Gathered with a dozen or so fellow diners around a wood-fired pizza oven beneath a grove of oak trees in the rolling hills near Palestine, I take a bite of perfect Neapolitan pizza and am transported to Southern Italy. Thanks to the high heat of the oven, the crust is crisp yet airy, the fresh mozzarella bubbly, and the tomato sauce rich and practically caramelized.

With a scattering of basil leaves and paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, this is pizza that rivals the pies I enjoyed while living in Italy and apprenticing with a chef from Naples.

But Chef Simon Webster, the dreamer behind Sabor a Pasion Estate & Vineyard and its popular Restaurant Aubergine, is not from Italy. He was born in England and raised in New Zealand, and his menu, which changes according to what’s fresh in the gardens, reflects the influence of the places he has lived and cooked.

Although it’s only five minutes from Palestine, the property affords a sense of seclusion and escape. The narrow, winding road that leads to the estate is lined with dogwoods and pine trees, and just about the time you think you might be lost, a “Sabor a Pasion” sign assures you that you’re on the right track. A long driveway, flanked by pastures where horses graze, curves up a hill, revealing two wooden cabins, a low-slung ranch house and restaurant, and acres of vineyards.

While living in England, Simon was an avid gardener, and he’s done his best to re-create his English gardens in the acidic soils of East Texas. In the springtime, herbs spill from repurposed wine barrels, and rough-hewn fences brighten with trailing roses, passionflower and honeysuckle vines, black-eyed Susans, and azaleas. Still more vines drape across the deck and patio of the restaurant, and at the end of a brick pathway, a rustic wooden table—dubbed the Tuscan Table—seats 14.

After completing his culinary training in New Zealand in the 1980s, Simon worked in kitchens in England, Fiji, Spain, and Scotland before moving to Derbyshire to open his own restaurant and catering company. After 11 years, he sold the restaurant to become a chef for British Midland Airways and spent three years serving first-class passengers on transatlantic flights from Manchester to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

But ultimately, life as a jet-setter chef didn’t suit him. He missed gardening and spending time outdoors, and soon began looking for property in Virginia, California, or Texas, dreaming of opening a bed-and-breakfast, restaurant, and vineyard. And as it turned out, the 26 acres he found near Palestine reminded him of an estate near his family’s home in Auckland.

“When I first walked up the long, curved drive, it just felt comfortable,” says Simon. “It was different than anything I had looked at, and the scenery was inviting.” Simon opened Sabor a Pasion in spring of 2004 with a small restaurant and two bed-and-breakfast rooms, then gradually expanded the business over the next decade to include a 200-person ballroom, additional lodging, and a vineyard planted with Lamanto and Blanc du Bois grapes. He celebrated his first harvests in 2013 and 2014 with grape stomps and some small-batch winemaking—summertime events that he plans to repeat annually. Commercial winemaking isn’t in the cards just yet.

“The vineyard is a beautiful backdrop for events, especially weddings, but we’re not quite ready to become a full-fledged winery,” says Simon.

Visitors come to the Palestine area for year-round excursions on the Texas State Railroad, the Palestine Dogwood Trails Festival in March, and to explore the town’s historic homes and downtown historic district. But staying in the Sabor a Pasion B&B, and reserving a day or two to relax in the forest scenery, can be a treat in itself. With a pair of rocking chairs on each patio, guests can enjoy an early coffee while watching the sunrise over the grapevines.

There are several customizable packages that can be added to your stay, too: A romance package can include chocolates, flowers, and champagne; and a spa package might include yoga classes, in-room massages, facials, or manicures. Chef Webster also offers private cooking classes for couples and small groups, with topics ranging from pizza-making and international desserts to handmade pasta and easy sauces.

“We do so many things—dinners, luncheons, weddings, vineyard events, private parties, cooking classes, outside catering—whatever is necessary to create an amazing experience for people,” Simon says. “People come here for dinner or the weekend to get away from all the noise of everyday life. They feel at home and wish they could stay longer.”

From the January 2015 issue

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