There Is Indeed Wine in Kansas

Governor's quip sparks reaction from growing industry

by Jane Firstenfeld
There Is Indeed Wine in Kansas
Harvest at Holy-Field
Topeka, Ks. -- An offhand remark by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to her Washington counterpart prompted Kansas grapegrowers and vintners to defend their developing industry. "You should be thankful we don't make wine in Kansas," Sebelius told Washington Governor Chris Gregoire at a fundraiser, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "If you ever see Kansas wine, don't drink it."

Sebelius later backtracked, saying through a spokesperson that it had been a poor attempt at humor that she would not repeat. Kansas in fact supports a small but growing number of vineyards and wineries, and members of the state government have been very helpful in the five years since Sebelius took office, according to Norm Jennings, co-owner and winemaker of Smoky Hill Vineyards & Winery, who is chairman of the Kansas Grape and Winery Advisory Council. "The Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Department of Commerce Secretaries, appointed by the governor, have taken hold of our industry and helped in so many ways," Jennings declared in a statement. "We know they would not be so active if it were not the desire of the governor."

Nevertheless, Jennings said, "When I was first contacted about the comments…I was taken by surprise and hurt. My hope is that this hurt does not hit hard with all the very loyal customers of Kansas wines, or the legislators who support our industry….If the governor truly feels this way, it is a shame. If she does not feel this way, and in fact is a big supporter of the Kansas grape and wine industry, she will certainly be able to publicly show that in many ways before the end of her (second) term."

Michelle Meyer, president of the Kansas Viticulture & Farm Winery Association (KVFWA) and partner with her father, Les Meyer, in the state's oldest existing commercial winery, Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery, was saddened by the remarks, but sympathetic. "It's just one of those unfortunate situations. She misspoke. My feelings are that agriculture is the backbone of our economy. Perhaps she doesn't realize how many vineyards there are in the state. This will give her the opportunity to learn more about alternative crops. In the 1800s, Kansas had more than 5,000 acres of vineyards. A lot of people are working hard to bring back that culture."

Today, Kansas has 15 commercially bonded wineries, and an estimated 250 acres of winegrape vineyards, according to Greg Shipe, a founder of the KVFWA, which was formed to promote greater use of Kansas-grown grapes. Shipe, who owns Davenport Orchards, Vineyards & Winery, has recently increased his plantings to 17.25 vineyard acres, on which he grows 21 different varieties. An avowed Republican, he expressed a measure of accord with the Democratic governor's remarks. "It's not entirely her fault," he told Wines & Vines. "A lot of people are getting into it who have never made wine. Everybody wants to retire and make wine."

There Is Indeed Wine in Kansas
Crush at Holy-Field
Shipe praised those who are working hard and dedicated to growing Kansas winegrapes. His own wines are 100% Kansas-grown, and he's now working with an experimental plot of vinifera, including Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, which, he said, did quite well this year, surviving the infamous Easter Massacre freeze that decimated much of the Midwest last spring. "Syrah didn't do so well," he noted, saying he may try growing Cabernet Sauvignon next. Most of his vines are French hybrids and the hardy native Norton/Cynthiana. "I love Norton," Shipe said. "I've focused on that for years."

Shipe expressed gratitude to the Kansas Department of Commerce, which launched a new website, winesofkansas.com, and invested $15,000 for a promotional brochure. "Until Sebelius took office," he commented, "the state's mentality was still stuck in Prohibition." The Department of Agriculture "has been really good to us," he said. "The KVFWA has four meetings every year, and the Secretary of Agriculture comes to almost all of them. The governor has been very helpful in promoting grapes and wines in Kansas."

Shipe sells his annual production of about 600 cases per year direct-to-consumer at the winery in Eudora. "We don't advertise and we always sell out. We've developed a clientele, who come back and bring their friends," he said. The winery is located near a busy four-lane highway, and the Department of Commerce offered to pay for and erect a highway attraction sign, but Shipe declined. "I can't keep my customers satisfied now," he said.

At Holy-Field, the Meyers produce about 2,500 cases per year. Most is sold direct at the cellar door, but some is self-distributed to liquor stores around the state, for the convenience of loyal customers, according to Michelle Meyer. The Meyers grow Cynthiana and hybrids on their 15 acres of vineyards, and are adding another 1,600 vines this year to try and keep up with demand. Meyer said that the Easter freeze did mean a lower than normal quantity at harvest, but that the quality was exceptional. She was excited to sample a late harvest Vignoles, picked at 33° Brix.

The perennial shortage of Kansas-grown grapes is one reason that Kansas has two vineyard/winery organizations. The Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association (KGGWA) was founded in 1987 as a non-profit organization to promote growth and economic development, research, quality and lobbying for industry issues. Its members include both growers and wineries, some of which, perforce, source grapes outside Kansas. Shipe, a former KGGWA president, broke away to found the KVFWA several years ago. It has similar goals (and overlapping membership), but "is also dedicated to the principle that the wines produced by the state's farm wineries should be made from a minimum of 60% of grape juice from grapes grown in Kansas," according to the website, kansasfarmwineries.org.

There Is Indeed Wine in Kansas
Stops along the N.E. wine trail
KGGWA is less strict, and with this year's reduced yields, members of both organizations may have difficulty meeting market demand. Grapegrower Terry Turner, director of R&D for the KGGWA, said that overall, the Easter Massacre was responsible for a 50-75% loss of Kansas grapes.

Turner is helping to organize the KGGWA's 22nd Annual Conference, which will be held Jan. 4-6 in Emporia. He expects a turnout of about 100, perhaps more, given Emporia's conveniently central location. An amateur wine judging will open the event on Friday. Saturday's programs include sessions on business planning for vineyards and wineries; water resources; marketing; pesticides; growing and making wines from Norton/Cynthiana; Network Kansas; and identifying niche tourists. The association will hold its business meeting on Sunday. For details and registration, visit kansasgrapesandwines.com.

Gov. Sebelius' off-the-cuff but off-putting remark notwithstanding, the Kansas wine industry is determined to continue and prosper. "The Kansas wineries will be able to set these comments aside, as we receive daily affirmation from out-of-state tourists on the high quality of our wines," Norm Jennings stated. "The one person I pray will be able to set the comment aside quickly is my 8-year-old daughter Alivia, who became very sad when she heard it." Alivia asked, "How can someone that runs an entire state say something so mean about what my dad does and my grandpa started?"

As Terry Turner concluded, the ball's now in the governor's court.
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