Whine capital of Texas

A rigged wine contest peels away Grapevine's grandiose label as the Napa Valley of Texas, revealing instead another cheap import

In the end, history will judge the events that took place on Main Street, in the heart of Grapevine, on September 14. Maybe this time history will get it right. On that sweltering Sunday, thousands of wine lovers savored the final hours of the annual GrapeFest, a three-day celebration promoting the city's newly adopted title as the Wine Capital of Texas or, as some fancy it, the Napa Valley of Texas.

For local history purists, the designation has been as hard to swallow as a slug of Thunderbird, seeing how winemaking has nothing to do with the city's heritage of cantaloupe and cotton farming. But with two days of record crowds logged into the books, even they were hoping the 1997 GrapeFest would be recorded as the best ever.

Ignoring the 95-degree heat, barefoot children gleefully crushed vats of grapes into juice, vying for the GrapeStomp competition's coveted "purple foot" trophy. Wine lovers nibbled on cheese and bread as they sampled a dizzying smorgasbord of wines from 17 Texas wineries competing in the festival's main attraction: The 1997 People's Choice tasting competition.

The competition was not one of those snooty soirees run by men with large snouts who blather on about legs and structure. This contest was a community affair open to beer-guzzlers and brie-nibblers alike--a chance for ordinary folk to vote on their favorite Texas wine for $10 a pop.

Scores of volunteers turned out to man booths, take tickets, and pour the 1-ounce wine samples. The volunteers gave their time on behalf of the Grapevine Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses the proceeds from GrapeFest to help finance its mission of preserving the city's history.

With the sweet scent of fried churros filling the air, the happily buzzed crowd of 3,000 never got wind of the approaching storm, a scandal that eventually would peel away the contest's well-crafted facade to expose a public-relations gimmick.

As closing time approached, volunteers collected ballots and gave the results to Paul W. McCallum, the head of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. P.W., as he is known, is the visionary who dreamed of using the name Grapevine to launch the city into a new era of tipsy tourism.

During his 10 years with the city, the Australian-born tourism guru has gone to great lengths to make his vision a reality. After securing a new ordinance that allowed local businesses to sell wine by the bottle, McCallum lured to Grapevine four wineries and the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, the leading mouthpiece for the state's wine industry.

Last year, McCallum put the icing on his campaign when he unveiled the city's new logo, a bunch of grapes accompanied by the motto "Grapevine, Texas. A Future with a Past."

So it was McCallum who took center stage as the wine tasters staggered into Liberty Park to hear the winners of the People's Choice announced.

One by one, wineries from around the state rose to accept ribbons for their Texas-made Chardonnays and Cabernets. When the first-place award for white table wine went to Delaney, a Lamesa-based outfit that in 1992 became the first and only winery to plant a vineyard in Grapevine, the crowd cheered on the hometown favorite.

But Bryan Klein, a soft-spoken member of the heritage foundation's board of directors who was responsible for tabulating the votes, wasn't cheering. By his count, Delaney collected enough votes for an unimpressive 10th-place finish. Klein realized that McCallum had fixed the vote.

Some people in town, local history purists mainly, suspected that McCallum had rigged previous People's Choice contests as part of the increasingly controversial bender he was on to promote local wineries and blend the industry in with the city's historic preservation efforts.

But like a family hushing up a wayward uncle's drinking problem, they lived with the secret because they didn't want to confront their popular visionary with allegations they knew could damage the city's good name. Besides, the ballots were always tossed after the winners were announced, so there was never any proof.

This time, however, things would be different.
The evidence was preserved, and, when it came to light in May, it caused a dustup that might rightfully be recorded as one of the worst disasters in the city's history. But it probably won't be. You see, lately, the whole problem with Grapevine is that its history has been all too amenable to change.

Among Dallasites, Grapevine is best known as just another cookie-cutter suburb on the backside of the metroplex. The city, population 30,000, has experienced tremendous commercial growth, led by the completion of the Grapevine Mills mega mall. In its shadow, subdivisions, outlet stores, and chain restaurants have infested the city like fleas on a cat's back.

When it comes to how the city's image should be promoted and who should promote it, the people of Grapevine are divided. That is why the town has found itself snarled in a controversy that has turned the Grapevine Heritage Foundation into a battle zone, dividing neighbors and friends in the process.

Since the news of the People's Choice fixing became known, two foundation board members and its executive director, Dallas resident Ron Emrich, have quit in protest.

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