A handful of wineries and bed-and-breakfasts within a square-shaped area of East Texas framed by Tyler, Rusk, Palestine and Athens makes for an excellent road trip. Roads slice through pine woods interspersed with lush fields, swaths of green pasture grazed by fat cattle, sparkling ponds and even a few lakes. You’ll find friendly folks, reasonable prices—and delightful wines.
Known as America’s Rose Capital, the city of Tyler offers rose gardens, of course, but also everything from art and ballet to a zoo.
For a calm oasis, go to KE Cellars—part of the Kiepersol Estates wine family (903-894-8995, www.kiepersol.com)—at the busy corner of Loop 323 and U.S. Highway 69. KE Cellars’ European-style tasting room rotates the roughly 215 Texas wines it sells. Select a bottle and a meat and cheese platter and enjoy live music Tuesday through Saturday evenings. KE’s owner and founder, South Africa native Pierre de Wet, also founded the Kiepersol Estates winery and vineyards south of town on FM 344. Tour the winemaking facility built with recycled materials. Then try a few of the 14 or so varieties of wine made from grapes grown on-site. The tasting room’s deck overlooks some of Kiepersol’s 60 acres of vineyards. The restaurant serves fine steaks and seafood accompanied by wines from the impressive floor-to-ceiling cellar. Of the five guest rooms, three have private porches and hot tubs.
Once you’re sufficiently rested and fueled by Kiepersol’s comfy beds and hearty breakfast, continue 20 miles south from Tyler on U.S. Highway 69 to Rusk, headquarters for Cherokee County Electric Cooperative, then head west on U.S. Highway 84. Next to the tracks of the Texas State Railroad, Maydelle Country Wines (903-795-3915, www.maydellewines.com) occupies a century-old depot building moved here in 1954; inside, owner Steven Harper churns out about 1,500 gallons of fruit wines a year. Tastings are free, he says, “because my wine is so weird, you have to taste it.” In five years, only six people have tasted the wines and not bought at least one, he says. Harper picks his own elderberries wild and buys other fruit locally as much as possible.
Thirty-one miles west on U.S. Highway 84 lies Palestine, a charming Southern town of Victorian homes and magnolia trees—and wineries. Ten miles north on twisting, turning country roads, Sweet Dreams Winery (903-549-2027, www.sweetdreamswinery.com) ferments, bottles and caps fruit wines from mostly local produce as well as two wild-grape wines and three local muscadines. Many people like sweet wines, say owners Mike and Sandra Pell, so that’s what they make (hence the name). The facility, open on weekends and “whenever we’re here,” offers two covered porches for enjoying wine, food and live music in the evenings.
Nearby, a few miles off U.S. Highway 79 on County Road 2133, Texas Vineyard & Smokehaus (903-538-2950, www.texasvineyard.org) produces 16 dry red and sweet wines. Owners Rafael and Cheryl Hernandez also sell a variety of custom-smoked meats, pies and cakes, homemade pizzas, sandwiches, cheese trays and sinful desserts. Enjoy the latter on the front patio, perhaps with a glass of Portejas Zinfandel port or Cherry Chocolate wine.
State Highway 19 travels northwest from Palestine to Athens. Continue northwest on U.S. Highway 175 and follow CR 3918 to CR 3914. You’ll know you’ve reached Tara Vineyard & Winery (903- 675-7023, www.tarawinery.com) by the stately, Scarlett O’Hara-like house on the hill—a two-story mansion with three guest rooms upstairs. Across a vineyard, the wine production facility and tasting room occupy a large building with a covered pavilion where dinner and live music occur regularly. Buy a bottle of wine for dinner in the tasting room, perhaps a chilled Gone with the Zin.
While things are hopping at Tara, peace and quiet await nearby at Oak Creek Bed & Breakfast (903-675-5509, www.oakcreekbnb.com), so far off the beaten path on CR 2800 that directions are a must. Two cabins with front porches, hammocks and Adirondack chairs overlook a private pond and acres of woodlands. Owners Randell and Marilyn Tarin will gladly light a campfire, or dust off the table and chairs on the pond-side deck, a perfect spot to enjoy your favorite bottle of wine.
Melissa Gaskill is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.