Five million wine enthusiasts can’t be wrong, can they? That’s how many visitors grace the country’s second largest wine region annually. Second only to Napa Valley in geographical size, the Texas Hill Country American Viticulture Area (AVA) consists of approximately nine million acres and 52 wineries. And crowning the top of Texas Wine Country is the small town gem of San Saba.
In the first half of the 1870’s, Edmond E. Risien put San Saba on the agricultural map when he developed the perfect pecan from the indigenous trees. At the confluences of the Colorado and San Saba Rivers, he planted 600 pecan trees, kick starting San Saba’s pecan legacy.
A San Saba Wine Weekend
But the Pecan Capital of the World has been gaining notoriety as a weekend wine destination. With miles of winding country roads leading to award-winning wineries overflowing with Southern hospitality, it’s easy to see why.
Wedding Oak Winery
At the intersection of highways 190 and 16, in the very heart of San Saba, sits the Wedding Oak Winery. A key driving force in San Saba’s renaissance, they are proud to be producing award winning wines made from 100% Texas grown grapes. The stacked stone walls and warm terra cotta-colored tiles of their restored, turn-of-the-century building are as welcoming as the staff. Tasting Room Manager, Nancyleah, is more than happy to assist with one of their tasting flights.
Chose from four of their wine flights like the Red, White and True-To-Texas Flight or the Wildflower Nuptial Flight. Each costs $12 and features 5 of their 17 wines. One of Nancyleah’s personal favorites includes the off-dry 2015 Albariño. This full-bodied white wine won Gold at the San Antonio Rodeo. Another of her favorites is the 2014 Terre Rouge, a dry Rhône blend with a nutty, earthy, mocha middle.
So what is the Wedding Oak? Well, a little over a mile north of town, towering over China Creek Road, stands a stately 400-year-old oak tree. Native Americans were the first to consecrate the tree as a sacred site by holding weddings and ceremonies beneath its branches. Early pioneers took up the tradition, and it remains to this day a favorite wedding venue.
The Wedding Oak stands as a majestic symbol of nature, history, and celebrating life.
Symbols of the tree inspired Mike McHenry, owner of The Wedding Oak Winery. Embracing the Texas trailblazing spirit, McHenry brought the thriving Texas wine industry to the Pecan Capital of the World. Wedding Oak Winery is also the first winery in Texas to enter into an incubation program. By taking a budding winery under their wing, allowing that new winery to share their equipment, facility, and even their wine maker, Wedding Oak continues to energize the growth of the wine industry in the northern Hill Country.
Old Man Scary Cellars
When Dr. Gabe Hisel and his wife bought their estate off Rattlesnake Road, the deserted farmhouse on the property soon become a favorite playground for the family’s youngest son. He dubbed the house Old Man Scary’s and began weaving tales of Old Man Scary to accompany the current rumors of murder and hauntings. Dredged up from a child’s vivid imagination, Old Man Scary became the local urban legend and inspiration—not just for an award-winning winery but also for the many vibrant paintings adorning the tasting room walls. Canvases of brilliant reds, sunny yellows, and rich blues composed by the hands of Connie Hisel, Dr. Hisel’s mother, greet visitors from every wall.
Festive portraits featuring pop culture icons, cheerful strutting roosters, and even a likeness of spooky Old Man Scary himself look down on the bar and Tasting Room Attendant, Jose.
Take Jose’s advice and start off with his favorite white wine, the dry 2015 Viognier, made with 100% San Saba County grown grapes. With citrusy aromas of glimmering white peach and nectar, the Viognier pairs well with spicy Mexican dishes or creamy seafood. Another must-try wine is the semi-sweet Big Time which won Grand Reserve at the San Antonio Rodeo just this past year. This white wine’s delicate texture plays around notes of sweet pear and grilled pineapple. Lastly, another favorite is the 100% Hill Country grown 2015 Sangiovese. This red fruit-forward wine embraces tomato-based dishes and rich red meats.
Old Man Scary’s tasting room is just steps from the Wedding Oak Winery’s tasting room on San Saba’s main street. Because of the Wedding Oak’s incubation program, Old Man Scary Cellars was able to launch without the crushing weight of start-up costs and production. While they share not only a winemaker and building, their flavor and identity are all their own. For $12, taste six of the wines and see for yourself.
Fifteen minutes from San Saba and five miles east of the town of Bend lies the Baxter Ranch. Home of the Fiesta Vineyard & Winery, the ranch has been in the family for six generations. Turquoise wine barrels flank the entrance into the tasting room, giving visitors a hint of the fun and playful personality of Fiesta Winery. Rows of wine bottles (and even wine in a can) sit atop lime green shelves lining vibrant red walls. The gigantic mirror behind the bar reflects the massive wrought iron doors framing the view of the vineyard and the sprawling covered patio beyond.
In 2010, the first Mourvedre, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted on three and a half acres. Over the years, demand for Fiesta wine grew and so has their vineyard. Malbec, Viognier, Marsanne, and Montepulciano vines now thrive throughout the 12-acre vineyard. To commemorate the twists and turns of Fiesta’s journey, raise a glass of their Country Road. This full-bodied red blend winds around teasing aromas of vanilla and black currant. For $12, sample six of their delicious, lively wines and receive a complimentary wine glass.
Move outside and pull up a seat on the bright covered patio while sipping on their oaky Back Porch Sittin’ Cabernet. For lunch, choose from three of their artisan pizzas cooked in the pizza oven out on the patio. Try their bright, citrusy Roussanne with their Margherita pizza, covered with fresh basil pesto and soft Italian cheeses. Or for a sweet and salty combination, give the Vineyard pizza a try. A glass of luscious Texas Well Water Pinot Gris is a perfect contrast to the savory caramelized pear, red onion, and creamy feta cheese.
Pillar Bluff Vineyards
Continue eastward to Lampasas and visit one of Texas’s pioneer wineries, Pillar Bluff Vineyards. This boutique winery lies placidly off a shaded farm road and is only open on weekends. Retired Army helicopter pilot-turned-winemaker Gill Bledsoe joined the Texas Grape Growers Association (TGGA) around 1992, when only 42 wineries existing in the entire state. After his Chardonnay brought in repeated requests at the TGGA socials, he decided to take the leap from hobby winemaker to professional. In 1997, he planted the first vines and restyled the old horse barn into his tasting room. Exposed wood beams and jolly yellow walls set the tone for a warm and chatty visit with Mr. Bledsoe over a glass of his estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an easy drinking, medium-bodied wine ideal for an evening by the fire on his covered gazebo. But Gill will tell you his personal favorite is his incredibly smooth, estate-grown Pillar Bluff Petit Syrah.
Texas Legato Winery
Look across Pillar Bluff’s vineyard, and you can see Texas Legato Winery. Texas Legato’s winemaker, Bill Bledsoe, may seem slightly familiar, but that’s because he is the twin brother to Gill, Pillar Bluff’s owner and winemaker. Bill began making wine while assisting his brother, then in 2007 decided to open the doors to his own cellars. “Legato” is Italian for a gathering of family and friends, and the atmosphere certainly reflects that. A glass of his smooth Family Reunion certainly helps one feel right at home. But if Bill had to pick a favorite, he recommends his 2014 Malbec. Rich aromas of tobacco and leather settle into notes of dark cherries on the tongue. This wine is best when enjoyed while watching your favorite football team on the large flat screen TV on the patio. Or during Wine Down Happy Hour which takes place every second Friday of the month.
Brennan Vineyards, located an hour north of San Saba in the town of Comanche, invites guests to sample a glass of wine while exploring one of Texas’s oldest homesteads. The immaculately restored McCrary house, built in 1875, serves as Brennan’s tasting room. “Mat” McCrary and wife, Barbara, built their frontier home along the banks of the Comanche Creek. The homestead took four years to complete since the 21-inch thick limestone slabs used in construction were quarried in Austin and hauled by covered wagons to Comanche. When Mr. McCrary died in 1930, the house sat deserted for over 50 years. The Brennan’s planted their first grapes in 2002 and in 2004 bought the McCrary House, transforming it into their tasting room.
Open Wednesday through Saturday, visitors can taste six of their award-winning wines for just $10. Try their Winemaker’s Choice, a multi-varietal blend composed of hand-selected barrels reserved especially for this label. Or their Reserve Lily, a dry light-bodied white wine that lights up the tongue with bright nectarines and clementine flavors. Or their Buffalo Roam which is an easy drinking red with a smoky note, which pairs perfectly with their artisanal Texas cheese and cured meats plates.
The natural beauty, history, and colorful personalities of the Hill Country shine with every raised glass of Texas Wine. And as San Saba continues to redefine itself, now is the perfect time to discover the Heart of Texas. It’s more than pecans, it’s more than wine—San Saba and San Saba wine is more than you imagined.
- Brennan Vineyards, 802 S Austin Street Comanche, TX, www.brennanvineyards.com. (Be sure to check their event calendar to take advantage of their quarterly chef-prepared meals and wine pairings; www.brennanvineyards.com/about/events.)
- Fiesta Winery,18727 West FM 580 Lometa, TX, www.fiestawinery.com
- Old Man Scary Cellars, 302 E Wallace Street San Saba, TX, www.oldmanscarycellars.com
- Pillar Bluff Vineyards, 300 Burnet County Road 111 Lampasas, TX, www.pillarbluff.com/
- Texas Legato Winery – 2935 Fm Rd 1478 Lampasas, TX, www.texaslegatowinery.net
- Wedding Oak Winery, 216 E. Wallace San Saba, TX, weddingoakwinery.com
-All photos by and courtesy of Jessica Pickett. The cover photo, also by Jessica Pickett, depicts a table setting for one of Brennan Vineyards Chef Dinners.