POSTED ON FEBRUARY 20, 2008:
Oklahoma Roots, Tender Vines
The beginning stages of a new winery bring an ancient industry to young soil
Not Yet Aged. Of course, a three-quarter acre vineyard is not a big plot of land on which to grow grapes for a major winemaking operation, but winemakers Girouard and Rawlings are "on page one," where just about everything is in the experimental phase.
"This is a thick book, and we're only on page one," said up-and-coming winemaker and entrepreneur Chris Girouard about his labor of love of the past few years, the Girouard Vines winery.
While the tale is indeed quite a few chapters away from its "happily ever after"-ending, as the first estate-bottled cask of wine isn't expected to hit the market until 2011, what makes the saga particularly interesting is that it's a sequel. It ties together a few seemingly unrelated plot lines from the previous yarn about two families coming together for a common venture through a series of unrelated circumstances, which seem to have been engineered by some unseen hand for the purpose of bringing about the downtown Tulsa winery.
The hoped-for last chapter of the figurative book will tell of Girouard and his business partner Christy Rawlings' success in creating a 100 percent, purely Oklahoma-blended wine.
But, realizing that ambition is still a few years away and, the story is just beginning.
"Page one" of the story includes the brand-spanking-new winery on the ground floor of the Maverick Building, 817 E. 3rd St.
Girouard began leasing the 2,900-square foot space late last year, turning the empty storefront into a winery in October, with a swanky front room for wine tasting at the few tables filling the space, or at the bar displaying the Girouard Vines logo.
The lobby has the perfect party atmosphere and space, should Girouard ever decide to host such an event. Not the wild, beer-guzzling kind, but a more sedate party for grown-ups, where wine is sipped, not chugged, and stimulating conversation drives the celebration.
The front décor is a striking contrast to the more laboratory-like back rooms, where the magic of winemaking is starting to happen.
White walls and tiles create a more clinical atmosphere as they enclose the various gleaming metallic vats and tanks for juicing, fermenting, blending and all the other science and artistry that goes into turning mere grape juice into the divine draught.
Behind the building is another ideal party spot with a patio area adjacent to a few rows of vines, which serve as a mini-replica of the three-quarter-acre vineyard on the Dunkin family farm in Verdigris Valley (a.k.a. Wagoner), where the grapes are presently growing.
Of course, that's not a very big plot of land on which to grow the grapes for a major winemaking operation, but Girouard and Rawlings are, like he said, "on page one," where just about everything is in the experimental phase.
They're about to expand to four acres, though, increasing their winemaking capacity from the current level of 150 to 800 cases a year.
But, the first harvest from the expanded vineyard won't be until 2010, though, and the juice not processed into wine, bottled and sold until 2011.
Mastering an Art
As interesting as it is to contemplate where those grapes are going, though, it's equally interesting to look at where they came from, which also tells the tale of how Girouard Vines went from idea to execution.
It all started with George Girouard, Chris's father.
He was born in Tulsa in 1920 and, like a lot of the wiser Tulsans at the time, eventually went into the oil and gas industry after graduating high school at the tender age of 16, fighting in World War II and then earning a degree in engineering physics from the University of Tulsa.
As he met with so much success in getting one liquid treasure out of the ground, the elder Girouard decided to make a hobby out of trying another. In the mid-'60s, he started growing grapes of the vinifera species, which is the variety most often used to make wine.
As the younger Girouard explained, Oklahoma's land and climate is well-suited to growing grapes (at least, when it's not covered in a thick sheet of ice, on fire, eviscerated by tornadoes, or undergoing any of the other biblical plagues that typically befall the state), being similar in many respects to the Rhone-Alpes region of France, which is historically famed for its high-quality wine production.
Unfortunately, though, Oklahoma has something France doesn't (besides the aforementioned frequency of natural disasters), which is a humidity with a certain a propensity to carry a black-rot fungus that's particularly harmful to grapes.
"My dad discovered it was very difficult to get vinifera to grow in Oklahoma because of that fungus," he said.
Since then, advancements in fungicides have made Oklahoma much more grape-friendly, but that was still a long way off when Girouard Sr. wanted to keep at his hobby.
So, around 1975 he took matters into his own hands.
"He tried to create a new grape vine by cross-pollinating vinifera with wild grapes that were resistant to black rot," Chris said.
He kept at it during the decades and, by the late 1990s, out of the tens of thousands of different experimental breeds, created four that were viable.
In the meantime, Chris grew up and followed his dad's footprints into the oil and gas biz, meeting a young lady named Jan Newton, who happened to be longtime friends with Christy Rawlings (then Christy Dunkin), whose family farm spans more than 2,000 acres of land just east of Wagoner.
He eventually married Jan, and the three have remained close friends during the years, with strong ties growing between the two families.
Girouard's 87-year-old father is still tinkering away at his super-grape hybrids for fun, but when the state law related to wine distribution changed in the year 2000 (see Cover Story, page ), it sparked Chris' contemplation about possibly turning his father's hobby into something a little more lucrative.
The idea didn't sprout into action until a few years later.
The Rawlings and Girouard families were out for dinner together one night in August of 2003 when Christy mentioned wanting to grow something on her land in addition to the cattle and soybeans and other more commonly-grown Oklahoma crops.
Her father had passed away in 2001, leaving her to manage the Dunkin Families, LLC farm.
Naturally, the conversation brought his father's grapes to mind for Girouard, which he proposed as a new crop.
From Grape to Glass
To boil what was likely long and lively conversation down to its essence, they decided to plant a vineyard on the land.
"We took dozens of soil samples and picked the best site," Rawlings related.
"I started studying enology and viticulture on nights and weekends," said Girouard, casually displaying the volumes of books, journals and magazines on the subjects that are shelved neatly in his office in the downtown winery.
They planted the current vineyard in the spring of 2004, using his father's four hybrid vines and three Rhone-style species, similar to Grenache, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah.
While grape-growing and vineyard tending is a new undertaking for all of them, they said John Lay, who's worked the land at the ranch/farm for decades and was Rawlings' late father's best friend and closest partner, has been invaluable in the venture, bringing his knowledge of the land and his renowned Okie-ingenuity to bear.
"'You don't want to plant them in that valley. The frost will melt and flow down that hillside in the winter,' he said when we were looking for a spot for the vineyard," related Rawlings.
Also, Lay's insight wound up saving some vines that might have otherwise been destroyed during a windstorm last year.
Girouard and Lay had argued about what kind of trellises to use in the vineyard. Girouard wanted some more "artsy" wooden trellises, while Lay insisted on some less aesthetic but sturdier "big, ugly gateposts" as trellises.
They compromised, and two rows got the Lay-treatment, and the rest were set up according to Girouard's design.
The windstorm that made last year's downtown Oktoberfest so memorable also tore through the Verdigris Valley vineyard, flattening all but the two rows of vines bolstered by Lay's trellises.
"The cowboy was right," chuckled Girouard.
"We gained some very valuable knowledge from that," said Rawlings.
Some other knowledge gained relates to turning those grapes into wine after they're harvested.
Girouard said grapes with low acid content make for "weak, flabby wine," while his father's hybrids, in contrast, have a particularly high acid content, making them particularly well suited for blending.
He said the final product they're planning will be a "medium-to-full bodied, fruitful red wine" in the Rhone-style.
While it will resemble the Rhone-style wine Girouard and Rawlings keep stocked in their winery, from the grapes used to make it and the distinctly rural Okie style of growing them, the wine made in Verdigris Valley will be a purely Oklahoma blend.
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