In its third year, the Austin Food & Wine Festival drew some of the biggest names in the culinary world to demonstrate their talents. It wasn’t just the national celebrity chefs who drew applause. Homegrown beverage experts had the juice to attract crowds in Butler Park.
True Texas Spirits
At mid-day Sunday, cocktail expert and author David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, hobbled on stage with a crutch and his foot in a medical boot. He swore the injury was from a skiing accident rather than a drink-induced mishap. A likely story.
He quickly changed the subject by offering a birthday toast to his sister with a mixed shot made with Treaty Oak barrel-aged gin for the crowd. It was a fantastic way to start his session.
Alan shared anecdotes about Texas spirits pioneers and cocktail recipes from his recently published book, Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State. The Texas spirits industry is just a baby. Despite prohibition ending in 1933, the state did not have a legal distillery until Tito Beveridge started Tito’s Handmade Vodka in 1996. When he applied for a distilling permit, there wasn’t even a process in place to get one. Beveridge had to work with state and federal regulatory bodies to get it going. Alan lauded Beveridge for inspiring other distilleries to follow.
“He is the one that got the industry started,” Alan said. “He is the reason we are here today. Independent distilling is one of the biggest movements in the beverage industry. There are now more than 50 licensed distilleries in Texas and business is booming. In 2013, Tito’s hit a milestone that few independents will ever hit. The distillery sold more than a million cases of vodka.”
Tito’s was the lone distiller in the state for a decade. In 2006, Daniel Barnes started a distillery to make Treaty Oak Rum, which Alan described as “quintessentially Texan” because it is completely made in Texas, starting with the raw materials. Treaty Oak Distilling now makes rum, aged rum, Waterloo Gin and barrel-aged gin, and bottles of Red Handed Texas Bourbon.
With the rapidly growing thirst for local, independent distilleries, there are bound to be some corners cut to meet consumer demand.
“Some Texas spirits are all hat and no cattle,” Alan said in an impassioned discussion of the virtues of authenticity versus marketing shenanigans. “How many people believe that when you buy a product, you should know what the hell it is? Nobody wants to be misled.
“If a bottle says ‘Texas whiskey,’ we expect it to be from Texas. The problem is that about half the whiskeys on the shelf that say Texas aren’t from Texas. Balcones, Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek are all made right here with Texas ingredients. We need to support the folks who are actually making a product here. To make sure its Texan, check the bottle to make sure it says ‘distilled in Texas’ rather than just ‘produced’ or ‘bottled.’ ”
Alan describes the cocktail culture in Texas as being very similar to our culinary influences in that it is a melting pot of Tex-Mex and Southern, with bold flavors, spice and smoke. He encouraged the crowd to be adventurous in their choice of drinks and to use local ingredients in season like grapefruit, homegrown mint and watermelon.
“You wouldn’t eat the same food every day or listen to the same music every day,” Alan said. “So why would you drink the same thing every day?”
To demonstrate fresh approaches to cocktails that feature Texas spirits and seasonably appropriate local ingredients, Alan created two refreshing summer cocktails.
- 2 750-milileter bottles of sparkling rosé wine
- 1/2 bottle Tito’s Handmade Vodka
- 2 cups St. Germain elderflower liqueur
- 1 quart cut up melons (watermelon, honeydew) and seasonal fruit
- Large block of ice
- 1 cup of carbonated water
Marinate the fruit in the booze for several hours, then it’s ready to serve.
- 4 large sprigs fresh mint
- 1/2 cup cubed and seeded watermelon
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 1.5 ounces Treaty Oak Rum
- 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 ounce carbonated water
- Watermelon wedge for garnish
Gently muddle three of the mint springs and the watermelon with the simple syrup. Add the rum and lime juice, and shake the hell out of it. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Top with carbonated water and garnish with mint and watermelon.
The final wine seminar of the Austin Food & Wine Festival featured Austin’s only Master Sommeliers, Devon Broglie and Craig Collins. In their third year presenting at the festival, the renowned wine experts chose to showcase a wine region that they feel is experimenting with non-traditional grapes and new methods in winemaking: California.
“California is one of the regions leading the charge for a new revolution in wine,” said Collins, the beverage director for Arro and ELM Restaurant Group. “In the 1960s and ’70s, Robert Mondavi and others were experimenting with making new wines but retaining European influences for making wine with balance and quality. In the 1990s, the region gained notoriety for pursing big, bold, fruity wines with high alcohol. Now we have pioneers in the industry making sophisticated wine with less prominent grapes with lower alcohol.”
The sweaty and slightly intoxicated crowd at the California Enlightenment session was treated to a tasting of six wines that were selected for new approaches to a well-known grape variety or unheralded grapes. There was one other factor in the wines’ selection.
“The criteria for wines in this tasting is they had to be wines that are loveable,” said Broglie, the Whole Foods Markets associate global beverage buyer. “We’re talking about wines that after you have slammed back half a glass, you stop and realize, holy shit, I love this wine. We wanted to present wines that are enjoyable and that are drinkable with food.”
The Seghesio family settled in California from Italy in 1895 and has been producing wine ever since. Seghesio is well known as a pioneer and major producer of Sonoma County Zinfandel, but less known for its Italian white wine varieties. Arneis is a white grape from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy that makes clean, crisp wine that is high in minerals. Seghesio grows its grapes on small acreage in the Russian River Valley, which has a cool climate. The result is fresh, bright, medium-bodied wine with guava and tropical flavors that is perfect for a summer picnic. It’s available for about $23 at Austin Wine Merchant or Whole Foods Markets.
In 2008, Matt Licklider, a wine importer, and Kevin O’Connor, wine director at Spago Beverly Hills, partnered to start an urban winery to make pinot noir and chardonnay that reflect the terroir of California. They chose to break the mold of California wineries making overblown wines. Rather than age the wine with new oak barrels that can hide the flavor of the wine with vanilla flavors, Lioco uses stainless steel and neutral barrels to create a full yet crisp wine that lets fruit and acid shine through, for a citrusy wine with grapefruit and lemon flavors that pairs well with shellfish. The Sonoma County chardonnay is available for $22 on the Lioco website.
“Cappellet is one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley, starting the winery in 1967 in storied Pritchard Hill vineyards,” Collins said. “The area is considered a grand cru of Napa because the magical mountain makes the cream-of-the-crop wines.”
The volcanic soils stress the grape vines, and the high elevation allows for a large swing between nighttime versus daytime temperatures, which helps grapes ripen better. Not only is Chappellet making wine with a less popular grape, chenin blanc, it is also taking a non-traditional route to make the wine. It is fermented in a combination of neutral French oak barrels, stainless steel tanks and a concrete “egg” that gives the wine extra weight and richness while retaining high acid levels that give it massive zippiness. It has vivacious floral scents and honeydew, lemon zest and hazelnut flavors that bring roast quail to life. It goes for about $30 a bottle.
Everything about Donkey and Goat is non-traditional. The winery got its start when Tracy and Jared Brandt decided to make natural, Rhône-style wines with minimal intervention.
“They put 50,000 miles on their Toyota Prius looking for the right grapes to make wine in an urban winery in a warehouse in Berkeley,” Broglie said. “This is an example of a new trend in California winemaking where the winery doesn’t need vineyards or a fancy château.”
The grenache was made with grapes grown in El Dorado County using natural yeast to ferment them, and it was left unfiltered, giving it a slight haze. The red berry flavors and earthiness will go well with grilled meat.
“This wine makes me want to bury a goat in the yard and roast it in the pit,” Broglie said.
The Food & Wine Festival was fortunate to land a handful of cases to serve, but the 246 cases made have sold out immediately.
California zinfandel has earned a reputation for being inky dark with enough alcohol to give you a buzz by just smelling it. Broc Cellars throws that playbook out the window. The Vine Starr zinfandel is true to its intended character, a gorgeous translucent ruby color, bold aromas of ripe fruit, cream strawberry flavors and the zip of black pepper on the finish. And its only 12 percent alcohol.
“It’s all of the things I like about zin without the things I hate,” Collins said. “I like the bold aromatics and ripe fruit, but not the high alcohol.”
Broc is another one of the small-production urban wineries and only 800 cases of this juice were produced. It sells for about $30.
The last taste of the day, which I’m sure some of the drunks in the tent downed in one lustful gulp, was Stony Hill Napa Valley cabernet 2010 from Spring Mountain. Stony Hill Vineyard has been making wine since 1952. They are predominantly a chardonnay producer. No matter the type of wine, they have not chased the big scores of some wine reviewers by making wines with big flavors, and instead have stayed true to their heritage of making refined, balanced wine. The 2010 cabernet is only the second vintage of cab Stony Hill has produced. It has blackberry, ripe, juicy red fruit, green pepper and herb flavors with a subtle earthiness. Less than 400 cases of this wine were made and only six of those cases made their way to Texas, one of which was poured at the festival. This was my favorite wine of the entire festival.
Whether you are in to obscure grapes, natural wine or inventive approaches to winemaking, Collins summed up a solid maxim for drinking wine (and maybe for life).
“What do you want to put into your mouth now?” he asked. “It’s not about what is right. It’s about what is going to make you happy.”
This story was originally published on Austin Man Magazine.
Disclosure: I was provided a media pass to attend the Festival at no charge.