Drink Up

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"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.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz