Guest blogger Andrew Chalk says he has to get his fix of Italy and all things Italian. Or else! But that long jet ride and the limitation of luggage makes Venice, Rome or even Florence tough to do in a weekend. Luckily for us, Andrew has found Florence, Williamson County, Texas!
It’s a 2½ hour drive down I-35 from Dallas, even in the Friday evening rush hour. The Vineyard at Florence is a luxury home development 45 minutes from Austin that is gathering interest among second home buyers who want an escape to the Texas Hill Country with a tasty vintage twist. Yes, it has the standard gated entrance and rolling Hill Country vistas that are familiar, but instead of the pro forma golf course designed by a famous old golfer with hip problems, the centerpiece of The Vineyard at Florence is a 30-acre vineyard producing, as I have attested elsewhere, wine that already far exceeds the median for Texas. In fact, despite the vines being only five years old, the winery is already a member of the top tier of Texas winemakers.
We were guests of The Vineyard at Florence for a weekend during which they accommodated us at the Villa Botticelli. I have always envied Botticelli for the dress code of the women around him. Perhaps a weekend staying in a villa honoring his name was some kind of recompense. Upon our arrival, just after nightfall on Friday, we found an impeccably maintained accommodation with a dining room, lounge with flat-screen TV, single (master) bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows, king-size bed and iPod player, and two showers. One was inside the villa, where we could discuss the meaning of ‘Florentine’ in the context of spinach, and the other outside, but accessed from the inside and surrounded by a 10 foot circular stone wall, where the discussion could be expanded to include at least 4 other people. There were two balconies, one off the lounge with an outside fireplace, and a more private one off the master bedroom. I liked the fact that the master had a fireplace and that the architect had asked himself ‘what would I like if I stayed here?’ For example, the wall from the lounge to the master bedroom did a gentle 90-degree turn, rather than a right-angled turn. Curved walls are more labor-intensive. Read: quality construction abounds, no short-cuts.
We woke on Saturday to the stunning view from the windows that consumed two full walls of our bedroom. I no longer envied Botticelli his sea shell. The Villa looked over the vines and up the lip at the edge of the vineyards to home sites along the ridge. We took a trip to one of these (601 Strada Luca), just 300 yards from Villa Botticelli, priced at $599,000. The architectural codes decree distinctive stone on the exterior. This one incorporated a mother-in-law flat for the luckiest mother-in-law on earth. The view looked down from altitude on the full expanse of the vineyard and beyond to the edge of the development. The home totaled 2882 sq. ft., what Candy tells me is the most sought-after size for a second home, and applied its square footage heavily to the kitchen/family room area. A balcony surrounded the property like a necklace (ideal for summer entertaining). The property is just 200 yards from the community infinity pool and workout room.
We toured a larger home at 4329 sq. ft., and as the floor plan indicates, every comparable amenity to a luxury home in Dallas. So you can be away from home, but feel like home. As the pictures indicate, it also had a high level of finish-out. However, it is near the main entrance. While this makes it easier to dodge the deer that periodically dart across the interior road, I would spring for one of the plots with a higher elevation were I a buyer. Location, location, location.
The 600 acre development has 67 home sites varying in size from two to ten acres. Only seven lots have been built on thus far, unfortunately, like every other development in this country, the recession hit just as it came on stream. Lest you think you will “wine” away at your second home retreat, pack your spurs, but ditch the golf clubs. There is an equestrian center and polo field (horsey life is big here) but no golf course. (Three championship golf courses are handy in nearby Georgetown for those so inclined.) A large social hall named Villa Firenze offers a café, meeting rooms, tasting room for The Vineyard at Florence and also rental space for weddings — 17 are scheduled between now and the end of August. Massages and facials are also offered at a building named The Tower where the guest can gaze out over the landscape while being pampered. Just over the roadway is the winery, where Inwood Estates Vineyards has a tasting room. The connection between the two wineries: Dan Gatlin, the highly regarded winemaker of Inwood Estates, is the winemaker for The Vineyard at Florence.
So where is Florence? Two and a half hours from Dallas and Houston. Less than an hour from Austin. This is the northeast corner of the Texas Hill Country. The landscape is hilly and quite ruggedly beautiful — check out Stillhouse Hollow Lake just to the north. Georgetown, a growing family community to the southeast, offers a reasonable selection of restaurants and shopping. Round Rock (world headquarters of Dell Computer) and Austin are a little further. I-35 is the artery that binds them together, although the Texas state roads that run through the Hill Country are of excellent quality for 60 mph driving and uncluttered by traffic. (Just avoid all the unfortunate splattered critters). We ate at The Monument Café in Georgetown, a poster child for farm-to-market eating housed in a funky diner type building actually erected in 2008. It was packed on Saturday evening (the wait was 30 minutes at 7pm) and from the food and pricing, it was not hard to see why. By way of proof of Georgetown’s family demographic, by the time we left at 8:30pm, there were empty tables. People eat early here and then take the kids home to put to bed.
If you are looking for a second home in Texas, The Vineyard at Florence should definitely be on your checklist. Florence is two hours closer than Fredericksburg. Buyer interest has returned since the recession but prices, so far, remain stable. The best way to kick the tires: rent Villa Botticelli ($250/night) or Villa Da Vinci ($175/night) for a weekend, and try out the vineyard lifestyle.