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Deep in the Heart of Texas Wine Country

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By John Blanchette

San Antonio, Texas — The Alamo isn't the thing I remember most about San Antonio.

I was spending too much time enjoying the cuisine and wine at the Annual New World Wine and Food Festival, which this year will be held May 12-16.

The four-day event included special dinners at restaurants around town, barbecue cook-offs, a grand tasting with 50 local restaurants pairing dishes with 125 different wines from all over Texas, and a black-tie dinner-dance.

Wine in Texas? It turns out the state has eight appellations and is the fifth-largest producer. With the new vineyard plantings under way, it will soon be No. 4, overtaking New York (California is first, followed by Washington State and Oregon).

Texans ride herd on their wine and don't share much. Only about 5 percent gets across the border, and there's a reason: It's delicious.

Soils, climate and temperatures similar to the Rhone Valley in France allow the nearly 200 Texas vintners to make some excellent Viogniers, chenin blancs, Grenache and syrah. Thirty-six other wine grapes are grown commercially, from pinot noir, merlot and chardonnay to Tempranilo, Sangiovese and muscat, but the Rhone varietals really shine.

Millions of years ago an inland sea covered most of Texas, layering in alluvial soils containing limestone, chalk, flint and shale, similar to the soils in the Rhone Valley.

Between the cities of San Antonio and Austin to the northeast lies the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail, an 80-mile stretch of rolling agricultural land harboring numerous vineyards with tasting rooms. Many from this area had their wines available for sampling at the festival, most notably Becker, Alamosa, Fredericksburg, Chisholm Trail, Pedernales, McReynolds and Sister Creek.

The long history of wine production in Texas dates back to the 1650s, when Franciscan priests planted the first vineyards to make sacramental wine. Prohibition virtually eliminated wine production until it was reintroduced in the 1970s, about the same time the wine industry began to get serious in California.

More than 50 of the top restaurants and chefs in San Antonio also took part in the festival. Jason Dady, owner of Bin 555, The Lodge and Two Brothers BBQ (which won the ribs and brisket cook-off held at the Rio Cibolo cattle ranch, a half-hour outside of San Antonio) is a James Beard Award-winning chef. Also participating were Boudro's, Citrus, Francesca (at the Westin La Cantera), Grey Moss Inn, Kirby's, Las Ramblas, Fig Tree, Biga on the Banks, Los Barrios and Las Canarias.

Becker Vineyards hosted a wine- and food-tasting event at the winery. Richard Becker is the Robert Mondavi of the Hill Country Wine Trail and a major organizer of the yearly festival. His chenin blanc and Grenache wines are world class.

But that wasn't all there was to do in this sprawling city, the seventh-largest in the United States, with an important role in the state's history. It is situated in South Central Texas along the San Antonio River, which now rivals the Alamo as the city's top attraction. It got its name from the feast day of St. Anthony, June 13, the date in 1691 when a Spanish expedition party established the town.

The River Walk is currently being expanded and will eventually reach a length of 13 miles. Strolling the walkway is a pastime enjoyed by both tourists and locals.

During the three-mile boat ride down the river knowledgeable pilots point out interesting facts about the city and detail its history as passengers enjoy the flora and architecture along the banks.

Originally an American Indian settlement, San Antonio was ruled by Spain until Mexican Independence was granted in 1821.

Then American and Mexican settlers were invited in to develop the area. When Mexico tried to bring the territory back under its control, the 1836 Battle of the Alamo ensued, and James Bowie, Davy Crockett and 186 others lost their lives. The event triggered a call to establish the Republic of Texas under the slogan "Remember the Alamo," and two years later they were successful.

In 1845 Texas was annexed by the United States, which incited the Mexican War and ultimately caused the accession of the entire American Southwest from Mexico.

German immigration into the area began in the 1840s, when free but worthless land was offered to Germans fleeing war in Europe if they would develop it. As a result, German was spoken on the streets of San Antonio as much as Spanish and English.

German settlers built the city's most beautiful section, the 25-block King William District, as they prospered in their new country. Many local families can trace their history back to these settlers, and German town names are common in the Hill Country.

Cattle ranching became a major industry as the land was settled, and the American cowboy was essentially born in San Antonio. Men on horseback were needed to drive cattle along the Chisholm Trail from San Antonio to the Kansas railheads.

The city became a major cowboy frontier town with a wild saloon-based lifestyle. Gambling, especially poker, developed and thrived, creating the game of Texas Hold 'em and causing card players such as Amarillo Slim and Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson to become legends.

With the coming of the railroad in 1877 the town became more civilized and modern, but it came at a cost to some of the historic neighborhoods, which were torn down to accommodate the rails and to construct wider avenues and new buildings.

Today it is a major destination city, attracting more than 25 million visitors a year — many of them to sample its wines.

IF YOU GO

Market Square is full of Tex-Mex shops with artisan goods, restaurants and lively food stalls. Mi Tierra is a cornerstone here. Open 24 hours, it's a busy, colorful and brightly decorated local restaurant with live mariachi bands strolling by the tables. Don't miss the dance bar.

I stayed at the Westin La Cantera Resort in the hills above the city. It has a world-class golf course designed by Arnold Palmer and a great spa, but what I enjoyed most was the introduction by sommelier Steven Krueger to my favorite Texas wine, Mcpherson's Viogneir from Lubbock. Because so little is made, if you want to try it you have to contact the winery. Depending on the laws in your state, they may be able to ship it to you. Otherwise, book a trip to Lubbock, home to the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the finest Viognier in the world.

For information on the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail, www.texaswinetrail.com

The San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitsanantonio.com, 800-447-3372

New World Wine and Food Festival, www.nwwff.org

McPherson winery, www.mcphersoncellars.com.

John Blanchette is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM




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