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After trying more than 300 suits to verdict in 40 years as a trial lawyer in San Antonio, Franklin Houser now spends most of his time at his second home in New Braunfels, Texas, where his new avocation is winemaker. Fed up with law, Houser has been winding up his practice for the last three years to devote all his time to making wine at Dry Comal Creek Vineyards. He left Tinsman & Houser in 1999, although he goes into the office occasionally to finish up a handful of suits. He loves every minute of his new work — even the long, hot days picking grapes alongside the winery’s three employees and a dozen others hired for the job. Houser enjoys the winemaking process, especially the tinkering with the taste. He’s also quite happy sitting on a tall stool behind a counter in the tasting room at Dry Comal Creek Vineyards, chatting with visitors and pouring them samples of his wines. “I’m having fun. I should have started this 10 years ago, but I was too busy practicing at that time,” says Houser, 66. “People who come to wineries are very pleasant people generally, and they are looking for a good time. They are stimulating to talk to,” he says. Instead of spending evenings preparing for trial, Houser and his wife relax on the back patio of their ranch house, which is set amid grapevines, and watch bats roost in trees on hills on their property. Bonnie Houser says she was concerned at first when her husband decided to open the winery — she didn’t want their quiet retreat transformed into a commercial enterprise. Although that’s happened, she says she’s come to enjoy helping out in the tasting room. “He’s always been the kind of guy who has some kind of goal, some adventure, something to try, and I’ve always gone along with it,” she says. Daniel Sciano, a partner in Tinsman & Houser who trained with Houser, says the winery business puts a spark in Houser’s demeanor. “He’s absolutely happier. Franklin was a phenomenal trial lawyer and still is [but] he is fed up with the law,” Sciano says. “With the grape business, he knows pretty quick at the end of that production cycle whether he’s got a good wine or a bad wine.” Winemaking is actually Houser’s second choice for a pastime after law. “I knew I would have to do something. I don’t golf. I don’t enjoy card games. I don’t chase women. I’m not an alcoholic. The only thing I wanted to do was sail around the world, but I couldn’t get my wife to do that,” he says. “It would have been cheaper to sail around the world,” he says and chuckles. Dry Comal Creek Winery isn’t profitable yet, but Houser expects to move the business into the black in two or three years. The winery produced 900 cases of wine in 1998 and 2,000 in 1999; Houser expects to bottle 2,700 cases this year. FRUSTRATION WITH LAWYERS Houser says he had no thoughts of making wine when he bought his 103-acre property in 1975. It was just a pleasant haven for his family — his four children are grown — located a half-hour drive from his home in the Alamo Heights neighborhood of San Antonio. He moved to San Antonio in 1960, after graduating from law school at the University of Texas. After a decade as a defense lawyer, Houser joined with Richard Tinsman and formed the four-lawyer plaintiffs firm of Tinsman & Houser in 1971. As a plaintiffs lawyer, Houser says he won 18 verdicts of more than $1 million. He was the lead lawyer in the trial of a suit filed over a butane truck explosion in Eagle Pass, Tex., in 1976; the verdict exceeded $50 million. He tried so many suits that he stopped counting once he hit 250. He hasn’t kept track of the number of seven-figure settlements he’s negotiated over the years. “Franklin was a formidable opponent,” says Damon Ball, now retired from San Antonio’s Ball & Weed. “He was a very good trial lawyer in that he knew how to prepare a case, and he was thoroughly prepared, and he had a good deal of common sense. Ball says he’s not surprised Houser is now in the wine business: “I knew that Franklin always claimed he could make wine out of water — but I never knew he meant it.” Despite his courtroom success, Houser says he was getting frustrated with the conduct of lawyers — at least those who forgot ethics in their quest to win the battle. “I’m tired of the people in it, and there’s a lot of people who are tired of me. The professionalism that we hear so much about just doesn’t exist. It’s smoke and mirrors,” Houser says. But in New Braunfels, a town noted for its tubing in chilly waters, Houser can put his dissatisfaction with the legal profession aside. In 1993, he started experimenting with grapes, planting about 23 varieties over three or four years on patches of his land. In 1997, he told his partners he would scale back his practice. In 1998, Dry Comal Creek Vineyards bottled its first wines. In 1999, Houser withdrew from the firm. (Tinsman says the firm, with 10 lawyers, will keep Houser’s name.) Houser grows Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Sauvignon, and Norton grapes on about five acres of his land. This year he grew about 14 tons of grapes, but the winery will probably process 45 tons of grapes. He buys grapes from New Mexico, Arizona, and the Texas Panhandle. “There’s a real shortage of grapes in Texas. … Out in west Texas, where you can really grow them well, there’s hail. It’s a chancy deal,” he says. Grapes sell in Texas for $800 to $1,300 a ton, he says. It takes 14 to 16 pounds of grapes to make one bottle of wine. Houser’s wines, including both white and red varieties, sell for $11.99 to $14.99 a bottle. His favorites are a French Columbard and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chardonnay and the French Columbard won bronze medals in a 1998 Texas wine competition. According to Houser’s written philosophy of winemaking, Dry Comal Creek Vineyards makes Texas-style wines, not French-style or California-style. He wants to make smooth wines that don’t have to age. He says his Texas style emphasizes fruit, has a “flower” where appropriate, and is smooth from beginning to end. “I’m not going to sell wine you have to hold three to five years,” he says. “What are we getting for it? $14.99? And I’m going to sell it for someone to put in their wine cellar?” In 1998 and during the first half of 1999, Houser had a winemaker at Dry Comal Creek Vineyards, but since then, he’s been doing his own work, even though he’s never been a wine aficionado. “I made wine in here by reading two books and having a consultant. It’s not rocket science. The blending is really the key,” he says. Dry Comal Creek Vineyards’ consultant, Enrique Ferro, says Houser’s wines are among the best in Texas. (Ferro, who lives in California, is a consultant to 10 wineries in Texas.) Ferro says, “It’s amazing as a lawyer he has a good palette. With no technical background, he has a good nose and a good palette.”

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