Trey Crawford’s Vintage Venture
How a weekend wine-sipper turned his passion into an excellent cabernet
Published in 2018 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 12, 2018
You could say wine-making is a bit like litigation. There are no shortcuts to quality, whether the process begins with harvest or research; moves on to fermentation or deposition; then becomes clarified while sitting—for however long it takes—in a French oak barrel or a courtroom chair.
But to Trey Crawford, his wine-producing venture—a partnership with his best friend from college—is an escape from the competitive business of law.
A partner at Gruber Hail Johansen Shank in Dallas, he was just an associate in 2013 when his team landed a $49 million verdict in a dispute between their client, who owned jet planes, and two aircraft companies found to have breached contracts to modify the jets.
When it comes to wine, however, “We didn’t set out to make money,” Crawford says. “The real rewarding part is the people you meet and the experience of being in the wine business.”
Here’s how it came about. In 2010, Crawford and buddy Michael Farris, two Texas Christian University grads, were on a wine-tasting tour of Napa Valley with six other friends—one of whom, Jane, married Crawford in 2014.
At the last tasting of the day, Crawford bought a bottle of Rattlesnake cabernet ($175) as his friends wandered outside to view majestic Spring Mountain. Crawford, a world-class mingler, asked two older couples at a table nearby if they’d like to share the bottle. “Sure, have a seat!” offered Dave Yewell, a retired Silicon Valley executive who had followed his passion and bought a vineyard himself.
Crawford and his new acquaintances got on famously, and after the bottle was empty, Dave and Nancy Yewell invited Crawford and his party of eight over for dinner at their home. Reciprocation came the next night, at the house the eight Texans had rented. After talk of baseball, the conversation veered to the vineyard business, an area of fascination for Crawford and Farris.
“What would it take for us to produce, bottle and sell a small, high-end wine?” Crawford wondered aloud. Yewell knew the answer—and had connections. Before they headed home to Texas, Crawford and Farris had paid $8,400 for 2 tons of cabernet sauvignon grapes. Master winemaker Rudy Zuidema was hired to turn that magical fruit into the first vintage, which produced just over 1,100 bottles of Horned Toad cabernet, selling for $85 each.
Fellow TCU graduate Lauren Cox designed the logo with the TCU mascot silkscreened onto the bottles. Currently, Horned Toad is available online only and is nearly sold out.
“We were going to Napa Valley three or four times a year when we started,” says Crawford. “But it’s been more than a year and a half since we’ve been back.”
Why? Crawford has been busy, with his team at Gruber in 2015 winning a $22 million judgment for an 18-year-old valedictorian looking for a summer job at a restaurant when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by the owner. The teenager said she was given liquor to the point of virtual unconsciousness, then taken to a hotel where she woke up during the assault. (In the criminal case, the defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated assault and received probation.)
Crawford handled her civil suit: “When she won that case, you could see, in the moment the verdict was announced, an immense weight lifted off her shoulders. That might’ve been my proudest moment as an attorney.”
There’s another reason Crawford hasn’t been to Napa Valley in a while. He has a new favorite getaway: spending time with his family at O’Connor Ranch in South Texas. “It’s just so beautiful and peaceful down there,” he says. “A great place to think.” After Hurricane Harvey hit in August, Crawford helped his father-in-law, the sheriff of Victoria County, deliver needed patrol cars to Rockport.
The first half of Crawford’s life was all about baseball. Crawford, 38, grew up in Dallas-area sandlots and was gifted enough as an infielder to receive a baseball scholarship to play for TCU’s Horned Frogs. But he didn’t consider pursuing a professional career. Crawford’s stepfather, Gary Moore, spent years in the minors before playing a single season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1970—and, Crawford says, “he was a hell of a lot better player than I was.” Crawford’s dream was a career with the FBI. Law seemed like the best route there.
But when he attended law school at SMU, he realized straightaway he was meant for lawyering. “I didn’t know, as a first-year student, you weren’t supposed to try out for mock trial,” he says. But that year, he was named the region’s best advocate in the National Trial Competition. “I found the competitive nature of litigation similar to athletics,” he says. “I really thrived in that atmosphere.”
Crawford’s childhood, spent growing up in a working-class neighborhood, ended up benefiting him in his new pursuit. “My high school was like the United Nations,” he says. “People from so many different backgrounds and cultures. A jury is the same way. You find a way to relate and communicate. I’m pretty good at breaking down complex legal issues for juries to understand.”