Nestled in the heart of the central-Texas Hill Country, about two-hours’ drive west of Austin, lies a small and unassuming winery that produces a most surprising libation. It could almost be mistaken for a light chardonnay, except the aroma is oddly vegetal and causes a slight sting in the nose. Billed for use in cooking and marinating, or for simply adventurous drinking, the wine is sampled by guests with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. The first wave of flavor is bright and fruity, but it quickly gives way to an escalating spicy heat. Incredibly, the essence of Texas’s favorite chili pepper is perfectly captured in this tiny glass of jalapeno wine.
With remnants of the bold, piquant flavor of the wine still lingering, images begin to form of the sort of larger-than-life, bigger-in-Texas person that would produce such a startling libation. Even the signature drink, The Hill Country Hottie, a mixture of the jalapeno wine and Clamato, supports this vision of a boisterous and daring vintner, brazenly flying in the face of convention. It was almost startling to find out this wine was created by a regular person.
The trek out to Comfort was pretty in the springtime (yeah, that’s how long this post has been lingering). The rolling hills were vibrant with the yellow-green of new tree-leaves and the regal indigo of bluebonnets, and the Texas sun hadn’t yet had a chance to turn all the grassland brown. There was no one in sight in the Comfort Cellars tasting room, but the air was stinging with the scent of jalapenos. Cathie Winmill emerged from the back room and quietly apologized for the jalapeno mess that was on her hands. Her lanky blond-brown hair framed a sun-pinked face. She was dressed simply in a plaid shirt and jeans, and it was clear that she had spent her morning working.
Cathie quietly agreed to answer a few questions while she got the winery ready for tasting room customers. When asked about her busy schedule, she chuckled and said, “I’m a one-armed paper hanger.” With the exception of one employee who mans the tasting room during the week, she handles everything herself. While the operation is small, turning out about 1,000 cases annually, it’s a big production for what is essentially a one-woman show.
But Cathie pulls it off. The Comfort Cellar Winery has been open for nearly ten years, and the vineyard was started about a year prior to opening. After she retired from the Army and shortly thereafter tragically lost her husband to cancer, she decided it was time to pursue her dream of owning and working a vineyard. As she says, she found “grief therapy” in removing stones from the rocky Hill Country soil. When asked how a native Illinoisan came to build a vineyard in Central Texas, she explained that she had been stationed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and chose to stay in the area after retirement. As to why she finally settled in Comfort, she said, “If you’re a grieving widow, the word ‘Comfort’ is, you know, comforting.”
While her more conventional grape wines are pleasantly drinkable, Cathie’s most popular product by far is her jalapeno wine. And that’s not the only unconventional flavor she works with. She also produces an orange chardonnay and a peach wine made from local fruit. She says she’s never had one of her more esoteric flavor experiments turn out badly. Her background as a dietitian has given her broad experience with food and wine, and she just has a feel for what will or won’t work.
But why jalapeno wine? She explained that jalapenos are used extensively in local Tex-Mex preparations, and her paradoxically smooth yet wildly spicy wine was a natural extension of that. As to bold new flavors on the horizon, she mentions a banana spice wine that has turned out very nicely.
The jalapeno wine is made by fermenting jalapenos with a secret wine base. You know how it’s impossible to get the pit-masters to tell you anything very specific about the way they create their fantastic barbecue? Well, the jalapeno wine lady isn’t revealing her secrets either. We’ll simply have to be content to enjoy her intriguing creations as she produces them.