We have arranged to meet at high noon on a sunny July day. Dan apologizes for the heat, and I reassure him—“hey, no problem”—in the way that Southerners say, even as they’re about to pass out. I have been told Dan has a vineyard in his backyard off Inwood Road, just north of Lovers Lane. I have also been told that this is not some cute science project, and that Dan’s wine is excellent. But it’s hot, and at this point, Elvis could have been in Dan’s backyard and I would have questioned whether it was worth it. • It was worth it.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that Dan Gatlin’s backyard is not in the Rhone Valley or Sonoma—or even upstate New York—but just a few doors down from the Junior League’s headquarters in Dallas, which is about as suburban as it gets. Not that there’s anything wrong with suburbia, the Junior League, or Dan. It’s just that North Dallas is arguably the least likely spot in the universe for a deeply romantic man and his vineyard.
Except for one simple fact: Dan Gatlin can grow grapes here. Not the grapes you buy at the local nursery and grow for the heck of it, but sweet, luscious golden Chardonnay and Palomino grapes. In a good season, Dan creates a 50/50 blend of these grapes, ages it for 13 to 14 months, and comes out of it with “Inwood Estates.” And if that isn’t remarkable enough, Goody Goody’s wine buyer Clint Barrett describes Inwood Estates as a “serious wine.”
Dan leads me up and down the rows of his vineyard. “I’ve been growing grapes in Texas since 1981 and have experimented with 22 varieties,” he says. “After lots of trial and error, I discovered I could grow an excellent Palomino, which is the most widely planted grape in Spain. The Palomino is our star performer: it has a thick skin and loose cluster and is therefore better able to survive the heat.” I note that (ha ha) the Palomino grapes are without question surviving the heat better than we are, but Dan doesn’t hear me. He’s checking for sugar content.
“I started out making a classic Sherry with the Palomino grape, but the wine was a little intense. So I blended it with my Chardonnay grapes. I’ll never forget the first time I tasted that wine and realized I was on to something.”
We go into his kitchen. He pulls out a 1999 bottle of Inwood Estates and a couple of glasses.
It is excellent.
Dallas has a local wine, and it is excellent.
Dan’s backyard has 11 rows of grapes, enough—in a perfect season—to produce about 700 bottles of wine. He hasn’t had a perfect season yet. The year 2000 will go down in Dallas grape-growing history as the worst on record: no winter. Premature bud break in January. Primary buds that quit growing after two inches because it was still cool. Secondary buds that pushed through right before the summer heat came and were stunted to about a foot—as opposed to six to 12 feet. And, of course, no canes mean no grapes.
“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that growing grapes is a snap,” Dan says. Although this season has been a good one, portending an excellent 2002 harvest, there are still funguses to deal with and mockingbirds, which fly from all points to feast on Dan’s grapes. He’s still trying to figure out who named them the state bird.
Dan grew up around wine connoisseurs. His father Vernon Gatlin founded the Hasty chain of stores here in Dallas, and Dan served as a wine buyer for a few years after college before taking over the operation. “I traveled and surveyed other wine regions in great detail,” Dan says. “When it became clear that excellent wines could be made all over the world, I started looking at my own home state differently.”
“Eventually, I want to start my own winery,” Dan says. “I think Texas wines will someday distinguish themselves significantly from the regular Cabernets and Chardonnays and really put us on the world map.”
At this point, the amount of wine Dan produces is well below the amount he’s entitled to make by federal law for “personal use,” which is 200 gallons a year. “People can keep their eyes open for an Inwood Estates product eventually,” he says, surveying his tidy rows of grapevines. And it’s clear that Dan is looking far beyond the reaches of his own backyard.