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Twin Liquors' wine guy wins reality TV show, blends at 45 RPM

Ross Outon knows his wine. Now the PBS reality series "The Winemakers" has helped him start making it.

Patrick Beach

The wine was made as part of the PBS reality series "The Winemakers," which starred Austinite Ross Outon as one of 12 contestants competing for the chance to start their own wine brand. It's a 2007 California red called "Winner's Wine," with a label that says "remove label only after finale."

If you've been dutifully waiting for the big reveal about who made the best wine from scratch, go ahead and peel. In the finale that first aired on KLRU-TV on Saturday afternoon and will air again at 9 p.m. Nov. 19, it turned out that Outon, Twin Liquors' wine expert, won the approval of the panel of judges and, in doing so, the whole contest. Under the removable label, there's another: 45 RPM. Very Austin, that.

And very Outon. He's a huge music fan — hip-hop, jazz and funk are among the favorites represented in the 19,000 songs in his iTunes — who used to pick his own music when managing several Twin Liquor stores. He's got a formidable goatee. A fourth-generation Texan, he's got Texas-centric ink on both arms and plans for more, including a Jim Franklin armadillo. He is not your stereotypical wine snob by any stretch, and that lent him great appeal when Doc City Productions had a casting call at Green Pastures in 2006.

"Ross said it best himself when he said, 'My knowledge has been discounted my whole life because I'm a fat biker dude from Texas with a goatee — but if you talk to me about wine for five minutes and you still think that, you're not listening,' " said Kevin Whalen, the show's producer and director. (Outon is not, for the record, a biker, but he is definitely from Texas.)

Outon, 34, was 31 when this saga began. He pretty much forgot about the audition until months later, when he learned he'd made the cut to 25 finalists out of about 400 applicants. From that, the original 12 contestants were culled for an immersion in most every aspect of the wine business, from harvesting grapes and working in a winery, pouring samples in a tasting room, making a tabletop presentation, writing a business plan, working with a designer to come up with a label and facing the "crossfire challenge," a series of questions from the show's judges on such wine arcana as: Pinotage is a crossing of what two grape varietals? What's the key difference between how port and sherry are fortified?

After shooting for the first episode, in which contestants spent a long day harvesting grapes and getting to the winery, Outon returned to Austin and predicted that he would win the contest. His competition included a teacher, a restaurateur and a former lawyer.

"Everybody else had a career before they came into wine," Outon said. "I kind of felt like I fell into it more honestly. This career picked me."

Here's how that happened: Outon's mother loves to entertain and keeps a meticulous food journal. "She can tell you how many times we've had carrot-ginger soup in the last 15 years," he said. Outon moved with his parents for four years during high school to New Orleans, where food seemed to be the focus of everyone's existence. At 18, he started home-brewing beer with Chuck Huffaker, who, with Outon, would help open the original Central Market in Austin — Outon first trained as a checker. Huffaker was the wine buyer before he left to open Grapevine Market, and Outon replaced him. Before he could legally buy beer, let alone sell it, Outon was becoming a beer guy, partly, he says, because his bosses bought him Chimay Blue and Corsendonk beers.

It was Huffaker who helped him get interested in the world of wine.

Said Huffaker: "He was awesome. He was one of the most enthusiastic people I ever worked with. He always had a smile on his face, and customers loved him. He just had a thirst for a knowledge of wine. He read on his own and picked it up really quickly."

Outon's oft-repeated joke is that he has long had his nose in a book or a glass at all times. He read Kevin Zraly's "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course," "The Oxford Companion to Wine," wine atlases, whatever he could get his hands on. He started selling wine at Central Market the day he turned 21 and participated in a number of tastings. He was comfortable talking about wine in front of crowds.

He was also majoring in philosophy at the University of Texas, but oenology had a grip on his imagination to such an extent that he actually played golf one day when he was supposed to be taking a final exam. He left UT after more than four years without a degree.

"I took enough philosophy at UT to know that I'm a hedonist," he said. "And when you're in a restaurant or making someone a meal, you have a captive audience, and that appealed to me. I was far more interested in my wine studies when I was at UT than I was in anything officially academic. I proceeded to get my butt kicked by symbolic logic, like, three times. And then I thought, 'Wow, maybe I'm not a philosophy major.' I knew that I wanted a profession that was inherently jovial and fun, nothing too serious for me."

Outon left Central Market in 2000 to learn the wholesale end of the business — what he learned was he didn't much care for it — and in 2001 entered what has become an enduring relationship with Twin. He also consults with area restaurants on their wine lists.

"Ross is, plain and simple, so Austin," said David Jabour, Twin's president. "He's laid-back but exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about the wine business. We're exceptionally proud of Ross. He exudes that Twin Liquors spirit, and he has represented Austin, Texas, very well."

"Beer to me just doesn't hold quite the same mystique," Outon said. "It doesn't speak to the origin of the place as much as wine. The amount of information about the world of wine just seemed to be more of a mountain to climb. How often do you drink a beer and think, 'Wow, where did they grow the grains for this?' I don't think the product itself is nearly as evocative of a place."

Outon's wine is most definitely evocative of Paso Robles, Calif., with most of the grapes grown in the region — among them grenache, mourvèdre, petit syrah and zinfandel (but no cabernet sauvignon) represented in the blend.

"I was going for a wine that you could have with brisket," said Outon, speaking like a true Texan. "A red with a bit of spice but fruity enough that you could chill it down 15 or 20 degrees in Texas. I wanted a red wine that would work with barbecue and red meat."

About 8,900 cases of the wine — which Outon jokes he hopes is the worst he will make — have shipped to stores nationwide, including the Twin Liquors at Hancock Center in Austin, which these days is Outon's home base.

For a TV genre often regarded as manipulative, ruinous and downright unreal, Outon says his experience on the reality show was "a blast."

Outon is hoping to parlay his participation, for which he was not paid, into other opportunities. He'd like to go somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere around harvest time, and he's slated to make an appearance in the second season of "The Winemakers," which has started shooting in France's Rhone Valley and is set to air in fall 2010.

"My focus," said Outon, "is talking to neophytes or people who have an actual life and don't have as much time to think about wine as I do."

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603