By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Sandy Wilson
New wineries continue to open on Wine Road 290—stretching from Johnson City through Fredericksburg. The trail currently has 14 tasting rooms, and has become an increasingly popular and colorful destination for wine lovers from around the state and beyond because of the diversity of wine varieties and winemaking styles, production-facility designs and the mélange of proprietor personalities and backgrounds.
The pioneers of the Texas wine industry were, for the most part, older, well-educated individuals who were retiring from other occupations. Having built sizable nest eggs over the years, they financed their wineries in response to a lifelong love of wine, and the opportunity for entrepreneurship. Recently, though, there’s been an influx of the younger set establishing wineries strictly from an intense love of the craft, its history and its product.
Such is the case with Erik and Neldie Hilmy, who opened Hilmy Cellars between Stonewall and Fredericksburg in 2012. Erik, who was born in Tarrytown, New York, but raised in Mission, Texas, is an immensely interesting, free-spirited guy—characteristics that come into play in his winemaking style. He describes his background as “a bartender two different times, a bum, a pastry chef after I took a few courses at Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy and an attempt to become a real-estate developer.” But nothing seemed to be a fit to his inner callings, and he abhorred the business practices in the real-estate field. “I really think that Erik was a winemaker in a former life,” says Neldie.
Erik made his first batch of wine when he was eight years old from some fruit juice in the family refrigerator. He asked his father what would happen if he put some yeast in the juice, and he’s been experimenting with fruit and yeast since that day—always encouraged by both of his parents, who welcomed the various bottles and jars of fermenting concoctions that were part of Erik’s evolution as a winemaker.
The Hilmys purchased the winery property in 2006, and planted the first three-acre block of sangiovese clone vines in 2009. The second planting of approximately two-and-a-half acres was put in the following year, and consisted of an experimental block of tempranillo, petit verdot and tannat. The couple eagerly awaits the results of these distinct blocks as they unfold. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the fruit for their current wines came from the Texas High Plains region, with the rest originating in the Hill Country.
The winery project had been in the forefront of Erik’s mind for most of his adult life. He and Neldie had known each other for years before they married in 2010, so Neldie entered the winery project head-on as a new bride, although she still worked for a medical-technology firm as a member of their cardiovascular research team. Though she grew up in Texas—spending weekends at her grandparents’ ranch in Rio Hondo, near Harlingen—Neldie’s job has taken her all over the country and to South America. Her position involved calling on cardiologists, one of whom happened to be Erik’s father, who insisted she meet his son.
When the couple married, Neldie knew the depth of Erik’s passion for making wine. Hoping to avoid regret, they decided to pursue this dream and undertook the winery project. Erik and a few workers did much of the work on the winery, including the framing of the original tasting room and production facility. (They recently added a new, separate production facility and turned the original space into a barrel-storage facility.) While Erik busied himself producing the wines to open the winery, Neldie continued to work, and details like business cards, letterhead, logos and marketing efforts weren’t given priority. As Neldie found herself torn between balancing her job responsibilities and helping with marketing efforts and management for the new winery, she took a year’s leave of absence from her job in November of 2012, to establish a firm business foundation for the winery. Erik also credits Neldie with having a very keen palate, and although she has no formal training, her ability to evaluate the structure of wines has proven a valuable asset.
Neldie’s ranch background was also important in the establishment of the winery in its rural Hill Country location. Since Erik wanted to avoid pesticides in the vineyard, Neldie suggested that they start a flock of guinea hens. The hens range freely among the vines, devouring the insects that could harm them. Then she suggested dogs—big dogs. The pair acquired two Great Pyrenees—generally used to protect livestock—to keep the prevalent deer at bay without the need for expensive deer-proof fencing. Finally, Neldie added a few goats to keep the weeds down.
Establishing a winery has always had an element of romance for Erik. In the beginning, he was intimidated by the thought of the project, and thought it impossible if one didn’t inherit vineyards from a long line of winemakers, as happens in Europe and California. However, he finally came to a different realization, and now calls winemaking “the essence of simplicity.” He found that he could research and learn just about anything he needed to know, and the rest he could learn by looking at what the rest of the Texas industry was doing right, or had done wrong. He credits High Plains winemaker Kim McPherson as being an important and generous mentor.
The Hilmys believe that much of what they’re doing is a discovery. “We can try to match varietals with Spain and Argentina, but in the end, it’s solely about the terroir here in our vineyard,” says Neldie. Erik believes that the three greatest challenges to the Texas wine industry are those of temperature, ego and pricing. “Match the grape with the climate and work with Mother Nature,” he says. “Don’t try to plant something that’s not meant to grow here.” When it comes to ego, he thinks that wineries should work with the grapes that do best in Texas, not the grapes that they personally like the best. But the third challenge of pricing is a prickly one.
Because most people travel to wineries to be entertained, the price of the entertainment is generally built into the price of the wine. Erik didn’t want to charge a tasting fee at his tasting room, but knew if they didn’t, they would be overrun with “tasters” and become known as the place that served free wine. Thus, their tasting fee is waived with the purchase of a bottle of wine. Erik’s opinion is that wineries that charge more than a wine is worth are doing a disservice to the industry. His goal is to be able to put a $20 bottle of wine up against a $20 bottle of California or Washington or European wine and have it be on par or above. He doesn’t want his wines to be perceived as being overpriced simply because they’re Hill Country wines.
2010 Politics and Religion: This unusual red blend of merlot and Mourvèdre is a gorgeous garnet-hued wine of medium intensity. On the nose there are layers of Christmas spice—mainly mace and nutmeg—with caramel and vanilla. Perhaps a slight nuance of Tellicherry black peppercorns. On the palate, the wine is fleshy and substantial, but not fat. There’s good play between the acid, the sweetness of the alcohol and the tannins. This is not a gritty sandpaper-like wine by any means, but it has enough grip to be pleasant with food. The fruit on the nose becomes noteworthy in the mouth; lots of subtle raspberry and strong cherry notes, with the raspberry being more of a flowery framboise eau-de-vie-style than fresh, ripe fruit. This is a wine for contemplation and conversation that will age well for up to 10 years.
2012 Rosé of Tempranillo: A first impression is that this wine is dark for rosé. Bottled in March 2013, the wine is showing its youthful and vibrant blue range of colors. This rosé is no Whispering Angel, but rather a rosé of a totally different and delightful style unto itself. The nose is redolent of fruit that’s a bit hard to pin down—perhaps cherry, which is a characteristic of Hilmy reds. There are notes of pomegranate and persimmon, and a hint of passion fruit. There’s also a big hit of bubble gum and, at 14 percent, a lot of alcohol. But when chilled (as a wine like this should be) the alcohol is less forward. The tempranillo provenance lends a certain garrigue, or soft-leaved scrubland nuance characteristic of the Mediterranean region’s limestone soil. There’s also some hefty leather and a bit of spice. In the mouth, the wine is filling and subtly sweet. This is a wine that will pair well with spicy fare and is excellent for summer drinking.
2011 Muscat Canelli: The fruit for this vintage came from the Young Family Vineyards in the Texas High Plains. Pale straw in color, the wine has a generous and aromatic nose. The bouquet is big and expansive in the glass. There’s a definite aroma of citrus, especially grapefruit, very reminiscent of Texas’s Rio Star grapefruit. There’s a bit of floral, with some hints of lychee and a note of diesel or petrol. On the palate, the wine is definitely sweet, although not annoyingly nor cloyingly so. There’s a great balance between acid and sweetness, which makes the alcohol barely perceptible. The wine robes the tongue and then goes away. It would play well with Asian foods and is an excellent wine for drinking now.
12346 E. U.S. Hwy. 290, Fredericksburg