Southwest Texas Three Ways

By Omar Mouallem.

Sandstone Cellars co-founders Scott Haupert and Don Pullum.
Sandstone Cellars co-founders Scott Haupert and Don Pullum.

Somewhere in the American south, I saw a man in a camouflage jacket and buzz-cut sit at a bar, lean toward a bearded bartender in a bent ball-cap, and order… a Cabernet?

This is a scene from Messina Hof Winery’s tasting room in Fredericksburg, Texas, a tourist town that used to be famous for its German heritage and architecture but is now the centre of the Hill Country Trail — America’s fastest growing wine region after Napa Valley. And lawmakers are taking notice; nobody in Fredericksburg stopped me from window shopping with a glass of Messina Hof’s Paulo Port, a smooth and oaky vintage made with the Lenoir — otherwise known as the Texas black Spanish grape — from winemaker Paul Bonarrigo’s estate in Bryan, Texas.

Ninety minutes from my San Antonio hotel, I’d come to experience the incredible range of southwest Texas, which also includes Austin. Though Austin is a hotbed of fine dining, claiming countless celebrity chefs like Tyson Cole, I’m hunting for boutique wine and true Texan barbecue. Messina Hof happens to be the third largest and oldest winery in the state, claiming over 100 labels with the assistance of California grapes (though the vast majority come from across the 700,000-square-kilometre state). But for a bottle of wine where grapes speak to winemaker, and not the other way around, I drive an extra 45 minutes to Mason County.

Here, Sandstone Cellars makes complex blends with Mason-grown grapes only, including one of Syrah, Mourvedre, Touriga and Viognier, a well-structured and balanced fusion with some spice. While Texan wines struggle to make it on wine lists, Sandstone recently landed on celebrity chef Dean Fearing’s menu at the Ritz in Dallas.

“Fredericksburg is extremely tourist driven — the Disneyland of the Hill Country — and this is a little more authentic,” said co-founder Scott Haupert, once a studio violist who contributed to the scores of a few small movies like, um, Jurassic Park and Titanic.

Shortly after Haupert and his partner of 25 years, Manny Silerio, moved from L.A. to the town of 2,500, amateur winemaker Don Pullum moved in next door. Now the three amigos run a three-building compound: wine bar, tasting room and taqueria featuring Silerio’s mother’s handmade tortillas.

“We’re little, but what makes us stand out is the uniqueness of our blends,” Pullum, a former venture capitalist, told me, “and because we’re in an emerging wine industry, we can make our own traditions.”

That said, the most popular Sandstone bottle is a 100 per cent Touriga, the “VII.” Each is numbered because they don’t intend on duplicating their labels, but this one’s worth repeating. From sip to swallow it changes character, from spicy and tannic to earthy.

Pullum said he wants to make wines that challenge you with elements that show up and disappear; “a wine you spend time with.” But, the fact remains that Texans have a taste for sweet wines. As one Messina Hof bartender told me, “they go good with barbecue and Mexican food — so they go with our diet.”

Back in San Antonio, home of the Alamo, I find both dietary staples in one spot at Garcia’s Mexican Food “home of the barbecue brisket taco.” Since 2005, when third generation co-owner Andy Garcia started practising for barbecue competitions at the 50-year-old diner, Garcia’s started sparking up the live oak-burning smoker on weekends. The light guacamole pairs beautifully with his lemony and juicy dry-rubbed brisket, but the real magic is the ribs. Subtly sweet from the apple juice spray that cools, it’s smoked for half-a-day until it develops a chewy bark that’s even more delicious than the moist centre.

The real thing; traditional Texas barbecue.
The real thing; traditional Texas barbecue.

For the traditional Texas barbecue — the one on Wonderbread and where a request for condiments earns you furrowed brows — I went to a little red shack on the city’s south side where the first thing I see is a handwritten cardboard sign: Kool-aid Cups 50 Cents. But the locals swear by Jones BBQ House and the late Floyd Jones 30-year-old recipes. It made sense once I chomped into the signature beef sausage, with its gentle spices and heavier smoke from the more prominent mesquite wood. At $3.50, it’s a steal. So I dropped a few extra bills in the jar labelled “Tiara’s College Fund.”

After that, it was off to the Hotel Havana for a Latin-inspired cocktail in its glass-enclosed Cuban restaurant overlooking the San Antonio Riverwalk. The urbane trail leading to restaurants, malls and Spanish missions would probably make Edmonton’s river valley appear as the New World did to Columbus, but more importantly it revealed yet another flavour in this small pocket of Texas. In just a day it has changed characters three times like a complex wine.
I heard Pullum’s words come back to me — this is a place you spend time with.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka

Tito Beveridge of Tito's Handmade Vodka.
Tito Beveridge of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

It’s clean, smooth, easy on the nose and it’s vodka. Yes, vodka. And Texan, no less.

While some high-class bartenders snub or disparage the spirit, Tito’s Handmade Vodka challenges the assumption that vodka’s best only as a bee-line to blind drunkenness.

“Granted,” says creator and president Tito Beveridge, “95 per cent of vodka out there is gasoline or lighter fluid. It’s made as the last process in making something else. That’s not what I’m into. I’m into a connoisseur’s, hot-out-of-the-bottle, put-it-up-against-any-vodka-in-the-world kind of vodka.”

Indeed, that’s what he’s making. In 2001 his homemade corn-based craft won two gold medals at the World’s Spirits Competition in San Francisco, an achievement that’s echoed today with 200,000 bottles a year, including a shipment that arrived at Crestwood Fine Wines & Spirits in January.

Tito says his secret is appreciating that an agricultural product like corn changes from harvest to harvest and requires careful attention. “We’re just making it batch by batch until it tastes right. It’s like your grandmother’s kitchen. Whatever comes in through the back door — by the time it hits the dining room table — it all tastes pretty good.”

Just as he did with the first commercial bottle in 1997, his team distills each batch six times in a self-assembled pot still. “Stills are kind of weird,” he says. “You can build 10 of them exactly the same way but you’ll always have one that’s a favourite. Maybe that’s why they call it the ‘spirits’ business.”

Like the vodka that emits vanilla and caramel notes with a drop of ice cube, Beveridge too is a rounded figure. A former geologist, engineer and oil and gas entrepreneur, he’s also a musician and painter — and as the creator of the first legal distillery in Texas, you can add trailblazer, too. But Tito’s Vodka, he says, lets him use both sides of his brain. “It’s logic, logic, logic — then, some stardust.”

Edmonton Public Library writer-in-residence Omar Mouallem will never mispronounce “pecan” after his Texas travels. It is, for the record, pronounced “pi-kahn.”

Hotel Havana
1015 Navarro St, San Antonio, TX

Messina Hof Winery and Resort
9996 US Hwy 290 East
Fredericksburg, TX

Sandstone Cellars
211 San Antonio St, Mason, TX

Garcia’s Mexican Food
842 Fredericksburg Rd
San Antonio, TX
(210) 735-4525

Jones Sausage & BBQ House
2827 Martin Luther King Dr
San Antonio, TX