The Wildcatter of Wine

Henry Stuart is the epitome of the Dallas entrepreneur. He founded Addison Airport. He turned DFW into an international hub. So it’s no surprise that when he took his business savvy to a sleepy little town in France, he turned it into an award-winning win

How a Dallas entrepreneur turned a sleepy wine region in France into an award-winning appellation.

Henry Stuart sat alone
at a table in a huge exhibition hall waiting for the awards ceremony at
the Vin Expo Wine Olympics in Bordeaux to begin. He wasn’t
quite sure what he was doing there. In early June of this year he’d
received a letter written in French that looked like an official form
of some kind. His family members urged him to toss it. His French
friends told him that it was a big deal. So he put on a suit and made
the 40-mile drive.

The cavernous room
was packed with thousands of wine makers from all over the world who
had spent millions of dollars showcasing their wines at the Expo. Most
of the biggies were there—the Champagnes, the cognacs, award-winning
whites and reds from California—vying for a coveted medal.

France won 10 of
the 30 gold medals handed out that night. One of them went to Stuart’s
tiny vineyard in the often overlooked region of Bergerac, more famous
for the town’s hero Cyrano than for wine making. It wasn’t until Stuart
walked to the podium to accept the gold medal for his 1998 Chateau
Fongrenier-Stuart Bergerac that he realized the significance of the
moment. It was the first time a wine from Bergerac had won a gold at
the Expo.
That night he drove back to his chateau and crossed one more thing off of his “to do” list.

“Miss Marcia and I
sat down about 10 years ago and drank a little wine and came up with a
list of 40 things we wanted to do before we died,” chuckles the
81-year-old with a mischievous smile and a thick Southern drawl. “After
we’d sobered up, we narrowed it to 10.”

“Miss Marcia” is
Stuart’s wife of 54 years, and together the adventurous couple has
lived a life that makes Errol Flynn look lethargic. The swashbuckling
Stuarts have already checked off most of their top 10 picks. They’ve
sailed 40-foot sailboats thousands of miles through Tahiti, the
Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. They’ve studied gourmet cooking with
the finest chefs and golf with the best pros in the world. But their
current passion is making wine. Gold medal-winning wine. In France.

Born in 1920 in
Lancaster, Texas, Stuart was raised by fun-loving parents. During the
Depression, his father turned the struggling economy into action-packed
adventure. In a Dust Bowl version of A Beautiful Life, they packed up
the house, threw a tent on top of the car, and for a year camped all
over Canada and the western United States. “My father, mother, and two
older brothers all cooked,” says Stuart. “When my daddy passed away, we
all shared a big laugh when we opened his safety deposit box and found
only his chili recipe.”

When WWII escalated,
Stuart entered the Army Air Corps and flew “everything that the
military had other than pursuit planes.” He was honored with the
Distinguished Flying Cross and two other air medals. When the war
ended, he spent a year flying transport missions in the Himalayas.
“Heck,” he says, “I thought I was living the best life of any man
alive.” Then, like Texans do, he came home.

He opened a small
aviation school in a field that is now the intersection of Coit Road
and LBJ Freeway. He was a pilot when the weather was good and a
mechanic when it was bad. But when Miss Marcia Louise Anderson walked
through the doors and signed up for flying lessons, he was a goner.
Sparks flew, and the homecoming queen and the pilot dated only 10 days
before he proposed to her with, as he remembers, “the best sales pitch
of my life.”

They married a few
months later in June 1947 and, along with some former army buddies,
opened Park Cities Aero—a little grass strip a few miles west of the
school. His big break came in 1956 when a group of wealthy
Dallasites—Jimmy Deloache, John Murchison, Bill Overton, and Johnny
Brown—decided they wanted to build an airport that was closer to their
North Dallas homes than Love Field. They persuaded Stuart to run it.
Twenty years later, Stuart sold Addison Airport to the city of Addison
for $9 million dollars in a controversial sale that allowed Stuart to
retain most of the airport’s future profits under a long-term lease.

He
was flying high. Already a member of the DFW International Airport
Board—a post he held for eight years, four as president—his tireless
Texas-style sales and promotion talents brought in big business. In the
early ’70s, the airport had only two international destinations:
Montreal and Mexico City. Under Stuart’s tutelage, the board and staff
got American Airlines to move its headquarters to DFW and increased
international travel followed. He was also president of the
French-American Chamber of Commerce and received from French President
François Mitterrand the Cheviller, Ordre de Merite Nationale for his work promoting business trade between France and Dallas.

By the mid-’80s,
Addison Airport was home to more than 900 planes, making it one of the
state’s busiest small aviation hubs. The surrounding area was bustling
with office towers, restaurants, and condos. In 1983, Stuart turned
over the operation of the airport to his son Sam. “He told me he was
only going to do the fun things in the business and I was going to have
to do everything else,” says Sam. So with fun and adventure on his mind
and Sam at the controls, Stuart made his “to do” list.

The Stuarts backed into
wine making while pursuing one of their other goals: mastering the
French language, which is a simple enough task—unless you’re a Texan.
In 1975, they rented a car and drove around France and fell in love
with the country and the people. In 1985, they bought a 400-year-old
chateau with a leaking roof near the small village of Razac de
Saussignac on the edge of the Dordogne Valley, 25 miles southwest of
the town of Bergerac. “We had no intention of making wine,” says
Stuart. “We just thought it was kind of a fun place to be.” But after a
few years of riding bikes through the countryside and grilling fresh
ducks over dried cèpe stalks, the restless thrill seekers couldn’t
resist the temptation to buy the adjoining 20-acre vineyard that became
available in 1992. There was already an old winery on the property.
“Heck, I thought it would be fun to fix it up and meet the locals,”
remembers the always-affable entrepreneur.

Stuart was no stranger
to the wine of Bergerac. In 1976, Sam and his friend François Chandou
opened La Cave, an innovative wine bar on Henderson Avenue. Chandou’s
father Raymond was the founder of Producta—an umbrella organization
that controlled many of the big co-ops in Bergerac and Bordeaux.
François had spent years promoting the lighter-bodied wines of
Bergerac, even serving several as house wines at La Cave.

Wine has become a
family affair for the Stuarts. In 1986, Stuart’s oldest son Mickey
teamed up with the Chandous and began importing and marketing wines
from Bergerac. Today, Mickey’s company, Fongrenier Wines, supplies all
the wines to American and United Airlines.

For hundreds of years,
the farmers in Bergerac had sold their grapes to the co-ops that would
blend them into good, drinkable wine. “They were good farmers but lousy
wine makers,” says Stuart. “They were making wine their grandfathers’
way.” Martin Sinkoff, president of Martin Sinkoff Wines, says of the
region, “Bergerac is in the shadow of Bordeaux. While their wines don’t
stand up to the great reds, it’s a heck of a shadow to be in.”

Ever
the enterprising capitalist, Stuart set out to make excellent wines
and, at the same time, upgrade the price of his neighbor’s wines.
Stuart took the old winery and modernized the methods using Bordeaux
techniques: prune the trees to produce quality over quantity, handpick
the grapes, and age the wine in oak. He employed a local plumber to
install computer-operated temperature controls. At harvest, Stuart and
his oenologist walk through the fields every morning, checking the
condition of the grapes until it’s just right. Then Stuart gives the
go-ahead to his loyal group of Portuguese pickers. It’s a hands-on
operation, with Stuart involved every step of the way in his typically
outspoken style. Sinkoff says diplomatically, “Henry is one of Dallas’
most colorful wine personalities.” And, undoubtedly, one of Bergerac’s.

Soon after Stuart’s Chateau Fongrenier-Stuart Bergerac Rouge
picked up a few bronze medals in 1994, his neighbors, once afraid to
spend money on making quality wine, followed his example. “The wine of
Bergerac is similar to, but much lighter than, Bordeaux,” says Dallas
wine consultant Diane Teitelbaum. “Henry makes a well-priced,
Bordeaux-styled wine. It’s well-made, modern, and consistent.” In
Dallas, the wine is available at Pogo’s. “They give great service,”
says Manager Neal Caldwell. “Henry drives the wine over himself.”

More important, Henry and Marcia now speak perfect, twang-free French.

So what’s next for the
man who was presented the Ordre de Merite, Agricole in 1998 from
President Jacque Chirac for his efforts in elevating the level of wines
in Bergerac? “I guess it’s time for Miss Marcia and me to get out
another sheet of paper and figure out 10 more ways to spend our kids’
inheritance.”

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