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Fort Worth winery and wine bar gets taste of success

Posted Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Fort Worth

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A black plastic hose pulsing with red wine snaked its way from a stainless steel tank into a truck trailer filled with $300,000 worth of Italian equipment.

Green bottles rattling along a conveyor line met up with the 2007 vintage cabernet sauvignon and were quickly filled, corked, labeled and packed into cartons, which in turn flowed down another conveyor.

Wednesday was the inaugural bottling at the Fort Worth branch of Times Ten Cellars, a boutique winery and wine bar that opened in September in a greatly remodeled pecan shelling plant at 1100 Foch St., just east of the city's Cultural District.

Times Ten hopes to replicate the success of its first location in Dallas' Lakewood area, which did $1.3 million in sales in 2009, its fifth year. That was a 30 percent increase over 2008, said Chris Lawler, the winemaker and a partner.

"The recession helped us, actually," Lawler said.

Times Ten was able to grow in a down economy, he said, by offering red wine for a couple of dollars less per glass than other wine bars. Aside from its own, the winery sells output from such well-regarded Texas competitors as Fall Creek, Inwood Estates and McPherson Cellars.

While speaking to a reporter, Lawler kept a steady eye on the critical bottling operation, already delayed two weeks by difficult weather and by his getting stuck in Chicago. A changing cast of employees, partners, loyal customers and one girlfriend -- his own, a fashion sock designer named Amy Anderson -- manually shifted the cartons onto pallets.

"Everyone gets to know the wine by suffering on the bottling line," Lawler said.

The mobile unit is hired out by a Johnson City winery, Texas Hills Vineyard. It charges by the case, saving small vintners the cost of equipment that may be used just a few days a year.

Times Ten opened in Dallas as Texas wines were winning the fight against a Chateau Bubba image and grabbing medals and good reviews while working to quench demand in their home market.

That was sometimes hampered by fickle weather -- drought, freezes, hail -- and destructive Pierce's disease, which afflicts grapevines. For example, statewide production dropped from 1,490,000 gallons in 2005 to 923,000 the next year, according to the Texas Wine Marketing Institute at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Three of Times Ten's original partners -- Lawler, Kert Platner and Rob Wilson -- own the Cathedral Mountain Vineyard in far West Texas near Calamity Creek, 18 miles south of Alpine. The vines, planted in 2004, produced 20 tons of grapes last year, all of it used to make Times Ten wine. (Its 2008 crop was wiped out by a late freeze.)

Even when the vineyard reaches capacity production of about 25 tons, the winery will still need to buy grapes from vineyards in Texas and California and supplement them with bulk wine, Lawler said. The Cabernet Sauvignon bottled this week was fermented on the West Coast and blended by Lawler with a squirt of merlot to soften its slight tannin bite.

Tim Dodd, who heads Tech's wine institute, said diverse approaches are not uncommon in the state.

Some wineries sell only wine made from their own grapes while others outsource their grapes partially or wholly. Still others buy finished wine in bulk or already bottled "and slap their label on," he said.

It's all acceptable, unless they label a California wine as Texan, said Dodd, a marketing professor.

Like some Times Ten partners, the 41-year-old Lawler is a refugee from the corporate world. His last job was in finance at a wireless telecommunications provider. A self-taught winemaker, he had told a neighbor, Platner, of his dream to someday own a vineyard and open a winery.

When Platner and his business partner, Wilson, sold their pharmaceutical company, the three made it happen. Wilson and Platner had shared a bottle of wine when they launched the drug firm.

They similarly celebrated when they sold it.

But this time the bottle they uncorked cost 10 times as much as the bottle at their launch, inspiring the new venture's quizzical name, Times Ten, Platner said.

BARRY SHLACHTER, 817-390-7718

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