Wine in the Show Me State

Tourism, retail and sweet wines key to building Missouri's wine industry

by Andrew Adams
missouri vineyard
This Braud harvester enables the winemaking staff at Les Bourgeois Vineyards to decide exactly when they want to pick, which they say has helped improve wine quality.
St. Louis, Mo.—As the Missouri wine industry continues to grow, wineries in the state offer a broad range of products from dry vinifera wines to sweet hybrids and fruit wines. The state’s industry has been built on local demand, and that continues to be nurtured as wineries seek better distribution through on-premise and retail accounts.

Industry supported by agritourism
Jim Anderson, the executive director of the Missouri Wine & Grape Board said about 10 years ago the state had less than 50 wineries and around 1,000 acres of bearing vines. Today the number of vineyard acres has nearly doubled, and Missouri is now home to 120 wineries, according to Wines Vines Analytics. A 2010 study estimated that the state’s industry has an overall economic impact of $1.6 billion, with Missouri wineries generating $42 million in revenue.

Norton represents 18% of the state’s total production followed by Vignoles at 13% and Chambourcin at 10%, according to 2011 figures compiled by the state’s wine board. The state is in the top 10 of U.S. states for wine grape production and wine production.

Anderson said future growth needs to be fueled by getting state wines on grocery store shelves and restaurant wine lists to ensure consumers who have visited Missouri’s wine country can find the wines they enjoyed when they return home to Kansas City or St. Louis. “We’ve got to have it available in the major areas,” Anderson said.

Sweet is successful
Dressel is the owner of Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta, Mo. Founded in 1859, the winery is one of the oldest in the state and the nation. Dressel’s family purchased the property in 1967 and revived the winery, which had been shuttered since Prohibition. He became the sole owner of the estate in 2004.

About 15 years ago, Dressel noticed that sales of sweet wines in the Augusta tasting room were collapsing. While the winery was earning a reputation for its dry wines that were selling well, overall the winery wasn’t making money. Customers who came to the winery looking for sweet wines were being turned off by those made in the traditional dry style. Realizing he needed a change to retain customers who prefer sweet wines, Dressel saw an opportunity in the country music resort town of Branson, Mo.

Dressel split Mount Pleasant’s production into two channels: At the historic Augusta winery, he’s focused on promoting and selling dry wines out of vinifera and hybrid grapes. Mount Pleasant also operates a tasting room in Branson where it sells a line of light, sweet wines geared for a different market and consumer.

Today, the Augusta line accounts for about 4,000 cases, and Dressel produces around 21,000 cases of the sweeter product for Branson. “The sweet reds pay for the barrels for the whites,” Dressel said.

Quality of winemaking improving
In 2010, Les Bourgeois Vineyards expanded its production with a modern winemaking facility in Rocheport, Mo. The winery now makes more than 50,000 cases per year.

Cory Bomgaars, the vice president of winery operations, has been with Les Bourgeois since 1992, working for much of that time as winemaker. Bomgaars helped guide the winery to its leading place in the state’s industry and is the current president of the Missouri Vintners Association. The winery owns 30 acres of vines and sources grapes from other Missouri growers and some from California. The current winemaker is Jacob Holman.

Bomgaars said the overall quality of grapegrowing and winemaking has vastly improved in the state. In the vineyard, regular tailgate gatherings of growers with extension agents helped spread best practices for operations such as spraying and canopy management. “I think traditionally we were not too worried about early sprays, and then we’d battle bunch rot,” he said.

Jason Gerke is the president of the Missouri Grape Growers Association and agreed about improved canopy management. “High vigor can cause problems when it comes to the wine flavors, and certainly we see better ripening (and) lower acidity in longer season Norton as a result of the balanced canopy.”

Gerke is also the owner and winemaker at  Jowler Creek Winery in Platte City, Mo., located northwest of Kansas City.

On the winemaking side, Bomgaars said the Missouri Wine Technical Group has been instrumental in helping winemakers hone their craft. And at Les Bourgeois, one of the biggest steps to improve quality was the purchase of a Braud harvester, which allows the winemaking team to pick exactly when they want.

Gerke said the lack of mechanization in the state’s emerging wine grape industry is one of Missouri’s biggest challenges. He said growers struggle to keep their costs down in a market where most consumers rarely buy north of $12 per bottle and where fruit shipped from California or elsewhere is still an affordable option for wineries. “Small growers with very hands-on production methods struggle to make ends meet and must demand higher prices for their fruit, while often delivering smaller volumes,” Gerke said.

Focused on urban opportunities
Michael Amigoni’s winery is located in Kansas City, Mo., and it’s not just the urban location that sets his company, Amigoni Urban Winery, apart from the rest of the state’s wine industry.

From the start, Amigoni said he’s been wholly committed to making wine with just vinifera fruit. He launched his winery 13 years ago and planted 5 acres of vines in a rural area outside of the city. He currently needs to ship in about 25% of the fruit he needs from California, but Amigoni said he wants to plant another 10 acres within the next five years to produce wines made with 100% estate, Missouri fruit.

The vineyard currently is planted with Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Mouvedre, Petite Verdot, Malbec, Tannat and Teroldego. Amigoni said he typically pulls 3 tons per acre. To protect against a severe winter freeze, Amigoni hills the dormant vines. One year he did suffer cold damage, but within two vintages his vines were back to producing at normal levels. “I think I’ve already proved I can grow it,” he said. “I think when it comes to the viticulture I’ve got a firm hand on that.”

Gerke at Jowler Creek, however, does not hold much confidence in the prospects for vinifera in the state. “There is just too much risk in the vineyard, and at the end of the day semi-sweet and sweet wines are what pay the bills in the winery,” he said. “I think vinifera will remain a niche in Missouri until gene mapping fast-tracks selection of new grape varieties with optimum survivability and desirable wine characteristics.”

He said one of the state’s best and biggest opportunities is to build customer awareness of high-quality wines that are not made with vinifera grapes. The ever-growing number of new wine drinkers and the growing popularity of the state’s wine trails puts Missouri wineries in a good position.

Jowler Creek produces hybrid wines that range from sweet to dry. Gerke said like most of the other wineries in the state, he sells more sweet wines but does see a typical progression to drier. “As such, our semi-sweet wines have the highest demand. Not dry but not too sweet,” he said of his customers’ preferences. “They are ready to tone down the residual sugar and enjoy the fruit, but they are not ready to dry out their taste buds with high tannins or heavy oak.” 

Posted on 12.17.2013 - 11:47:11 PST
Nice to see the industry grow and prosper in Missouri.
Michael Kaiser