By Claudia Alarcón
Statewide, Texas has seen a surge in wineries in the past decade; from 46 in 2001 to almost 200 in 2010—and the Hill Country has proven especially fruitful for the industry. On the 32-mile stretch of US 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg alone, you’ll find 10 wineries that excel with different grapes and styles. Each winery offers tours, public events, and tasting opportunities, but they also work together in an organization called the 290 Wine Road to promote the area as an important wine-producing region.
So when I heard about the Cabernet Grill, a Fredericksburg restaurant whose wine list is dedicated entirely to Texas wines, I was intrigued—and pleased. After all, I’ve spent the last 25 years working in various aspects of the culinary industry, from food service to wine sales, and I enjoy exploring Texan wines. When I learned that the Cabernet Grill is the on-site restaurant of the Cotton Gin Village, a bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of Fredericksburg on Texas 16, my husband, Will, and I booked a cabin and made plans to explore the Cabernet Grill menu—no after-dinner driving required!
When tourists come in for dinner they tell us that since they are eating Texas cuisine, they want to drink Texas wine.
Accommodations here consist of seven mid-1800s-era log cabins surrounding a limestone courtyard. Named after the rivers of Texas, the cabins have wood-burning fireplaces and plenty of charm. Curtain holders made of ox harnesses, punched-tin sconces, and log-frame beds contribute a frontier vibe, but full kitchens, Jacuzzi bathtubs, and satellite TV offer 21st-Century comfort.
For his menu at the Cabernet Grill, chef and owner Ross Burtwell looks to the surrounding areas for produce, cheeses, and meats: quail from Lockhart, wild game from Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, cheeses from throughout the Hill Country. The result is a creative menu of gussied-up Texas classics like chicken-fried rib-eye with green chile gravy and enchiladas made with Black Diamond buffalo meat, all paired (if diners wish) with Texas wines.
Burtwell credits serendipity with his coming into the culinary arena. Back in the 1980s, he told us, he read a story in Texas Highways about chefs Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing, the pillars of the trendy Southwest cuisine movement. He was so inspired by the story that he decided to pursue a career in cooking. After an apprenticeship at the American Culinary Federation’s Chef Society in Dallas, he attended culinary school and worked in various restaurants before opening the Cabernet Grill in 2002.
At first, his wine list incorporated a few of the most popular Texas wines interspersed with well-known labels from elsewhere. Slowly, he began the transition to today’s 100% Texas wine list. “Our wine sales went up 28% the first month we made the switch,” says Burtwell. “We currently serve nearly 85 vintages from 20 different Texas wineries. When tourists come in for dinner they tell us that since they are eating Texas cuisine, they want to drink Texas wine.”
I asked Chef Burtwell to pair our dinner with the wines of his choice. What followed was an inspired meal that showcased his prowess in the kitchen and his passion for Texas wines. To start, he served a ramekin of warm goat cheese with rosemary, garlic chives, and sun-dried tomatoes, accompanied by jalapeño-stuffed fresh figs wrapped in wild boar bacon, with glasses of McPherson Viognier, a full-bodied yet fruity wine that is an excellent alternative to the ubiquitous Chardonnay. Next, Burtwell paired his outstanding pecan-crusted crab cake with Grape Creek Pinot Grigio; crisp and refreshing, the wine displays tropical overtones that matched the dish beautifully. To accompany the venison sausage-stuffed quail with roasted fig jam and scalloped potatoes, he chose the Flat Creek Super Texan, a Sangiovese blend that is one of his favorites.
Yet another standout, Inwood Estates’ Tempranillo, was perfect with the rosemary-garlic grilled beef tenderloin and grilled asparagus. A trio of desserts fit for a king arrived with the surprise of the evening, small glasses of straw-colored Dotson Cervantes Muscat Canelli. Drinking this was pure bliss, like sipping the nectar out of a honeysuckle blossom.
Burtwell has spent a considerable amount of effort training his service staff. That way, when customers ask, they can make educated recommendations. To supplement their knowledge, he takes his staff on regular wine-tasting trips throughout the region. “We talk to the winemakers, tour their vineyards and fields, and taste their wines. We like to share their winemaking stories and knowledge whenever we can,” he says.
Visiting wineries is a fun and educational experience, but if you want to dine and learn all in one place, try the Cabernet Grill. You can taste two, three, four different wines, then walk just a few steps to your cozy cabin. Highly recommended!
From the January 2011 issue.