Here’s the full Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) half-hour show about regional wines and their absence from Kansas City wine lists, plus the big grape showdown where Missouri and Kansas wines take on the French and Californians in a blind tasting – and win!
For the last four years, the Missouri Wine Technical Group’s Norton Workshops have taken place behind closed doors with no media present and no in-depth media coverage. For the first time, the newly elected President of the Technical Group, Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, has agreed to talk to Regional Wine Taster in detail about the workshops and about what happened at the latest one held last Tuesday.
The Norton workshops take place at least once a year and invite winemakers from across Missouri and the Midwest to share their issues and knowledge to help improve the quality of their wines. Winemakers bring unfinished and problem Norton wines for a blind tasting followed by constructive criticism. The initiative was started in 2008 by the newly founded Technical Group based on the idea of one of its members, New Zealander, Andrew Meggitt, winemaker for St James Winery, who brought the concept from his home country. At last Tuesday’s workshop, thirty winemakers representing ten wineries attended to blind taste and discuss ten different Norton wines.
Regional Wine Taster: Can you explain exactly what goes on at your Norton Workshops?
Jacob Holman: What we do is three workshops a year, each focusing on a varietal and because of Norton’s importance to the Midwest, we always include it every year. We’ve also done Chambourcin, Vignoles, Lambruscas, Concord and Catawba. The way our workshops function is you submit wine – we prefer it to be an unfinished wine, not in the bottle – and we will flight those wines and sit down and taste them blind and then we break up into groups of six to eight. Everyone will evaluate the wines on their own and then you go around the table and your nominated scribe will take the group’s collective evaluation and then the moderator will call on that group to say what they think of wine 1A, or whatever it is. Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is “outed” and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.
RWT: In most industries, it’s hard to picture competitors critiquing each other’s products in order to help improve them. What is it about the Midwest wine industry that allows for such cooperation?
JH: I think most people in the industry recognize that the quality of Midwest wines hinges on our knowledge and this is a good way for small wineries to sit in the same room with bigger guys who have gone through this sort of stuff. I learn something every time even though I work for one of the bigger wineries. The basic idea is that while there might be reasons that one Norton is better than another, there’s no reason to have flawed wine. I think that within the Midwest we recognize that and are willing to help each other out and also recognize that we are a growing industry and this sort of thing helps us to compete with California wines, Oregon wines and all those other ones in the grocery store. Overall we need to have a perspective that is good for Missouri as a whole.
“Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is ‘outed’ and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.”
RWT: How unique is this workshop? Do forums like this exist in other parts of the United States?
JH: When we started this four years ago I couldn’t find any similar workshops but there are a lot of attempts and failures from State Associations. There are quality assurance programs that haven’t typically been very successful and those state programs are exclusive with a board of winemakers, sommeliers and retailers who will put a stamp of approval on the wine. So if you’re a winemaker and you don’t know enough and you fail to get that stamp, that’s a black mark against you. We’re not about that, we’re about education and helping winemakers make better wines. I haven’t found a lot of this kind of cooperation in other US regions. We’ve had a lot of, “Gee I wish we had this in our state!” And that is something we would foster if it got big enough, for example an Illinois or a Kansas technical group, because we work with a lot of the same varietals. That’s kind of a dream of mine, but for now it’s Midwest wines.
RWT: At the workshop you tasted unfinished and problem Nortons. What Norton problems usually come up?
JH: They can include, for example, your tank not being topped, meaning not full – so your SO2 levels will be low – that causes your wine to oxidize. To solve this I would go to an extreme and tell people that if you have 350 gallons and you only have a 300 gallon tank, fill up the 300 gallon tank, even if it means throwing the 50 gallons away. That issue applies to all wines. As far as Norton goes in particular, today we had a speaker talk about oak management, that’s something not specific to Norton but it does have a problem with it. Norton’s tannin structure is light, there’s not a lot of natural tannin that comes in the fruit, so it’s important to manage your tannins and manage your oak which provide tannins to be able to stabilize your color and make a bolder wine style that is agreeable.
RWT: Winemakers often say that Norton is a hard wine to make. At these workshops do you ever advise people that they should make something easier like Chambourcin?
JH: No I would never recommend that people not make Norton, just because of its clout within the state. I would always advise that it is very tricky to deal with and you may not want to make Norton as your first wine ever, but at the same time it is manageable. I have learned a few tricks here and there and that’s what I would tell people, as opposed to discouraging them from trying to make it.
RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method? (see: Missouri’s Les Bourgeois Vineyards Profile)
JH: Oh I do a lot of different things that are not typically standard! To deal with the pH problem, I know that Norton has a high acidity so I will actually acidify Norton. After fermentation I will drop the pH down to a microbial management level. The higher the pH the more chance you have of a spoilage organism surviving so you’re really the safest with your preservatives if it’s around a lower level. Even though I have to add acid to make that happen – and the wine will be relatively undrinkable for a few months! – I will maintain that pH and therefore maintain my sulfur level to where I don’t have to worry nearly so much about spoilage. When I finish the wine I will change it back to a higher pH and drop that acidity out because once it is sterile filtered and in the bottle, in theory, you don’t have to worry about spoilage organisms anymore.
“RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method?”
RWT: In this workshop do you ever disagree about whether a wine has a problem or not and the nature of that problem?
JH: Typically, if a wine is a problem wine there won’t be a disagreement about that but a lot of the time there’ll be disagreement on what that problem is. So if I think its high T.A. (total acidity) or V.A. (volatile acidity) somebody else might think it’s a sulfide problem for example. And sometimes the wine’s off and we don’t necessarily know why.
RWT: Are you finding after four years of workshops that the Norton wines you’re tasting now are having fewer, less serious faults?
JH: The people who attend the workshops and take them seriously have made huge improvements in what they do and how they do things and their wines have definitely got better. However, it is a work in progress and will take years. I’ve only had one person get really irritated with the workshop and say that they weren’t coming back! I take a certain amount of pride in that too because winemaking is something you put all your time and heart into and as long as you stay in your winery your wine can seem fine! But once you get out there and start comparing apples to apples sometimes you realize you have a problem. That’s hard for people to stomach but for the most part everybody’s really taken on the suggestions, gone home and the next year worked on things and it’s really made a difference.
RWT: With the unfinished wines you tasted today was there anything that that surprised you particularly? Or that was notably different to previous workshops?
JH: Mmmm no. I think there were fewer flaws in general than there have been in past workshops. We had one guy who bought this one barrel in that wasn’t the same as his other twenty barrels and he don’t know exactly what was going on. He gave us a rundown and we were able to maybe figure out what the problem was.
RWT: What did you bring to the workshop?
JH: The wine I submitted today, there’s no flaw to it, it was an unfinished 2011. It is very green and I wanted to see what people thought of it as far as what I could do to finish it a little better. So I bought it in and it was well received and the criticisms were along the lines of the wine being green, very young and having a lot of potential but needing a lot of time, maybe a little more oak and maybe a little more structure. Those are all things that I can do between now and when the wine is released.
RWT: How long could you age that Norton for and have it sitting in barrels so you can manipulate it?
JH: I think everybody agrees that you have anywhere from two to ten years to age a bottle of Norton – it’s not like a Cabernet that has the tannins to hold up – so we typically will do anywhere from 12 to 24 months in barrel and then release it and I think that is relatively standard within the industry.
RWT: Is there a difference between the technical skills and equipment you need to make a Norton, as opposed to another wine variety?
JH: As far as equipment, no, as far as skills, yes, I would say that. I’m not trying to promote Norton here but I have worked with vinifera and it is much easier to deal with. You don’t have the problems that you have with the Norton and I think that goes all the way from growing that grape to the finish.
RWT: What did the tasting today indicate about the progress of your endeavors to improve the Norton and what still needs to be worked on?
JH: Well, as far as the progress goes for the Missouri Wine Technical Group I was very happy with the way things went today. I was also happy with the wine quality in general but I really believe that if we had more wineries represented (note: there were 10 represented and Jacob would like that boosted to about 30) then I think everyone could benefit a little more, so that’s the goal of the group, to get more membership and get more attendance.
RWT: During four years of your Technical Group, what new varietals are you seeing more of?
JH: Well, we do experimental cultivar tasting through the University of Missouri in Columbia and some people are biting on that and there are some grapevines that are being planted that haven’t always been planted but I don’t think it’s a mad rush to do so…
RWT: Which ones?
JH: The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be Valvin muscat, a muscat cross that’s able to be grown in the Midwest. I’ve noticed a lot of people growing that and we actually had some interest in that today as the next Workshop but I don’t think we will because there’s probably not enough people making wine out of it yet . As far as consumers go, from what I hear in the tasting room and from what I see people buying, Vignoles is something that I think Missouri has a handle on and now people ask for it by varietal, more so than anything else apart from Norton.
RWT: The fact that people are actually asking for their local grapes by name, that must be quite pleasing?
JH: Yes it is. This is something that has only happened recently, within my short career over the last 12 to 13 years. When I started, no-one ever asked for Norton or Vignoles by name, it was all, you know, “Let me have your sweet white,” or, “Let me have your dry red,” but I believe that’s changing to some extent.
RWT: Thanks very much for your time President Holman!
JH: Ha! Ha! No problem, I hope you got what you need.
Rich DeScenzo is a microbiologist with ETS Laboratories in St Helena, California and a grape chemistry expert. Rich has spent a decade researching grape genomics (examining the DNA sequences of grapes) molecular diagnostic methods and fermentation. I was attracted to the ETS booth on the trade show not by Dr DeScenzo’s scientific pedigree, but instead by a large plastic scorpion, the mascot for one of their diagnostic technologies. As he poked the scorpion, Rich told me that ETS is the biggest independent wine laboratory in the United States with about 45 employees who do the microbiological analysis for almost 90% of the domestic wine industry. Their aim is to prevent microbial spoilage at the grape, bottling or beyond stages of the wine production chain, what Rich describes as “full spectrum analysis.” The good doctor was lively and entertaining as he explained the microbiological problems that can occur during the wine making process. Here’s the first part of our conversation.
Danny: So if I’m a Midwest grape called the Norton and I’m not tasting too great…?
Rich: I’ve just tasted two very nice Nortons thank you! One had a little bit of Brettanomyces in it, but not bad. I tasted one yesterday too that had a little of what I might call a microbial funk in it.
Danny: Is that what produces that inside of an artichoke can taste?
Rich: Well there are lots of different ones. I’m the microbiologist so I’m very tuned into microbial spoilage and that’s what we focus on trying to help people prevent and we have all the diagnostic tools. I gave a talk yesterday (Friday 10th February) at 830am, it was the first talk early in the morning…
Danny: Nice to get it out-of-the-way?
Rich: Yeah, yeah! There were about 30 people and they came for a microbiology talk. Historically people have looked at microbiology as regards the wine industry as a forensics tool, in other words, if something goes wrong you call the microbiologist, for example if the wine starts smelling. We have the tools now that we can prevent spoilage because we can detect the organisms long before they spoil the wine. Overall I’ve tasted a number of wines here and I was very pleasantly surprised at some very nice wines. There are some that have some problems but it doesn’t matter if it’s a Norton or a Cabernet from Napa, you still have problems in the wine.
Danny: So people come to you when they have a problem but are you able to tinker with things in the wine?
Rich: We’re able to tell them what caused the problem. If we catch it before it’s a problem that’s really the power we have and what we’re seeing is a gradual shift in the industry towards pre-emptive screening instead of forensic analysis. Now with the chemistry side, the chemistry is the standard, you need to follow things, you need to know, where are my sugar levels? Is sugar dropping? Is all the sugar gone? Is my fermentation complete? Or malolactic fermentation, is it complete? That type of thing. There’s a great deal of science behind this and what’s interesting, really interesting, is that people who want to have the fewest touches on the wine, the very purest, minimal impact, those are the people who benefit most from having all the information. If you’re one of the large manufacturers and you’re adding lots of SO2 and you filter and then you sterile filter in bottling, maybe you don’t need to know as much, because it’s more like an industrial wine production, but for the folks who are really trying to do as little as possible then the more technology they use and the more helpful it is.
Danny: Is there a typical problem that wineries just starting out come to you with?
Rich: I think the biggest problems early on revolve around sanitation, and not sanitation in a way that there is anything that could possibly harm anyone, but sanitation and not understanding the difference between say cleaning something and then sterilizing or sanitizing it. So a lot of times they end up making a wine which is a nice wine and then they go to the bottle and some microbes, bacteria or yeast get into the bottle and they spoil the wine. That’s what we’ve had a lot of comments about in the context that, maybe in the first few years a winery doesn’t have a lot of natural microbial inhabitants, but over time you start building up these populations in your winery, your house strains, and then you can get bugs in there that can cause a problem in the wine.
Rich: And so that’s probably for the startups, other than the basics people need to know. Invariably they start having problems with microbial spoilage, that’s usually the big one, either that or oxidation, that’s the other big issue.
Danny: Can there be a fine line between the job a microbiologist like you and the task of a winemaker?
Rich: No! We’re completely different. For winemakers, their job is to keep the right microbes in and keep the bad ones out, but there’s so much more to it all in the decisions during the process, like when to harvest the grapes, how to manage the canopies, what crop load on the grapes, what yeast they select, what bacteria, what oak, what toast level. These are decisions they make along the way and we don’t really influence any of that, what we do is work specifically on the chemistry of the wine and then prevent microbial spoilage.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. In the second – and arguably more interesting part – Rich gives his views on Midwest wines and the future of the industry. Part II will be posted very soon.
Belvoir Winery is an impressive sight if it catches your eye as you drive along Highway 291 on the outskirts of Liberty, Missouri. The view is too much to take in at 50 miles an hour with its acres of lawns, long pathways, cherubs looking onto fountains and vineyards that together lead you up to a line of imposing, red brick and sandstone buildings. The effect is 1900s boarding school meets French vineyard chateau, officially called Jacobethan Revival style. Its French name (as you know mon petit escargot, it means ‘Beautiful View’), the vines and its castle-palace impression could make you think of a French vineyard. But the buildings that make-up Belvoir are definitely more impressive than many Bordeaux wineries who (I was disappointed to discover) often label their bottles with the evocative word chateau but actually make their wine from within drab, modern, utilitarian buildings with no chateau anywhere in sight. Belvoir is the real thing, an eclectic historical treasure inside and out, surrounded by acres of land and vines.
Owner Dr John Bean might have the look and manner of a rather professorial, retired country gentleman but he’s at the beginning of a grandiose project for further expansion that would make a Las Vegas tycoon proud. A former osteopath, John seems to have seamlessly transitioned from mending human bone structures into fixing up the structures of old buildings. As we leafed through photos and clippings he remarked that he’s spent half a million dollars on steel reinforcement alone – it was as if he was talking about a patient.
Together with his wife Marsha he started growing grapes here in the late 1990s and about a year ago completed extensive renovations of the main building and opened it to the public. On the ground floor there are bars, dining rooms, drawing rooms, a deli, ice cream parlor and gift shop. Upstairs there are plans for a double size ballroom and an artists’ space for use by local college students. That’s just the start. John wants to create a sort of rural retirement resort complex where the vineyards would be overlooked by a hotel in the main buildings as well as apartments out in the vines, an enclosed arena for performances and an old peoples’ home. The lawns at the front would be remodeled into a French garden.
Extravagant as it sounds, it could be an appropriate reincarnation of all of Belvoir’s past uses. The site started as a hotel in the late 1800s, built on the site of a sulfur Spring. The developers were hoping it would be Liberty’s answer to the better known Excelsior Springs down the road. But only a few years after opening the hotel was sold to the benevolent Independent Order of Odd Fellows (that still exists today in 26 countries and is the largest fraternal organization in the world according to Belvoir’s website and Wikipedia) who converted it into the administrative block for an old peoples’ home, an orphanage, a school and a hospital. In 1900 the main building burnt down after a blow torch was used to try and defrost the pipes and was rebuilt in its current Jacobethan Revival style. The school was torn down in the 1950s to make way for a new hospital.
Inside and out, John has placed unusual objects, furnishings and works of art, partly collected from his international travels but also
rescued or inherited from Kansas City’s old buildings. On the rolling lawn there’s a white marble gazebo used for weddings that arrived in 34 crates from Beijing without any instructions. Nearbye, a garden walkway is made from terracotta, recovered from a building off the plaza in Kansas City, and limestone recovered from St Mary’s Hospital before it was demolished. Inside Belvoir that same limestone can be found on the floors of restrooms and in other rooms there’s marble from the old American Express Association at Union Station. In the attractive wooded bar near the main entrance hangs a chandelier from St Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas and in other extremities of the building there are lounges and a fireplace, both from London, and a huge wooden ornament complete with a carved deer’s head that virtually covers the wall . “That’s from the black-forest in Germany,” says John. “ I hand carried it out twenty eight years ago, put it in a bicycle box and shipped it back free on TWA’s luggage.” We agreed that probably wouldn’t be possible these days. In one room there’s a big painting of a Russian Rabbi who’s prominent nose seems to follow you as you move about the room.
John is modest about his wines and seems most proud of his Muscat. “We’re growing a Muscat out of New York that nobody else grows,” he says. “It’s called a Golden Muscat and we haven’t even put it out yet. It’s just a wonderful grape.” There are currently about 3½ acres under vines at Belvoir and they’re planting about 200 to 300 more plants every year. At the moment Belvoir presses the grapes for about 20% of its wines and buys in grapes for the rest of its production that are sent to Les Bourgeois Vineyards, two hours away in Rocheport, for pressing and bottling. John seems to have no trouble finding drinkers for his wines that include Chambourcin, Norton-Cynthiana and Vignoles. Last year he says Belvoirhosted 43 weddings and 300 events that together consumed 1800 cases of his vintages. Even while I was hovering for a few minutes at the bar a couple of people separately inquired about making a booking.
John says Les Meyer from Holy-Field Winery in Kansas (see Bottle Shock blog post) was an inspiration for him early on. “That’s a great winery and he got me started when I first bought this place,” he says. “I spent an afternoon with him in his basement and in fact I never got home!”
As far as a strategy for drinking wines, including his own, made from the Norton grape, (see The Quest for a Drinkable Norton blog post), John has some advice: “I think eventually it will get a wider appeal but it’s sort of like scotch. You’ve got to start off with a teaspoon of scotch and a lot of water first and build your tastes up to it, and Norton’s one of those.” Norton fans may not agree with that but for the Midwest’s sweeter wine drinkers it’s probably good advice.
In a video interview with Regional Wine Taster, Michelle Meyer, owner of Holy-Field Vineyard, tells how a Californian wine connoisseur was gifted a bottle of their Holy-Field Late Harvest Vignoles dessert wine and took it to a blind tasting where it faced the best bottles his wine friends had to offer, including a Dom Perignon, a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and high-end Californian wines. Against this classy opposition, Holy-Field’s dessert wine was the hit of the tasting! Michelle says the Californian wine fans were “tickled” when the Kansas identity of the wine was revealed and they regarded it as the one everyone wanted to top.
Michelle says the response from these wine fans underlines the US public’s growing interest in trying regional wines. ”I think for a lot of people regionality is becoming more important and as that happens they’re pleasantly surprised to find something outside the traditional wine regions, ” Michelle says.
Perhaps today, some Kansas and Missouri wines stand in relation to Californian wines, how three decades ago Californian wines stood in relation to French wines (like that Judgement of Paris 1976). Maybe Missouri and Kansas wines could use a few more ‘bottle shocks’ like this to help both their reputation and challenge the wine status quo.