Kansas strives to revitalize state wine market
- Oct. 5, 2012
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When most people think of big drivers of the Kansas economy, fields of wheat, pastures dotted with beef cattle and clumps of large factories pumping out airplanes, plastic and packed meat come to mind. However, the sites of an emerging market are tucked into small towns and hidden off country roads.
Kansas’s wineries and vineyards, which now lag behind nearby states in acreage and production, are trying to make a comeback.
Dominic Martin is an instructor of viticulture at Highland Community College. He manages the college’s vineyard, which lies on the outskirts of Wamego, 45 miles northwest of Topeka. The vineyard was created four years ago, and it produced its first crop of grapes last month. Students are able to work hands-on, stringing wire, pruning and picking, learning how to create and run a commercial winemaking business.
“Most of our students are thinking about being in this business,” Martin said. “Once they’re our students, they never go away. We’re friends with these people. We want them to succeed.”
A century ago, Martin said, Kansas was one of the country’s leaders in winemaking. Prohibition, a cold climate, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II contributed to the demise of the market in Kansas.
“But now there’s a real move all over the Midwest,” he said. “There’s a real curiosity about it, and people want to know what they’re drinking and where it comes from. They like the idea of a local product, whether it’s fruits and vegetables or a bottle of wine or a bottle of beer. The whole thing is returning to the local level. And we have a long way to go.”
Highland’s site accounts for one acre of Kansas’ 400 acres of vineyard, a number Martin said needs to increase substantially before the state can compete with its neighbors. While there are about 30 wineries scattered around Kansas, Missouri lays claim to more than 100, according to travelthemidwest.com.
“There’s a real need for more Kansas grapes,” Martin said. “We’re pushing hard to have more vineyards put in.”
This lack of grape production was a factor behind the creation of a provision that decreases the amount of Kansas-grown grapes that wineries are required to use in their products. Before the law went into effect in May, 60 percent of ingredients in a winery’s overall products had to be made in Kansas. House Bill 2689 cut this down to 30 percent.
David Sollo, president of the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association (KGGWA) and owner of Grace Hill Winery in Whitewater, said this new law would make it easier for wineries to become profitable because they will not have to compete for the limited number of Kansas-grown grapes.
“As of January 2012, every grape in Kansas was spoken for. Even if you wanted to buy more grapes, you couldn’t, because there were none available,” Sollo said. “So that really limits winery growth.”
Sollo thinks the new, lessened requirement will generate the creation of more wineries throughout Kansas, as he said it has done with neighboring states.
Greg Shipe, owner of Davenport Orchard and Winery in Eudora, said this potential increase in the number of wineries would ruin Kansas’ reputation.
Shipe has a 22-acre vineyard comprising 21 varieties of grapes. He has been growing grapes for more than 20 years, and strives to use 100 percent Kansas-grown grapes in his wine.
Shipe said wineries that sell products made with imported grapes are deceiving to customers. Under this new requirement, he said, the quality of the wine would falter.
“It’s important for wine to be grown where it’s made,” Shipe said. “You develop an identity for that wine from where it’s grown.”
Martin’s focus remains on the economy. According to the U.S. Census, 77 of Kansas’ 105 counties lost residents between 2000 and 2010.
“Kansas is losing its population, and the wine industry employs a lot of people,” Martin said.
Martin also said if the grape-growing and winemaking industry were to grow, a boost in tourism would follow, which would lead to an establishment of more restaurants, bed and breakfasts and hotels.
“A lot of people can’t afford to take a vacation in Europe, but they can afford to make a wine trail trip and spend two, three or four days away from home,” Martin said. “This can help revitalize the local economy.”
Both Martin and Sollo said there is more work to be done before there can be a booming winemaking market in Kansas. Sollo said that, along with further decreases in the Kansas-grown grapes requirement, there needs to be an established identity for Kansas wine — something he and other viticulturists are searching for.
“Missouri has its Norton, Indiana has its Cabernet, Burgundy has its Pinot Noir, what does Kansas have? We’re still searching,” Sollo said. “We’re still young.”