The Cabernet Grill is a restaurant in Fredericksburg owned by Chef Ross Burtwell and it always receives rave reviews from diners. Also noted at the restaurant, and appropriate since it is located in the famed Hill Country city, is the quantity of Texas wines served at the restaurant. In the same complex is Cotton Gin Village with log cabins ready for a wonderful lodging experience.
We talked to owner Ross Burtwell about Cotton Gin Village and the Cabernet Grill.
TWL: You own both the Cotton Gin Village bed and breakfast and the Cabernet Grill. Which came first, the restaurant or the lodging?
Chef Ross: The original idea for a Cajun restaurant and unique log cabin lodging complex in Fredericksburg was the collaboration of a couple of attorneys from East Texas and a local Fredericksburg craftsman who had the land available. Unfortunately for them, the plan did not work out and they decided to part ways six months after they had opened the property. I saw the potential the business had to prosper under the proper leadership and grasped the opportunity to purchase the business. We made several immediate changes including quickly dumping the Cajun food concept and concentrated on developing our own brand of unique Texas Hill Country cuisine.
TWL: We know Cabernet Grill serves a large selection of Texas wines. What percentage of Texas wines do you serve and why?
Chef Ross: 99.8% Texas. We have one French Champagne on the list that is imported by a winery here in Fredericksburg. So we still think of that as local (winks).
It had always been my dream to operate a restaurant nestled in a wine region that promoted the natural synergy between the use of local ingredients paired uniquely with locally produced wines. I had often thought that would be in California, Washington, or some other well-known wine region. But the fact is that I love living in the Texas Hill Country and am thrilled that I was able to accomplish this goal here!
TWL: How many Texas wineries and wines do you offer?
Chef Ross: We have around 90 Texas wines on the list from over 30 different wineries. We are constantly working to provide the best wines available with each vintage so the list is continually changing.
TWL: When the restaurant first opened, was the wine selection the same or did the Texas wine selection increase over time?
Chef Ross: The original staff that opened the restaurant had a top-notch French sommelier named Henri who had put together a very nice “world encompassing” wine list with very few Texas wines. It was great for the service experience he was providing then, but when he left to go work with Becker Vineyards I decided to add more Texas wines bit by bit. We made the decision to go 100% Texas a couple years later when we determined that the quality level and broader selection of Texas wines had increased substantially.
TWL: There probably are diners who have not had Texas wine before or paired with food. How do you ensure these diners are provided with the best possible experience?
Chef Ross: The way we ensure that our customers enjoy their experience is through intensive service staff training. Most people are not that familiar with Texas wines, and left on their own, have a tendency to make ill choices when selecting pairings. We take the guesswork out of it for our guests by finding out what attributes of wine they like and pairing it appropriately with the food they like.
Sounds simple but it is an exhaustive process of constantly putting wine and food in front of our staff to sample and learn the intricacies that interplay between them. We also take our staff on field trips to visit the wineries, meet the winemakers, discuss philosophies of wine development, and taste the product from tank to barrel to bottle. Yes it’s a tough job! Most of our staff knows more about “Texas” wine than many of the State’s top sommeliers.
Elizabeth Rodriguez, our operations manager, is responsible for developing the wine list and training the staff. She is quite skilled in her craft and should be applauded for her efforts in advancing the perception and enjoyment of Texas wine. Elizabeth has the hard job of teaching new members of our staff that Texas wines are unique, and call for quite a bit more wine education than they might have had being employed at other restaurants. Most other establishments who carry your token Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet really never provide any training beyond what brand name of wine is printed on the menu. That simply does not work in our environment. While there are some excellent examples of wineries who work with those varietals, so many Texas wineries are now finding success working with what many would consider lesser know varietals such as Viognier, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese to mention a few. It is our job to train our staff about these varietals and empower them to relate their knowledge of these varietals to our guests in a way that is friendly, fun, and never-ever-never condescending.
TWL: Have you received any comments, good or bad, about the wine selection?
Chef Ross: Well, comments have run the full gamut over the years. When we first got going with the all Texas list…Ouch! Some of those comments still sting! I was told in no uncertain terms on many occasions that I was a less than bright individual and that my business model was doomed to failure. The fact is we still from time to time get comments like, “How can you profess to be a wine-centric restaurant when you do not have a single California wine on the list?” But the honest truth is that we have seen it come full circle in the past couple years and we are now applauded for our commitment to serving all Texas wines. The guests that dine with us today are looking for the quintessential Texas food and wine experience and we are one of the very few establishments that can provide that particular experience at the level we do.
It was a long time coming, but is certainly refreshing to have people finally set aside the sorry stigma that was once associated with the quality of Texas wine.
TWL: I just spent a day visiting wineries around Fredericksburg and need a nice dinner to relax. What is the dress code at the restaurant?
Chef Ross: Fredericksburg is such a warm and welcoming town that attracts visitors who just want to relax and experience the comfort that our town is known for. Far be it from us to tell our patrons what to wear when we are treating them as guests in our establishment.
TWL: You came out with a cookbook last year. Please tell us about it.
Chef Ross: Texas Hill Country Cuisine: Flavors of the Cabernet Grill Texas Wine Country Restaurant is my first cookbook and I enlisted the writing assistance of the “San Antonio food chic” and writer Julia Celeste Rosenfeld, as well as photography by Jennifer Whitney.
The book captures recipes from my 25-year career as a chef. Most of the recipes are items we serve on the menu at the Cabernet Grill as well as some developed specifically for special vintner dinners and wine pairings. There are also a few family recipes as well. They range from complex to simple so there are items anyone can make, as well as some that offer a challenge to more experienced cooks. The book promotes the use of local ingredients but allows you to use what is local to “your” specific locale.
Another cookbook author and friend of mine paid me the ultimate compliment when she mentioned, “I did not hold anything back from the book!” The recipes used in the book are the same as the ones we use in the kitchen (just smaller), so you can actually recreate your favorite Cabernet Grill dishes at home for your own guests.
This cookbook also highlights many of the wineries and local farmers and producers surrounding Fredericksburg and through the Hill Country. The book is easy to read, colorful, and is studded with tremendous photography that will absolutely wet your appetite as you flip through the pages.
It is available at several Hill Country wineries, in our restaurant lobby, and online at www.CabernetGrill.com
TWL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Chef Ross: Don’t forget that the restaurant is a part of the Cotton Gin Village, a truly unique bed and breakfast lodging facility. We have seven very romantic and authentic 1800’s log cabins for visitors to Fredericksburg to stay in while exploring the wine country. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with koi ponds and running water features that act as the backdrop to the nostalgic cabins. Jacuzzi tubs, large rock wood burning fireplaces, and covered front porches with rocker benches provide for a relaxing stay. Being steps from Cabernet Grill is just another added benefit.
I guess I would just like to say to your readers from around the State of Texas and beyond, is that if you have never had the opportunity to visit the Texas Wine / Hill Country in and around Fredericksburg, that should you choose to visit, you will be so pleasantly surprised at what a unique, beautiful, friendly, and tasteful experience it truly is. The Cabernet Grill and Cotton Gin Village are uniquely positioned to put it all together for an experience that will not be soon forgotten.