Locavores, goes the trendy and annoyingly specific term for people who, by eating fresh and local foods, lessen their carbon footprint (another less than poetic description for something really good). Locavores, I must agree with you: eat local, drink local. Food is fresher the closer it’s grown. Most foods that are destined to be shipped a thousand miles away are harvested earlier than those that somebody might eat tonight, and they have less flavor than they ought to have. Ripe is good.

Fresh is best, if you want the best foods. But some foods are different; maybe freshness isn’t everything. With cheeses, stews, soups and wines, among others, a little time can do wondrous things. Since alcohol is a preservative, fresh isn’t necessary to good wine. Drinking local wine shouldn’t matter, right?

Turns out it does.  Supporting local business is good for local economies; supporting local farmers saves land from less scenic and more damaging pursuits. Successful farms rescue land from the bulldozer and from concrete. You know what? I live in Kansas City and I want see a vineyard when I drive out of town.

So wine writer Dave McIntyre sends out a bunch of emails a few weeks ago and asks if I want to be one of a number of journalisti to coordinate our efforts: to Drink Local, and to WRITE local.  At least for a week. Write about the men and women who are making wine around you and then put your stuff on line; meanwhile, everybody else will be doing the same thing, each in his or her own spot.

Well, duh. I like local. I want other people to know about our local wines. So, yeah??

So here we go. Last week I talked about the Missouri State Wine Competition. I’ve been writing about that event for a couple of decades and more. Nobody listens. I mean, nobody reads. Okay, some people do. But half of those reading it think about writing me, as some always do: “Are you kidding me? Missouri wine??”

Yep. But this blog isn’t just about Missouri wine, though I’m eager to tell you about Tony Kooyumjian’s typically delicious Augusta Chambourcin. No. I am compelled to write about wines from this part of the country because there are excellent wines here, where few wines of excellence have ever been created. Those successes make me want to yell out, especially when nobody seems to be listening, that an utterly dedicated winegrower is capable of crafting enjoyable wine, even where no one has done so before.

That’s big stuff to me. Napa Valley? Yeah, we get that. Bordeaux? Uh huh. Burgundy, Champagne, the Mosel or Rheingau? Tuscany, Piedmont, the Yarra Valley and Mendoza? Yeah, you see where I’m going on this.

But northeastern Kansas? Central Nebraska? Iowa?

First, let’s talk Iowa. Last year’s Mid-American Wine Competition (it’s based in Des Moines) saw Iowa’s Fireside Winery win the award for Iowa’s best wine. This year was different: the Iowa wine was the Best White Wine of the Show. We judges voted it best white wine without being aware of its Iowa roots; Snus Hill Vineyard Edelweiss was just damn good. Snus Hill Vineyards has made some pleasant wines before, but this was absolutely at a different level. The grape Edelweiss is very much still a work in progress: some tropical hints on top of a rather pleasant but non-descript wine. At least that’s how it usually tastes to me.

The Snus Hill Edelweiss was far more complete: a bit sweet, very tart, and as layered as a parfait. Don’t get the wrong idea; it’s dry, but it’s more sweet/tart than it is dry, in that it’s more like sweet/TART.

Nebraska has far fewer than Iowa’s fifty or so wineries, but at least three of them have my full attention: Mac’s Creek Winery, Cuthills Winery and James Arthur Vineyards. They all do nice stuff; Cuthills has been creating its own good luck by working with new grapes, indeed, helping to put Brianna on the map as a grape of luscious pineapple and lemon notes.

Kansas has at least two wineries that should matter to you, and they always have something worth drinking on offer. HolyField is the senior of the two and they’ve made some of the best wines in the central U.S. for a decade. Their current Late Harvest Vignoles 2006 is as fat and oozing with apricot character as anybody else’s Vignoles from anywhere. Delicious late harvest wine with the kind of tart finish dessert wines from elsewhere must dream about in their sleep.

Somerset Ridge has a tidy little off-dry wine called OktoberFest. This year, their Late Harvest Traminette is even better: the sort of pretty fruit and crazy floral intensity that any child of Gewurztraminer (hence, the hybrid’s name TRAMINette) should have, in exuberance.

Which brings us to Missouri. There are over fifty wineries making wine in the state; about twelve of them are consistently on their game. The rest are more or less capable of surprising you in any vintage, though they don’t often make solid wine. And among the very best, nobody has been able to touch Stone Hill for years.

Then a few short years ago, Tony Kooyumjian started winning more than anyone else. He makes wines both at Augusta and Montelle wineries; maybe somebody might think that gives him too many opportunities. Yeah, but it would appear he knows how to make the most of his opportunities.

And while he has won awards for every grape he fashions into wine, I’ve come to rely on his Chambourcin to prove to my friends who don’t get it about wines from this part of the country. The raspberry nose, the red fruits mouth and the tangy finish, well, pretty much everybody gets it when they taste one of those wines.

It’s time for your Missouri wine update

I’ve been trying to figure out when I first started judging at the Missouri State Fair Competition; I think it’s been twenty-five years since my first competition. Maybe it’s been longer, but the interminable feeling as one fatally flawed wine after another passed my lips is long gone. Sitting down to several hundred wines at the 2008 Missouri State Wine Competition, there’s no feeling of grim trepidation.

Instead I’m excited, if worried. 2007 was the annus horribilis, as the British Queen once said of another vintage. The vintage was unkind to Missouri’s favorite grape, Norton, most of which was wiped out by the so-called “Easter Massacre”. On April 5th, Easter Day, the temperature plunged into the low twenties (and even lower in many areas) where it stayed for five or more days.

By itself, these frigid temperatures wouldn’t have done a great deal of damage. But the preceding three weeks had been unseasonably warm and sunny and most vines had wakened up, believing spring was at hand. The sap had risen up into the wood and when that sap froze, vines literally exploded. The result was the loss of three quarters or more of many of Missouri’s crops, not least of which included most of the state’s wine grapes.

The initial report was that 95% of Missouri’s Norton crop was gone. Other grapes suffered to similar degrees (pun intended). So for the 2008 Missouri State Wine Competition, I wasn’t sure there would be many 2007 vintage wines to taste. And a weather disaster like the Easter Massacre was bound to leave a lasting impact on the wines fashioned from those grapes and vines that survived. Would there be balanced wines?

The short answer is yes. Among the white wines, there were a number of lovely dry 2007 Vignoles, the finest of which was from the oft-awarded Montelle Winery. Their 2007 Dry Vignoles was judged to be the best wine of the entire show, and was handed the Governor’s Cup, giving Montelle’s winemaker, Tony Kooyumjian, the Governor’s Cup four out of the last five years. A remarkable achievement.

Most of the wines in the flights of Vidal Blanc and Vignoles contained attractive 2007’s. The entire Seyval Blanc flight was far more encouraging than last year’s group; the 2007 vintage clearly had some benefits for Seyval Blanc.

Tony Kooyumjian’s Semi-dry Seyval Blanc, which he produces at Augusta Winery, was every bit as good as his superlative Dry Vignoles. Between Augusta and Montelle Wineries, Tony managed to bring home six of the ten “Best of Class” awards. His other Best of Class winners included Augusta River Valley Red, Montelle River Country Red, and two absolute beauties: Augusta 2007 Icewine and Montelle Peach Brandy. I would put those last two up against competitive products from anywhere and they would match or even beat the competition.

The sad truth is that most people reading that last statement don’t believe that I’m serious. Of course, they haven’t really tried most Missouri wines. And despite probably tasting only a few inexpensive Missouri wines, most tasters think they know the quality of Missouri wine. It’s like tasting some California box wines and saying that you can extrapolate from those how Phelps Insignia tastes.

It shouldn’t be, but it might be a surprise to some people to know that the Missouri wine industry has a pretty strong reputation outside of the state. At least within the wine industry, there is a strong sense that there are a lot of smart people working here. Even many California winemakers have heard good things about Norton, Missouri’s state grape, even if they’ve never actually tasted one.

At the 2008 competition, there were other surprises, if smaller and less momentous. For one, there seemed to be fewer Chardonels than last year; that was welcome news. I hate to badmouth a grape and its entire output, so I won’t. But far too much Chardonel is boring or worse.

Add to the good news that those who are making Chardonel are less frequently smothering it in oak in the vain hope that the lightweight grape can grow wings and fly away as a fully formed Chardonnay, one of its parents. As they say, you can put lipstick on the pig but…

The other top winners were Stone Hill’s Golden Spumante and their 2007 Vignoles, made in a delicious, sweeter style. Not surprisingly, Stone Hill took home the award for the best fortified wine as well, with their 2005 Port, fashioned from the Norton grape. Blumenhof Winery had an absolutely stellar Cynthiana (that’s Norton, as well) from the 2006 vintage; that wine deserves your attention as well.

It’s exciting that Blumenhof is back in the winner’s column; their wines can be first-rate and they don’t show up in the press as often as they deserve. Best of all, their victory in the Norton competition reflects a sea change in Missouri wine. No longer is the winner for top Norton a predictable battle between the heavyweights in the state; these days more and more wineries are making great Norton.