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Les Bourgeois plans to bring in record grape harvest

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 | 11:02 p.m. CDT; updated 9:29 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Head winemaker Cory Bomgaars, top, and winemaker Jake Holman process and add yeast to the day's batch of wine at Les Bourgeois in Rocheport. This year's tremendous crop has made 70-hour workweeks necessary to process all the grapes into wine.

COLUMBIA — The low rumble of an idling grape harvester disrupted the silence Tuesday afternoon as a three-man team prepared to bring in a record harvest at Les Bourgeois Winery and Vineyards, near Rocheport.

The third-largest winery in Missouri, Les Bourgeois is expecting to harvest 170 tons of wine grapes on its property this season.

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“Our highest harvest ever was 108 tons,” said Cory Bomgaars, the head winemaker.

On average, an acre can yield 4 to 5 tons of grapes. With this year’s expected harvest, Les Bourgeois can produce over 135,000 bottles of wine from its own vineyards.

As the afternoon wore on Tuesday, the drone of the grape harvester grew louder while Larry Lopez, the farm and vineyard manager at Les Bourgeois, centered the machine to straddle a row.

Bomgaars drove beside him on a John Deere tractor hitched to a trailer holding white bins to catch the grapes. Tim Rowe, a college student and part-time worker, balanced on the trailer and acted as a human funnel guiding the clusters into the bins.

The crew intended to wrap up the job Tuesday, until a glitch in nature changed their plans. Midway through the rows, they spotted a Multicolored Asian lady beetle, a bug great for soybeans but disastrous for wine. As the harvesting machine shakes grapes off the vines, the beetle emits a defense pheromone that ruins wine.

With thunderstorms threatening, the men decided to spray Thursday and finish the harvest Friday.

A 1994 MU graduate in biology, Bomgaars is leading the professional winemaking team that is producing this year's record harvest.

He became interested in winemaking while working at Les Bourgeois during college. He started at the A-Frame — the Vineyard’s winegarden — then moved to the lab.

After graduating from MU,  he spent a year at the University of California, Davis, famous for its enology and viticulture programs, with the intention of returning as head winemaker.

Bomgaars said he is excited by the challenges and changes at the vineyard, which include adding acreage for planting, expanding the winery and minimizing environmental impact.

“I like to take credit, but what really helped was having a dedicated winemaking staff,” he said of the improvements on wine quality at Les Bourgeois. He works with winemaker Jacob Holman and cellar master Drew Lemberger, both MU graduates.

“I was able to take the foundation Bourgeois created and pop it up, but Jacob and Drew have taken what we had there so much higher,” Bomgaars said.

The winemaking operation began in 1974 when the Bourgeois family bought 15 acres of property on the Missouri River near Rocheport.

“He began it in his garage,” said Roslyn Bourgeois about her husband, Curtis. In 1985, after a 5-ton harvest, the hobby became much more. The next year, Les Bourgeois sold out its 1986 Jeunette Rouge in two months.

Fourteen years later, a season of steady rain and improved viticulture practices produced this season’s record crop.

“If it were last year when we had the big freeze and then these rains, it would have been a double-whammy where we had no grapes and triple the expenses,” Bomgaars said.

Of the 16 different wines and the lone sparkling wine, LBV Brut, produced at Les Bourgeois, Riverboat Red is the best-seller. Bomgaars said the chardonel, a dry white wine, is a frequent award-winner. 

“We lightly barrel-age it and it has a crisp style. That block of vineyard gets consistently nice wines.”

Bomgaars also cited the vignole as a favorite, a wine that is sweeter, high-end and high-dollar.

Les Bourgeois is working deliberately to create its wines with more environmentally friendly techniques.

“Everything we do is really focusing on minimal impact,” Bomgaars explained. Everything, he said, from insect-scouting to a weather-monitoring station that measures humidity, temperature and leaf wetness will help environmentally and monetarily.

Below the chardonel vines, rows of vidal grapes are being harvested late to get more caramel and oxidized flavors. These grapes produce a sweeter white wine.

“By the time we harvest the 8 tons we’ve left," Bomgaars said, "we’re going to lose 50 percent to 75 percent of volume, but that leads to a really cool and more expensive wine.”

During the past 12 months, the vineyard has been working hard to prepare additional acreage for planting next spring. After a year of growing rye, the land will be enriched with organic matter from Columbia's compost piles. The final stage is to plow the compost in and then plant the permanent vines.

“I really like this because we’re taking municipal waste that everyone’s creating in their yards and using that in agriculture, as opposed to just buying chemicals and fertilizer.

"It’s about taking an urban issue and bring it to the farm.”

In the future, Bomgaars is looking forward to expanding on this year’s record harvest.

Plans to add 14,000 square feet to the winery will be completed by next harvest.

“I’m really excited for more successful harvests,” Bomgaars said. “I just hope it’s not as insanely long as this year.”


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