As a longtime Texan and adventuresome traveler, I’ve enjoyed a long fascination with the Chihuahuan Desert region of far West Texas, with its rugged terrain and spiked branches of red-tipped ocotillo reaching to sprawling blue skies. I have always wanted to experience the Big Bend by floating the Rio Grande through the weathered, limestone walls of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, but the stars have never aligned—until recently.
Having spent the past year expanding my wine knowledge in the pursuit of sommelier certifications, I was intrigued to discover that Far Flung Outdoor Center, a longtime Big Bend outfitter with headquarters in Terlingua, offers a two-night Wine Tasting River Trip as part of its roster of themed excursions. Participants, I learned, savor the Rio Grande’s beauty while sampling wines from Lubbock’s acclaimed Llano Estacado Winery. Also along for the trip: Llano Estacado’s head winemaker, Greg Bruni, who provides perspective and details about how and why each wine is made. I signed up and cleared my calendar for what turned out to be a beautiful October weekend.
This is how I found myself in Terlingua one Friday morning barely after daybreak, stuffing gear into dry bags along with a few other guests, two river guides, Greg Bruni, and Far Flung owner Greg Henington. After introductions and a quick paddling lesson, we clambered into a passenger van and embarked on the one-hour ride into Big Bend National Park, where a fleet of canoes awaited to take us into one of the park’s most majestic canyons.
Due to the drought, the Rio Grande was running so low that we were not able to float the scheduled 21-mile trip into and through Santa Elena Canyon. Instead, we put in at the canyon’s mouth and paddled a few breathtaking miles upstream to our camping spot. Paddling upstream in low water was no easy task. In fact, we often found ourselves hopping out of the canoes and dragging them up particularly low runs. But the spectacular views were well worth our aching arms and gravel-scoured feet.
Each bend in the river revealed another perspective of the 1,800-foot limestone canyon walls.
Each bend in the river revealed another perspective of the 1,800-foot limestone canyon walls. Guide Duane Daniels, an outdoors fanatic with long silver curls, a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, a dry wit, and impressive campfire-cooking skills, paddled in the middle of our eight-canoe pack, pointing out landmarks and describing how they got their names. We passed Smuggler’s Cave, which is said to have served as a livestock hideaway for ranchers during the days of Comanche raids in the mid-1800s. Farther upstream, we passed Fern Canyon, a narrow gorge along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande boasting lush pockets of ferns and vegetation created by natural springs seeping from the canyon walls. After a vigorous few hours, we reached our campsite.
We scattered about, exploring the banks for flat spots to stage tents and sleeping bags. Before the first tent was pitched, Daniels and our other guide, Erika Little, a longtime “river rat” with a tangle of dreadlocks and an easy smile, had set up a makeshift kitchen. Soon, an appetizer plate of fruit and cheese appeared, and Bruni set out an array of wine glasses and popped the corks on a half-dozen wines, including an un-oaked Chardonnay, a Sangiovese, a Cellar Reserve Merlot, and a reserve red wine blend called Viviano. I especially liked the boldly complex Viviano, in which I detected hints of blackberry, chocolate, and earth.
While our guides-turned-chefs created a meal of bacon-wrapped filet mignon, potatoes, a tossed salad, and green beans (much more elegant than I expected from a campfire meal), Bruni introduced us to the wines. As he held court, we all sipped and savored and learned about how Texas wine has evolved over the years with well-performing grapes like Tempranillo, Viognier, Roussane, and Sangiovese beginning to show distinct signs of Texas terroir. (Terroir, he told us, refers to flavor characteristics based on soil, climate, and weather.)
“Texas wine has come a long way in the past 15 years, and we’re now growing grapes that work best in our soils,” says Bruni. “But you have to look at history to appreciate the progress we’re making. Europe has been making great wine for more than a thousand years, and California has been making it for a hundred years. It’s only a matter of time before we are recognized in the same league.”
That night, after much toasting and laughter, we slept beneath a brilliant full moon and millions of stars. It’s not uncommon to hear the cry of a mountain lion at dusk or the howl of a pack of coyotes at the break of dawn, but we slept in silence with only the sound of the river. The next morning, we awakened to a feast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes followed by a day of hiking and paddling. Later, after another delicious meal, we gathered around the campfire to trade stories while we sampled another selection of Llano Estacado wines, including a delicious Montepulciano and a reserve Port with accents of cherry and mocha.
Morning came quickly. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed up camp, hopped in our canoes, and made our way to the take-out point about a mile downstream from our original put-in. The breathtaking view inspired one final toast to a lively and educational trip we would not soon forget.
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