Sips, Sweets and Songs in Texas Hill Country

By Bob Johnson

It had been way too long. About two years. I was overdue for a trip to Texas Hill Country for some good music and some good wine.

The destinations: two historic Texas dance halls, one in Luckenbach, and one in New Braunfels… with a stop at a Hill Country winery along the way.

In “Texas Women,” Hank Williams Jr. sings:

I’m a pretty fair judge of the opposite sex
And I ain’t seen nothin’ that will touch ’em yet
They may be from Waco or out in Lampasas
But one thing about it, they all come from Texas

Williams isn’t kidding when he says “out in Lampasas,” because Lampasas is out there. The 6.3-square-mile town — population: 6,786 — is about 175 miles southwest of Dallas, and about 150 miles northeast of San Antonio, as the Texas buzzard flies.

But on this trip, no thanks whatsoever to advance planning, it happened to be on the way from the Dallas metroplex to Luckenbach, where Asleep at the Wheel was scheduled to play. As we made our way along Highway 281 at a greatly reduced speed, figuring we could be in the midst of one of those famous Texas small town speed traps, we spotted a big winery sign. Well, actually, we saw a big sign in front of a small strip mall that housed a tasting room for Alamosa Wine Cellars (512-556-0001).

The winery is owned by Jim Johnson (no relation — I swear!), whose Twitter feed includes some, uh, interesting comments and observations. A sampling:

• Settling in to a new home in Lampasas. Lampasas has lots of great places to dine. Most of them are in Austin.

• Converted another live raccoon to a good raccoon.

• One more raccoon bites the dust. He won’t be stealing any grapes nor fathering any more grape-thieving varmints.

• Been cutting grass getting ready for the weekend Wine Trail. Right now, I’m grassier than a Russian River Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s obvious, when those Tweets are taken in order, that Johnson not only is a somewhat finicky diner, he’s also very protective of his vineyard, and certainly knows a thing or two about wine.

Thirty-three wineries comprise the group known as Texas Hill Country Wineries, and Alamosa is among them. It’s Hill Country’s northernmost winery (the vineyard is near the town of Bend), and Johnson has learned one of the most vital lessons in winemaking: Grape varieties and clones must be matched to microclimates in order to make great wines.

Or as Johnson puts it: “We believe that the best wines are made from grapes which grow in the soil and climate for which they are suited. We seek to make wines which reflect the terroir of our site, the quality of our grapes and the care of our winemaker.”

Visitors to the tasting room in Lampasas can taste five wines for a modest fee, and that fee is waived if a bottle is purchased. I tasted six wines (but who’s counting?) on my visit, and ended up buying a bottle of the 2007 “Palette,” a Rhone-inspired blend that was in perfect balance.

Two varietal wines — the 2007 Syrah and the 2010 Graciano — were somewhat harsh on the palate, but the four multi-grape blends I tasted all were well made and food friendly.

Here are my tasting notes:

2007 Alamosa Wine Cellars Syrah, Tio Pancho Estate, Texas Hill Country

2010 Alamosa Wine Cellars Graciano, Tio Pancho Estate, Texas Hill Country

2007 Alamosa Wine Cellars ‘Cherokee’ Rosé, Texas Hill Country

2010 Alamosa Wine Cellars ‘El Guapo,’ Texas Hill Country

2010 Alamosa Wine Cellars ‘Texacaia,’ Texas Hill Country

2007 Alamosa Wine Cellars ‘Palette,’ Texas Hill Country

While we were running through the wines, Alamosa Tasting Room Manager Laurie Smith was paid a visit by Sabrina Angermann, who owns the Simply Sweet Bake Shoppe (512-564-1313) next door. Laurie strongly suggested that we stop by the bakery, and after buying my bottle of “Palette,” we did just that.

I grew up in a family owned-and-operated bakery, so I’m pretty picky when it comes to sweet treats. It turns out that Sabrina is, too. After raising a family with her husband Tim, who is Lampasas’ Chief of Police, she decided to make a life-long dream come true.

“I just want to bake,” Sabrina told us. “I love the creative aspect of it — pairing up certain flavors and colors and textures.”

We tried two flavors of cupcakes — chocolate and strawberry — along with “cake balls” that tasted like Orange Creamsicles. This baker’s son was impressed, and couldn’t help but wonder what kind of hedonistic synergy could be created by pairing those orange cake balls with Alamosa Wine Cellars’ Orange Muscat wine.

Alamosa also makes a few Port-style wines that would make sublime pairing partners for Sabrina’s chocolate concoctions. Perhaps the winery and bakery should join forces and offer some creative pairings — for a price, of course — on high-traffic weekends. If I were anywhere nearby, I’d be first in line.

Our sweet tooth satisfied, it was adios to Lampasas and on to Luckenbach for what would prove to be an amazing evening of Texas swing music and dancing with Asleep at the Wheel.

The Luckenbach Dance Hall is legendary in a state known for its dance halls. Among other notable factoids, it is where Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his classic live album, “¡Viva Terlingua!” in 1973 — an album that includes his legendary hit, “Sangria Wine.”

When friends come for Saturday night

It’s nice to make up some Sangria wine

It’s organic and it comes from the vine

It’s also legal and it gets you so high
Yeah I love that Sangria wine

But on this night, it was Asleep at the Wheel — a group that celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010 — in the spotlight. With front man Ray Benson in fine form, it was an unforgettable evening in an unforgettable setting.

Being a Texas band through and through, Asleep at the Wheel is much more likely to sing about beer or whiskey than wine. But the song “Sugarfoot Rag,” included on the album “The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel,” includes these lyrics:

Well, I got a big jug of cider and a bottle of wine
One’s for my honey and the other is mine
Sip on the cider and sip on the wine
They both sip together and have a good time

I couldn’t locate a YouTube video of that song, but here’s an instrumental audio clip that will acquaint (or reacquaint) you with Asleep at the Wheel’s musical style.

The opening act that night was Bri Bagwell, and much as I tried, I could detect no wine-related lyrics in any of her songs. But don’t be surprised if her song “Whiskey” becomes a big hit on the country charts. The Luckenbach crowd also enjoyed the song “Mexican Beer.” Hey, you’ve gotta know your audience, right?

The next day, our Texas Hill Country music, wine and baked goods expedition moved on to New Braunfels for a concert by singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves at another historic site, Gruene Hall. It’s said to be the oldest dance hall in Texas, and it was packed with fans of the native New Englander who now calls Austin home.

I first saw Slaid perform at a Borders bookstore in Oak Park, Ill., when there still were Borders bookstores, and he has appeared at my favorite annual music festival — the Millpond Music Festival — several times through the years.

But it was a totally different experience at Gruene (pronounced “green”) Hall because virtually everyone in attendance knew virtually all of the lyrics to virtually all of his songs. And those who had consumed enough Shiner Bock and/or Lone Star weren’t at all shy about singing along. (I must admit that, after perusing the Gruene Hall “wine list,” I, too, opted for a Shiner Bock.)

I had never noticed any specific references to wine in any of Slaid’s songs, although alcohol certainly pops up in a number of his tunes. My favorite of his recordings, “Drinking Days,” includes the memorable passage: “I never knew what time it was ’til closing time came ’round…”

But during the first intermission of the three-set performance, I headed over to the merch table and spotted the only Slaid Cleaves album I didn’t own. It’s called “No Angel Knows,” it came out in 1997, and it includes a song called “Don’t Tell Me.”

If I could turn the hands of time
I’d turn ’em back ’til you were mine
But instead you’ll haunt my dreams tonight
Don’t tell me it’s all right
In a dim lit restaurant you spoke with a breaking voice
Between the wine and the after-dinner smoke
I realized I had no choice

After such a magical weekend of wine and music… not to mention cupcakes and beer… I realized I had no choice but to get back to Texas Hill Country as soon as possible.

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