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A Trip to Drip

Wineries, an olive orchard, and a reenergized entertainment district in Dripping Springs
Written by Dale Weisman. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

The new Mercer Street Dance  Hall caters to  two-steppers in a restored barn building in Dripping Springs. (Photos by Will van Overbeek)

Dripping Springs, my old friend, I thought I knew you. After years of rolling through town on US 290, I pegged Drippin’ as a no-nonsense farming and ranching community striving to preserve its “Gateway to the Hill Country” identity next door to Austin.

Times are changing in Dripping Springs, however, and recently I’ve discovered a lively and quirky side to the town that I never knew existed.

Named for a natural spring that still feeds a creek along Mercer Street, Dripping Springs reveres its 1850s pioneer roots and celebrates its frontier heritage during the annual Founders Day Festival in April and the Fall Fest Pioneer Days in September. Long known as an “eat-stay-love” wedding destination and a base for Hill Country outdoor recreation, Drippin’ has also become a magnet for makers of craft beer, wine, and spirits, as well as a worthy destination for bon vivants and two-steppers.

Foodies “make the trip to the Drip” to savor an eclectic mix of casual and chef-inspired dining and the annual Dripping with Taste Wine, Food & Arts Festival in September. And the town’s upstart KDRP public radio station keeps it hip and country in the spirit of Willie Nelson’s first July 4th picnic, which was held at a nearby ranch 40 years ago.

Dripping Springs’ playful, two-stepping personality really comes alive on Mercer Street, the town’s historic heart and blooming entertainment district. “People are waking up to Mercer Street,” says Tara Tetreault, a co-owner of Sacred Moon Herbs, a gift and herb shop that’s one of more than 30 locally owned businesses along Mercer.

Billy Garza and the Hill Country Ramblers perform Tuesday nights at the Barber Shop brewpub.“Somebody popped the cork, and it started flowing around here,” adds Billy Garza, a country musician who calls Dripping Springs home. Billy and his acoustic band, the Hill Country Ramblers, perform every Tuesday night at the Barber Shop, a brewpub that enlivened the Mercer Street scene when it opened in early 2011. The town’s first freestanding bar, the Barber Shop has mostly Texas craft beers on tap, including tasty stouts, IPAs, and porters brewed by bar owner John McIntosh.

The bar building’s last incarnation in the 1980s was indeed a barbershop, and so the name stuck. The building began its life in 1924 as the Crenshaw Texaco Station and remained a gas station until 1960. These days, the Barber Shop beckons patrons with its rustic limestone façade, striped barbershop sign, garage memorabilia, beer garden, and dominoes and darts.

“This has become a gathering spot in the afternoons and evenings where people meet their neighbors and enjoy a better sense of community,” John says.

The Barber Shop’s Cheers-like “where-everyone-knows-your-name” atmosphere also flows two doors down at The Dudley’s Wine Bar and Tap Room, which opened in early 2012. Serving more than 50 different wines by the glass and also beer on tap, Dudley’s entertains patrons with live music, karaoke, and zany theme nights.

“This is as ‘old Austin’ as it’s going to get anywhere,” says Adam Dudley, Austin émigré and impresario of good times. Smiling like a benign Rasputin with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Adam greets every patron by name. “Strangers come in here all the time and walk out as friends,” adds Adam. “It’s all about having a good time.”

Adam’s welcoming vibe echoes down the street at the Mercer Street Dance Hall, which opened in February. Popular country bands like the Derailers, Two Tons of Steel, and the Cornell Hurd Band pack the 5,000-square-foot dance hall with hundreds of two-steppers and Western Swing dancers, transforming once-sleepy Mercer Street into a happening place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

Mercer Street Dance Hall embodies a dream-come-true for owners Nick and Gay Dotin, and their daughter Shelby. A longtime bass player, Nick also worked as a carpenter and general contractor until the physical toil took its toll. Following his family’s encouragement, Nick leased a vacant barn downtown and used his carpentry skills to finish out the cavernous metal-sided building in the down-home style of a traditional Hill Country dance hall.

“Gruene Hall was my biggest model for the dance hall,” says Nick, who has played at the iconic New Braunfels venue many times. “As a musician, I know what I like in a dance hall when I perform, and my sound system is designed for dancers to hear great music and not get blown away.”

Avid country dancers from Dripping Springs and Austin also gather at Drippin’ Dancin’, held the second and fourth Sunday night of the month at The Barn at Bell Springs, a wedding and special events destination north of town on scenic Bell Springs Road.

Country musician Alex Dormont and his wife, Grace, began Drippin’ Dancin’ at a Mercer Street restaurant several years ago and moved it to The Barn in late 2011. A bass and fiddle player, vocalist, and bandleader in the Western Swing tradition of Bob Wills, Alex has been a staple in the Austin-area country-music scene for more than 20 years. Nowadays, he mixes it up at The Barn and other venues with his two bands, the Hot Texas Swing Band and Dripping Springs All-Stars.

“We’ve built a family-friendly community of dancers who have become friends through the Drippin’ Dancin’ venue,” says Alex. “I love dancing and playing at dances, and as long as 
people come here to dance, we’ll keep this going.”

The Dudley’s Wine Bar and Tap Room is one of many local establishments breathing new life into historic Mercer Street in downtown Dripping Springs.Just up the road from The Barn, winemaker Nate Pruitt has cultivated a delightful wine tasting and live music scene at Bell Springs Winery, one of Dripping Springs’ newest wineries and a stop along the Dripping Wine Trail, a tour of three area wineries.

“We’re all about good wine, fine cuisine, and the outdoors,” says Nate, a California native and software executive who has been making wine for more than 15 years.

On weekend afternoons, scores of wine lovers, some arriving in sleek winery-tour limos, sample Nate’s delicious reds and whites inside the tasting room, kick back on the shady deck and lawn, and enjoy live acoustic music by local artists.

A short drive from Bell Springs Winery on West Fitzhugh Road, John Gambini’s Texas Hill Country Olive Company produces cold-pressed premium extra-virgin olive oil from handpicked olives grown on his family-owned orchard and other orchards. The olive company is the fruition of a dream that began for John and his family more than 20 years ago. “We wanted to create the romance of the olive industry in the Hill Country,” says John, who co-owns the company with his brother-in-law, Rick Mensik.

A native Texan with deep Sicilian roots, John established the olive company and farm in 2009. A certified organic commercial olive orchard, the farm has 16 acres planted with five 
varieties of olive trees. “Our limestone soils and climate in this area of Texas are similar to the olive-growing regions of Sicily and Tuscany,” says John. A centerpiece of the farm is the Texas Olive Store, a tasting room facility that evokes the Old World traditions of the world’s top olive-producing nations, Spain and Italy.

Visitors flock to the tasting room to sample and buy four types of Texas olive oil, fine Italian balsamic vinegars, and olive oil-based spa products. Many high-end restaurants and hotels in Texas serve John’s premium blends, which are also shipped to customers through the olive company’s adopt-an-olive-tree program and online store. Each April, the olive company celebrates in style during its annual Texas Hill Country Olive Festival.

With its nearby attractions for foodie tourists and revitalized Mercer Street downtown entertainment district, Dripping Springs is savoring the good life like neighboring big-city Austin, while preserving its small-town heritage.

“Drippin’ is doing everything to hold on to its culture and local character,” says Adam Dudley. “Look at how much fun and history we have just off the main highway right along Mercer Street.”

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