ROCHEPORT — Les Bourgeois, the state's third-largest in production after Stone Hill and St. James wineries, has had a steady growth curve throughout the economic downturn, thanks in part to an increase in off-site wine sales.
"Our grocery store wine sales have increased, but that's true of the national industry as a whole," said Cory Bomgaars, head winemaker at Les Bourgeois. "Restaurant sales have been down. People are still drinking wine, but they're drinking it at home more often.” Bomgaars is also vice chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board and president of the Missouri Vintners Association.
With that growth in mind, Les Bourgeois has built a 14,000-square-foot winemaking facility to streamline production and allow for even more expansion later.
Ideas for the new facility have been incubating for years, Bomgaars said, but the business had its money tied up in expansion outside the actual winery. In addition to the winery, Les Bourgeois includes vineyards, a farm and cliff-top bistro along the Missouri River.
The Bourgeois family turned a hobby into a business in 1986. Ten years later, they purchased the bistro and the farm. "That was a significant economic investment," Bomgaars said. “We had to wait until we were strong enough to take this big of a project on.”
The $2 million expansion includes construction of the building where wine will be made and remodeling of the existing building. Les Bourgeois plans to expand its current tasting room and gift shop and extend educational services.
Les Bourgeois moved into the current winemaking building in 1989 when production was an estimated 20,000 gallons of wine a year; the expectation was that they would need to expand when they hit 60,000 gallons. They are now producing an estimated 120,000 gallons.
“People come through and say, 'I don't believe you do such volume and quality of wine with that space.' It's been a great story, but we're kind of tired of telling it," Bomgaars said. "The story's going to be a lot better with the facility that we've designed to make the wine that we want to make.”
'All in' on new building
Bomgaars credits the winery's staff for success in production thus far and as being integral to designing the new building. "We were all in on it," he said.
Huebert Builders of Columbia constructed the new two-room facility. The building is 24 feet tall at the eaves and 36 feet at the pitch.
“The main reason we need the height on the eaves is for the tanks," Bomgaars said. "When we were looking at our designs, we could have made a shorter building, but we would be limited to having our larger tanks in one section of the building. Now if we wanted to put a 6,000 gallon tank or a 12,000 gallon tank in here, we could.”
So far, the new facility is empty, except for an enormous fan whipping up a significant breeze overhead. The building's upper space will be used for a new laboratory, Bomgaars' office and a sensory room.
At 6 feet wide and 15 feet long, the current lab is cramped because the wine-maker, cellar-master and intern all share the space. The new laboratory will be 30 by 15 feet. A third of the new laboratory space will be for storage of corks, capsules and dry goods. Blending trials for fine-tuning the taste of a current product or experimenting with a new one will be done in the sensory room next door. Right now, they are done at the bistro.
Once the winemaking equipment is moved from the old building to the new one and occupancy is passed on the warehouse side, Les Bourgeois will no longer lease warehouse space at Subtera, which has underground caves in Columbia. Les Bourgeois also hopes to build a warehouse next to the new wine-making facility.
With the new space, cases will be able to go to the warehouse straight from bottling.
Processing incoming grapes will also be much easier. Currently, operators have to dump grapes either into a press 14 feet above their head or into a receiving hopper about 10 feet up.
"It's pretty awkward," Bomgaars said.
Trucks have to be unloaded in the parking lot because of a lack of space inside the current processing room. "We pretty much fill half of our parking lot up when we unload the trucks, and then we process them all into this little space," Bomgaars said.
The new facility features a concrete patio between the new building and the old where customers will be able to view wine-making.
Trucks with incoming grapes will be able to back into a drop-down area next to the new building where the processing equipment will be.
"Once that's done, operators will be able to look right into the machinery," Bomgaars said about eliminating the need to hoist grapes several feet up into a receiving press.
“You're talking about, on a week like this, 40-50 hours of labor that we're saving,” Bomgaars said about streamlining production. He said positions will not be eliminated; current employees will be able to focus their energies on making better products.
Although 50 percent of production is invested in Riverboat Red, a large-volume wine that Bomgaars said is rapidly expanding, there has also been growth in production and sales of small series wines. The winery's collector's series, which Les Bourgeois does three of a year, currently produces 47,000 cases.
One last harvest
Bomgaars said the move will be done in stages. First, they plan to move into the warehouse side of the building, probably in the next month. Moving the tanks and bottling equipment is another story.
Excessive heat delayed bottling for a few weeks, though Bomgaars said they were able to catch up and are finishing now. The winery will need all equipment to be operational in time for harvest, which has just begun, so Les Bourgeois will need to operate one more time in its old facility.
“Our goal would be to get the tanks in here by next harvest or over the course of next year," Bomgaars said.
Once the move into the new building is complete, Les Bourgeois plans to use the old building to accommodate visitors to the winery and educational tours. A row of tanks and some oak barrel storage will be left behind in the old building. Bomgaars said the winery's equipment for sparkling wine will be brought in as well.
The gift shop, which now occupies 600 square feet of the winery, will expand into the bottling space of the old building. Visitors will be able to view winemaking in the new facility through windows overlooking it from the gift shop as well as from the expanded patio area next to the new tasting room.
"Not only will it be good for us, but it’s going to be a good showcase for the Missouri industry," Bomgaars said, "which is a really exciting part of it."