Drink Up

Early one morning this spring, Chris Lawler accidentally kicked a coiled rattlesnake slumbering in a row of grape vines. The rattle didn't shake. The snake didn't strike. It barely moved. The reptile was immobilized by the chilly desert air. This same air is why Lawler thinks he can move Texas beyond the second-string wine-growing weeds and slap it on the map of the majors, producing wines good enough to mute the smug snickers from wine enthusiasts.

It won't be easy. Though the crisp evening and morning air--uncommon in other Texas growing regions--gives the vines a respite from the struggle with midday Texas heat, allowing them to develop deeper grape flavors, the land is brutal. With the help of an agriculture student from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Lawler, 34, works this Davis Mountains vineyard 4,800 feet above sea level in some of the harshest terrain ever planted with grapes--or anything else. The climate is bone-dry, requiring a drip irrigation system fed by three 2,500-gallon tanks filled with water pumped from deep wells. Power had to be freshly strung to this desolate area to bring the pumps to life. The ground itself is littered with tumbleweeds and cacti. Squadrons of vultures fill the air, swooping down occasionally to pick at road kill a few miles away.

This five-and-a-half-acre hillside plot is actually a prehistoric lava flow littered with boulders (Lawler calls one two-story chunk "the meatball") and jagged pieces of quartz, opal and red plume agate. To plow the 3-foot-deep trenches for the vineyard rows, Lawler had to claw the ground with a bulldozer dragging a huge ripping shank. Holes for individual vines--8,000 of them--had to be bored with an auger fastened to a loader. "There's really no soil here," Lawler says. "It's all rock, but the Grenache loves it."

Reshaping this mountain by gouging stripes into its side is ballsy, but not as audacious as what Lawler says he will to do with his wine. Lawler believes he can upend the Texas wine industry--pretty brash stuff for an unassuming former finance cog in the Cingular Wireless corporate machine whose experience with wine barely stretches beyond ardent curiosity. "When I started looking at Texas I thought, 'No one's doing this right,'" he says. "Why are they even trying to grow merlot? Texas should really be following a Spanish template--high plateaus and hot as hell."

So Lawler dedicated his vineyard, christened Cathedral Mountain Vineyard after the craggy volcanic vent that rises nearby, to wine varieties traditionally found in the searing climes of Southern France and Spain including Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Tempranillo, the grape that breeds Spain's Rioja. By sticking plants in an area with a climate similar to those found in the Mediterranean, Lawler thinks he can tease out wine as good as that of his Old World counterparts--maybe even better.

Unlike Old World ventures, these grapes don't feed some postcard winery and tasting room saddled to a meticulously groomed vineyard. These grapes are the sustenance for Times Ten Cellars, a winery formed by Lawler and his partners Kert Platner and Rob Wilson some 550 miles to the northeast in Dallas' Lakewood neighborhood. And the winery isn't some rustic operation with wood beams, Tuscan arches and French doors. The block-like structure was once the Lakewood post office, a concrete and steel building erected near the end of World War II.

You might think that a temple to a government bureaucracy would be anathema to winemaking and wine, the lubricant of culture, status and lifestyle. But alcohol is the most regulated and taxed--even more than firearms--of virtually any product legally sold in the United States. It's nitpicked and scrutinized by armies of nannies burrowed in bureaus at the national and state level. This is especially true in Texas, where a patchwork of wet and dry precincts turns wine commerce into a menu of labyrinthine torture.

But over the last three years, a loosening of state regulations has unleashed a homegrown winery boom. Where just four years ago there were barely 40 bonded Texas wineries, today there are more than 92, with more in the permit pipeline that will push that number to the 100 mark by the end of 2005. A boomlet has hit Dallas, too, with Times Ten at the apex. "Those guys will pull it off," says Patrick Johnson, winemaker for Blue Mountain Vineyard and Winery in Fort Davis, not far from Times Ten's vineyard. "They've got the drive, and they've got the resources."

Because wine is an emblem of refined relaxation, the three founders of Times Ten Cellars have made the chair its mascot. The winery's light white wines have Spartan wooden patio or beach chairs on the bottle labels. Full-bodied red wines feature overstuffed chairs. The back labels not only contain prose on the wine within the bottle, they also contain tracts on the chairs depicted on the label faces. Parts of chairs are embedded in plaster at the base of the Times Ten Cellars wine-tasting bar. Perhaps this is a jab at the leisure class. Or maybe these images serve as subliminal comfort zones for those traumatized by the impenetrable idiom and tightly wound protocol of the self-satisfied wine geek. Whatever it is, the chair was the spawn of market research.