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

So far, the city's batting average in attracting wineries isn't bad--five in five years. But there are 27 wineries in the state, and not all of them are exactly eager to jump onto the Grapevine bandwagon.

Leonard Garcia, president of Ste. Genevieve winery in Fort Stockton, the state's largest winery, says that Grapevine may be calling itself the Wine Capital of Texas, but that it is so only from a promotional viewpoint.

"When you talk 'wine capital of Texas,' the Hill Country stands out more to me than Grapevine does," Garcia says. "You have one vineyard there in Grapevine. You've got four or five or more in the Hill Country that have been there much longer."

One particularly outspoken holdout is Walter Haimann, president of the Llano Estacado winery in Lubbock. Haimann thinks Grapevine's effort to promote the Texas wine industry is just fine, but he says its attempt to compare itself to the Napa Valley and Sonoma regions of Northern California is "ludicrous."

"The issue in Grapevine is a gimmick," Haimann says. "These are not wineries at that location, except possibly for Delaney. The rest of them are tasting rooms, and satellite tasting rooms should not be permitted. They bill themselves as wineries, and they are not, but the average customer doesn't know it."

The difference, Haimann says, is that Napa Valley has 100 wineries within walking distance of each other that customers can visit to learn about the winemaking process from the vineyards to the bottling rooms.

In Grapevine, the "wineries" operate more like stores, where people are encouraged to hang out and drink wine. The goal is to introduce new customers to Texas wines and, hopefully, convince them to go home with a few bottles.

Although McCallum is spinning the vineyard aspect of the wineries (as recently as last month, he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the goal of a "residential vineyard program" is to have grapevines growing in "every Grapevine yard"), Mayor Tate concedes that the city has had to abandon the concept of vineyards.

"We originally conceived of having aesthetic vineyards growing, but in the last few years the land values have soared," says Tate, who makes his living by handling real estate transactions for a local title company. "So the tasting rooms are becoming tasting rooms without the vineyards."

But the lack of vineyards hasn't stopped McCallum's wine publicity campaign.
In 1993, McCallum started the Texas New Vintage Wine & Food Festival, which, like GrapeFest, is a weekend event designed to lure tourists into Grapevine to taste samples of Texas wines. Before the wine-drinking begins, a local pastor usually opens the event with a "traditional" blessing of the vines. Last year, a Catholic priest prayed over 84 sprouts that one Grapevine resident planted in his back yard.

By last year, the Grapevine wine movement had reached a peak. Four wineries were in business, TWGAA was set up in its new Grapevine offices, and the city's new grape logo was everywhere.

In September, McCallum reached a major milestone when Jerry Delaney presented his very own 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Vintner's Reserve to the public. The wine, which sells for $35 a bottle, is the first made from grapes grown in Grapevine. A week later, GrapeFest brought in more than 116,000 visitors and set an attendance record.

By then, Grapevine fever had reached an all-time high, and everyone appeared to be drinking up McCallum's public-relations cocktail from the palm of his hand. Everyone, that is, except for the board members of the Grapevine Heritage Foundation.

The fermenting tension between McCallum and some members of the heritage foundation board came to a head during the board's May 12 meeting, when the board confronted McCallum with a number of problems it had with the way he was using the foundation's resources to promote the wine industry.

By then, Bryan Klein had already told City Manager Roger Nelson, Mayor Tate's right hand, that he believed McCallum had fixed the People's Choice, and the rest of the board was aware of the problem. Klein did not return the Dallas Observer's phone calls.

During the meeting, board member Mark Maness drove the discussion. A financial consultant by trade, Maness enjoyed wide respect on the board and in the community for his volunteer efforts.

In 1993, Maness founded a group called the Dirty Dozen, which had invested countless hours completing restoration projects and other do-gooder efforts. A source of pride for Maness was the work the group did to help clean and restore the railroad turntable.

Maness says he spoke up during the meeting because Nelson and the mayor were ignoring the board's concerns about McCallum.

"All that this board was trying to do was be good stewards of the foundation's money and its assets, which include properties," says Maness, "[but] the answers I got were completely unsatisfactory."

Chief among their complaints was the fact that in March the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association had moved into the foundation-owned Founder's Building at McCallum's direction, but had still not signed a lease or paid the $500-a-month rent the board had required.

Another point of contention was that McCallum had met privately with representatives of the Lubbock-based Pheasant Ridge Winery and discussed the possibility of using the historic Nash farm as a wine-tasting room. The foundation had only recently acquired the property, and the board had not yet discussed how it would be used, but a wine-tasting room was not high on their list of possibilities.

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