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah for a red that was full flavored and layered. Texas Hills Vineyard 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, known as “Kick Butt Cab” exhibiting an interesting show of cherry and black fruit with a dry spicy finish. Messina Hof 2001 Paulo a Meritage, aged in new French and American oak had a prominent nose of wood, opening to a nice balanced wine with a slightly dry finish, and the 2003 Johannisberg Riesling exhibited a floral note with a crisp dry character; chilled to perfection, it was the antidote to the heat of the day. Fall Creek Vineyards 2002 Chardonnay showed distinct varietal character; apple and pear fruit on the nose, with a smooth, creamy vanilla finish. And yes, we found a sweet-wine that was chilled to perfection and delightful. Texas Hills Vineyard 2003 Orange Moscato (a Gold Medal winner!) was one of Amy’s favorites with tropical fruit overtones, and I must admit that even I was a bit partial to the refreshing quality of this interesting wine.
The final bell rang and our group moved outside the tasting area, dropping our People’s Choice ballots into the box and moving to the end of our weekend at GrapeFest 2004. After attending so many “serious” wine-tasting events recently, I was reminded that events like GrapeFest - a fun-filled weekend, jam-packed with food, entertainment and wine, are beneficial to promoting wine as a lifestyle suitable for everyone – not just an elitist group of “wine snobs”. On my way back to Los Angeles, I secretly hoped my favorite Texas wines would be Gold medal winners, but regardless of the outcome, the Texas wine industry is poised to be a player in the serious wine world, while remaining true to its regional market. And, the People’s Choice Wine Tasting Classic, more about fun and exploration, than serious analysis and critique, is in the end, what is healthy about the wine industry today. Let the people decide what is good! The great Robert Mondavi said it best, “Drink what you like and like what you drink!” I agree, and so do the wine-drinkers deep in the heart of Texas.
A list of featured wineries and more information about GrapeFest below.
Click on GrapeFest and People’s Choice link for a full listing of winners
Cap Rock Winery
Wine Maker: Kim McPherson
Introduced in 1992, the wines have won numerous medals in some of the most prestigious wine competitions in America and Europe. Hot days, cool nights and sandy loam soil produce some of the best grapes in Texas. The winery features Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Orange Muscat.
Fall Creek Vineyards
WineMaker: Ed Auler
Started in1975 as an ambitious project to determine whether high quality wine grapes could be grown in the soil and terrain surround the ranch. After years it became clear that the high caliber grapes could result in top quality wine. And the pursuit of excellence has put Fall Creek at the forefront of the Texas wine industry. Top awards for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Wine Maker: Greg Bruni
Founded in 1976, the winery is the best selling “premium” wine brand from the state of Texas. Innovation creativity and successful leadership have helped pioneer Texas wine both nationally and abroad with more awards and accolades over the years than any other Texas winery. Top awards for its Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Signature Red and White.
Messina Hof Winery
Wine Maker: Paul Bonarrigo
Founded on the values of family, romance an tradition, by owners Paul & Merrill Bonariggo. Messina Hof pioneered the Texas Wine industry when they planted the vineyards in 1977. From its initial production of 1300 gallons in 1983 it has grown at a breath-taking pace, topping a production level of 112,500 galls in 1996. The winery has received top awards for Johannisberg Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Texas Hill Vineyard
Johnson City, Texas
WineMaker: Gary Gilstrap
Wines from Texas in the style of Italy! Gary & Kathy Gilstrap and son Dale have a dream of maturing into a Texas focal point. Texas Hills always advocates environmentally correct way, by growing in a sustainable organic fashion. They use the least amount of chemicals tha the Texas Hill Country will allow. Producing Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Moscato, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and blush.
Bistro Blends of Texas
Custom blended oils, balsamic vinegar and more.