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Winemakers hope to turn hobby into full-time job

Sunday, December 16, 2007 | 7:04 p.m. CST; updated 4:18 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Janie and Roger Harmon made their first wine from pears in their basement; today they bottle and label their wine made from a variety of fruits. They are currently working on acquiring a manufacturing license in order to go into the wine business.

Pear butter, pear jam, pear handouts — after years of trying to figure out what to do with the abundant crops from the 100-year-old orchard on their land, Roger and Janie Harmon decided to experiment with pear wine in 1999. When, after some time and effort, the first batch turned out “OK,” Roger said he was hooked on trying to make it better and learning about his new hobby.

“There’s a romantic thing about sharing wine and growing your own vineyard,” Roger said. “The romance and the love of wine outweigh how much work is involved.”

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Roger, who works for Henderson Implement in Columbia, researches the “how-tos” of winemaking in books and magazines, talks to other hobbyists and occasionally utilizes teaching tools, such as an eight-week online course on the wines of the world.

Janie, the senior director of development at the MU School of Law, assists with the harvesting and breaking down of the fruit while Roger handles later steps in the process. What started as, in his words, a “crude method of wine processing,” with minimal equipment and lots of labor with the fruit, is today a more refined passion.

Trying out different names and labels, the light-hearted rough drafts such as “Toe Jam Wine” included a picture of Janie’s purple-stained feet after crushing one of their first Norton grape crops the old-fashioned way. A few versions later, the couple settled on Owl Creek as the name of their Millersburg vineyard. Roger designs the labels himself.

Roger now invests in different grape crops, including varietals such as Norton, Seyval Blanc, Concord and Marechal Foch that grow well in mid-Missouri’s soil and climate. After producing 140 gallons of wine last year for personal consumption — and that number potentially could increase each year with new crop additions — the Harmons are starting to look at what it takes to become a commercial producer.

“Being able to produce a high-quality product over and over again is important,” said Larry Cox, who makes his own wine in Fulton and is also considering a manufacturing license. “If the product varies a lot, you’d lose customers.”

Cox met the Harmons because they live near one another and are all members of the Missouri Grape Growers Association. The winemaking community facilitates meeting new people and sharing tips, he said.

“When you see a vineyard somewhere, you’re going to stop and talk to them,” Cox said.

As of Nov. 30, 67 active domestic wine manufacturing licenses were issued in Missouri, according to the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.

Competitions can help vintners introduce their wine to the local market. The Harmons took home a first- and second-place prize last year at Les Bourgeois’s Homemade Winemaking Competition but didn’t take the wins as a sign of immediate success.

First, Roger wants to fully satisfy his own particular taste in wine to feel assured he has a good product. The couple drinks wine socially with family and fellow appreciators and also visits wineries, which Roger says naturally leads to discussing and evaluating taste. He doesn’t consider himself a connoisseur, though, because he said he is still learning.

“I don’t think you have to be experienced to taste a wine and know if you like it,” Roger said. “I care about the ‘because’ of you liking it.”

For instance, Roger aspires to perfect a process for a dry vintage of his grape wine.

“Sweet wine can cover failure,” he said about the ease of adding sugar during the process. “I’m going to make a really good dry wine first. I can always make a sweet wine.”

Roger is also drawn to different types of fruit. The Harmons have made wine from wild cherries, plums, peaches, blackberries and strawberries. Although he would eventually look to the market to dictate the popularity of nongrape wines, he speculates that different wines might spark interest. Pear wines, for instance, could be Owl Creek’s signature, and a strawberry wine might be paired well with dessert.

“People might crave fruit wines,” Roger said. “There are so few fruit wines made locally that if a producer specialized in it, people might buy.”

Roger said their artisan vineyard has some advantages over bigger facilities. With late spring frosts that kill or damage some fruit crops, Roger said it’s good to have variety. The couple also has the luxury of harvesting early, making sure the grapes aren’t hot, which breaks down their skins too quickly. Also, they put their fruit through a more extensive cleaning process to ensure there isn’t extra “insect protein” in the product.

“There’s something in our minds that says we don’t want to drink bugs,” Roger said, laughing.

The small operation then moves to the Harmons’ garage, sharing space with tools, stuffed ducks and posters. The couple jokes about the sophistication of their setup while Roger runs the grapes through a chute-topped machine that crushes them to release their juices. The grapes are then placed in big containers to ferment for a few days after Roger adds a strain of yeast to the mash, specifically developed for the wine’s desired properties. Wild yeast growth is inhibited by sulfites so that “off” flavors won’t develop while the inoculated sugar yeast grows. Roger orders special yeast varieties for his different white and red wines.

He explained that the yeast eats sugar and releases carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts. After the sugar is consumed, the yeast completes its cycle and dies. A process known as racking takes the clean wine away from the settled “must” of dead yeast. The carbon dioxide prevents spoiling the product while the yeast is active, but it now must be isolated from oxygen. Roger ladles the mixture into a basket press lined with cheesecloth, using a saucepan as a makeshift tool. Drips sometime reach the garage floor, which Roger cleans with the same special sterilizer he buys for his wine equipment.

The sweet, musty smell of yeast rises from the press as the thick juices run into a basin, through a spout and finally into a special plastic container with an air lock to keep out oxygen. The color comes from the skins; white grapes need to be processed immediately to retain the wine’s light color. After the first press, or free run, is finished, Roger samples the result. The red grape juice is surprisingly unsweet, as almost 90 percent of the sugar has turned to alcohol. Roger explains that special bacteria soften the wine to remove a bitter acidic bite, but he personally likes the aftertaste to retain some of the “quench” after sipping.

The free-run juice is typically used as a vineyard’s reserve wine, with the next light press as the staple wine. Roger likes to mix all of the presses to make his wine.

The different containers of wine are racked again after three months to clarify the wine, and then two or three times more while it sits a year. Roger tastes the white grape and fruit wines to determine the success of the process after six months. If he doesn’t like it, he runs the wine through a refining process until he gets the result he wants. If he likes it, the wines get bottled, corked with a synthetic stopper to inhibit oxygen exchange and labeled with an Owl Creek tag.

“I think it’s interesting what a winemaker can do,” Roger said. “Different tastes make the world go ‘round.”

The couple cite the July 1997 Missouri Historical Review as another reason for their interest. An article in the magazine describes the success of Missouri grape crops and wine in the 19th century.

“The state has the capability to become part of the world market,” Roger said. He said that although most landowners think of cattle or other crops first for the area’s use, they could instead think of winemaking.

With all of the work involved with his hobby, Roger said he hasn’t started on the thick stack of papers in the application process for a commercial liquor license. He knows that his product volume must increase for full-time commercial retail and that he would need to decide to break into the market with retail or wholesale, or some combination of both. At this point, his operation would provide supplemental income, but not enough to live on because of the costs of equipment and crop upkeep. His dream remains making the enterprise work full time — and maybe helping to put Missouri wines on the international map.


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