Texas isn’t an especially popular vacation destination for New Yorkers. (Many Democrats, you may recall, viewed President George W. Bush’s choice of hot, arid Midland for summer vacations as proof of his poor judgment.)
A notable exception is the Texas Hill Country — the very mention of which prompts people who have been there to gush, reminisce and otherwise wax nostalgic about this verdant landscape out of a fairy tale.
Like everything in Texas, the Hill Country is bigger than you expect it to be. That was our conclusion as my husband, Oggi, and I consulted maps in advance, wanting to make sure our cross-country driving route would take us through at least a swath of this fabled region. We needn’t have worried, though: if you’re driving anywhere south of Dallas, near Austin or San Antonio, the Hill Country is hard to avoid.
Sprawling over 25 counties in south-central Texas, the Hill Country owes its beauty to a topography of grass-covered limestone hills, lush groves of Southern oaks and the odd yucca or prickly pear. In mid-March, bright blue and yellow flowers greeted us along the roadsides and along the creeks that trickle between hills, each marked with an evocative name: Live Oak Creek, Honey Creek, Walnut Creek.
Amid all this natural beauty exists a culture that is both unique to this corner of Texas and surprisingly sophisticated for rural parts. Evidence of the latter is found in the region’s burgeoning wine scene: the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area) is arguably the biggest recent story in American viticulture.
Every time Oggi and I exited Interstate 10 — our route from Los Angeles across the American South — we found ourselves on twisting, scenic byways peppered with local wineries. And every time we stopped at a tasting room, we were sampling among other city folk on wine country getaways —– including more than a few Jewish couples from Houston, San Antonio and Austin, all within an afternoon’s drive.
So I was a little surprised that with all this oenophilia, there doesn’t yet appear to be a kosher winery. This is definitely Bible country: modest churches of every denomination, steepled and storefront, constitute the major landmarks in every tiny town, and the motel guides to local houses of worship offer dozens of options — all of them Christian.
But we passed more than one wall painted with some variation on “We Stand With Israel.” And a little research turned up the Jewish Community of the Hill Country in picturesque town of Kerrville — a permanent congregation that gathers at the Unitarian Universalist church for weekly Shabbat services with potluck suppers.
The Jewish community believes that its antique Torah is of Czech origin, which would be fitting, since the Hill Country has a decidedly Central European flavor. Towns like Fredericksburg and New Braunfels were largely settled by immigrants from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. “Wilkommen!” is the greeting on signposts; wood-frame eateries feature schnitzel, strudel and kolache, the fruit-, poppy seed- or cheese-filled pastry that’s been in Texas for decades, and has become increasingly popular in hipster hot spots in Brooklyn and D.C. When I walked into the Pioneer Memorial Library, set back against a lawn on Fredericksburg’s Main Street, I was greeted by dusty stacks of clothbound German-language books.
But you would never mistake Fredericksburg for Heidelberg. Despite the overlay of Teutonic kitsch, Main Street Fredericksburg looks every bit the Western prairie town. And on the afternoon we stopped by, the most popular joints were the upscale, low-lit winery tasting rooms — not the oompah beer gardens.
At the Fredericksburg outpost of Grape Creek Winery, a Hill Country pioneer established three decades ago, tasting room manager Patrick Goodman told me that most Hill Country wineries import their grapes from slightly further north, in the area surrounding Lubbock. To make really good wine, he explained, you need the kind of reliably cold nights rare in the Hill Country.
That still felt pretty local. And so did the speed limits on our way out of town, which were easily double what they would have been back home. “It says 65,” pointed out my normally very cautious husband, as we rounded yet another curve on what felt like two wheels, and I struggled to snap photos out the window.
Oggi and I got lost trying to find our way back to the 10. And the GPS on my phone, instead of backtracking, sent us on an incredibly picturesque route through the back country — on white-sand farm roads that wound past fields of grazing sheep and goats, bridges that arched over burbling creeks, and vistas over velvety green hills.
Were we making good time? Google said yes, though we had our doubts. But one thing was certain: as we wended our way through the hills of South Texas, with nary a McDonald’s or a Mobil in sight, we were thoroughly seduced by the charms of the Hill Country.