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Growing Kansas wine industry poised for grape harvest

By Dan Voorhis

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) Grape harvest has arrived in Kansas, and could lead to a bumper crop at the state's wineries.

What's that? You didn't know Kansas had wineries.

Au contraire. Kansas has 35 registered wineries and vineyards, according to the Kansas Grape Growers & Winemakers Association.

Most are small with two to five acres of grapes, plus a strong entertainment component such as wine tasting and space for weddings and meetings, rather than looking like large-scale production farms.

Almost all are in the eastern half of the state, within short a drive of the state's major population centers.

Because of the Kansas climate, most vineyards in Kansas can't grow well known grapes such as Cabernet or Merlot. Instead, they grow hybrids that include part of the heartier native American grapes.

Altogether, Kansas winemakers produced 107,000 gallons of wine worth $6.9 million in 2010, the last official state count, and that's likely low for the production from this year's strong harvest.

Grace Hill Winery near Whitewater is holding its first grape picking of the year Saturday.

Owner Jeff Sollo said about 85 volunteers are expected to show up early Saturday to pick. He pays them with lunch, wine, a tour and the fun of being part of something neat.

He expects to harvest about three tons of seyval grapes at Saturday's event. The grape-picking events will likely take place five or six more times over the next several weeks.

After his harvest is complete, he expects to produce about 25,000 to 30,000 bottles of wine in 15 varieties, he said.

He sells a lot of through taste-testing at his winery, but he also supplies a large number of liquor stores in the Wichita area, and a couple in Emporia and Topeka. He'd like to keep pushing it out to other parts of the state.

"We found a pretty good market who love to the buy locally and love to drink, so that's a pretty good combination," Sollo said.

One of the biggest challenges he has is that people who will buy wine don't know Kansas wine is available.

"That is the main battle that we fight. ...We found that if they try it, they have a good chance of enjoying it," he said.

The state's winemakers are considering forming a marketing board to promote Kansas-made wine.

Catching up

John Brewer, owner of the state's largest producer, Wyldewood Cellars of Mulvane, said he is generally encouraged by the growth in demand for wine made in state, but frustrated by how the industry in Kansas has developed.

Many wineries in Kansas are started by hobbyists, he said. They are often new retirees who love wine and decide to plant an acre or two of grapes, then start to produce wine.

It's not that easy to do right. And, it's certainly not that easy at such a small scale. That's why some go out of business.

He said it takes five years to produce the grapes and 10 years to learn the science of producing a consistent wine.

"Over 80 percent are retirement hobbyists who watched Falcon Crest too many times and began it as a hobby, not a business," he said.

State law requires that 30 percent of a winery's grapes come from Kansas. Brewer said that encourages wineries to also be vineyards, rather than simply allowing them to buy grapes from out of state -- and Kansas doesn't grow enough grapes for its potential demand.

Ending that requirement would encourage more and larger wineries in the state, he said, which would encourage more specialization in wine-making.

Other states don't have such as rule, he said. Missouri has more than 160 wineries, he said, and Oklahoma has 80 or 90.

Bob DesRoisseaux, owner of Prairie Fire Winery in Paxico and president of the Kansas Grape Growers & Winemakers Association, said that he hasn't heard much interest from his other members in changing the 30 percent rule.

"There are different business models for winemakers in this state, and they will have different objectives and beliefs. For his business model, he may be frustrated, but more are happy to leave it alone," DesRoisseaux said.

But even Brewer noted that he is quite optimistic about the future of Kansas' wine industry. While many states allowed wine making again after Prohibition ended in the 1930s, Kansas only allowed wine-making three decades ago.

"We need more people making more wines with good quality fruit," he said. "We're are in only our infancy."

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle