Yet Another Reason To Visit Hill Country
Stroll through olive orchards, taste the oil, and enjoy a Mediterranean adventure in Texas.
Maybe you wouldn't expect to find an Italophile in San Antonio, but here I am—an Alabama transplant who loves my adopted Texas home but still dreams of making a return trip to Tuscany. As it turns out, there's a Lone Star version of the Mediterranean nestled in the arid Hill Country, where local olive growers are thriving.
Wind your way over the rise and fall of rural roads toward Bella Vista Ranch in Wimberley, Texas, and you'll be lulled into a relaxed Tuscan state of mind. In Italy, no one's in a hurry—certainly not the olive growers and vineyard owners who cultivate their crops with patience. Those guys don't usually wear cowboy hats, but Jack Dougherty, Bella Vista's proud owner, does. He was the first commercial grower of Texas olives and is the maker of award-winning olive oil produced by his business, First Texas Olive Oil Company.
"I tell people that a visit here is like going on a day trip to Italy but without the expensive airfare," says Dougherty. He's right. Italian cypress trees stand near sprawling live oaks and frame the property's olive-oil tasting room. A newer project on the ranch is the vineyard, a small battalion of neatly cultivated grapevines. And then there's the olive orchard: 1,200 trees strong with row upon row of silvery green branches studded with olives. "I know every tree," Dougherty says.
On weekends, visitors enjoy walks through the shady orchard. Inside the tasting room, much like that of a vineyard, they sip and savor—only it's olive oil instead of wine. If sipping oil seems foreign to you, don't worry. Right there on-site, Dougherty will help you appreciate the nuances of the oils that his company presses: three kinds of extra-virgin olive oil along with citrus-infused varieties pressed with blood oranges, Meyer lemons, and limes.
Dougherty also offers sips of balsamic vinegars sourced directly from Italy. Thick and sweet, the Blackberry Pear Balsamic Vinegar makes a delicious marinade for strawberries, he says. Just add a dollop of mascarpone cheese and a sprinkle of bittersweet chocolate for an instant dessert.
Fascinated by California's agritourism, Dougherty planted his olive trees back in 1998, hoping quality oils would attract food-minded travelers. He aimed to emulate an Italian-style family farm—growing olive trees, blackberries, and grapes in close proximity. When a county Extension agent told him that olives wouldn't grow in Texas, Dougherty set out to prove otherwise, though the quest did have its challenges. "It seems very romantic, but there is no romance involved," he says. "It's hard to grow olives. It's hard to make olive oil."
Dougherty uses ancient Roman techniques to grow his olive trees, which have matured quickly. Planted less than 20 years ago, they're now equivalent in size to 50-year-old trees. He won a Gold Award for his 2013 Estate Grown Coratina Olive Oil at an international competition in New York. And the Coratina oil made from his 2015 harvest sold out by April 2016. "I've had Italian visitors come here and buy a case of olive oil," he says, highlighting the authenticity. His daughter, Colleen Peters, with whom he shared his techniques, helps manage the business.
In nearby Dripping Springs, Texas, another father-daughter pair, John and Cara Gambini, operate Texas Hill Country Olive Company, established in 2008. Here, an Italianate facility with a red-tile roof enhances the Tuscan-like views, while a cozy bistro offers lunch. Cara enjoys educating tourists in the orchard, the elegant tasting room, and the mill. "Most people have never really tasted [authentic] extra-virgin olive oil," she says. "Once you know what the good stuff tastes like, you're not going to want the bad."
She tells me that tourists are often surprised to learn that green and black olives are the same fruit; the two are just picked at different times or altered by different brining recipes. Limestone in the Hill Country soil gives it a similar alkalinity to Tuscan soil, she explains, while sloping hillsides in both locales provide the drainage olive trees need—both reasons why Texas is now the second-largest producer of olive oil in the U.S., behind California, with the Texas Olive Oil Council monitoring industry growth.
You won't be thinking about industry stats when you visit though. You'll be too busy savoring the rich oils, tasting local wines, and wandering olive groves drenched in Texas sunlight that's as golden as an old Roman coin.
Hill Country olive grower Jack Dougherty loves gathering his friends and family to share foods featuring Texas olive oils and Italian balsamics.
"It seems very romantic, but there is no romance involved," says Dougherty. "It's hard to grow olives. It's hard to make olive oil." His daughter now helps with the family operation.
WATCH: Scenes of the Texas Hill Country
Want to wine and dine in the Texas Hill Country? Here are a few more places to discover on your journey under the Texas sun.
Discover Texas Wines
Fall Creek Vineyards in Driftwood; fcv.com
Bell Springs Winery in Dripping Springs; bellspringswinery.com
Hawk's Shadow Winery in Dripping Springs; hawksshadow.com
Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood; duchmanwinery.com
Owners Lisa and Stan Duchman love Italian grape varieties. Their winemakers work with growers in the Texas High Plains AVA and experiment with such wines as Sangiovese and Dolcetto.
Pitzer's Fine Arts in Wimberley; pitzersart.com
Wimberley Glassworks in San Marcos; wgw.com
Demos here recall those on the island of Murano near Venice, Italy, though you won't have to take a water taxi to get to this Texas studio.
Dine in the Hill Country
Ino'z Brew & Chew in Wimberley; inozwimberley.com
Jobell Café & Bistro in Wimberley; jobellcafe.com
Kate's Place in Wimberley; katesplacewimberley.com
The Leaning Pear in Wimberley; leaningpear.com
Chef/owner Matthew Buchanan uses olive oils from Bella Vista Ranch on his menu, where he has an Italian-minded philosophy driven by local ingredients fused with Texas style. For Texas-Tuscan views, he likes driving Ranch Road 1888 between Blanco and Luckenbach.