Armadillo’s Leap wine tasting room opens in Fredericksburg

Armadillos Leap Tasting Room
Armadillos Leap Tasting Room


There are dozens of wineries in the Texas Hill country, with many of them congregated along the 30 mile stretch between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on or near Highway 290. In a sign that the booming growth of the Texas wine industry isn’t slowing down, the folks behind Pedernales Cellars are opening a new tasting room for its second label, Armadillo’s Leap wines on Tuesday, December 8.

The Kuhlken-Osterberg family, who opened the Pedernales Cellars tasting room in Stonewall on December 8, 2008, are celebrating the winery’s seventh anniversary with the opening of Armadillo’s leap. The new tasting room is just a leap west from the current winery, located at 6258 Highway 290 in Fredericksburg. The quaint stone and log building used to be home to the Pink Pig restaurant and is well-situated in the high-traffic winery crawl.

The wines, made by Pedernales winemaker, David Kuhlken, are more value oriented than the Pedernales line-up with price from $14.99 to $29.99 per bottle. The accessible, playful wines include a Sparkling Moscato, a Viognier-Roussanne blend, a red blend, a Viognier, and a Muscat. They are offered as part of a six-wine tasting menu for $10 a person.

“We’re delighted to be opening this new tasting room directly on the 290 Wine Trail,” said Julie Kuhlken, co-owner of Armadillo’s Leap. “We’ve enjoyed launching Armadillo’s Leap and creating this brand of wines, and we felt the time was right to give them a higher profile with their own tasting room. We look forward to more people discovering how fun they are, starting with a label that pays homage, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to a truly Texas animal.”

The tasting room will be open 11-6 every day, except for major holidays.

This story was originally published on Texas Wine and Trail Magazine.

What are you drinking? 

The ultimate holiday indulgence: Champagne and caviar

The holidays are ripe for indulgence. It’s a perfect time for pampering family, friends and yourself. The ultimate culinary extravagance is the pairing of champagne and caviar: bliss! Both are tiny festive balloons bursting with joy, just for you.

Champagne and Caviar

What’s so special about the salted eggs of a sturgeon? It’s that almost magical pop of the delicate shell that showers your mouth with insanely delicious buttery, saline and fishy goodness. Nothing else can replicate the tactile experience or flavor.

Who was the first person to eat the gray-black eggs of a scary fish that looks like it just swam out of the brackish waters of Jurassic Park? Some say Greek philosopher Aristotle and his cronies were diggin’ sturgeon roe way back in the fourth century B.C. While the Persians (aka, Iranians) may be the first to salt sturgeon eggs from the Southern Caspian Sea, it’s the Russian czars who gave caviar its fame as an extravagance. Its popularity spread when the Russians started selling it as a luxury item to European royalty in the 16th century.

Caviar caught on big in the United States in the late 1800s, and by 1910, sturgeon were almost extinct in the U.S., resulting in the halting of domestic production. Similarly, the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea was decimated by overfishing, poaching and pollution. In 1988, sturgeon was listed as an endangered species, but poaching for the lucrative black-market trade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. devastated the industry. Wild beluga and osetra sturgeon have been fished to near extinction.

As a result of scarcity and regulations limiting the harvest of wild sturgeon, caviar prices have soared. Fortunately, farming sturgeon provides cost-effective and sustainable access to the good stuff.


Order Like a Pro

You don’t have to be an in-the-know aficionado to get good caviar in a restaurant or store. Just follow a few basic tips.

  • Buy enough. You’ll want at least a 30-gram tin (about 1 ounce) for two people, but the ideal serving is 50 grams per person.
  • Know what you are getting. Caviar is the unfertilized salt-cured fish egg that can come from 26 different species of sturgeon. Look for nationality and species of fish on the tin—Russian sevruga, Iranian osetra or California sturgeon—to know what you are getting. While items like salmon caviar are technically roe and not caviar, it is common to find affordable eggs called whitefish caviar or trout caviar. Caviar is graded by the color, size and texture of its beads. The finest caviars are larger eggs that are lighter in color with firmer beads that pop in your mouth. If you are new to caviar, try milder styles like Chinese shassetra or American white sturgeon. Make sure it is fresh. Caviar stays fresh for four weeks unopened when well refrigerated. Once opened, caviar starts to soften and gets fishier. It will only keep for a day or possibly two when stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
  • That beluga isn’t what you think it is. Beluga is widely regarded as the finest caviar, but in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed beluga sturgeon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It’s currently illegal in the U.S., however, you may see river beluga caviar, or kaluga caviar, on a menu. It’s a scrumptious substitute with large, firm and luscious pearls.  Sustainably raised caviar is a good thing. Because most species of sturgeon are now considered endangered, sustainably raised, farmed caviar and other fish roe are great alternatives to wild caviar. Wild-harvested sturgeon are killed for their eggs, while eggs from farm-raised sturgeon are live harvested. Look for farm-raised varieties like white sturgeon or paddlefish roe.

Beluga Caviar


The Proper Way to Eat Caviar

Eat caviar in small bites, served right out of the tin with a nonmetallic spoon made of mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic. Let the eggs spread on your tongue and pop those lovely pearls on the roof of your mouth to let the rich, nutty, buttery, salty, fishy flavors explode across your palate.

Alternately, caviar is delightful when served with blini, toast points or cold boiled potatoes with a dollop of creme fraiche—all excellent neutral backdrops that won’t compete with the flavor of caviar.


How to Select Champagne

Champagne is a must for pairing with caviar. The tart acidity of champagne and silky texture exquisitely enhance the enchanting, salty flavor of the caviar. It’s a match made in heaven. Even when excluding all styles of sparkling wine made outside the champagne region of France, there are still several styles to choose from. Follow these tips to simplify the selection of champagne.

  • Ask for advice. Go to a restaurant with a sommelier who can make suggestions or visit a reputable wine shop and ask for advice from the smart people who work there. Sommeliers and wine-shop owners spend all day, every day recommending wine, and are great resources for finding the best champagne for the money.
  • Know what you like. Do you prefer sweet or dry? Demi-sec, sec and extra dry are sweet, while brut and extra brut are dry.

Do you like your wine to be tarter or richer? Champagne made with all chardonnay grapes, called blanc de blanc, is more elegant, with lemon-juice freshness and high acidity. Champagne made with pinot noir is typically bigger, richer and more structured.

Pick your year. Champagne made with wine from multiple years is called non-vintage and will have “NV” on the label. It is usually less expensive than vintage-dated champagne. If you choose vintage champagne, some good years to consider are 1995, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

Consider being adventurous.  If you want a solid champagne without spending a lot of time scouring the wine list, pick a non-vintage bottle from one of the major houses, like Bollinger, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot. If you feel more adventurous, try a grower champagne, or fizzy wine made by the same house that grows up to 88 percent of their own grapes rather than buying it from other sources. Look for a tiny “RM” on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant, which signifies it is an independent grower and producer. It’s possible to find high-quality champagne at a great price from houses like Egly-Ouriet, Guy Charlemagne, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Serge Mathieu.

Where to Get it in Austin 

There are several stores in Austin that sell quality caviar, but two with high-quality caviar year-round include:

Lone Star Caviar


As the only caviar-specific retailer in Central Texas, Lone Star Caviar sells a wide array of wild caviar, from domestic sturgeon in a 4-ounce container for $280, to golden osetra imported from Iran in a 3.5-ounce tin for $350. To ensure freshness, the retailer only keeps a small amount in stock. Proprietor Bill Kirchenbauer recommends calling ahead to pre-order. He delivers in the Austin area usually within 24 hours.

Whole Foods Market

Each Whole Foods location carries a limited selection of caviar year-round and increases the selection to six to 10 varieties during the holidays. Ryan Boudreaux, a seafood coordinator, says Whole Foods carries caviar from small, sustainably farmed, artisanal companies like Tsar Nicoulai Select California Estate Osetra. Various quality levels are available, from a farmed white American sturgeon for $40 for an ounce, to a reserve-style white sturgeon caviar for $90 an ounce.

Whole foods follows its seafood-sustainability practices for the purchase of caviar, which precludes it from buying Russian sturgeon. It only carries fresh caviar. Boudreaux recommends customers talk to a fishmonger to check the date of caviar before buying it. It has a finite shelf life of 60 to 90 days. He recommends packing it in ice, even for a short drive home.


Clark’s Oyster Bar

1200 W. Sixth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Clark's
Champagne and Caviar at Clark’s


This neighborhood seafood restaurant and raw bar has the casual charm of a beachside bistro. Known for its outstanding oysters and bangin’ cocktails, it also has a respectable selection of champagne and caviar.

The sparkling-wine list offers a diversity of styles and prices, with nine types, ranging from $44 to $240 a bottle.

“Our sparkling-wine selection gets rotated frequently,” says June Rodil, master sommelier and wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality. “I think it’s important to have a mix of non-champagne as well as champagne from the big houses, grower-producers and non-vintage and vintage to fit the menu.”

The Clark’s caviar lineup, chosen by Chef John Beasley, follows the same principle of offering a variety of styles and prices. Beasley selects caviar and seafood only from sustainable sources. He looks for clear consistency of the beads and flavor varieties for five to seven styles. The menu caries inexpensive golden whitefish roe and wild paddlefish caviar starting at $30 an ounce, as well as a selection of white sturgeon and osetra for as much as $240 for 50 grams. Each is served in a traditional setup, with a mother-of-pearl spoon, blini, creme fraiche and a selection of garnishes. The Clark’s servers are trained to provide recommendations on caviar to help guests make a good choice for their taste preferences and budget.

“Less expensive fish roe, like paddlefish, have a more mellow, murky and earthy flavor,” Rodil says, “When you move up to sturgeon, you’re starting to get an unctuous, rich, beautiful, rounded bead with an almost mineral and clean taste.”

The perfect pick: For a flawless pairing, Rodil recommends the royal white sturgeon caviar and Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Champagne, served in half bottles.

“A half bottle is the perfect amount to have by yourself with caviar,” she explains. “It’s made with 100 percent chardonnay and super powerful. The caviar is a little quieter, so it goes well with the chardonnay. The wine is like a laser cutting through the creaminess of the caviar, creme fraiche and egg. [It’s the] perfect texture with the texture of the caviar. It’s a middle-tier splurge, so you can get it again if you fall in love and not feel too guilty.”



200 Congress Ave.

Champagne and Caviar at Congress
Champagne and Caviar at Congress


One of Austin’s finest fine-dining restaurants, Congress really knows how to do elegant meals. Caviar feels right at home here. Champagne is a staple.

The Congress wine lists boasts more than 20 types of sparkling wine, the majority of which are Champagne. The list runs the gamut, from the non-vintage André Clouet Grande Reserve Brut at $68, to the prestigious 2000 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill Brut for $436.

Executive Chef David Bull has gathered stacks of prominent national awards for his craftsmanship of cuisine. Among his stellar dishes, he always has a selection that includes caviar.

“We change our caviar selection four to five times a year,” Bull says. “We want the right seasonally available ingredients. In the fall and winter months, the quality of caviar is much better. It’s all about the spawning. We incorporate farm-raised golden osetra from the Caspian Sea in a dedicate dish made with cauliflower mousse with a brown-butter cracker to highlight the flavor of caviar. It’s interactive. Use the crackers to dig in. It’s a fun experience.”

Bull’s driving force when sourcing caviar is to find high-quality eggs with the right color and separation of whole eggs that aren’t broken, as well as a good flavor profile, but caviar that’s still affordable so it’s not intimidating. However, his top priority is to serve sustainable ingredients.

“It’s a chef’s responsibility to make sure he’s not serving an endangered animal,” Bull says. “I make sure we are getting farm-raised caviar.”

It might not always be on the menu, but Congress offers stand-alone caviar service. During the holidays, look for farm-raised golden Caspian osetra served with a boiled egg, red onion, parsley and capers and toasted brioche. It’s served by the ounce for about $70.

“It’s a great bar snack if you can afford it,” says Jason Stevens, ‎director of bars and beverage at La Corsha Hospitality, which owns Congress.

The perfect pick: Stevens gets downright misty eyed when he describes the perfect combination of champagne with that bar snack.

“I like a non-vintage champagne, like Krug Brut Grande Cuvee, that has a little bit of age because it is important to have a nuttiness come out in the champagne to match the nuttiness of the caviar,” he says. “It’s really beautiful. The flavor is one thing but the textural element is another. When eating caviar, it’s so fun for me to crush the caviar on the soft palate of my mouth and let that buttery oiliness come out. The bubbles of the champagne combine with it to create an elegant, creamy mousse. The high acid cuts through the richness and lets the delicate aspects come out to play.”

Alternately, he recommends a very cold shot of vodka.

“I would make a shot with five parts of potato vodka and one part of super chilled akvavit,” he says. “Take a bite of caviar, take a taste of vodka and then more caviar. Rinse and repeat. What a lovely way to spend the evening.”



1204 W. Lynn St.

Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery's
Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery’s


A couple years ago, Bon Appétit magazine named Jeffrey’s one of its Top 50 New Restaurants when it reopened under new ownership by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which also owns Clark’s. It’s accurate to say it has only gotten better with age.

With one of only three master sommeliers in Austin responsible for the wine list, it’s no surprise Jeffrey’s stocks an exquisite selection of champagne. Wine and Beverage Director June Rodil organized the list by grower champagnes and négociant-manipulant champagnes in either brut or rosé. It touts superb bottles such as 2004 Bollinger Grande Année Brut, 1988 Le Brun-Servenay Champagne Exception Avize Grand Cru and 1989 Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut.

“We have a lot of guests who are really into wine,” Rodil says. “Our sommelier team can answer their deep questions and get people conscious about what they want to drink. We have a large selection of great champagnes, with about 35 labels. I print our list every week and that changes regularly.”

French-trained Executive Chef Rebecca Meeker, who honed her culinary skills at Chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in New York and Taiwan, along with Chef David Whalen, sample caviar weekly to find the very best. Like the champagne list, the caviar selection changes regularly to ensure Jeffrey’s always has the freshest possible high-end caviar. The restaurant typically carries one or two styles, such as Iranian osetra or royal osetra from Israel.

Jeffrey’s serves caviar in a traditional way, accompanied by blini, creme fraiche, chopped onions and chopped boiled eggs. As an alternative to the mother-of-pearl spoon, Rodil recommends “caviar bumps.”

“It is super trendy,” she says. “People eat caviar off the back of their hands. It makes a lot of sense, as long as your hands are clean and free of odor. After all, you know you’re own scent, and because of that, caviar is the only flavor you taste. Caviar is such a delicate thing, you don’t want any other flavors interfering.”

The perfect pick: To go with that royal osetra caviar bump, Rodil recommends a 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut.

“Cristal is a pinot noir-dominant blend,” she says. “It’s delicate, with the big richness to go with the intensity and the richness of the bubble of royal osetra. It is richness of bubbles paired with the richness of the bubbles. The 2006 vintage is big, lush, with great acidity. High-status caviar deserves to be served with high-status champagne. People think about Jeffry’s as a celebratory meal. It’s easy to indulge here.”


LaV Restaurant & Wine Bar

1501 E. Seventh St.

Champagne and Caviar at laV
Champagne and Caviar at laV


Elegance without pretense is the pervasive vibe at LaV. The atmosphere is imbued with subtle sophistication, from the art on the walls and the light fixtures to the intricate details of the dishes on the French Provençal-inspired menu. In this setting, champagne and caviar almost seem like a must.

With one of the city’s most expansive wine lists, overseen by Sommelier Rania Zayyat, it’s easy to find an exquisite bottle of champagne. LaV has more than 40 Champagnes available, with bottles starting at about $100 and increasing to the $975 1989 Krug Collection. The expansive list can be a bit overwhelming, but Zayyat, an advanced sommelier, helps guests easily navigate the waters.

Caviar at LaV is on the down-low. It isn’t printed on the menu and is only offered by the server.

“It’s for people in the know,” Zayyat says. “It’s contagious. When people hear about it or see people eating it, they want it.”

If you are one of the people in the know (and you are now), you’ll find Black River osetra from Uruguay available in a 1-ounce portion for $200. The organic and sustainably farmed sturgeon from the Rio Negro River is malossol style, meaning it’s cured with a little salt to preserve it and retain its natural flavor. The dark-gray medium-sized pearls are served with a touch of whimsy: LaV rolls out the tin with a mother-of-pearl spoon and the traditional accouterments, including creme fraiche, egg yolk, egg whites, shallots and chives, but instead of blini, it offers house-cut potato chips.

The perfect pick: Zayyat recommends picking champagne that isn’t too old or too rich.

“You’ll want carbonation and freshness,” she says. “Caviar is so delicate of a flavor, you don’t want to overpower it with something too old, oxidized or too rich. Blanc de blanc is a great accompaniment. It is more elegant with more acidity, lighter body and finesse that goes well with the saltiness and brings out the nutty, creamy flavor and sweeter finish of the osetra. Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and it softens the brininess of caviar. The carbonation goes well with the popping of the beads on your tongue. Champagne goes great with fried food. The potato chips we’re doing are a perfect match. It’s very fun and playful.”

As an alternative, Zayyat says Russian vodka is classic. She recommends slightly chilled Beluga Noble Vodka as an amazing pairing.

Russian House

307 E. Fifth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Russian House
Champagne and Caviar at Russian House


This is a vodka den. The Russian-themed family restaurant, bedecked with Soviet-era flags and paraphernalia, has 101 flavors of infused vodka in a dizzying array of fruit, herbal, floral and dessert flavors, as well as unexpected flavors like bacon, cigar and a Stubb’s BBQ flavor, in decanters that line the wall behind the bar. Executive Chef Vladimir Gribkov’s signature infused vodka has 35 Russian herbs and spices, and tastes a bit like brandy.

Owned by husband-and-wife team Grivkov and Varda Salkey, Russian House is a celebration of Russian culture beyond just food and drink. Salkey, a member of the Russian Olympic basketball team, and Grivkov, a chef for more than 25 years in Europe and Russia, moved to the U.S. and saw an opportunity to open the first Russian restaurants in Austin. The menu features classics like cold beef tongue, borscht, golubtsy and family recipes that have been passed down through the generations.

The menu also includes a nice assortment of roe and caviar, chosen by Grivkov. It starts with treats like a boiled egg stuffed with red salmon caviar and progresses to Russian Siberian sturgeon baerii and, at the top of the heap, beluga supreme malossol for $220 for a 20-gram portion. This is the river variety and not the illegal wild beluga.

General Manager Roman Butvin escaped the cold winters of Moscow to move to Austin, and joined the team at Russian House shortly after it opened in 2012.

“Both red [salmon] caviar and black [sturgeon] caviar are popular in Russia,” he says. “The salmon caviar is more affordable, easier to find and has very fine roe. Black caviar is a bit more upscale. All of our black caviar is from the Caspian Sea.”

Russian House offers a traditional caviar service, with the caviar in a crystal bowl accompanied by a plate of baguettes, blintzes and blini, as well as Russian-style non-pasteurized butter, creme fraiche, capers and onions.

“In Russia, we eat it either with blini or a baguette with butter on top and caviar,” Butvin says. “We also serve boiled eggs with a mixture of cream cheese topped with red caviar. It’s a festive Russian appetizer.”

The perfect pick: Butvin suggests pairing caviar with vodka or champagne, but notes vodka is really the way to go.

“We have pairings [that] are with plain vodka and not-infused vodka,” he says. “It’s important to keep the flavor of the caviar prominent, and you don’t want to interfere with the flavor of the infused vodkas. We have set vodka-and-caviar pairings on the menu, with all of the bestvodkas included, like Stoli Elit, Double Cross, Russian Standard Platinum, and our most expensive vodka is also called Beluga.”

Russian House also offers a selection of champagne, including André Clouet, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial and vintage Dom Pérignon.


This story was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Austin Woman Magazine

What are you drinking? 

Texas Hill Country lands major event with 2016 Wine Tourism Conference

Perissos Vineyard

Here is a shot in the arm that is sorely needed for the Texas wine industry. The organizers of the 2016 Wine Tourism Conference selected Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country as the hosts for next year’s shindig. This is just the second time that the conference will be held outside the West Coast and the first time it will be held in the southern U.S.

I recently wrote about the need for a more concerted effort in Texas wine tourism in my article, “I’m Embarrassed to be Texan,” and this is a great step in the right direction.

The 2016 Wine Tourism Conference will take place November 8-10, 2016 in Fredericksburg, TX, with seminars, discussions, and business information about growing and improving wine tourism.

Wine Tourism Conference Director, Allan Wright, said, “The Wine Tourism Conference will bring wine tourism industry leaders from throughout the country and world to Texas. This is not only a great opportunity for Texans to meet and learn from top wine tourism experts but also a showcase for the booming wine tourism industry in the state.”

The Texas Hill Country Wineries‘ successful bid to land the conference was in no-doubt aided by the regions recent national recognition and its growing reputation for both quality wine and as an excellent tourism destination.  The Texas Hill Country wine industry was named one of the “ten best wine travel destinations in the world for 2014” by Wine Enthusiast and one of the “10 Best Wine Destinations” by USA Today.

Fredericksburg is home to more than 30 wineries and tasting rooms, making it a major concentration of the more than 350 wineries in Texas. Its located smack in the Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is the third largest AVA in the nation.

“Texas Hill Country Wineries is thrilled to host the 2016 Wine Tourism Conference in the heart of Texas Wine Country,” says January Wiese, executive director of the Texas Hill Country Wineries. “We are ready to welcome our colleagues from all over the world and have planned a number of excellent events to really share what the thriving Texas wine industry has to offer.”

The conference will be organized by Zephyr Adventures, with sponsorship coming from the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association, the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau, and the GOTEXAN program of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Time to get organized to show the world just how great Texas wine really is. To really make hay with this, the Texas wine industry would be well served to seek broader public and private funding for longer-term wine tourism and marketing programs. It would be a shame for this event to come and go with out long-lasting plans to make the most of the effort.

What are you drinking? 

The reinvention of Texas’ oldest winery: Llano Estacado

The first winery in Texas since Prohibition is in the midst of a revival. Founded in 1976 in Lubbock by Texas Tech professors Clinton “Doc” McPherson and Bob Reed, Llano Estacado has built a strong following and has become one of the state’s largest wineries – it’s number two in sales behind Ste. Genevieve.

The new Llano Estacado Tasting Room
The new Llano Estacado Tasting Room


Under the direction of president and CEO, Mark Hyman, Texas’ oldest winery has grown from producing 3,800 cases when he started in 1994 to more than 165,000 cases today. Much of that growth has been through the sales of inexpensive wines that elbow for space in the grocery store with the likes of Barefoot Wine and Cupcake Wines. Llano Estacado intends to keep a strong hold on its sales in grocery stores with the “Harvest” line of wines developed specifically for H.E.B., the largest wine retailer in the state.

Llano Estacado CEO Mark Hyman
Llano Estacado CEO Mark Hyman


Hyman is proud of the winery’s growth, but he’s not satisfied with only being known only for grocery store wine. Along with executive winemaker, Greg Bruni, Hyman is engineering a massive makeover with a substantial facelift of the winery, a revamp of the wine portfolio, and a change in where the wines are sold.

Llano Estacado Exec Winemaker Greg Bruni
Llano Estacado Exec Winemaker Greg Bruni


“It is time to recreate ourselves, both physically with our facilities and with our portfolio. We just completed our fifth expansion since 2000. The first three expansions were all production oriented. Now we’ve created the ambiance to go along with our production. We have a new modern tasting room, events center, conference room and outdoor patio overlooking our new estate vineyard.”

With the recent promotion of Bruni to executive winemaker, and Jason Centanni to winemaker, Llano Estacado is breathing new life into its wines. The winery has introduced innovative winemaking techniques, added new varieties, and has greatly expanded its lineup of wines with an increased emphasis on fine wines.

Llano Estacado Wines
Llano Estacado Wines


Llano Estacado is eager to shed its reputation for making only cheap wines by introducing new families of fine wines such as 1836, Mont Sec and T.H.P. in addition to its Viviano in a fine wine portfolio. The winery makes more than 163,000 cases of its Llano Estacado brand and only 2,000 cases of its fine wines. Hyman is bullish about the changes.

Llano Estacado THP
Llano Estacado THP


“Everybody knows our Llano Estacado brand. We sometimes have the connotation that we are just inexpensive, sweet wines. We’re not. We have a beautiful, emerging wine club portfolio that is growing by leaps and bounds. We’re making a lot of newer styles that we weren’t doing 5 years ago even. We want to make wines that are different from the wines you will find in the grocery stores. Wines that are special.”

It hopes to further change its image with a leap from the Randall’s aisles to the sommelier’s list. Landing on the table of fine restaurants like Lonesome DoveMonument Café and The Scarlett Rabbit in Austin; Stampede 66, Y.O. Ranch, Gilleys, and Gaylord Texan in Dallas; La Perla Negra and Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth; Good Dog, Coppa Osteria, Texas Borders, The Empty Glass, The Cellar Door, Bob’s Steak & Chop, and South Shore Harbour in Houston, is part of its reinvention.

Llano Estacado went so far to get a spot on the Stephan Pyles’ restaurants wine lists that it made a completely new line of wines, called T.H.P., explicitly for Stampeded 66 in Dallas. It is a lighter Bordeaux style wine intended to invite a second glass, or even a second bottle.

The multi-pronged approach to grocery store sales, boutique wines and special wines for restaurants is Bruni’s way of taking on the big wine companies outside of Texas.

“We’re the big guy in the Texas wine industry, but we compete against the international giants. In that way, we are an ant. There are wineries out there that are either boutique or big. We’re trying to pave a new path and do it all.”

It takes a lot of grapes to make all of that wine. Most of the by Llano Estacado wines are produced using Texas-grown grapes from the High Plains – where the majority of wine grapes are grown in the state. The grapes for Llano Estacado are sourced from long-time vineyard partners in such as Newsome Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards.

Vijay Reddy and his wife Subata farm 30 varieties of grapes on the 310 acre Reddy Vineyard, just outside Brownfield, Texas.  Neal Newsom and his wife Janice farm 92 acres which produce nearly 400 tons of 12 varieties of grapes a year on Newsom Vineyards outside of Plains, Texas, which is just 15 miles from the New Mexico border. Both vineyards are at relatively high elevations of 3,500 to 3,900 feet, which supports ideal growing climates with hot days and cool nights.

Winemakers Bruni and Centanni regularly kick the dirt in the vineyards with Reddy and Newsom frequently.

Centanni says, “We visit the vineyards several times in the season. We know when the grapes should be ripening and check the chemistry and condition of the grapes to determine whether to drop crops. We come out in the spring and then heavily in July through harvest. We take samples back to the lab to test the grapes’ flavor and maturity.”

The vineyards and the winery enjoy a tight working relationship. The long-term commitment to shared success has led to a unique working relationship.

As Newsom explains it, “Most of our contracts with wineries are for five years: except Llano. It’s evergreen. We don’t have to worry about it.”

Bruni added, “Contracts are for when you can’t get along. They are the referee. We essentially have a verbal contract. We trust each other to do the work we need to do.”

Centanni, Reddy, Bruni and Newsom
Centanni, Reddy, Bruni and Newsom


Wines to Try

  • 2014 Viognier Mont Sec Vineyards: made with Viognier grapes planted in the 1990s in the Chihuahuan Desert south east of El Paso at 4,080 ft in elevation, this wine has a broad texture, with bright lemon and fleshy peach flavors. It pairs well with chicken fajitas or pan-seared scallops.
  • 2013 Montepulciano: a dead ringer for an Italian wine made with a blend of Montepulciano, Aglianico and Barbera. This is a standout wine that will change how you think about Texas wines. Crisp cranberry, juicy cherry and tobacco leaf flavors are delicious with pasta and arrabbiata sauce.
  • 2013 Mont Sec Viviano Cabernet Sauvignon: a “Super Tuscan” style wine that blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese grapes grown in Texas High Plains. It’s bold and rustic with loads of blackberry flavors and goes great with grilled steak or pizza.

A version of this article was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: Llano Estacado provided transportation to Lubbock and wine tastings at no charge. 

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Paula Rester returns to Austin as wine director for La Corsha Hospitality Group

Paula Rester, sommelier at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group’s Italian concept Maialino and former Congress Austin sommelier, is moving back to Austin and will rejoin the La Corsha Hospitality Group team in a new position to begin on December 1, 2015.

Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group
Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group


“I’m thrilled to be home in Austin and to be moving into this expanded role with my La Corsha family,” says Rester. “This last year in New York has been a whirl-wind of a ride, a crash course in all things food and wine with one of the best groups of people in the business today. As sommeliers, we always can’t wait to share what we’ve learned with our guests, and I’m no exception! It’s an honor to be trusted with the responsibility of curating the wine lists for some of the best restaurants in the city.”

Before decamping for the big city where she served as Maialino’s sommelier since September 2014, Rester did a couple stints at Congress, the jewel in the La Corsha crown. She helped open Congress in 2010 and held court as the captain and commis sommelier at Congress until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager at Vino Vino in Hyde Park. While ruling the wine roost, Vino Vino was named one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Incidentally, Congress and the Lake Austin Spa Resort were the only other two places in Austin to also score that award. In October 2012 Rester returned to Congress and has put her stamp on the wine program as the wine director.

“It’s wonderful to have Paula back and I know she’ll be fantastic in her new role,” says Scott Walker, vice president of operations at La Corsha Hospitality Group. “We are growing very quickly as a company and to have Paula return to create, educate and maintain the various wine programs is a great benefit to the company, our employees and our guests.”

Rester has plenty of excellent fine dining experience and book learning to give her loads of somm street cred. She is a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Rester knows that every visit a guest makes to Congress Austin is potentially for a very important meal and one worthy of her full attention. She brings her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to work with her every evening. That combination makes for an incredibly interesting dining experience.

Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman
Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman


In her new role, Rester will oversee wine programs at Restaurant Congress, Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen Downtown, Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, the new Second Bar + Kitchen Domain, and the soon-to-be renovated Green Pastures.

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Jameson partners with Movember for men’s health

God love the Irish. God love their whiskey.

Jameson Black Barrel supports Movember
Jameson Black Barrel supports Movember


Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey is an official partner of Movember again this year to help raise awareness for men’s health. Movember is the movement where dudes around the world grow a mustache in the month of November to raise money for health issues like prostate and testicular cancer and mental health. Yep, it can be a pretty ugly time with millions of guys sprouting porn staches, but its an incredibly important cause to help change the face of men’s health.

Jameson will donate $100 to the Movember Foundation, up to  $100,000, for every person who joins the Jameson Black Barrel Network from now through the end of Novmember 2015.

To get guys to join, Jameson sent out fancy pants shaving kits with top quality lotions and potions from Baxter of California, and is sponsoring free clean-ups every Tuesday at barbershops in New York, LA and Chicago.

In Austin, Jameson Irish Whiskey is co-hosting a Movember Shave Off  event at Whisler’s on Thursday, Oct. 29 from 6 to 10 p.m. The shave off features the “Jameson Barbershop” upstairs in Mezcalaría Tobalá, along with a special Jameson cocktail menu. There will be special Movember drinks including a Black Barrel Old Fashioned, Jameson Buck, Jameson Caskmates on the rocks and the Black Barrel on the rocks. No cover charge.

Get involved by donating money, growing a stache and drinking along with Jameson.

Jameson Black Barrel Old Fashioned

  • 2 parts Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey
  • 3/4 part Benedictine
  • 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice and stir. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with an orange slice.

Disclosure: Jameson sent a bottle of Black Barrel and sweet-ass shaving supplies at no charge. 

What are you drinking? 

laV and Vilma Mazaite to launch “Celebrate Burgundy” festival in Austin

Vilma Mazaite
Vilma Mazaite to launch new wine festival in Austin

Celebrated sommelier and director of wine at laV Restaurant and Wine Bar, Vilma Mazaite, is launching a new wine and food festival in Austin called “Celebrate Burgundy” in early 2017. A press release issued by laV’s PR agency, says, “The festival, designed to be a leading wine and food event focused on Burgundy wines and regional French food will be led by Vilma Mazaite.”

Mazaite has tons of wine cred having been named a “Best Sommelier of 2015” by Food and Wine Magazine earlier this year. Her expertise in French wine is well recognized and is on display in the massive wine list at the restaurant. She traveled to Burgundy in September to plan the festival with some of the region’s most notable wine producers.

To allow her time to plan and host the festival, Mazaite, will leave her role as director of wine and will serve laV as Executive Consultant.

In the press release laV’s General Manager, Jamie Wagner says, “We believe Austin is ready for a world class wine and food event and there is no one better to lead it than Vilma. We’re excited to start Celebrate Burgundy and look forward to working with others in the Austin food and wine community to make it a reality.”

The release added a comment from Mazaite saying, “I am very proud of what we’ve done at laV and am excited to be starting our next venture. I believe we can create a unique wine and food experience in Austin. We’ve  already begun securing participants from Burgundy and have been met with great enthusiasm from several producers.”

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Texas Winemakers Hold “The Sip” to Announce Stellar 2015 Harvest

The best wine growing regions of the world such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Napa Valley have significantly cooler climates than Texas. Conventional wisdom says that it’s just too dang hot in Texas to grow grapes for world class wines. Not so, say a group of prominent Texas winemakers. The searing heat in Texas is actually a perfect climate for growing vinifera grape vines.

Representatives from Stone House Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Inwood Estates host The Sip
Representatives from Stone House Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Inwood Estates host The Sip


Winery owners and winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards celebrated Texas Wine Month by sharing the results of their respective 2015 harvest at a tasting event dubbed, The Sip, Season Two (Season One, was held last year). The winery representatives confidently proclaimed 2015 to be a great growing season in a state with an ever improving wine industry.

The evening started with Ron Yates, owner of Spicewood Vineyards, taking a group of sommeliers and journalists to visit the Spicewood Estate Vineyard where 25 year old Sauvignon Blanc vines grow. Yates explained his vineyard management practices focus on producing low yields. It might seem counter-intuitive to get fewer grapes per acre when you are making wine, but the grapes that remain get all of the nutrients and energy of the vine. The resulting wine is so much better. To underline that point, Yates poured a tank sample of the newly made 2015 Spicewood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, which even in its infancy shows great promise.

The Sip Season 2
Ron Yates discusses the Spicewood Vineyards harvest among the vines


“It’s astonishing to see the changes in the Texas wine industry in the past several years,” says Yates. “The home-grown talent, the talent that is returning to Texas and the new-comer talent is impressive. The state has plenty of winemakers with the knowledge and know-how to make excellent wine. Now we are working on improving the grape growing in the state.”

Fall Creek Vineyards winemaker, Sergio Cuadra, and Inwood Estates Vineyards owner and winemaker, Dan Gatlin, echoed Yate’s sentiments that crops with lower yield is a key to success. Stringent vineyard management practices with vigorous canopy management, new trellising techniques, better irrigation practices and putting the right grapes in the right places have all led to vastly improved crop quality in recent years.

“We’ve made mistakes in our grape growing in the past in Texas,” says Gatlin. “Growing grapes the right way is within human control. We know how to manage the variables of climate and land. But a cotton farmer in the High Planes can’t just switch to grape growing using the same farming techniques and expect to have a great grape crop. We don’t need vineyards that produce 20 tons an acre. We need them to produce two to four tons of grapes per acre.”

Anyone who has met Gatlin knows that he isn’t shy about expressing his views. He got down-right testy when discussing what he considers misconceptions of better growing conditions spread by winemakers in California and France. He asserts that it’s just not true that you have to have a cool climate to grow great Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The myth of climate persists,” says Gatlin. “We still have Cabernet in the field in Texas. Mouton has already picked its grapes in Bordeaux. We’ve let our grapes hang as late as October.”

Fire gave way to data. Professor Gatlin broke out a whiteboard to draw a graph of the importance of the development of polyphenols and tannins in grape maturation. He blinded me with science. He contends that as a grape develops there is a cross-over point when tannins decrease and phenols increase. It’s just past the point when there are more phenols in the grape than tannins when the grapes are ready for harvest.

The Sip Season 2 tasting of 13 Texas wines
The Sip Season 2 tasting of 13 Texas wines


“The most important element in winemaking is having the right levels of polyphenols,” says Gatlin. “It is the right stuff in your wine. The mistake some winemakers make in Texas is to pick when sugar levels are there, but before the tannins and phenols have developed. Picking at the right time and having smaller the crop loads lead to exponential growth in phenolics.”

Beyond improved Viticultural techniques, the winemakers agree that the growing conditions in Texas this season were ideal for a strong 2015 vintage. Our 7 year drought came to an end and Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan lakes rebounded from historic low water levels. In fact the rainy spring, including the wettest May month on record, sounded an alarm for a challenging year, but the tapering of rain in June and dusty dry July and August made for an idyllic grape growing climate.

Grapevines need rain early in the season to expand their shoots and develop the grape clusters. After that, during veraison, the period when the grapes start to ripen, vines stop growing and divert photosynthesis production to the grapes. At this stage it’s preferable to have drier conditions for better ripening, which is exactly what we had.

The college lesson continued with Professor Cuadra dropping knowledge among the barrels in the Spicewood cellar. With the intoxicating and fully awake smell of new-born wine freshly fermenting in open vats setting the mood, he showed charts comparing the temperature progression in Iran with central Texas. It turns out we have the exact same heat profile as the Middle East. Why is that important? Because that’s where it is widely believed vinifera grapevines originated. If vines can flourish there, they can certainly flourish here.

Susan Auler and Sergio Cuadra of Fall Creek Vineyards
Susan Auler and Sergio Cuadra of Fall Creek Vineyards


Anyone who has tasted the delicious wines from Chateau Musar in Lebanon knows that it’s completely possible to make excellent wines in the Middle East.

Cuadra explained that the grapevines in Texas are well adjusted to our heat. They don’t suffer the same type of damage as vines in cooler regions when the heat spikes. We don’t see the same type of sunburn.

In addition, while we have higher overall temperatures than many wine regions, when evaluating what’s called “Growing Degree Days”, or the summation of daily average temperatures minus 50ºF for a period of 7 months, Texas Hill Country grape growers harvested at an equivalent heat accumulation index as compared to other cooler regions. More important than the growing season length is the actual number of Degree Days accumulated.

Tasting in the Spicewood Vineyards cellar
Tasting in the Spicewood Vineyards cellar


Texas grapevines also have an advantage of prolonged warm weather beyond harvest. After grapes are picked, our vines don’t go dormant as they do in colder regions. Instead, the roots of the vines in Texas continue to grow deeper where they can access water even in arid summers.

With the improved understanding of viticulture best suited for the Texas climate, improved wine making techniques and a fantastic harvest, the winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards agree that the 2015 vintage could be one of the best on record for Texas wines. What a fantastic thing to hear as we celebrate Texas Wine Month.

This story was originally published on October 12, 2015 in the Texas Wine News section of Texas Wine & Trail Magazine.

Barrel tasting among the barrels
Barrel tasting among the barrels


Disclosure: the author’s marketing communications agency, Pen & Tell Us, was hired to organize and promote “The Sip, Season 2.”

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Sneak peek at Barley Swine’s new location and big boozey additions

This December, Barley Swine will open a new location at 6555 Burnet Rd. The move from its South Lamar home, where it’s been for the past five years, not only gives the restaurant triple the size for up to 80 guests, but also the opportunity to add booze to its beverage program.

John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine
John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine


Until the new location opens, Barley Swine will keep a focus on beer and wine, but the move to Burnet brings an inventive cocktail menu under the direction of General Manager John Michael Williams. With a full bar at his disposal, Williams is concocting seasonally focused cocktails made with ingredients from local farms. He’ll use those fresh bits to create his own vinegars, shrubs, syrups, tonics, and sodas.

Williams has a strong food and beverage pedigree. After graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) with a concentration in wine and spirits, he completed the CIA advanced wine and beverage certification as well as the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level II sommelier certification. He has honed his skills at renowned gastronomic destinations like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.

“Our new cocktail program is part of the evolution of Barley Swine,” says Williams. “We’ll take a cue from the culinary direction from our executive chef and owner, Bryce Gilmore, to have a focus on making seasonal drinks with house-made ingredients. I’m working on recipes for our own velvet falernum syrup for Tiki drinks, a house-made vermouth, and 10 varieties of bitters. We’ll make cocktails that are fun and approachable.”

Robert Stevens will join the Barley Swine team as the new bar manager from Blackberry Farm. He’ll select the tight lineup of high-quality craft spirits for the 10-seat bar. You won’t see big-name booze brands like Grey Goose either. Stevens will use those spirits to make barrel-age cocktails like a mezcal Manhattan with house-made vermouth.

In addition to delectable drinks, Barley Swine is rolling out a completely new creation: edible cocktails. There will be a tasting menu of one bite amuse-bouche with alcohol: Imagine a Negroni as a fruit roll-up rather than a cocktail.

Luckily, Barley Swine won’t move away from its excellent selection of craft beers.

“Beer is always a huge focus for us, especially with our gastro pub tasting menu format, which allows for pairing of beers,” says Williams. “There are so many great breweries in Austin, which lets us pour lots of local beers. We’ll have 12 taps and several bottled and canned beers. Seventy percent of our total beer list will be local. We’ll have bombers from Adelbert’s Brewery and Jester King, and we’ll have Blue Owl and Strange Land on tap.”

The wine list is getting a boost too. Wine buyer, Kristy Sanchez, who has been at Barley Swine since the beginning, is excited to bring in more wines from small boutique vineyards and more natural and biodynamic wines. The wine list is constantly changing to offer selections that pair with Gilmore’s ever-evolving menu. Now the list will expand to include 40 wines by the bottle, split bottles options, and 14 white and 18 red wines by the glass.

Beer and wine at Barley Swine
Beer and wine at Barley Swine

“I’m excited about the versatility we’ll have with the wine list,” says Sanchez. “We’ll have more space to carry a full spectrum of wines to pair with the chef’s tasting menu and a la carte menu. We’ll have higher end bottles and affordable wines that are great at happy hour. We have some really hard to find wines like the Teutonic Wine Company Traubenwerkzeug Quarryview Vineyard pinot noir — there are only six bottles of it in Texas — and Boundary Breaks riesling from Finger Lakes region of New York.”

The new Barley Swine will still have happy hour every Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 6:30 pm with new a la carte items, hand-crafted cocktails, wine for $7, and $3 beers.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I was provided complimentary sips and nibbles at Barley Swine during this interview. 

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Williams and Sanchez of Barley Swine

Professional soccer a wash-out in Austin: Aztex to sit out the 2016 season

While a news story about a professional soccer team doesn’t really fit on a blog about alcoholic beverages, I’m including this story about the Austin Aztex that was originally written for CultureMap because the lack of beer sales at the team’s facilities had a financial impact on the team. It is another example of the importance of drink in our recreation.  

A shot escapes the reach of Aztex goalkeeper, Cody Laurendi
A shot escapes the reach of Aztex goalkeeper, Cody Laurendi


Just as the Memorial Day Floods washed away House Park, the lack of a dedicated soccer stadium has washed away the 2016 Austin Aztex season. The United Soccer League (USL) has granted the club permission to sit out the season because it lacks a stadium that meets league standards.

If the team is able to secure a soccer-specific stadium in the next year, it intends to resume play in the 2017 season.

The team, which was promoted to the USL this year from the Premier Development League (PDL), was able to play the 2015 season on a one-year waiver from the USL allowing the club to land a soccer-specific stadium by the end of its first season. That wicked flooding on Memorial Day weekend severely damaged House Park, the club’s home stadium. The team was forced to move to a high school football stadium in Round Rock for the rest of the 2015 season.

The scramble to find a new home mid-season distracted the club from finding a permanent home for 2016; and playing on a high school football field just doesn’t cut it.

A statement issued by the team said in part that the facilities in Austin and Round Rock “have not proven to be economically viable solutions for our professional team.” “This soccer city deserves a proper venue free of football lines, with amazing sightlines, and where a cold beer can be served on a hot summer night.”

Aztex midfielder Romain Gall
Aztex midfielder Romain Gall


Club executives will spend the next year working to find a venue worthy of professional soccer. They feel strongly that Austin is a soccer city with the right demographics and enough fan to support a professional team.

In the meantime, Aztex players are busily looking for new teams for the 2016 season. As soon as the season ended, some Aztex players went out on trial with other clubs. Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak has already signed with the San Antonio Scorpions. The Dripping Springs native, former Major League Soccer (MLS), and Austin Aztex star wowed fans with nine goals and two assists for the Aztex this season. We will likely see more Aztex players sign with other clubs in the near future.

Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak
Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak


A rallying cry for a return
“By taking the year off from playing, we will have the time necessary to work with all interested parties to secure a professional soccer-friendly stadium to ensure the long-term viability of the Austin Aztex,” Aztex CEO Rene van de Zande said.

“It will be important to have the support of the community in these efforts. We encourage all Austinites to visit and register with the site so that as a community, we can make this stadium happen.”

Fans have a lot to cheer for with the return in 2017. The caliber of USL play is explosive and exciting to watch. The Aztex lured MLS teams to Austin for a preseason tournament and beat the MLS Houston Dynamo in a separate preseason match. The club finished the 2015 season in ninth place in the 12-team Western  Conference with a record of 10 wins 15 losses and three ties.

Eberly’s Army cheers on the Aztex
Eberly’s Army cheers on the Aztex


Disclaimer: I am a fan of the Austin Aztex, have attended many games on my own dime and received a media pass for the last home game to shoot photos for this story. I received no other compensation from the team.  

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