A sign above the door to Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg tells patrons what they need to know about the restaurant: “Texas Wine Spoken Here.” Fluently, in fact. Cabernet Grill has landed on Wine Enthusiast’s “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” two years in a row with an all-Texas wine list—a feat even the most Texas-centric restaurants haven’t achieved.
“I can tell you that back in 2005 when I decided to do the all-Texas wine list, I had people literally get in my face and tell me, ‘You are crazy,’” owner and chef Ross Burtwell says. Cabernet Grill’s criteria for selecting wines are that the winery must be Texas-based and have in-state production, if not made with only Texas grapes. “Unfortunately, Texas does not harvest enough of its own grapes each year to keep up with the demand of the industry, so many wineries must supplement with non-Texas fruit,” Burtwell notes.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Texas wines had a reputation for not being as sophisticated as wine from regions like Napa and Sonoma, in California, and Willamette, in Oregon. But Burtwell changed that in 2002 when he bought Cotton Gin Village, a restaurant with adjacent cabins, and renamed it in homage to the proliferation of Hill Country vineyards. He introduced his “Texas Hill Country cuisine,” with an emphasis on Texas-sourced ingredients.
Today, Cabernet Grill’s kitchen is a family affair. Burtwell’s sous chefs are his wife, Marianna, whom Burtwell met in 1989 while working in a San Antonio hotel kitchen, and son, Hunter, who started rolling silverware for diners at age 8 and subsequently trained at Austin’s Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.
The restaurant stocks 1,200 bottles of 140 different vintages from 40 Texas wineries. Cabernet Grill’s wine reserves—likely the most extensive in the state for a restaurant—illustrate Texas vintners’ resourcefulness and willingness to experiment, which was born out of necessity. “When they started planting grapes in Texas, they planted grapes from California,” Burtwell says. “We don’t have the same conditions as California.” In the search for more appropriate grapes, winemakers went to Italy and Spain. The Texas-like climates and soil conditions in those locales led to planting lesser-known varietals like piquepoul, tempranillo, and tannat. “Our wine list is constantly evolving,” Burtwell says. “Texas winemakers are trying all kinds of different varietals.”
Even with Cabernet Grill’s national recognition, wine director Elizabeth Rodriguez instills a “no wine snobs allowed” ethos among the staff. Rodriguez started out in the hospitality industry by cleaning tables at a barbecue joint as a teenager. She came to Cabernet Grill in 2005 as a server and started learning about wine. Encouraged by Burtwell, she educated herself by visiting local wineries and winemakers before eventually earning her sommelier certification. Now, Rodriguez conducts Saturday roundtables with the wait staff that include blind tastings of new offerings, “because they have to be excited about it to sell it.”
She relishes defending the Texas-only wine list to guests unfamiliar with the state’s award-winning vintages. “People say they don’t like any Texas wine,” she says. “We take it as a challenge.” Winning guests over also lies in affordable prices: all but a few bottles cost $30 to $65 and glasses range from $7 to $16.
As waiters pour wine flights, they take great care in explaining to guests the different varietals, wineries, and vineyards. Suggesting wine pairings for dishes, they follow Rodriguez’s principle: “Sometimes, the wine by itself or the food by itself is not so great, but putting them together makes it great.”
Pursuit of such greatness starts with Cabernet Grill’s innovative appetizers. A waiter may recommend the chilly viognier from Hilmy Cellars to temper the serrano-infused relish on the pecan-crusted crab. The coconut-lime soup spiked with curry and topped with Texas Gulf shrimp pairs well with William Chris Vineyards’ Mary Ruth white blend. A heavier dish like the chicken-fried rib-eye topped with lobster and Hatch-chile gravy is enhanced by Becker Vineyards’ Merlot Reserve, full-bodied and sold only to restaurants. Bending Branch Winery’s dry tannat complements a medium-rare slice of sous-vide short rib.
A native stone fireplace dominates the main dining room. Thoughtful décor touches include chandeliers fashioned by Burtwell and his daughter from West Texas irrigation wheels and stained glass renderings of Hill Country pastoral scenes by local artisan Merryl Redding. The covered patio and shaded courtyard are bordered by wine barrels and illuminated by strings of lights.
Surrounding the courtyard are 14 log cabins and cottages for overnight guests. The 19th-century cabins were shipped from Kentucky and Tennessee and reassembled. The recently debuted stone cottages include wine chillers, as visiting wineries is a requisite part of a Hill Country excursion.
“Texas wines have come a long way,” Rodriguez says. “And customers are now taking Texas wines seriously and are open to exploration.”