Recession helps MU's Wine School lure aspiring vintners

Thursday, July 30, 2009 | 10:16 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Soured on the real estate market, Columbia broker Bob Walters has found what he hopes is a more fruitful pursuit: growing grapes for wine. Downsized banker Mary Becker also is dabbling in the business, planting vines on 120 acres south of Kansas City.

The aspiring vintners recently joined more than 60 others from eight states at MU's first Wine School, which teaches the tools of a trade that has been growing exponentially. The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau reports a near 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. wine producers from about 3,900 in 2004 to about 5,800 in 2008.

Missouri, one of the nation's leading wine producers before Prohibition, has seen similar growth, and instructors at MU say rising unemployment could encourage even more oenophiles to try to turn their hobby into a new career.

"I was quite blown away by how everyone around here was a backyard winemaker," said Rebecca Ford Kapoor, a New Zealand wine maker who two years ago joined MU's Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture & Enology.

The school, which focuses on grape growing and winemaking in the Midwest, offers a one-day introductory class and an advanced, three-day course. The one-day session includes an obligatory winery visit (Les Bourgeois in Rocheport) and wine tasting. But most of the time is devoted to laboratory sessions involving beakers and flasks, tips on cellar operations and sanitation and tutorials on identifying and preventing flaws in the winemaking process.

Becker said she and her husband went into winemaking inspired but without technical acumen.

"We had no idea what we were doing," the Holden resident said. "It's been a real trial and error."

Others enrolled in Kapoor's course quickly realized the business involved more than careering through Napa Valley in a convertible or comparing vintages in a friend's basement cellar. Successful wine producers must master chemistry and agriculture, she said.

"People think it's all going to be romantic," Kapoor said. "It's actually really hard, dirty, exhausting work."

Finding a suitable location to grow grapes — ideally an elevated area with good drainage — is only the first step. Even the smallest commercial wine makers can expect to invest close to $1 million in equipment and land and wait five years for their grapes to be ready for market, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine & Grape Board.

"If it's a red wine, it's eight years before you'll see a penny," Anderson said.

Matt Kirby opened Cooper's Oak Winery next to his family's cooperage in Higbee nearly three years ago. He bottled 650 cases the first year and 900 the second.

The biggest challenge, he said, has been appealing to locals with limited wine knowledge. The solution: My Sweet Dear, a sweet Concord wine with a label the color of fluorescent orange hunting gear and a picture of grapes dangling from a deer's antlers.

"If you're going to sell wine in Missouri, you have to cater to the area," Kirby said. "You make the sweet stuff, and then maybe they will try a nice dry white wine."

Still, a romantic image continues to lure would-be Robert Mondavis, said Chris Gerling, a Cornell extension agent and former upstate New York winemaker who taught at MU.

"People have been doing the corporate thing for 20 or 30 years, and now they're getting to the point where a new option is desirable. Or necessary," he said.

That's true for Walters, who still has his broker's license but hopes to retire to winemaking.

"Everybody's happy when you're at a winery," he said. "It's like a dream job."

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