Twenty years ago, there weren’t any Kansas wines sommelier Doug Frost would recommend.
He told the late Walt Bodine as much during an interview on KCUR – so Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery owner Michelle Meyer sent him a bottle made from Kansas grapes to try.
“Winemakers here in Kansas and Missouri have to be more clever than winemakers on the left coast,” says Frost as he sips a Valvin Muscat on the porch of Meyer’s winery in Basehor. “This wine is as friendly as can be. It’s like taking spring flowers, throwing them in the air, and they land in your glass.”
Needless to say, Frost’s opinion of regional wines has changed.
Meyer jokes that she ended up in the winemaking business because her dad likes to dig holes.
“That’s how we ended up with 17 acres of grapes,” she tells KCUR’s Steve Kraske.
Meyer says when she opened Holy-Field Vineyard and Winery with her father 23 years ago, she couldn’t ask Google how to grow grapes. Holy-Field was Kansas bonded winery No. 5 – and the other four wineries were closer to Salina and Wichita than Kansas City.
At first, Meyer experimented with vinifera grapes, but the Mediterranean varietal that grows so well in California wasn’t hardy enough for cold nights in Kansas. Missouri winemakers advised her to stick to the French hybrids, which she’s grown ever since. Today, Holy-Field is a boutique winery that produces just 4,000 cases in a good year, relying on volunteers to pick the grapes.
“We have a retail tasting room that’s just through that door,” Meyer says, pointing. “We’re open 7 days a week, year round. Kansas law allows us to self-distribute, so our wine is also available at retail stores on the Kansas side, but most of our retail sales take place here at the winery.”
A growing reputation
Frost, who holds the titles Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, is pouring himself a glass of Holy-Field’s Chambourcin – a medium-bodied dry red he says has a “nice, soft feel.” It’s his favorite red grape in the area.
At another Kansas winery, Haven Pointe in Baldwin City, chambourcin is Kansas Sen. Tom Holland’s “workhorse” grape.
“It’s great for blending,” says Holland, a Democrat who represents Leavenworth and Douglas counties.
Holland got into winemaking after taking hobby classes. But when he told Meyer he wanted to go into the business, she wasn’t all that encouraging.
“‘If you’re going to make wine in Kansas,’” Holland remembers Meyer saying, “‘make sure it’s good.’”
In 2016, Holland co-sponsored a resolution encouraging local winemakers and grape growers to work with the state’s congressional delegation to get a designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Kansas. Missouri has four such AVAs – Hermann, Augusta, Ozark Mountain and Ozark Highland – that have helped put Missouri wines on the map.
“The Missouri Wine and Grape Board is everybody’s envy,” says Meyer. “They really do a fabulous job of recognizing what the wine industry does for the state.”
Frost says the Missouri Department of Agriculture has been “intensely helpful,” improving not just quantity but quality as well.
“It’s finally gained traction,” he says of the Midwest. “There are enough good vineyards to talk about it.”
Cory Bomgaars of Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport says following the rebirth of Missouri’s wine industry in the ’60s and resurgence in the ’80s, even more vineyards have come online in the last ten years. Statewide, there are now about 1,600 acres of grapes.
He says collaboration with other growers has actually improved Les Bourgeois’ wine.
“Twenty-five years ago, I’d written off chambourcin,” Bomgaars says. “I couldn’t make a good one no matter what I’d do. It had an off-putting ‘vegginess’ to it. Turns out, we were picking it too green.”
You’d think more competition would hurt small growers like Meyer. Not so, she says. There’s always been a tasting room at Holy-Field, but 23 years ago people would ask Meyer’s mother, who was running it at the time, what she did all day.
“I’d tell her, ‘Well, you’re there, and the door’s unlocked.’ It was my own little field of dreams,” Meyer says. “Now people say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a little wine trip. We can hit four wineries and take a picnic.’”
Frost says although some sommeliers still have a knee-jerk reaction to Midwest wines – “oh, well, the grapes are too sweet” – the acidic grapes have a tartness to them that’s worth exploring. He pours the winemakers a late harvest vignoles, a sweet dessert wine he likes better than ones produced in California.
“Late harvest wine from California is heavier, more ponderous. This has a lightness, a deftness to it,” Frost says. “I love taking these wines to Europe. Europeans freak out when I tell them where it’s from.”
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.