Tag Archives: Missouri

Change at the Missouri Wine Competition

Plenty of wine competitions get ignored. Once I might have gotten my nose out of joint about the manner in which competitions such as Missouri’s annual Wine Competition are completely invisible throughout the established media. Of course they ignore such competitions. For one, most of these wines aren’t available nationally, and many of those in the Missouri Competition aren’t found outside the state of Missouri. And the traditional wine media have always ignored the rest of winedom, the parts of it not found in the traditional areas. Why not? They’re in the business of promoting their own view about wine. A wine competition is, in effect, providing competition to these magazines and websites. Except here’s the thing, they don’t EVER review these wines, so refusing to report on the results of a competition covers wines they’ve never tasted is, if not willful laziness, just plain ignorance about what’s happening in America today.

Wines are being made everywhere, and some of those wines are excellent. Moreover, some of those wines are IMPORTANT. But these media outlets ignore them because they’re not actually in the business of reporting about wine. They’re in the business of staying alive a few more months, desperately hanging on to their potentially obsolete business models. They’ve decided to report on things about which they’re already reporting. Missouri? Hell, they’re not even talking about New York’s state competition results and New York wine has become mainstream subject matter. And of course, few of the articles they publish provide any historical context. That would be like admitting that they’ve been asleep while all this stuff was happening, and they did promise to report about wine, I think.

So here I am bitching about the lack of attention towards regional wines. Big deal. Nothing new about it, but I regard it as a continued failure of the decimated journalism industry: no one can afford to report anymore. They can’t hire new people to report on new areas, so they don’t. And we’re to blame, those of us who don’t pay for magazines or newspapers. We say that we receive all the information we need from websites and bloggers. Really? Few of them ever speak about regional wines, and those that do, cover only a small subsection of those regions, usually the one in which they’re based.

It’s a crime with faceless victims. Regional wineries, while numerous, remain nameless; vague notes about Finger Lakes, or Virginia, or Texas, or Missouri only highlight the institutional ignorance. But in each individual region, things are changing regardless of media ignorance. How it’s happening is mysterious; even local media offer only superficial coverage. But something gets through, because success slowly presses upon the regional mindset, even success in competitions in those states with decades of experimentation. The local culture begins to notice that certain wineries, grapes and styles receive acclaim and maybe it’s not simply regional pride.

Indeed, with hundreds of wines in the running, the Missouri Governor’s Cup Wine Competition isn’t a pushover anymore, if it ever was. Judges no longer hail exclusively from Missouri (though sometimes we locals are the toughest among the judges); the competition now includes a slate of industry veterans from around the country. But here’s the thing: the wines are deserving of this kind of scrutiny. Vintners have clearly upped their game of late; growers are far more skilled at grapes like Norton or Chambourcin and some of the most exciting grapes, such as Traminette and Valvin Muscat, weren’t part of the mix even a few years ago.

Not long ago, there were heated arguments as to which wines would be awarded the coveted status as Best in Class (as in Best Dry White Wine, Best Dry Red Wine and so forth) and though it may sound odd, the arguments are a bit less personal now, because the wines are better across the board. In the past, some of the wines under consideration might have tasted good to some judges but to others they were unbalanced or even flawed. Faced with the prospect of handing a top award to a flawed wine, conversations in the judging room got pretty testy, if not downright insulting. Aside from questioning the morals of someone’s sister, it can be tough to get through to a recalcitrant fellow judge.

But times have changed: there are lots of good wines in play. So the disagreements about the wines are based upon style not quality, and that leads to fewer bruised feelings. Norton is a particularly good example: Stone Hill’s Estate Bottled Norton 2009 beat out all other Nortons for the C.V. Riley Award as the best in the state (and by extension, the best in the world?), though I thought that others such as Augusta’s 2008, Les Bourgeois’ Reserve 2008, Mt. Pleasant’s Estate 2008 and Stonehaus Strother Ridge’s 2009 Cynthiana had plenty of offer as well. But they were differently styled (more robust, toastier, or riper; each was its own man) and the outcome became a matter not of quality, but of preference.

So change happens, as the phrase goes, and it’s all to the good. And of all of the changes, the Governor’s Cup is the biggest of them: this year, instead of a super sweet dessert wine, instead of Port or Sherry styled wine, instead of one of the rich and powerful dry Nortons of years past, the winner was a Valvin Muscat. Don’t be alarmed if you haven’t heard of it; it’s new. But if things continue in this manner, you will hear a great deal more about it, not only from Missouri, but from the rest of the country as well. Blumenhof’s Valvin Muscat remains the best I have tasted from anywhere, and it was nothing short of delicious. It has the floral intensity of its parent Muscat, as well as citrus and tree fruit notes that give it a dry and tangy finish, despite the sweet nose.

There are other stars amongst the 38 Gold Medal winners at this year’s competition: particularly Stonehaus Strother Ridge Vignoles, but also 2010 Stone Hill Dry Vignoles, St James 2010 Vignoles, Pirtle’s Premium Port, Mt Pleasant’s Villagio, Montelle’s Seyval Blanc 2010, Chambourin 2009 or their Chardonel 2010, Les Bourgeois’s LaBelle, Cave Vineyard’s White Chambourcin, Blumenhof’s Traminette, Baltimore Bend’s Arrowhead Red, Augusta’s 2010 Vignoles or 2010 Chardonel and Adam Puchta’s Misty Valley Vignoles. But I’m collecting bottles of Blumenhof’s lovely Valvin Muscat just to show my friends from elsewhere that Missouri has it going on.

I don’t expect the mainstream wine media to notice. They’re just trying to stay alive. It’s up to all of us who read about wine to talk about it, write about it and read some more about it.

#Drink Local Wine, at least sometimes.



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.