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Grape Expectations

For two Hill Country Winemakers, sunset dinners in the vineyard (with a toast for every course) are simply a way of life.

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The setting sun marks the end of the day for many people, but at William Chris Vineyards it’s often just the beginning. Located in Austin’s Hill Country backyard town of Hye, William Chris is a far cry from the uppity wineries you might experience elsewhere. It’s more of a come-one, come-all country ranch that combines Southern hospitality with a lot of soul.

Though they are serious about their wine here, they balance that with an easygoing, laid-back charm. The place is even named after the owners, William “Bill” Blackmon and Chris Brundrett. While a number of weekend travelers pop in for a quick tasting, the winery is better known for its private wine-release parties, chili cook-offs, and intimate starlit wine dinners offered to its Hye Society wine club members (a third of whom are from Austin).

On one recent fall evening, hosts Bill and Chris gathered a small group of us around a communal table set up in the property’s grove of gnarly old live oak trees to celebrate a bountiful grape harvest, good friends, and great wine. Chris had slaughtered a local lamb just the week before and had been looking forward to sharing it.

“We try to do different dinners like this every other month or so,” says Chris. “Sometimes we have a couple hundred people, other times it’s just a couple dozen. That’s our world out here. Having friends and family sit down together is what a true wine experience should be.”

Their friend, and winery chef, Jaime Chozet prepared the lamb along with an autumn bounty from local farms, paired with some of the winery’s A-list offerings.

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We started off with a citrusy Hye-ball cocktail, a Hill Country spin on the classic Portuguese Port-tonic using the winery’s Madeira-style dessert wine with lime and tonic water. As a colony of fall fireflies flickered among us, we settled around the table with Bill’s sister, Carol, Austin-based Texas wine enthusiasts Rae Wilson and Laura McCarley, celebrated football player-turned-grape-grower Alfonse Dotson and his wife, Martha, and of course, our hosts, Bill and Chris.

You won't find either host putting on airs. No suits. No ties. No fussy wine-speak. Instead, they’re usually both in dusty jeans, an unpressed fishing shirt, and well-worn pair of work boots. You can spot Bill by his classic Thomas Edison wire-rimmed glasses and long ponytail of silver-strand curls. Chris is the tall fellow with a faded ball cap covering his prematurely salt-and-peppered hair.

After Bill and Chris made a toast (with a glass of sparkling Blanc du Bois, a crisp and refreshing new addition to the winery’s portfolio), chef Chozet brought out a fragrant cucumber-and-white-grape gazpacho, followed by family-style serving of roasted lamb with chimichurri, orzo pasta with almonds, and grilled vegetables. Bill and Chris raised a glass as each new wine was opened and we all savored each in turn—the velvety 500 Block Merlot, a beautifully structured Syrah, and the award-winning Mourvèdre, driven by red fruit and grounded with notes of Hill Country earth.

“We put so much thought into trying to make wine that represents the grapes from each of the Texas soils we work with,” says Chris. “I don’t want people to just taste them and go. When you can taste these wines over a couple of hours in a more enigmatic setting along with food and friends, that’s a different experience altogether.”

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William Chris opened in 2008, the outcome of a unique friendship between Bill and Chris. Bill is a Lubbock native and Texas Tech graduate who has spent the majority of his career in Texas wine, both growing vineyards and making wine for the likes of Pheasant Ridge Winery, CapRock Winery, and Becker Vineyards.

Chris was an ambitious young Texas A&M graduate with a degree in entomology and horticulture, who had spent much of his undergraduate experience not sure of what he was going to do—until the day when he stepped into a Hill Country winery on a weekend visit to Fredericksburg.

“I’d been working in restaurants for a long time and had always enjoyed wine but had never formally considered it as a future profession,” says Chris. “But something hit me that day. After spending two hours listening to that guy’s story, I realized this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” After college, Chris devoted his time to learning everything he could about the industry, moving out to the Stonewall area and taking a job with Woodrose Winery. That’s where he met Bill. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, William Chris aims to make about 10,000 cases a year—give or take—with heavy red wine focus.

“We didn’t start WCV with a vision of big wine release parties and special wine club dinners. But it’s really evolved into a lot of that as an extension of who we are,” says Chris. “Bill keeps me focused. I’ll have five ideas a day and he’s the one that always tells me to think about it for a while before I make a decision. But in the end, we really both want to give a great experience to other people.”

The hospitality offered at William Chris Vineyards has attracted a lot of Austin wine enthusiasts, which can sometimes create a bit of a traffic jam in the tasting room. Lately the winery has encouraged guests to reserve an appointment online and is now offering reservation-only wine-pairing lunches every Saturday. Down the road, they plan to develop vineyard tours, food and wine classes, and wine cocktails in the 1800s country house on the property.

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