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Cabernet Grill's chef proud to serve Texas wines

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Local, local, local.

That's all you hear from restaurants these days. Chefs aren't just using locally sourced produce and meats, they are going to farmers' markets to buy them. Some even work directly with farmers and ranchers to buy meat or eggs in bulk or commit to buying a certain amount of produce a few months from now so that the grower can know how much to plant.

But what about the wine?

In Austin, only a handful of restaurants carry more than a token Texas wine or two. Some, including The Carillon, Trio and Fabi + Rosi, carry more, up to a dozen Texas wines , but in general, the more than 220 Texas wineries aren't represented on many restaurant wine lists.

However, at Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg, every single one of the 75 or so wines on executive chef Ross Burtwell's list comes from a Texas winery. Burtwell, the Michigan native who took over the restaurant and its adjacent guest cabins about a decade ago, created the all-Texas list about five years ago.

Some diners resisted the change, but most have embraced it. In fact, Burtwell says he sells far more wine now than he did when he offered wines from across the world. Even in the five years since he made the switch, he's seen the overall quality improve tremendously. "The wines didn't have the acceptance that they do now," he says. The Becker Iconoclast, a Cabernet Sauvignon that is widely sold in grocery stores, is easily the best seller when it comes to by-the-glass sales, followed by Inwood Tempranillo and, McPherson Viognier and Grape Creek Pinot Grigio.

Burtwell knows that he has the advantage of being in Fredericksburg, where people come specifically to taste the wine from the area. Tourists go looking for Texas wines outside the city, but visitors to Austin are looking for them, too, which is one reason why the restaurants that have the most Texas wines on their wine lists are usually in or near hotels.

But the vast majority of diners in Austin are looking for wines that are a sure bet and a better value, says Rob Moshein, an industry expert who runs Austin Wine Guy. Although the industry has improved greatly in the past 15 or even five years, "only a handful of Texas wines can deliver that," he says.

Most Texas wines retail for $20 to $40 per bottle, which means they are marked up to $50 to $80 in a restaurant. "Now you're talking about a lot of money," Moshein says. It's difficult for a $50 Texas wine to compete with a $50 California bottle because California winemakers have better name recognition and can sell higher quality wines for less money because they are producing higher volume. "The bang for the buck isn't there with a lot of the (Texas) wines."

(It should be said that some wines sold at Texas wineries are made in other places, like California, and then bottled here under another label. )

Some Austin restaurants have taken the leap to serve a majority of Texas produce and meats, but none has come close with wine, not even for the sheer marketing value of being able to say they serve only Texas wines. But why?

Many chefs are willing to fork over the extra money for locally sourced produce and meats, often for an improved quality over the same ingredients that sat on a truck for a week. But with wine, it takes longer and is more difficult and expensive to get right than vegetables or beer or even cheese. Plus, keeping a cellar stocked with wine is an investment that many restaurants can't afford to risk.

Availability is also a problem. Most small to mid-sized wineries aren't set up with distributors to be sold in grocery stores or restaurants, and it's expensive for restaurants to send beverage directors across the state to find suitable wines for their cellars. Burtwell lives close to many winemakers, so he can easily drive to meet with them or even pick up cases. (Most of the wineries are eager to get their bottles in his hands, so most cases come to him.)

Burtwell doesn't make any claims that the ingredients in his food come from within the same radius as the wine, and bottles on his wine list sell for about $15 less than what the same bottle costs on a restaurant in Austin.

He says it's a matter of taking the time to educate consumers. Servers, who go on field trips to many wineries on the list, are happy to provide samples of just about any wine of the list .

You can also order flights of Viognier or Tempranillo, two grape varietals that grow well in Texas and go into some of the best wine being made in the state now. For about $20, you can compare three or four versions of each from different wineries. (What will be the next big grape? Burtwell says he has high hopes for what winemakers will do with Lenoir and Blanc Du Bois grapes, which also thrive here.)

Burtwell has enough experience in kitchens to put out dishes, such a buffalo enchiladas, oak-smoked pork tenderloins and pheasant curry soup, that would rival many in Austin, and without the wine that reflects that region, it's not a complete experience. "It's easy; if it grows together, it goes together."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Stay where you dine

Located next to Cabernet Grill is the Cotton Gin Village, seven log cabins clustered around a koi pond, large outdoor seating area for the restaurant, intertwining paths lined with lush flowers, herbs and even pomegranates. It's right next to Texas 16 south of Fredericksburg, so it's easy to find but not quite as remote as the "village" setting makes you feel. Butterflies, waterfalls, a blacksmith shed full of antique tools. A real treat.

Rates start at $159, and you can find more information at cottonginlodging.com .

— A.B.

Meet the grower

On Nov. 3, Cabernet Grill executive chef Ross Burtwell is putting a different spin on the traditional winemaker dinner by hosting Neal Newsom, one of the state's top grape growers, as a special guest at a meal featuring wines from wineries that use his grapes.