Back in the day, Austin Elrod spent a lot of Saturdays watching Case Keenum throw a football. Keenum threw so many of them — 2,229, to be exact, over four-plus seasons from 2007 through 2011—- that he left the University of Houston as the most prolific passer in the history of college football.
Elrod? As Keenum’s backup, he admits, “I didn’t get to play a whole lot.” But the two young Texans, who had grown up on opposite sides of Dallas (Keenum in Wylie and Elrod in Ovilla), would become great friends as well as teammates at UH, and now also business partners. Along with another former Cougar, albeit an older, nonfootball-playing one, Troy Kyle, they have become the owners of Haak Vineyards & Winery in Santa Fe.
With this venture, though, Elrod is the starting quarterback. He has already set up his new office on the premises.
“I’m an entrepreneur by nature,” he said, “and I love making a business work. I like wine, sure, but aside from the wine itself, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a winery estate, the vibe. People always seem to be in a good mood when I see them tasting.”
Regarding Keenum’s involvement, he added, “Case and me got to be real close, and he’s seen some of my businesses become successful, so he was interested in being part of this. He’s always had a business mind, too. In the off-season, he can be as involved as he wants to be.”
Keenum, of course, remains a football player for at least the near term. Beginning his ninth pro season, he recently reported to his first training camp as Baker Mayfield’s backup with the Cleveland Browns, his sixth NFL team.
According to Elrod, Keenum and his wife, Kimberly, “aren’t big drinkers,” but they do have an appreciation for wine, having enjoyed tasting adventures in California and Europe. Haak’s founding father, Raymond Haak, admitted being impressed with Keenum’s preparedness when they met, saying, “He’d done his due diligence before he came down to see us.”
At 81, Haak is spotting Elrod and Keenum nearly 50 years, and that’s why he put his labor-of-love enterprise up for sale. It was time. A petrochemical systems engineer in his first life — and, way back in the day, a Cougar himself, too — he and his wife, Gladys, moved onto their Galveston County property the day John F. Kennedy was shot, and they harvested their first grapes in 1969, from two Concord vines Gladys had brought home from a nursery to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. From that, a tiny hobby grew into a serious business. They’ve sold their wines commercially since the 2000 vintage.
At Elrod’s insistence, Raymond and Gladys retained a small piece of the Haak pie in order to provide advice and moral support for the new team, which includes winemaker Kyle Johnston, who, not coincidentally, is the brother of Elrod’s roommate when he was at UH, Chris Johnston. Also, the plan is for Tiffany Farrell, the Haak winemaker since 2017, to stay on and work with Johnston.
“(The Haaks) invested a lot of blood, sweat, tears in this business,” Elrod said. “They’ll always have a seat on the board. They’re welcome here any time, to come enjoy what they built. Having somebody helping us who’s been and done that is going to be great.”
Elrod and his wife, Morgan, met Kyle Johnston after he had taken a job at Hilmy Cellars in Fredericksburg and the Elrods ventured up for a tasting. A graduate of Texas Tech with a master’s degree in enology and viticulture, he subsequently helped launch a Texas new winery, Rancho Loma Vineyards, in 2016, earning a measure of acclaim there.
“All the right ingredients came together,” Elrod said of what can only be described as deal born of serendipity. After first trying to handle the sale himself, Haak contracted with Transworld Business Advisors, which, as it happened, had played a pivotal role in an deal Elrod had done to expand his now state-wide pest-control company. That led to Elrod’s receiving an email one morning from Transworld about the Haaks’ desire to sell. It arrived just as he had begun contemplating how he could make wine part of his professional life.
“I was familiar with Haak,” he said, “because Chris and Kyle’s family has been friends with the Haaks for years. They grew up down there. I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to make a run at this.’”
The Haaks couldn’t be happier that he did. They believe they are leaving the winery in the right hands. The deal, Raymond said, came along “at the right time and was exactly what we were looking for.” Their plan is to travel as much as they can for as long as they can, particularly around the U.S. They’ve already visited 79 countries.
Elrod and I spoke just after he’d observed his first Haak bottling as the owner. He admitted, “I’ve still got a lot to soak up in that area” and added, laughing, that venturing from pest control to producing wine is “going from about the least sexy business to the maybe sexiest one. But any business is about providing great customer service, hard work and surrounding yourself with great people. Take care of your customers, produce a great product, create a world-class experience and, more times than not, you’ll be successful.
“We obviously want to continue the Haaks’ legacy, build on what they’ve built, but we want to create our vision as well.”
Though Raymond and Gladys will tell you they had their share of missteps along the way, they eventually started hitting all the right notes. In 2016, they claimed a double gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition with their Texas Madeira made from the black Spanish grape and, two years later, they won their first saddle as the Best All-Around Texas Winery in the Houston Livestock Show Rodeo’s International Wine Competition, when 10 of their wines earned at least a bronze medal.
For the record, it was the 2008 Haak Madeira that Elrod chose to pour and toast with when the sale was completed.
“The good Lord,” he said, “has put a great opportunity in front of me.”
Dale Robertson , Correspondent for the Houston Chronicle
Aug. 5, 2020