Tag Archives: Austin

In Defense of Texas Wine

In a recent conversation with a potential FRANK diner, the subject of Texas wines arose.

“There are some amazing Texas wines!” I happily responded.

“No,” countered Jennie, “There’s no good wine in Texas.”

This sparked a bit of a debate.  “Have you ever tasted a good Texas wine?” Jennie asked.

“Well…..I have tasted an amazing Texas port.  But if you’re asking me about amazing whites or reds, to be honest, I haven’t.  But I know many sommeliers who say there are some extraordinary wines made here.”

“But have you tasted one?” she pressed.


“I see,” she said cattily.  And that was that.

Texas wines have been plagued by a bad reputation arising from attempts in the 80s and 90s by Texas winemakers to grow “popular” grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, and since none of these varietals do well in Texas soils, the resulting wines tasted…well…more like diesel than wine.

But you can’t blame them.  Texas has never been known as a hugely-informed wine market.  While there are MANY urban Texans who know and drink good wine, all it takes is a trip into a liquor store or grocery store in most smaller cities in the state to make it painfully clear that wine isn’t as popular as beer here.  You’re lucky to find much beyond the basic cabs and chardonnays from the mega producers in California for $6 a bottle.  Even in my suburb of Dallas, I have to drive 10 minutes to a big liquor and wine store to get anything special…the grocery stores and beer/wine stores in the area only stock basic, inexpensive, mass-produced wines, so I have to go out of my way to get even a decent bottle.  So the vintners here thought they needed to stick to easily recognizable varietals like Chardonnay in order to be able to sell their wines…and even worse, because so many entry-level wine drinkers in Texas prefer cheap, sweet wines, many Texas wines were backsweetened after the fermentation process, resulting in sugary white and red “table wines” that were so sweet, no trace of the original grape’s character was to be found in the glass.

T.V. Munson, the Texan who saved the French wine industry

It wasn’t always like this.  In fact, Texas grapes saved the French wine industry from oblivion…a fact known by few Texans but by literally every Frenchman.  In the late 1800s, a disease called phylloxera ravaged grapevines across much of Europe, destroying virtually every living vine there.  A horticulturist named Thomas Munson who lived in Denison, TX provided the French government with root stocks from our wild grapes (we have 15 native grape varieties growing here, more than any other region on earth according to the World Atlas of Wine), which he had cross-bred to build a resistance to phylloxera.  French grape growers immediately grafted the few remaining vines they had living onto our Texas root stocks.  Now, virtually every vine in Europe is growing on Texas grape root stock, producing the best, most expensive, and most sought after wines in the world.  And Munson’s 1909 tome, Foundations of American Grape Culture, is STILL in print and STILL referenced by vineyards across the world.   California’s legendary wine industry has everything to thank for this document.

Though his work was predominantly in the late 1800s, wine was already being produced in Texas for centuries before.  Mission grapes were planted in the 1650s by monks near El Paso for making sacramental wine, more than a century before the first vines were planted in California.  And our many species of wild grapes have been used to make homemade wine in farmhouses here since the 1800s.  But everything derailed when commercial vineyards decided to plant popular, recognizable wine varietals so their wines would sound familiar on the shelves, rather than actually looking at our soil and climate, and planting grapes that would actually produce great wine in this “terroir” (the French term for the characteristics of a place, and its appropriateness for specific types of plants).

Consequently, we developed this reputation for making terrible wine, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never tasted a bottle of Texas Cabernet or Chardonnay that was even drinkable.  (And I’m no wine snob, I’ll happily sip a glass of Yellowtail, Barefoot, or Charles Shaw…ie, “two buck Chuck.”)  Yet Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay still represent the vast majority of wine grapes grown in Texas, despite the fact that our terroir is more appropriate for less familiar varietals like Tempranillo (tem-pran-EE-yo) and Viognier (vee-yon-yay).  Meaning, the majority of Texas wines continue to be sub-par.

But surely not all!  And I was determined to show Jennie that there are good…even superior Texas wines.  It would be a hard sell.  Jennie is hugely informed about wine.  And while she’s also no snob and has a variety of favorites less than $10 a bottle, all the Texas wines she had ever tasted were so bad she would happily pay NOT to drink them.

Salado, TX, a great place for antiquing

On a recent trip to the Texas hill country, we found ourselves in Salado, a charming historic village 50 miles north of Austin, famous for its antique galleries, but is now populated with a disproportionate number of wineries for its size.  We chose the one with the best reviews on Yelp, and I’ll decline to mention which one simply because I don’t want anyone to get in trouble for the following story.

We walked into the empty tasting/retail room and were greeted by a young woman who offered us a tasting of 6 wines they make right there in-house.  We choked our way through the first few vintages, with bouquets of sulfur and notes of diesel and sewage on the tongue…and it looked like all I was doing was further cementing Jennie’s skepticism about Texas’s potential as a wine powerhouse.

“Do you know if Texas wines are getting a better reputation lately?” she asked the girl.

“Oh, yeah,” the girl replied.  “Last time I read about the most popular wines in the US, the most popular come from America, next was Virginia, and then Texas.  So our wine is really popular.”

We weren’t entirely sure what to make of her comment, and it’s entirely possible it was, in fact, an educated comment, despite how it sounded.  Texas vintners often bring in grapes from other states, and when the percentage of grapes from out-of-state exceeds 25%, the wine must be labeled “American wine” rather than “Texas wine.”  I haven’t heard of any Texas vintners bringing in grapes from Virginia, though, so it’s entirely possible this girl thinks “America” is a state somewhere in the US, and also thinks that Virginia wines are lauded above California, Oregon, Washington, and upstate New York, which currently produce the finest wines in the US.  But nothing she had on offer was endurable.  Feeling bad, I bought 2 bottles of Texas wine that were not made on-site…a Cabernet affectionately called “Kick Butt,” the favorite of the girl behind the counter, and a dry rosé.  Jennie adores rosé, and I figured it would be really hard to mess up a rosé.

Later that night, we popped the rosé after a brief chill.  (Rosés can be served anywhere from room temp to very cold depending on the character of the wine, but it’s perfectly fine to drink most rosés at room temp, and in fact you’ll experience much more flavor from a room temp rosé than a chilled one.  Cold temperatures reduce the number of flavors that the tongue can perceive, and if you don’t believe me, take a scoop of ice cream and let it thaw to room temp.  Then taste a spoon of the frozen ice cream, and then the melted.  They will taste completely different.  I actually drink IPA beer at room temperature, because it’s much more complex and delicious than chilled.)  I found the rosé to be perfectly serviceable, and, in fact, drank the whole bottle myself.  It was too sweet for Jennie, though it would still be ultimately characterized as dry, so she turned up her nose yet again.

After that, I just didn’t have the guts to open the Kick Butt Cabernet.  Jennie had already made up her mind about Texas wine.  I had MAYBE one more chance, and it couldn’t be based on the advice of a girl at a Salado winery who thinks America is a state inside the US.  I had to do some research.

One of the problems inherent in finding a quality Texas wine is that our state has such horrible restrictions on the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol that it’s VERY expensive for a winery to sell their wine anywhere but right on the property.  So most of the vineyards that are supposedly producing exceptional wines only sell on-site, meaning you have to drive to them to buy their wine, or have them ship you an entire case.  Which is expensive if you’re not certain that you love their wine.  And Texas is a big state, with wine regions stretching from the northern plains near Amarillo, 8 hours south to the hill country, 8 hours west to the high desert, so you can’t just do a quick tour.  And I wanted to find a wine that was not only great…but I could buy it in Dallas if I wanted to.

Enter Tina Danze…chef, food writer, recipe developer, and wine specialist.  She often writes about wine for the Dallas Morning News, and a few years back she did a special project that involved an educated panel tasting Texas wines that are commercially distributed around the state, to find the best ones.  You can read her article about the outcome here.  Two of her wine panel’s top picks for Texas reds were from a vineyard not too far from Austin, Pedernales Cellars.  Coincidentally, the vineyard is only a stone’s throw from a property that I was working with about 6 years ago, converting a historic hill-top mansion into a country inn.

A friendly hitchhiker in the Texas Hill Country wine area

So we headed east into the Texas Hill Country AVA.  AVA stands for “American Viticulture Area” and is a designation by the American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (man that’s a mouthful!) to specify different wine producing regions around the country…similar to “Bordeaux” and “Cotes du Rhone” in France’s AOC labeling system.  Interestingly, the Hill Country AVA is the second largest wine growing region in the entire nation, though only a fraction of it is actually planted in vineyards.  That leaves a LOT of land open for aspiring vintners!  Lovely, rugged, pastoral land ribboned with small roads where you’re likely to run across a hungry donkey who will stick his head in your window and ask for an apple.

About an hour’s drive from downtown Austin, we arrive at the Pedernales Cellars, perched on a hilltop above rocky, rolling pastures and surrounded by ancient oak trees.

I am suddenly consumed with anxiety.  This is really my last chance to prove to Jennie that amazing wine exists in Texas.  Yet I’ve never tasted ANYTHING good from Texas other than port-style wines…sweet, fortified dessert wines.

We walk in and are greeted by a lady who immediately begins to tell us that Pedernales’s wine maker, David Kuhlken, had the soil on their ranch carefully analyzed, and they discovered that it was almost exactly similar to the calcium-laden soils of Spain, and the climate is very similar to that in France’s Rhone Valley.  David had studied grape growing and wine making at UC Davis, the best school for vintners in the world, and was taking a logical, scientific approach to making wine when he planted his first vineyard in the early 90s.  He knew to stay away from Cabernet and Chardonnay.  His research led him to the European red varietals Tempranillo from Spain and Touriga Nacional from Portugal (commonly used for making port), as well as Rhone varietals like Grenache (gray-NAH-sh), Syrah (seer-AH), and Mourvèdre (moor-VAY-druh), which are often combined into a popular wine blend simply called GSM.  (Cotes du Rhone wines are predominantly GSMs.)

And the fact that the lady behind the counter is effortlessly, properly pronouncing these varietals gives me a spark of hope that she might not, in fact, think that America is a state somewhere in the US, and that Virginia wines are way better than anything California could produce.

We work our way through a few of their whites, none of which impress Jennie.  I can tell she thinks they’re okay.  But we aren’t in search of “okay Texas wine.”  We are in search of stellar Texas wine.

We get to the first pour of a red, a 2011 blend they call “Block Two” made from Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional, listed at $30 a bottle ($24 for wine club members) which, I will admit, is a pricey bottle for me.  First we swirl and smell.

It smells good.  Intriguingly complex.  And good.

Jennie and I both take a sip, and I don’t say anything.  I just look at her.  She takes another sip.  Then she puts her head down and giggles quietly.

“dammit!” she whispers.

Because it’s good.  REALLY good.

“You win,” she says.  “It’s Texas wine.  And it’s really, really good.”

We proceed through several more reds, mostly Tempranillos, some of which also utilize Tempranillo grapes from far north Texas near Lubbock and Amarillo, and some of which are Tempranillos entirely from on-site.  All of them are good.  But not quite as good as the Block Two.

Then comes the final wine in the list.  Their most expensive…the 2011 Family Reserve Tempranillo, listed at $50 a bottle ($40 for wine club members.)  We swirl, smell, and sip.

And there it is.  An extraordinary wine.  Not just by Texas standards.  By ANYONE’S standards.  And not just in my opinion.  Jennie concedes.

“Okay, okay.  You were right.  At least one vineyard in Texas is making incredible, world-class wine.”

This is further backed up by the fact that Pedernales Cellars has won gold medals at wine competitions around the world, including a Grand Gold at France’s coveted Lyon International Wine Competition.

Granted, this wine is not cheap.  I can’t afford to drink it regularly.  But for a special occasion, I’m now tickled pink that I can open a bottle of Texas wine that will impress even the most die-hard wine snobs.

Unfortunately, all the wines we tasted at Pedernales Cellars are only sold right there at the winery.  However, the wines that Tina Danze recommended from them (their Texas Tempranillo impressed the panel more than any other bottle of commercial distributed Texas red, and their GSM blend came in second) are available at around $20 a bottle at many larger Texas wine retailers, and the winery ships their entire wine selection across Texas and to many other states.  I have yet to try these commercially available bottles, but it’s on the list for this weekend.

What this proves is that Texas soils are capable of growing grapes that can, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, be turned into extraordinary wines.  And considering how much cheaper rural Texas real estate is than ANY land in California, Oregon, or Washington…there’s a vast amount of opportunity available here for anyone who’s not scared of growing grapes that no one can pronounce.

Feel free to comment below, especially if you have a favorite Texas wine that you’d like to share with us!


A MasterChef Reunion in Houston

A perfect storm of events happened last weekend that resulted in my need to be in Houston for a few days.  (Mostly to visit a dear college friend who was having much of her liver out.)  Houston takes 2nd place to Austin as the best foodie city in Texas, though I don’t like to admit it.  Dallas runs 3rd, but soon we’ll be taking the top spot if things continue to go as they have been.  (I mean, with restaurants like FRANK, how can you be any other that the top?!?  Ha ha ha…)  So it’s not much of a surprise that so many MasterChef contestants live there, including the season 3 winner, Christine Ha, and my own MasterChef roomie, the culinary genius Alvin SchultzMichael Chen, who now lives in Dallas, was going down to arrange paperwork for a visit to China.  Also living there is Jason McConniel, or “JayMac” from season 2, and while he wasn’t featured heavily on the show, he’s a pretty interesting guy.  (He collaborates with Alvin on a regular basis, and he’s pioneering the urban farming scene in Houston.)  And season 4 Texan James Nelson also lives there.  So I was excited about a cross-generational MasterChef reunion.

I first arrived at Alvin’s place, and I’m embarrassed to say that, as often as Alvin has visited me in Dallas, this was my first visit to his home.  If you follow Alvin, you know that he’s a “freak-genius” (the term Gordon applied to him on season 2), and splits his culinary love affair between Modernist cuisine (which some people call “molecular gastronomy”) and the complete opposite end of the food spectrum…authentic “peasant food,” street food, the food of the people.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to see that his kitchen looks more like a science lab than a kitchen.  Here he is pulling off a carafe of liquid nitrogen to do an instant-freeze on ice cream in the Kitchenaid.  Look at that device to his right.  That’s a rotary evaporator, which he uses to make pure extracts and distillations.  Next to it, off camera to the right, is a cryovac…a high powered vacuum chamber that can be used for a variety of purposes, from instantly hydrating pasta dough, to sealing meat for cooking en sous vide, to pressure crushing vegetables and fruits to change their texture, or saturate their cells with a marinade or liquor.

It was “Sunday fish dinner” at Alvin’s place, where several of his foodie friends get together for a potluck consisting of dishes FAR more sophisticated than anything you’ll ever find on MasterChef.  Despite arriving very late, I was fed very well.  And put to bed.  And awakened to breakfast in bed.  Cold pizza.  But “Cold Pizza…Alvin Schultz style!”

As you know, Alvin loves to explore Modernist cuisine…the use of contemporary technology to transform ingredients into something new and extraordinary.  The star of this dish is an heirloom tomato sorbet…nothing but the juices of heirloom tomatoes, perfectly seasoned, and flash frozen with liquid nitrogen into the smoothest texture you can imagine.  Below it is dehydrated pepperoni “sand,” pizza crust “dust,” basil flowers, a foam of fresh mozzarella, and the rendered oil from the pepperoni.  It may not look like pizza, but it tastes like the freshest pizza you can imagine.  And yeah…he made that for me for breakfast.

Pho was for lunch, and that evening we met up with Michael, Alvin, and Jason in Houston’s bustling Chinatown for a sumptuous Chinese feast at Confucius Seafood, a family-style traditional Chinese restaurant.  And, of course, joining us was the woman, the legend, Christine Ha, along with her amazing hubby John.  Confucius is a neat place.  The tables are massive and seat 12-14, with a huge lazy susan turntable in the middle of the table, so that family-style plates can be brought from the kitchen and be easily accessed by all the diners.  We basically ordered “Feast #2” which was a sampling of the kitchen’s favorites, including Peking duck, chicken and jellyfish salad, Dungeness crab fried rice, crispy pork, whole roasted haddock, squid and scallop with cabbage…one by one, the plates arrived, and by the 10th or 15th, even Alvin’s eyes were registering disbelief and astonishment, as there seemed to be no end in sight.  12 of us stuffed ourselves silly and probably only got through 2/3rd of the food.

“You guys are ready for dessert, right?” Christine asked, cheerily.

I’m never ready for dessert, unless it’s what Christine described.  “Vietnamese ice.  They freeze blocks of green tea and stuff like that, and then shave it off in thin layers.  It’s really good.”  Frozen green tea sounded light enough to be the perfect nightcap, so we headed to Nu Cafe for this “thousand layer ice.”  The presentation was pretty impressive and definitely unforgettable.  And the texture was totally different than I expected…far firmer and more solid than normal shave ice.  It almost has the texture of lightly sauteed baby spinach, except that it melts on your tongue.  They serve it smothered in the sauce of your choice (sweetened condensed milk is the most popular) with any number of sides (here, mango and grass jelly).  That made it too desserty for me, I’d have preferred just the plate of ice.  But I’m a weirdo.

Is this what they call cross-generation love?

We wrapped for the evening, as Michael and his boyfriend Stephen and I had a MasterChef-early time call for the morning: 430am.  Michael was taking us to fish for blue crabs, a ritual his family has enjoyed since he was a baby.  Neither Stephen nor I had fished for crabs before, and Michael insisted we needed to be there shortly after sunrise to catch the most crabs.  Personally, NO amount of crab is worth getting up at 430am for.  But friendships are, so I begrudgingly set my alarm.

We were on the Galveston/Bolivar ferry just after sunrise and I enjoyed teasing the seagulls on the short trip over to the Bolivar peninsula, to the Chen ancestral crabbing grounds, which we found surprisingly close to the ferry dock.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics of the crab fishing, because it was too much fun, and you don’t keep your phone in your pocket when you’re knee deep in coastal waters.  But here’s what you do:

You take a chicken leg, preferably a fairly pungent one that’s been sitting in a hot trunk for a few days, and tie a string very tightly around one end.  In your other hand, you hold a net.  You toss the chicken leg out into the water and you wait until you feel tugging on the end.  Then you gently drag the chicken leg toward your submerged net, which is lying on the sandy bottom.  Once you have the crab lured onto the net, you quickly lift the net, and the wiley crab is caught.  You transfer him to a cooler with the other angry crabs, and you lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s very easy and incredibly addictive…especially when you don’t get that massive blue crab just in the center of the net before you lift it, and you see your prize-winning monster crab teetering on the rim of the net and then plummeting back into the water.  (I tried to catch him again the rest of the day, but he was too cautious.)

We had a fairly decent haul, about 25 blue crabs of varying sizes, and we headed back to Christine’s house to watch Michael cook them up the traditional Chen way.  The smaller crabs were broken down, cleaned, and cooked with ginger and garlic and you basically just sucked their juices and nibbled the larger bits of meat.  The bigger crabs were steamed whole and enjoyed that way.  It was a veritable feast, and Christine can crack a crab with the best of them.  (Many jokes about the Flavor Elevator assigning her whole crab during her season thinking it would trip her up.)

We finished eating about 9pm, and were lounging on her floor watching MasterChef when Christine mentioned something to her hubby John about “kimchee fries.”  My ears perked up.

“Kimchee fries?  What’s THAT?!?”

She looked dumbfounded.  “Ben, you’ve never had kimchee fries?  It’s french fries topped with sauteed kimchee, pork belly, scallions, and a spicy cream sauce.”

And even though I had gorged myself on crab a few minutes before, I have a separate stomach for things like kimchee fries.

“Where do you get them?”

“Well, there are several food trucks that have them, but the best are from Chilantro.”


“Yeah, their name is like a mashup of kimchee and cilantro.  John, where are they tonight?  Look up their schedule.”

John jumped on the net and on Twitter, but it appeared that Chilantro is closed on a Tuesday night.  So Christine sends out a tweet to them saying that they had made MasterChefs who wanted kimchee fries sad because they were closed.  And they tweet back saying they are on their way to her house for a private tasting, all they need is the address.


So around 11, a full fledged food truck pulls up in front of Christine’s house:

They invite us on board for a tour, and let me tell you, this kitchen is as spotless as any I’ve seen.  Lots of folks seems dubious about the cleanliness of food trucks, but you can actually SEE the kitchen when you buy from a food truck, and you can’t do that at most restaurants.  And these days, the contemporary food trucks are run by this generation of rabidly-passionate young chefs, perhaps too “green” or too “artistic” to qualify for the massive financing required to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant with a full staff.  Food trucks are providing them with an affordable way to launch their careers and create experimental cuisine and take it directly to the people, rather than having to have the people come to them.  But it’s no walk in the park.  The chefs told me they’ve measured the temperature inside the truck kitchen at 160 degrees during the peak of Houston’s summer, and working an 8 hour shift in that will nearly kill you.  Chilantro is furthering the new Korean/Mexican fusion rage, which began in LA and has spread like wildfire across the country.  Their menu:

And specifically, the reason they had come:

And that may SOUND good…but when it comes out, hot and steaming, under your nose:

Image courtesy of John Suh

And then you actually put it into your mouth hole, and you look like this:

Ignore the open fly...apparently I REALLY love food.

Man.  I’ve had a few impressive spins on topped fries.  Of course, for years I’ve been a fan of traditional Quebecois “poutine” which is fries with melted squeaky cheese curds and brown gravy.  Then I discovered “carne asada fries” at Peace Burger in Grapevine, TX, fries topped with grilled beef, queso, guacamole, and jalapenos.  And then, even though it’s not on the menu, I force the poor kitchen staff at Rooster’s Roadhouse in Denton, TX to regularly make me fries topped with smoked brisket and queso and onions.  But this…this is something entirely new.  And as crazy as I am for kimchee (it’s one of my FAVORITE things), it just took this whole concept of topped fries so far over the top, I don’t think I’ll ever come down from it.

Chilantro makes other things, of course.  Amazing tacos.  A pork burger with a sunny-side-up egg on top.  (ANY burger is better with a fried egg!  Shoot, a fried egg on the kimchee fries would be even MORE epic!)  So you lucky sods in Houston and Austin can find their trucks around town.  Follow their Austin Twitter or Austin Facebook or Houston Twitter or Houston Facebook to get their schedule, or check out their website.  Go support these AMAZINGLY creative chefs.  You’ll curse me after you taste those kimchee fries, because you’ll be craving them at 2am every night.  (Luck for you, they’re usually open until 3am on weekends.)

Seriously, THANK YOU to Chilantro Houston for packing up the truck in the middle of the night to deliver a private tasting to us measly little MasterChef survivors.  Fans were saying it must have been super cool for you guys to meet us, particularly Christine.  For the record, I am flabbergasted that you would think so highly of us to bust out the truck in the middle of the night and chug way out to the burbs, and you made us feel like LEGITIMATE celebrities:

Image Courtesy of John Suh

We staggered upstairs, stuffed out of our minds, feeling like rockstars that such a bad-ss food truck would come in the middle of the night at Christine’s beckoning, and we laughed until our sides hurt.

And, for an instant, I waxed poetic about the fact that none of us would know each other had our lives not been star-crossed by MasterChef.  What a miracle.

Thank you, Alvin, Michael, Jason, and Christine and John for an amazing weekend.  We ALMOST got to see James from Season 4, but he had a wedding and a big catering event that week.  Next time, James!