by Andrew Chalk
La Cantera Hill Country Resort is an absolutely spectacular sight in the southern Hill Country just north of San Antonio. The vast resort has a popular world-class golf course, private villas (casitas), six pools and a flagship restaurant Francesca’s at Sunset. As well as being close to the most rapidly improving culinary scene in the state, the resort is also part of it. Its extensive dining facilities make it one of the area’s largest customers for community-supported agriculture, Texas ranches and line-caught fish. And that commitment to Texas product does not stop at the edge of the plate. The resort also has one of the most extensive and carefully curated selections of Texas wines in the state.
While attending Culinaria this month, I took a look at the April release of the monthly-updated list and asked its creator, Steve Krueger, Resort Sommelier, about the Texas angle.
By way of background: I counted nine Texas wines by the glass (four white and five red), 23 bottle selections (eleven white and 12 red) and four reds in large format bottles.
AC: Steve, how long have you worked at La Cantera Hill Country Resort?
SK: 16 years, seventeen in August.
How many wines in total do you have on your list?
How many Texas wines do you have on your list?
28. Fluctuates, and lower than I would like it. I do have Jaques Lapin (Verdelho/Viognier) and Texacaia that will be added to the June wine list update bringing the total to 30. And I did not count my dessert wine and port which will bring the total to 35!
Did you start the accumulation of Texas wines on wine lists at La Cantera or did you inherit it? If so who from?
We offered Becker Chardonnay and Claret and had a Llano Estacado wine on the list. I started pouring Becker Chardonnay side by side with California Chardonnay blind for guests. The guest almost always picked the California wine. At some point I discovered that I could do the same with Viognier and the Texas wine would almost always win! We still pour the Becker Claret today. However I have focused our Texas wine offerings on the hot climate grapes.
How was your “first time” with Texas wine? Which wine was it and what are your tasting notes (from memory if you wish)?
Back in 1997, I was helping at a charity fundraiser at a rural venue outside of Boerne. While many of the details are lost to time I do vividly remember the first vintage of Viviano [ed: a Texas wine from Llano Estacado winery] being poured that night. I had not begun studying wine earnestly at the time but was interested enough to be amazed by this “Texas wine.” And, there was a buzz in the room about it. Wine drinkers were coming back for more and forgoing other wines that were also available to taste. Looking back on this, it was a blessing to have been at this event and taste a great wine opening my mind up early to the potential that Texas has for wine making.
What was the first Texas wine that you put on your list? When you did so, did you sell much and was it a hand-sell (i.e. required a skilled effort from you to convince the patron to purchase it over the non-Texas wines on your list) or did it fly off the shelves.
I am not certain about the first Texas wine and we have always had some available. The pivot point in my mind for our Texas wine program was with Alamosa Wine Cellars. I met owners Jim and Karen at an industry lecture in Austin about Paso Robles (my favorite California region). They had been asking some very detailed questions of the Californian winemakers, more in-depth than Sommeliers and wine enthusiast would ask, so I went up to them and introduced myself. Not long after I got to try their wines and soon we were buying direct from their winery. It seems like a small matter; however it was a big deal to add a small independent winey as a vendor. It required our accountant to think differently and our managers etc. We did a wine dinner with Mr. Johnson and our success with the Alamosa wines helped pave the way for us buying wine from other Texas wineries that do not have distributors.
As for hand selling, there is always some of that going on and with the Alamosa wines especially I try to emphasize to the guest that these wines are more like Old World wines with earthy flavors and even cellar characteristics. Texas wine in general seems to have consumers who are open to trying new things and others who are not. I will do blind tastings and other things to help create opportunities for guests to change their minds if they are closed to Texas wines. We do not try to force people to drink Texas wine.
How does the profile of the Texas wine drinker differ from the average wine drinker at your restaurant?
Someone who is active in Texas wine, visiting the wineries and the like, knows about the hot climate varietals and they are seeking new wine experiences. Our market still has a large number of drinkers that will only buy iconic brands and some of them are stubbornly stuck on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is changing though and there are consumers asking for “anything but Mom’s Chardonnay.” (Sorry, Mom.) (Sorry, California) (Chardonnay just isn’t cool anymore.) (Some people have not got the memo yet.)
Who was the first Texas wine maker that you met and what are your recollections of the meeting?
The most profound winery experience was Becker Vineyards. It would have been 1999. We went out there as part of our Wine Class that Virginia Phillip MS organized. I remember Dr. Becker and Bunny being there, I could not tell you who the winemaker was. It was a small winery, but I did not know, it was the first one for me. It had the underground barrel cellar, the tank room, bottling line and everything else. It was a great time, we love their wines and have been back many times.
I used to worry about Dr. Becker, knowing that everyone says “The way to make a small fortune in the wine business; you have to start with a large fortune.” Knowing that he is a successful medical doctor I had the idea that the medicine was supporting the wine. Then on one of our trips when touring the winery we stepped out onto the crush pad where Dr. Becker’s new Maserati was parked; I knew there was no need to worry anymore.
I know that sommeliers work long hours but do you ever the chance to head out to the Hill Country (it being less than half an hour from La Cantera)? Which wineries do you visit and what have been real discoveries for you?
BECKER, first love.
BRENNAN, in my Mother’s home town, so I got to hear about them as they grew.
ALAMOSA, inspired wines and a kindred spirit.
FALL CREEK, a grand estate and epic story for Texas grape growing.
INWOOD, Dan Gatlin is a great character and talented winemaker.
PEDERNALES, growers becoming great winemakers, very exciting to watch.
FLAT CREEK, great scenery and delicious wines.
PERISSOS, Seth Martin is awesome and they have the best location; being on the park road with the castle on the hill overlooking them.
DUCHMAN, solid wines, I love the Italian varietals and seeing what they do here.
BENDING BRANCH, Dr. Young and John Rivenburgh are redefining how wine can be made in Texas, state of the art winery and great vineyards.
LEWIS, new kid on the block, getting some amazing breaks and making some delicious wines.
HYE MEADOW, very cool winery and tasting room, I expect great things from them.
WEDDING OAK, Mike McHenry is going places and Penny Adams is the right winemaker for the job.
RED CABOOSE, excellent Tempranillo!
The potential we have here is amazing! I hope it is true that we have eight-thousand acres under vine today, we need more and we would be poised to overtake New York’s twelve-thousand acres in just a few years! (Wouldn’t that be some news, to move into the number four spot.)
How has Texas wine changed since you had your first one?
In the last fifteen years the biggest accomplishment of the Texas wine industry has made is “getting over not being California.” It is huge that wineries are no longer trying to replicate what is being done on the West Coast and are now forging their own trail. The enthusiasm for the wide array of grape varieties being sold at the wineries is wonderful. The amount of winery tourism throughout the State and especially along 290 is mind boggling.
To be a part of this growth has been fun. Going from three Texas wines to thirty is great and the fact that we are committed to offering our Texas wine tasting in our bar five nights a week. Tuesday through Saturday from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm I pour two ounces of four wines for $10. (Most of our wine by the glass sells for $8-12 a glass; six ounces, so it is a good deal.) We have sixteen Texas wines in that line up and rotate through them, so a guest staying here can come four days in a row and not duplicate a wine. We are mindful that we are at the gateway to the Texas Hill Country AVA and can serve the needs for many winery tourist being 20-30 minutes away from great wineries and 45 minutes away from 290.
As far as Texas has come; we ain’t seen nothing yet! The next fifteen years will blow our minds.
(I hope all the asides are not too much of a bother.) (I type with a smile on my face.)
Steve Krueger, thank you very much.