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Les Bourgeois becoming a force in Missouri wine industry

Thursday, July 14, 2011 | 9:50 p.m. CDT; updated 9:58 a.m. CST, Saturday, February 18, 2012
Matt Harrison packs bottles of Riverboat Red after they come off the production line Wednesday afternoon at the new Les Bourgeios facility. The current batch of red wine packaged is from a 3,500 gallon tank, said Harrison.

ROCHEPORT — In late June, Tim Rowe stood under the blistering sun pruning grapevines and tying them to a trellis. Rowe was training the infant traminette vines that Les Bourgeois Vineyards had planted three years ago to diversify its varietals.

Traminette is a perfumy white grape related to Gewurztraminer. The winery expects the vines to be yielding grapes for production as early as next year.

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The new wine is one of the many changes Rowe, assistant vineyard manager, has seen since he arrived two years ago.

"It's easier to name things that haven't changed," he said.

A more obvious alteration for the winery is a half-mile away, across I-70. There, other winery staff have been busy moving into the new $2.5 million production facility, a 14,000-square-foot, barn-like aluminum building. Just weeks away from the first harvest, scheduled for the end of July, the building is not yet complete.

Les Bourgeois broke ground on the facility two years ago to make space for increased wine production, keeping pace with rising sales figures. CEO Curtis M. Bourgeois says sales have risen tenfold over the last 20 years and more than doubled in the last 10. He said overall revenue for the company in 2010 was $4.5 million, up from $2.5 million in 2000 and $460,000 in 1990.

The new building will bring the warehouse, bottling operation, offices, laboratory and most of the vineyard's wine tanks under one roof. It will also have a larger tasting room to accommodate the busloads of people who come in for tours. 

Les Bourgeois produced 45,000 gallons of wine in 1999. Production has reached 120,000 gallons today, said winemaker Jacob Holman, making Les Bourgeois the third-largest winery in Missouri behind Stone Hill Winery in Hermann and St. James Winery in St. James, the largest winery in the state.

Missouri is broken into wine regions and produces several types of wine, as explained in a recent Missourian article.

The new production facility will allow a 40-percent increase in wine production. This will permit the winery to reach 200,000 gallons annually and challenge Stone Hill Winery for the title of second-biggest in the state. But being the biggest isn't necessarily Holman's ambition.

"We're fine with number three," Holman said. "St. James is making closer to 500,000. When you get up into that range, there's a whole different mentality."

Still, he'd like to see the winery grow.

Last year, the winery focused on the shell of the new building, interior mechanics and warehouse. The building was not ready for the 2010 harvest, so Les Bourgeois had an additional 12 months to finish it before the next harvest began.

Forklifts were still ferrying wine tanks from the old building to the new as late as early July. The plumbing and mechanical work was also unfinished, and the new wine press — the first stop for grapes in from the fields — had yet to arrive.

Les Bourgeois is already bottling and storing wine in the new space — an estimated 30,000 cases, in the same room as the assembly-line bottling operation.

Most of the facility's increased wine production will go into the wholesale business, which has grown sharply over the last decade from 30 percent to 70 percent of all wine sales.

The winery has also expanded its wholesale business to Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana and Iowa. That has meant new opportunities as well as new challenges, head winemaker Cory Bomgaars said.

"As you get further and further away, your message gets different," he said. "You're not the local winery that people know and are familiar with. Now you're a product and competing against all the other products on the shelf."

Constant growth

Les Bourgeois Vineyards had a tiny start. It began in 1986 as a winemaking operation at Curtis H. Bourgeois' house between the modern day Blufftop Bistro and A-Frame, where he still lives.

The A-Frame, now a seasonal outdoor venue overlooking the Missouri River, was the first retail location and winery. In 1991, production moved over to the old Pete's Diner location off I-70, where it has been ever since. The Blufftop Bistro, a restaurant, was added in 1996 near the A-Frame.

The winery's vineyards have also expanded. The original vineyard that was planted near Bourgeois' house continues to produce Norton grapes. In 1998, Les Bourgeois acquired the 160 acres south of I-70 where it produces the bulk of its grapes, a spot of land referred to as "the farm" by employees.

Chardonel, Vidal and Vignoles vines have found a good home in the southern plot, Bomgaars said. The riverfront acreage provides good elevation gain, ample sunlight, quality soil and breezes to keep the humidity down.

As the winery has flourished, so too has the scope of its grape acquisitions. Les Bourgeois now owns, manages and contracts grapes for its wine. Over the years, a number of mid-Missouri farmers have switched over fields to yield grapes exclusively for wine. The winery once had to buy any grapes it could find to meet demand, but it can now be picky.

Bill Books' family, for example, is starting to move into the wine business. Six years ago, they tilled and planted grape vines on 10 acres of land behind their house that had once been grazing ground for cattle. These vines now produce 35 tons of Catawba and Vignoles grapes annually. Catawba is the primary grape in the winery's popular Pink Fox wine.

Bill's son Madison Books, who has helped his father with the vineyards since he was in high school, said that the family made around $25,000 last year from the grapes. Almost all of that tonnage was sold to Les Bourgeois.

Les Bourgeois helped with the transition, Madison Books said.

Before planting their 5,500 vines, the Books contacted Les Bourgeois to find out what types of grapes the winery wanted.

"It’s a constant relationship providing what they want," he said. "Cory (Bomgaars) will come out a couple times a year to personally check on the status of the grapes. It’s a partnership because he's heavily invested as much as we are."

The Books' vineyard is already one of the largest in Callaway County, Madison Books said. They're considering expanding to another 15 acres they have available.

Madison Books is aware of how his family's grape-growing operation fits into what's happening with wine in Missouri.

"It just seems like it's exploding, the amount of vineyards and wineries," he said. "You hear of new ones popping up every day."

Although he's leaving central Missouri soon for an accounting position in St. Louis, he hopes his younger brother will pursue an education in enology or viticulture to continue the new family business.

"It's something different, something interesting that we're doing," Madison Books said. "It's not the typical farmer mode of getting a bunch of cattle that everyone around here does. There's only room to grow and take it to the next level."

A statewide effort

What Bomgaars did for the Books has become routine for him and Holman. The two winemakers travel the state and consult with other wineries to help them along. Holman is vice president of the Missouri Wine Technical Group, an organization that brings together winemakers from around the state four times a year. The members supply and then blind-taste wines made from the same grape. The group then gives feedback.

“It’s a tightknit industry," Holman said. "We’re at about 100 wineries now. When I started we were at about 45. But within that, the wine quality in our state has to come up for all of us to be successful.”

Farmers like Books and other wine makers such as Chris West, of West Wineries in Macon, credit Bomgaars and Holman for working with them to raise the overall quality of Missouri wine.

West first started by volunteering at Les Bourgeois to see how they did things. He said that now that his own winery is up and running, he can count on Holman to give him advice about his business.

"We have the same passion to help make the Missouri wine industry better," West said. "Especially on the national level."

For West, that passion is channeled into winemaking as well as blogging about the Missouri wine industry on winedustry.com, where he is a frequent contributor. He hopes to see wine production in Missouri reattain its historic peak of the 1880s when the state was the second-largest producer in the U.S.

"We can be back to the levels before Prohibition when we were a leader in the wine industry," he said.

There were no signs of life in Missouri wines until 1965, when Stone Hill Winery opened in Hermann. But that heritage is important, especially in places along the Missouri River on up to Kansas City, said Jim Anderson, executive director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. That area includes the modern-day Les Bourgeois.

"Where people are growing grapes now, they were probably growing them over a 100 years ago," Anderson said.

The state of Missouri winemaking

Continued expansion of Les Bourgeois and the industry as a whole, including tourism and retail sales, has enormous financial implications for the state.

In 2009, the industry had a $1.6 billion impact on the Missouri economy, triple the amount of 2005, according to the Economic Impact of Wine and Grapes in Missouri 2010 report prepared for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. These numbers include tourism, taxes, wages and retail sales.

"The wine industry has taken off," Anderson said. "Agritourism, slow and local food — wine has been a big piece of it. Not just locally, but throughout the U.S., especially in the Midwest."

This pride of local products also fits neatly within the framework of the locavore movement, which has been gaining traction in Missouri. Les Bourgeois has bought into this concept in Boone County by helping to sponsor dinners at the Blufftop Bistro that combine local chefs, local produce and local wine.

Currently, Missouri is in the top 10 of wine-producing states in the country — a pretty hefty designation considering that California, New York, Oregon and Washington dominate the industry. Anderson said that Missouri is in a situation comparable to California in the 1970s — having to overcome the perception that its winemakers cannot craft world-class wines.

"We've had to earn our stripes," he said.

For now, though, the pressure is on Les Bourgeois and its staff. They have to have the new production facility ready before the harvest begins at the end of the month in order to keep that industry growing.


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Comments

Bill Cutler July 16, 2011 | 8:15 p.m.

Jacob Holman came and spoke to the Kansas Grape Growers and Wine Makers Association Annual Meeting a few years back, and shared great information with us. He's helping not just Missouri, but neighboring states as well. I've been traveling to Rocheport for a number of years to sample their fine wines, as well as the great food at the Blufftop Bistro. What a wonderful place!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 16, 2011 | 10:47 p.m.

A related business here in Missouri is cooperage: manufacture of oak barrels used for ageing wine. A shop exists in Randolph County, but larger operations are located in Lebanon and Cuba, Missouri.

Some barrels are sold to wineries in Missouri; others go to wineries around the United States, and there is an export market to Europe.

I've toured the Randolph County operation. In addition to making new barrels they showed me an inventory of used barrels from California that a customer wants them to "recondition." It appears we are now recycling wine barrels.

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