By Grace Gaddy

UT Dallas alumni have a reputation for sharp minds and savvy business skills, bolstered by a strong inclination to create. So, it’s only natural that some of those alumni would take a passion for something such as gourmet food and wine, and turn it into a career — people like Dennis Haley BS’99 and Chris Grider MFA’12.

Dennis Haley BS’99, sommelier and cellar master at III Forks Steakhouse

Dennis Haley’s workplace is a destination for a special evening out — when the occasion calls for fine wine, gourmet selections and candlelit elegance. Haley is a key front-of-the-house fixture for III Forks, a Dallas steakhouse known for its stately atmosphere.

The ambience is romantic. Live music wafts through the rooms from the bar, where a crooner tickles a black grand piano. Dining rooms, bearing the names of Texas heroes like Travis, Lamar and Austin, are bathed in the warm glow of lantern flames dancing on wine glasses.

The restaurant’s extensive wine list – practically a book – details a staggering 750 selections that complement the robust Texas-French menu. But to the “novice” wine connoisseur, such a long list could prove daunting.

Enter Haley.

In addition to being a manager, Haley is the restaurant’s sommelier — a position that requires extensive industry knowledge and acumen in the art and science of wine.

Since 2002, the business administration alumnus has managed and directed the wine program at III Forks, playing a large role in the restaurant’s reputation for excellent food and world-class wine. A list of “Sommelier’s Selections” are provided to each table to assist guests in choosing the perfect wine for their meal, printed on the second page of the seemingly endless catalog.

For those doing the math, this means Haley has tasted well over a thousand wines and narrowed it down to a list of 750. And yes, he can talk about each selection, its flavor profile and how it will pair with the meal.

It didn’t start out that way.

“I’d just recently gotten married in 1996 and graduated in 1999,” Haley said, whose wife had become pregnant with the couple’s first child.

“At that time, she wanted me to find a job other than what I was doing” as a bartender and server.

Haley said the two had graced fine dining venues like III Forks before, always enchanted by the level of culinary artistry, attention to detail and exquisite presentation. So, he applied and was hired there as a server. In six months, he’d worked his way up to assistant manager.

“A year later, the opportunity to manage the wine program came up,” Haley said, who admits he “didn’t know much about wine back then” but was willing to learn.

Haley went to the president of the steakhouse division and inquired if he could take on the role of wine director.

Haley’s business education helped him land the job, he said, because of his skills in cost analysis that enabled him to foresee and manage a cost-effective wine program.

As a wine director motivated by providing for a young family, Haley studied hard in order to achieve the prestigious sommelier certification in a mere three months.

“It was very challenging, but the study and work ethic I learned at UTD helped me tremendously in being focused, looking up the materials of what I actually needed to study and needed to know,” he said.

A Library of Wine

Today, Haley continues to learn about wine and travels the globe in order to hone his expertise.

In Napa, he can be seen running the soil between his fingers, studying its texture as a medium of growth. He can look at a glass of wine and tell you how it was harvested and kept by examining its aesthetic qualities. He can taste it and tell you how long the wine was in the barrel, how many months, and what kind of tree the barrel was made from.

He also visits the produce section of the local grocery store, comparing the aromas and taste profiles of fruits such as cherries or blackberries.

“It’s not really a science, it’s a library,” he said of the olfactory senses that help identify various tastes.

“You identify when you smell something,” he explained, “and you build that library by smelling a lemon, smelling an orange, learning the citrus flavors.”

In so doing, it is possible to recognize those same flavor characteristics in a glass of wine at dinner.

“I can tell by the meniscus” — the rim of wine in a glass — “how old the wine is, by the color of it after swirling the glass and aerating the wine a bit,” he said. “Then I’m looking for the fruit components or non-fruit components and identifying them. From there, you can taste the wine.”

Haley is a man of details — a necessary trait in order to fully understand and appreciate the mathematical components of the winemaking process. And like most sciences, the learning never ends.

“As a sommelier, it’s always continuing education,” he said about gathering information from a variety of sources that range from his travels to periodicals.

So — after all that learning — what does the “wine expert” prefer?

“I myself prefer New World wines,” he said, as opposed to Old World wines, which have been established for thousands of years in places like France, Spain and Italy. New World wines, however, originate in regions such as Australia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa and, well, the New World: America.

“I like California cabs,” he said. “Cabs are king, especially in the steakhouse. I like the big bold wines that go great with steaks and also enjoy a nice crisp sauvignon blanc or chardonnay on a hot Texas summer day — goes well with seafood.”

Haley said the most rewarding part of his job is being able to recommend a new wine to a guest — and then watching the smile spread across their face.

“I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I get to come to work in this beautiful place, taste wines that I normally wouldn’t get to try and experience people’s enjoyment and celebrations here at III Forks. It’s promoting and helping them experiment with different wines.

“It’s something that you have to have a passion for and enjoy — and I do.”

The entrance of the North Dallas restaurant, III Forks Steakhouse.
Dennis Haley BS’99 began at III Forks as a server. Following a series of promotions, he is now a manager, overseeing the restaurant’s wine program.

 

Chris Grinder and Family
Chris and Crystal Grider, with their sons, stand among their winery’s vines.

Chris Grider MFA’12, co-owner of Kissing Tree Vineyards

High school freshman Chris Grider MFA’12 climbed an old hackberry tree with his classmate Crystal, on her family’s land.  That is where the two shared their first kiss — a moment that inspired a dream.

Now several years, children and college degrees later, the couple founded Kissing Tree Vineyards, just steps away from the same old tree.

“My wife and I always had a dream to retire and start a winery out in Central Texas, and we decided, ‘Why wait? Let’s do it now,’” Grider said.

At the time, in 2014, the ATEC alumnus was teaching middle school art. But the idea of having a vineyard and starting a winery kept coming back.

“It was definitely intimidating,” he said on branching out and quitting his day job.

“Just like anything, it’s a risk. It’s a big leap.”

For months, the Griders did their homework on vineyard preparation, irrigation, planting, growth and production. Armed with their newfound knowledge, they selected a site for their vineyard and began the work of reducing the risk of harmful plant diseases. They also put up fences to keep out animals, especially deer, who can eat up to six pounds of grapes in a night.

Grider noted he also was sure to select a heat-tolerant root stock that could brave the Texas summers.

And when all was done, they planted.

Before long, the couple was harvesting their own wine and selling it at local farmers markets. From there, they repurposed an old bank in nearby Eddy, Texas, to be used as a tasting room.

Grider said the venue, built in 1901, gives patrons that “old western feel” — particularly with the vault with its working door.

The Griders use the vault as a wine cellar.

Growth and Expansion

Grider said his education helped him integrate wine and art together into a cohesive project.

In addition to featuring local bands every Saturday night at the old bank, the couple also use the walls of the venue as an art gallery, showcasing the work of Texas artists. On Sundays, Grider puts on his chef hat and whips up for patrons a gourmet brunch served with sparkling wines. Menu items include chicken florentine waffles, with parmesan baked into the dough, balanced by sweeter options like the s’mores waffles that include marshmallow and graham crackers baked into the dough and topped off with chocolate sauce.

“I really used the ATEC program’s interdisciplinary approach to things,” Grider said. “I’m doing art and wine –  putting these two things together.”

In fall of 2016, the Griders collaborated with Haley at III Forks to put together a special UT Dallas homecoming wine tasting event, featuring selections from the steakhouse and Kissing Tree Vineyards. As a result of this collaboration, Haley asked Grider if he’d be interested in the restaurant market. And he was.

“The event spurred me to get into restaurants,” Grider said, noting that Kissing Tree wine is now available in the III Forks lineup.

“It gave me a push. It was a fateful night. And we’re now in restaurants all over Central Texas.”

Grider said he was grateful for that UT Dallas connection, adding that growing the business had been an interesting venture.

“There’s no manual with chapters like ‘how to talk to distributing representatives,’” he said.

“You just have to jump in there and feel it out. It’s part of your identity, as much as it is your livelihood.”

Kissing Tree Vineyard’s tasting room is located in an early 20th-century building that has an Old West ambience.

 

Things seem to be working out, though. Grider said they’re in the process of expanding to a larger 4,000 square-foot production facility, with a new tasting room overlooking the vineyards.

“She wants it to have windows,” he said, noting his wife’s wishes. “The land is wild, there’s a 60-70 acre wild forest with coyotes, wildcats and deer, and a creek that runs through it feeding into the Brazos River.”

Patrons will be able to see “half a mile straight back into the country,” Grider said. “There’s a farmed field on the back of our land, and a farmed field in the front. Our new building is going to be on the six-acre slope in between, where our vineyards are. It’s going to be beautiful.”