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.

"Women buy most of the wine in this country," says Times Ten's Rob Wilson, 41. "And they buy a lot of wine based on the label. And these are bright bold colors with chairs on them." Wilson's hypothesis: These female consumers may not be able to remember the name of the wine they drank, but they'll probably remember the furniture on the label.

Just as odd as this mascot is the genesis of the Times Ten Cellars name. In 1996, when they were employees of Baxter Biotech, Kert Platner, 39, and Wilson hit upon an idea to form a company dedicated to the distribution of drugs and clinical services to sufferers of hemophilia, a hereditary blood disorder that delays clotting. The medicines, known as Factor VIII drugs, sell for thousands of dollars per vial, meaning the business would demand huge startup costs. When they secured a $1 million loan from a friend of Platner's father the following year to launch Choice Source Therapeutics in Bedford, they went out and celebrated with a $100 bottle of wine. "We hit the ground and never looked back," Platner says.

Expansion was rapid. In a few years they nursed the company to seven offices in the United States and Puerto Rico, generating more than $40 million in annual revenues. In April 2002, they sold the company to Nashville, Tennessee-based Caremark Rx Inc. for $48.5 million in cash. Platner and Wilson celebrated the transaction at the defunct Riviera restaurant with a bottle of 1988 Chateau Margaux. The wine cost $1,000. "We realized that that bottle was exactly 10 times the price of the one we bought six years prior," Platner says.

But other than that Margaux, Platner and Wilson weren't sure what exactly they wanted to do with their sudden windfall--that is, until they met Chris Lawler three years ago on an East Dallas neighborhood home tour. A transplant from Colorado, Lawler had moved to Dallas with his wife just one year earlier. He brought with him a passion for wine and a fervent belief that he could tease world-class grapes and wine out of the unforgiving Texas climate. For hours, he prodded Platner with his ideas. Platner bit. At Lawler's urging, they purchased 100 acres in the Davis Mountains near Alpine. So far, their investment in the forbidding tract has exceeded $600,000.

The winery proved a bit more challenging. They knew they wanted to sink the bricks and mortar part of their operation in Dallas to tap into the wine sophistication and thirst of its residents. They originally set their sights on Dallas' Design District, and they located a suitable structure on Dragon Street. But county maps indicated a wet-dry boundary line sliced right through the center of the building, knocking the legs out from under their business plan. They were left adrift.

Then they saw the old Lakewood post office tucked in the neighborhood where all three of them live. Though the building was not on the market, the owner was interested in selling. Several months and $1.3 million later, the formerly stuffy post office (and onetime Southwestern Bell regional office) was gutted and equipped with a wine-tasting bar, a plush lounge featuring many of the chairs on the Times Ten wine labels, a glassed-in backlit barrel room stocked with aromatic oak barrels and a winery with a lab and a pair of shiny 2,200-gallon stainless steel tanks. The bottling and labeling machinery is less elaborate. They bottle, cork and label each bottle by hand, one bottle at a time, though they claim they can finish off 800 bottles an hour. "It's going to be a friends and family thing for a while," Platner says.

It's also going to be a California thing. Because their vines in the Davis Mountains are so young, it will be a long time before the vineyard is able to produce any sizable amounts of grapes. So they shopped among several California growers to secure bulk wine supplies and developed a Times Ten California label, a critical component in their business plan. "That's what provides the revenue stream," Platner says. But why not use Texas sources instead of drawing resources from a competitive state? "Most Texas wineries are selling as much as they can make," Wilson says. Times Ten can't grow without California supplies, and their growth plans are ambitious. They're shooting to produce between 4,000-5,000 cases in their first year, which will generate $600,000 at an average bottle price of $13. They hope to quickly ramp up production to 8,000 cases or about $1 million in annual revenues, which they figure is the limit of their Lakewood facility. To add to their future revenues, they're toying with building production capacity at their Davis Mountains vineyard.

But drawing so significantly from California poses its own hazards. For one, it limits possible future production locations to wet areas, as Texas law mandates that wineries located in dry areas must produce 75 percent of their wine by volume from Texas sources to legally retail wines from their tasting rooms. Then there is the juice. "We tasted a lot of bad wines," says winemaker Lawler, in his hunt to fill their bottles. They ultimately settled on vineyard sources in Lake County, Santa Barbara and Sonoma. Their first California bottlings will include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Riesling and Zinfandel Rosé. Still, California vintners generally keep the best stuff for themselves.

"California is dumping their crap on us," says John Armstrong, who is opening Starlight Vineyards and Winery in Marfa, not far from the Times Ten Cellars Vineyard. "That's why Texas doesn't have a great reputation."

Though Texas is the fifth-largest wine-producing state, generating some 1.5 million gallons in 2004, the Lone Star state is the disheveled stepchild among its fit and trim sister states of Oregon, Washington, New York and that 800-pound lifestyle overlord, California. At their best, Texas wines lacked crispness (acid), rich fruit and complexity--the traits that propel wine from mere beverage to philosophical treatise. At their worst, they were a deeply flawed brood crudely masked by prodigious amounts of oak (from barrel fermenting and/or aging that gives wine its structure and spice) and sugar.

Underachieving Texas wine stems from many sources: harsh climates that broil vines with unrelenting heat, pelt them with hail and bite them with frost and deep freezes at critical points in the growing season; inexperience among Texas winegrowers and winemakers; Pierce's disease, caused by a bacterium spread by bugs called leafhoppers that blocks the water-conducting vessels of the vines; and a market that demands wines from grapes (Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) that have difficulty not only developing but surviving in Texas.

"I think...that Texas can produce good beverage wines, but I personally doubt Texas can ever produce fine wine," says longtime Dallas wine importer Martin Sinkoff, who moved his operation to New York in 2002. "No amount of skill can compensate for impossible growing conditions. I have never seen a vineyard in Texas with growing conditions suitable for fine wine. The high plains are too harsh; the Hill Country too wet and too humid, the desert...is just that, a desert."

Yet Texas winemakers keep trying, buoyed by the thirsty Texas market, the fourth-largest after California, Florida and New York. Texans are also extremely loyal to their homegrown vintners, gulping some 95 percent of everything they produce, giving Texas a 5.1 percent share of the state's total wine market, according to the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute.

Texas winemakers also are convinced they can produce some of the best wines in the world if given the chance. They may be right. Two examples: Flat Creek's Super Texan from the Hill Country, a twist on Italy's Super Tuscan that blends Cabernet and Sangiovese; and Cap Rock Winery winemaker Kim McPherson's McPherson Sangiovese from the Texas High Plains. Both wines are stunning, true world-class drinks.

Winegrowers also are adapting by ripping out and replanting vineyards, in some cases nixing Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot and shifting their vines to the western part of the state where cool nights and mornings allow them to develop more fully. And like Times Ten's Lawler, many winegrowers are planting varieties from Spain, Italy and the Rhone Valley in Southern France that can adapt better to the Texas climate, including Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache. Lawler says he's even toying with the idea of planting Dolcetto--from Italy's Piedmont region--in East Texas. "Grapes are a very site-specific thing," says Alamosa Wine Cellars' Jim Johnson, who has been experimenting in the Hill Country for years with the grapes Lawler is planting. "And when you look at the places where they grow things like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they're not anything at all like Texas...If you're trying to optimize the grape and climate interaction, those probably aren't the right varieties. I've got Spain's climate. I've got Southern Italy's climate. So I grow what they grow."

Yet the challenge remains daunting. Many of these varieties have little or no general consumer acceptance. How many consumers request a glass or bottle of Tempranillo? Plus, the margin for error in Texas is perilously thin, making innovation a daring risk. "If you make a mistake in California, you lose a few vines. If you make a mistake in Texas, you could lose your whole vineyard," says Greg Bruni, winemaker of Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, Texas' second-largest producer after Ste. Genevieve Wines. "It's a little tricky out here."

In addition to an unforgiving climate, the Texas winemaking and grape-growing bench--those with the skill and experience to contend with Texas' climate and its grapes--is shallow. And it does little good to tap into the knowledge base of more established winegrowing areas. Grapes grown in Texas have different chemistries than those of the same variety grown in other regions, varying in acidity, calcium and potassium levels. A lack of a four-year accredited viticulture and enology degree program, such as the one found at the University of California, Davis, keeps that talent bench lean (though Grayson County College in Denison offers an associate degree in viticulture and enology).

Then there is the shallow history. Texas has devoted precious little time to teasing fine wine from its dirt. Though winemaking here stretches back to the days of Spanish colonialism, it was fed mostly with native wild grapes. American varieties and French-American hybrids, which generally make poor wines, comprised the bulk of the industry for most of the 20th century. The modern Texas wine industry with its cultivation of fine wine grapes didn't even wet its feet until the late 1970s. "If you go to Europe...they've been making wine for almost two millennia," Bruni says. "You go to California, it's two centuries. You come to Texas...it's not even two generations. We're not even 40 years into this thing yet."

More than a dearth of history and experience, what has been choking the wine industry for at least a generation is regulation. Some of the best wine-growing areas in Texas are dry for alcohol. Grapes could be grown and wine produced, but wineries were barred from offering free tastings, and bottles couldn't be sold out of the winery or shipped directly to consumers. This was debilitating for most Texas wineries, which sell much if not most of their production through tasting rooms. Between 1985 and 2000, the number of Texas wineries bobbed between 18 and 40 as a handful of upstarts bubbled up and others drowned.

Then somehow, after years of political naiveté, the industry grew in public policy sophistication. In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed a measure permitting wineries in dry areas to offer tastings and retail sales. But the law was susceptible to constitutional challenge, so in 2003, Proposition 11 was slapped on the ballot--a constitutional amendment that limited community preferences by allowing wineries to offer tastings and retail sales from anywhere in the state. The amendment passed resoundingly. "Legislative changes have been an enormous growth factor in the state," says winemaker Caris Turpen of LightCatcher Winery, which produces some 4,000 cases of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a dry orange Muscat in Fort Worth. "In the last two legislative sessions the entire state was essentially made wet for wine."

Example: This past May, Governor Rick Perry signed a bill that made the entire state "wet" for direct wine shipments to consumers. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission had declared the state open for direct shipments in late 2003 but ruled that all wineries must comply with existing wet/dry regulations, an almost insurmountable hurdle as the distinction could not be delineated by ZIP codes or other standard geographic boundaries. Legislation passed in the last session also permits Texas wineries to have more flexibility in setting retail operating hours and to share equipment and winery space for cooperative production. Consequently, many small vineyards in dry areas have turned into wineries, more than doubling the total number of Texas wineries.

"It's the law. It's the law," drills wine consultant Bobby Cox, former owner and winemaker of Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock. "Texas winegrowers have not been able to reach out and touch their consumers. The law changed. It's pent-up demand from the restrictive regulations of the past 75 years."

Hence the winery bloom in Dallas.

Karen and Steve Eubanks didn't know much about wine before Karen bought her husband a home winemaking kit as a gift. When she met her husband, he only sipped beer, but that kit proved pivotal. "We made it, entered it in a competition, won a gold medal, and here we are," she says.

The here is Nashwood Winery in the Preston Forest Village strip mall in North Dallas. Nashwood became the first operating winery within Dallas city limits when it opened in the spring of 2004. It's a long, narrow space with a storefront jammed with wine gewgaws and stacks of home winemaking equipment, tables and shelves holding wine stoppers, glassware, wine totes, wine-tasting kits and cookbooks, wine racks stocked with bottles and a tasting bar. Just beyond the wine paraphernalia, six massive 555-gallon stainless steel tanks threaten to overrun this quaint gift shop. The juxtaposition is jarring.

It's even more jarring in the space near the back door, where a tiny crusher-destemmer and wine press rests. Eubanks says for a few days after harvest, some 9-12 tons of grapes from the Texas High Plains arrive here via refrigerated truck in half-ton picking bins. At that point Nashwood is in a frenzy, as grapes are hurriedly dropped into the crusher-destemmer before they're put into the wine press. Eubanks says they crush about one ton per hour. "It's very messy," she adds.

After crushing and pressing, the juice is pumped into those glossy tanks where wood chips (Eubanks says bacteria control problems forced them to abandoned oak-barrel fermenting and aging) and yeast is added. Seven months later, they hand-bottle, cork and label their Nashwood crop. Eubanks says they honed their winemaking skills through a video winemaking course produced by the University of California, Davis. But some of their techniques are homespun. To blend wines, they experiment at the kitchen table with a wine glass and teaspoons, carefully tracking the proportions of each wine used in the blends they prefer.

Not bad for a pair of tax professionals. Eubanks says at capacity, their tiny strip-mall winery can produce 1,200 cases of Texas Merlot, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Meritage (proprietary red wine made with Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc)--hardly enough to turn much of a profit, but that isn't necessarily the motive. "It's fun having people like your wine," Eubanks says. "People aren't really going to like your taxes much unless you're getting them a big refund."

Sunk in a dry area, Nashwood Winery is the spawn of Proposition 11. But so far, the blessings are mixed. Because the dry designation is so indelibly etched into the mindset of the neighborhood, people don't take her winery signage seriously. "There's a five-mile radius around me where you can't buy alcohol," she says. "Getting people in here has been a big challenge." But novelty may eventually prove an irresistible draw. In the yard surrounding their Preston Hollow home, the Eubankses cultivate 15 vines: five Zinfandel and 10 Pinot Grigio plants. Last fall, they harvested the grapes, netting them some 24 half-bottles of wine, the first known commercial wines grown in the tony neighborhood of Preston Hollow.

But the city isn't the only area feeling the impact of the Texas Legislature. In May 2004, Emilio and Maria Ramos opened San Martiño Winery & Vineyards in Rockwall on the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard. "The liberation of some of the laws made a big impact, when we opened, on the size of our winery," says Emilio Ramos, a dean of technology for Dallas Community College District. "It's helped us increase the business." Ramos says their initial business plan called for a 500-case winery. "Now we're pushing 3,500 cases this year," he says.

Most of the Sangiovese, Viognier, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet bottled at San Martiño comes from the Texas High Plains. But Ramos says he also uses small amounts of Chardonnay and Zinfandel from a four-acre vineyard he owns in the Southern California wine region of Temecula. Plus, he has a two-acre vineyard at the winery in Rockwall where he grows Blanc du Bois, a disease-resistant hybrid white wine grape developed by a University of Florida grape breeder, and Albariño from vines Ramos obtained from his grandfather's vineyards in Northwest Spain, an area that produces some of Spain's best and most expensive white wines. Ramos plans to expand his Rockwall vineyard to five acres.

But perhaps the oddest winery in Dallas is locked in a downtown high-rise: Swirll in the Davis building on Main Street. There Louis and Peggy Davion have established a street-level winery below the home they occupy in the lofts above. Swirll bleeds faux Tuscan touches with textured columns and arches, concrete floors and exposed ceilings, wooden wine racks and a wine-tasting bar. Like the Eubankses, the Davions' experience with fine wine and winemaking is not particularly deep, but that probably doesn't matter.

"Here at Swirll, we're not farmers," says Peggy Davion, a bubbly 58-year-old former residential real estate agent with spiky blond hair. "We're a pipeline business...We were wine lovers, of course, but not to this extent." The Davions don't make wine, either, at least not much more than what goes into the Swirll samples offered for tasting and sale. Inspired by a winemaking store in San Antonio called Water 2 Wine, the Davions say they founded Swirll to transition from their longtime careers (Louis Davion was a technician specializing in mainframe computer installation). Swirll is a role-playing fantasy where you are the winemaker. Customers taste the wines, choose their favorite, and then--for anywhere from $179-$359--set about to make a 28- to 30-bottle run of the stuff, hoping it approximates what was sipped at the tasting bar. "We pour the grape juice into the pail, you pitch the yeast, you become the winemaker," Peggy Davion says. You also toss in wood chips for some simulated barrel aging.

Far from a traditional winery, Swirll is little more than an attractive environment for fiddling with home winemaking kits. With four mixing and three bottling stations just aft of the tasting bar, Swirll supplies varietal grape juices and concentrates in 6-gallon bladders ("Like a mini-waterbed," Peggy says) from the British Columbia firm Winexpert Inc., owned by the Canadian winery Andrés Wines Ltd. Winexpert bills itself as the world's largest manufacturer of premium winemaking kits, and Swirll stocks Winexpert's Selection brand of juices, which range from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to Stag's Leap District (Napa) Merlot, to Barbaresco (Italy). With Winexpert's Island Mist brand, customers can ferment fruit flavored wines such as black raspberry Merlot and peach apricot Chardonnay. The winery also offers kits for Port, cream sherry and Riesling Eiswein or ice wine, the German wine rendered from frozen grapes. "You could put it on your pancakes, it's so good," Peggy Davion insists.

Once the wine is blended, the plastic buckets are stocked on steel racks in a temperature-controlled backroom for fermenting. Swirll's "winemakers" then transfer the wines at various stages to a stepped series of 6-gallon clear plastic carboys for racking before the wines are clarified and filtered.

Though this is hardly the stuff to arouse the tongues of hardcore wine enthusiasts, Swirll's concept will no doubt appeal to downtown's herd of professionals huddled in firms and partnerships. What law partner wouldn't beam over a few bottles of French Merlot with his or her name on the label?

Will Texas cities be the next terrain to be invaded by hordes of commercial winemakers? With the Texas wet-dry patchwork cast into irrelevancy, the bet is good that they will. As wine consultant Bobby Cox says, Texas law has been a suffocating barrier, forcing the industry into Lilliputian dimensions for generations. Now Texas wineries can infiltrate metropolitan areas, where most of the state's wine enthusiasts live.

The propagation rate of new Texas wineries and vineyard acreage is likely to accelerate at a mind-bending pace. Gabe Parker, owner of Homestead Winery in Ivanhoe and chairman of the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association legislative committee, says he expects the total number of Texas wineries to strike between 300 and 500 over the next five years. By contrast, California has 1,294 wineries. But the growth comes with a stern warning: Texas is perhaps the riskiest region on the planet to grow and produce wine. "It helps to be good and rich, but it really helps to be lucky," Cox says. "The newcomer always takes it in the shorts. "

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz