Tag Archives: Stone Hill Winery

Bottle Shock Redux: Missouri Wines Triumph in Blind Tasting

22 Jun

In yesterday night’s regional wine special and blind tasting on ‘The Local Show’ on Kansas City Public Television (KCPT), Belvoir Winery’s Plumeria and Stone Hill’s 2008 Norton received the most points in their white and red blind tasting sections.  What a great result! Both sections included competition from well respected Californian – Rodney Strong Vineyards – or awarded French wine makers – Baron Rothschild and Gerard Bertrand.  The ‘wild card’ randomly chosen wine – $3 chuck from Trader Joe’s – was cause for a bit of giggling and the five blind tasters from Belvoir customer Lucinda to former football star Eddie were chatty and articulate about he wines and their scoring.  Show hosts Nick Haines and Randy Mason lucidly knitted the show together and wine expert Doug Frost provided engaging commentary and explanation as to what was going on as the wine tasters responded and scored the various wines.  Emily Ghertner and Eric Mater produced the show with flair and calm (a good combination!)  and the editing job was great.  It was a lot of fun and hopefully helped to squeeze out some of the stigma against local wines and show that Midwest wines can rub shoulders with the best!  Hopefully we can have another round some time.

Here are the full points scores and wine descriptions courtesy of KCPT:

THE WHITES

A Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Bordeaux, France
THE WINE: Mouton Cadet Blanc, 2007 – $12.99 retail

From one of France’s legendary and most well known winemakers, a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc (40%), Semillon (50%) and Muscadelle (10%)

Total Score: 10

B Belvoir Winery, Liberty, Missouri
THE WINE: Plumeria – a blend of Traminette, Vignoles and Seyval – $18 at the winery

The wine is named after the owner, Dr John Bean’s, late wife’s favorite flower. The winery is located in an impressive Jacobethan Revival style building that was a former orphanage for the International Order of Odd Fellows.

Total Score: 21

C Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery, Basehor, Kansas
THE WINE: Seyval, Kansas Table Wine – $12.95 at winery and retail (only available in Kansas)

Holy-Field is a father and daughter team – Les and Michelle Meyer – who pride themselves on their canine ambassadors who feature on some of the wine labels. The dogs are: Vinnie, Bacchus, Corkie and Sinbad

Total Score: 17

D Charles Shaw Winery, Napa and Sonoma, California
THE WINE: Chardonnay, 2010 – $2.99 at Trader Joe’s grocery store

The wine is affectionately known as ‘two buck chuck’

Total Score: 11

E Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington State
THE WINE: Chardonnay, 2010, – $12.99 retail

A respected wine making region of the US. This winemaker is often in grocery stores and on restaurant wine lists in Kansas City.

Total Score: 18

THE REDS

A Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County
THE WINE: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 – $17.99 retail

A California Sonoma red that is often seen in Kansas City grocery stores, liquor stores on on restaurant wine lists.

Total Score: 11

Jowler Creek, Platte County, Missouri
THE WINE: Chambourcin, 2010 – $19 at the winery and retail

Jowler Creek emphasize their sustainable vineyard practices. They use Olde English Babydoll sheep to control grass and weed growth.

Total Score: 4

C Stone Hill Winery, Hermann, Missouri
THE WINE: Norton, 2008 – $18.99 at the winery and retail

Stone Hill is Missouri’s second biggest winemaker producing 260,000 gallons of wine in 2011. They’ve been making Norton for decades. A Stone Hill Norton is thought to have won the prestigious award for best red wine “of all nations” at an international competition in Vienna in 1873.

Total Score: 21.5

D Gerard Bertrand, Languedoc Pic Saint Loup, Narbonne (Languedoc-Roussillon region, on the coast, south of Marseille) France
THE WINE: Grand Terroir, 2005 – $16.99

European Winery of the Year for 2012 in Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s annual Wine Star Awards. Wine Spectator magazine’s ‘Best Value Winery From France’ in 2008.

Total Score: 14

E Charles Shaw Winery, Napa and Sonoma, California
THE WINE: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 – $2.99 at Trader Joe’s grocery store

The wine is affectionately known as ‘two buck chuck’

Total Score: 20

Missouri’s Norton Workshop Revealed

22 May

For the last four years, the Missouri Wine Technical Group’s Norton Workshops have taken place behind closed doors with no media present and no in-depth media coverage.  For the first time, the newly elected President of the Technical Group, Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, has agreed to talk to Regional Wine Taster in detail about the workshops and about what happened at the latest one held last Tuesday.

The Norton workshops take place at least once a year and invite winemakers from across Missouri and the Midwest to share their issues and knowledge to help improve the quality of their wines.  Winemakers bring unfinished and problem Norton wines for a blind tasting followed by constructive criticism.  The initiative was started in 2008 by the newly founded Technical Group based on the idea of one of its members, New Zealander, Andrew Meggitt, winemaker for St James Winery, who brought the concept from his home country.  At last Tuesday’s workshop, thirty winemakers representing ten wineries attended to blind taste and discuss ten different Norton wines.

Jacob Holman, President, Missouri Wine Technical Group and winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The vineyard’s restaurant is in the background

Regional Wine Taster: Can you explain exactly what goes on at your Norton Workshops?

Jacob Holman:  What we do is three workshops a year, each focusing on a varietal and because of Norton’s importance to the Midwest, we always include it every year. We’ve also done Chambourcin, Vignoles, Lambruscas, Concord and Catawba.  The way our workshops function is you submit wine – we prefer it to be an unfinished wine, not in the bottle – and we will flight those wines and sit down and taste them blind and then we break up into groups of six to eight.  Everyone will evaluate the wines on their own and then you go around the table and your nominated scribe will take the group’s collective evaluation and then the moderator will call on that group to say what they think of wine 1A, or whatever it is. Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is “outed” and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.

RWT: In most industries, it’s hard to picture competitors critiquing each other’s products in order to help improve them.  What is it about the Midwest wine industry that allows for such cooperation?

JH: I think most people in the industry recognize that the quality of Midwest wines hinges on our knowledge and this is a good way for small wineries to sit in the same room with bigger guys who have gone through this sort of stuff. I learn something every time even though I work for one of the bigger wineries.  The basic idea is that while there might be reasons that one Norton is better than another, there’s no reason to have flawed wine. I think that within the Midwest we recognize that and are willing to help each other out and also recognize that we are a growing industry and this sort of thing helps us to compete with California wines, Oregon wines and all those other ones in the grocery store.  Overall we need to have a perspective that is good for Missouri as a whole.

“Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is ‘outed’ and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.”

RWT: How unique is this workshop? Do forums like this exist in other parts of the United States?

JH: When we started this four years ago I couldn’t find any similar workshops but there are a lot of attempts and failures from State Associations.  There are quality assurance programs that haven’t typically been very successful and those state programs are exclusive with a board of winemakers, sommeliers and retailers who will put a stamp of approval on the wine.  So if you’re a winemaker and you don’t know enough and you fail to get that stamp, that’s a black mark against you. We’re not about that, we’re about education and helping winemakers make better wines. I haven’t found a lot of this kind of cooperation in other US regions.  We’ve had a lot of, “Gee I wish we had this in our state!”  And that is something we would foster if it got big enough, for example an Illinois or a Kansas technical group, because we work with a lot of the same varietals.  That’s kind of a dream of mine, but for now it’s Midwest wines.

RWT: At the workshop you tasted unfinished and problem Nortons. What Norton problems usually come up?

JH: They can include, for example, your tank not being topped, meaning not full – so your SO2 levels will be low – that causes your wine to oxidize. To solve this I would go to an extreme and tell people that if you have 350 gallons and you only have a 300 gallon tank, fill up the 300 gallon tank, even if it means throwing the 50 gallons away. That issue applies to all wines.  As far as Norton goes in particular, today we had a speaker talk about oak management, that’s something not specific to Norton but it does have a problem with it.  Norton’s tannin structure is light, there’s not a lot of natural tannin that comes in the fruit, so it’s important to manage your tannins and manage your oak which provide tannins to be able to stabilize your color and make a bolder wine style that is agreeable.

RWT: Winemakers often say that Norton is a hard wine to make.  At these workshops do you ever advise people that they should make something easier like Chambourcin?

JH: No I would never recommend that people not make Norton, just because of its clout within the state.  I would always advise that it is very tricky to deal with and you may not want to make Norton as your first wine ever, but at the same time it is manageable. I have learned a few tricks here and there and that’s what I would tell people, as opposed to discouraging them from trying to make it.

RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method? (see: Missouri’s Les Bourgeois Vineyards Profile)

JH: Oh I do a lot of different things that are not typically standard! To deal with the pH problem, I know that Norton has a high acidity so I will actually acidify Norton.  After fermentation I will drop the pH down to a microbial management level.  The higher the pH the more chance you have of a spoilage organism surviving so you’re really the safest with your preservatives if it’s around a lower level.  Even though I have to add acid to make that happen – and the wine will be relatively undrinkable for a few months! – I will maintain that pH and therefore maintain my sulfur level to where I don’t have to worry nearly so much about spoilage.  When I finish the wine I will change it back to a higher pH and drop that acidity out because once it is sterile filtered and in the bottle, in theory, you don’t have to worry about spoilage organisms anymore.

“RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method?”

RWT: In this workshop do you ever disagree about whether a wine has a problem or not and the nature of that problem?

JH: Typically, if a wine is a problem wine there won’t be a disagreement about that but a lot of the time there’ll be disagreement on what that problem is. So if I think its high T.A. (total acidity) or V.A. (volatile acidity) somebody else might think it’s a sulfide problem for example.  And sometimes the wine’s off and we don’t necessarily know why.

RWT: Are you finding after four years of workshops that the Norton wines you’re tasting now are having fewer, less serious faults?

JH: The people who attend the workshops and take them seriously have made huge improvements in what they do and how they do things and their wines have definitely got better. However, it is a work in progress and will take years.  I’ve only had one person get really irritated with the workshop and say that they weren’t coming back! I take a certain amount of pride in that too because winemaking is something you put all your time and heart into and as long as you stay in your winery your wine can seem fine! But once you get out there and start comparing apples to apples sometimes you realize you have a problem.  That’s hard for people to stomach but for the most part everybody’s really taken on the suggestions, gone home and the next year worked on things and it’s really made a difference.

RWT: With the unfinished wines you tasted today was there anything that that surprised you particularly?  Or that was notably different to previous workshops?

Norton vines at Les Bourgeois vineyard

JH: Mmmm no. I think there were fewer flaws in general than there have been in past workshops.  We had one guy who bought this one barrel in that wasn’t the same as his other twenty barrels and he don’t know exactly what was going on. He gave us a rundown and we were able to maybe figure out what the problem was.

RWT: What did you bring to the workshop?

JH: The wine I submitted today, there’s no flaw to it, it was an unfinished 2011.  It is very green and I wanted to see what people thought of it as far as what I could do to finish it a little better. So I bought it in and it was well received and the criticisms were along the lines of the wine being green, very young and having a lot of potential but needing a lot of time, maybe a little more oak and maybe a little more structure.  Those are all things that I can do between now and when the wine is released.

RWT: How long could you age that Norton for and have it sitting in barrels so you can manipulate it?

JH:  I think everybody agrees that you have anywhere from two to ten years to age a bottle of Norton – it’s not like a Cabernet that has the tannins to hold up – so we typically will do anywhere from 12 to 24 months in barrel and then release it and I think that is relatively standard within the industry.

RWT: Is there a difference between the technical skills and equipment you need to make a Norton, as opposed to another wine variety?

JH: As far as equipment, no, as far as skills, yes, I would say that. I’m not trying to promote Norton here but I have worked with vinifera and it is much easier to deal with. You don’t have the problems that you have with the Norton and I think that goes all the way from growing that grape to the finish.

RWT: What did the tasting today indicate about the progress of your endeavors to improve the Norton and what still needs to be worked on?

JH:  Well, as far as the progress goes for the Missouri Wine Technical Group I was very happy with the way things went today. I was also happy with the wine quality in general but I really believe that if we had more wineries represented (note: there were 10 represented and Jacob would like that boosted to about 30) then I think everyone could benefit a little more, so that’s the goal of the group, to get more membership and get more attendance.

Norton vines in my backyard

RWT: During four years of your Technical Group, what new varietals are you seeing more of?

JH: Well, we do experimental cultivar tasting through the University of Missouri in Columbia and some people are biting on that and there are some grapevines that are being planted that haven’t always been planted but I don’t think it’s a mad rush to do so…

RWT: Which ones?

JH: The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be Valvin muscat, a muscat cross that’s able to be grown in the Midwest. I’ve noticed a lot of people growing that and we actually had some interest in that today as the next Workshop but I don’t think we will because there’s probably not enough people making wine out of it yet . As far as consumers go, from what I hear in the tasting room and from what I see people buying, Vignoles is something that I think Missouri has a handle on and now people ask for it by varietal, more so than anything else apart from Norton.

RWT: The fact that people are actually asking for their local grapes by name, that must be quite pleasing?

JH: Yes it is.  This is something that has only happened recently, within my short career over the last 12 to 13 years.  When I started, no-one ever asked for Norton or Vignoles by name, it was all, you know, “Let me have your sweet white,” or, “Let me have your dry red,” but I believe that’s changing to some extent.

RWT:  Thanks very much for your time President Holman! 

JH: Ha! Ha! No problem, I hope you got what you need.

Norton Heaven: Stone Hill Winery’s 10-Year Vertical Tasting

18 Apr

On Saturday, Stone Hill Winery in Hermann Missouri held its annual Norton 10-Year Vertical Tasting and Dinner.  It’s the sort of event any Midwest wine fan would have enjoyed attending.  I couldn’t be there because of my wedding anniversary, so instead I’ve gone for the next best thing: an interview with Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill for the last three decades, who hosted the event.

The Norton Warm Up: sparkling wine reception

To define our terms here (which I didn’t fully understand myself before embarking on this story), a vertical tasting is a taste test of wines of the same type and from the same winery, but from different years (vintages).  This is different to a horizontal tasting where usually you taste wines of the same type from different wineries but from the same vintage.  So the objective of a vertical tasting, like this Norton event, is to see how a wine type from a particular winery changes over the years.

“It’s really one of the most fun events of the year and one of the most educational,” says Dave.  “You can stand there and pick up each glass and look at the wine against the white table-cloth and see how the youngest wine is this purple, red color of Norton grapes and as it ages the color changes until towards the oldest wines it has more of the traditional red brick color.”

The winers and diners at Stone Hill sat down to their own row of 10 special Norton Glasses (a glass that is slightly torpedo shaped, designed by the crystal maker Riedel), each containing a Norton vintage from the years 2002 to 2011.  The most recent two years – 2010 and 2011 – have not yet been bottled so those tasting samples were taken directly from the winery’s barrels.

Dave Johnson speaks

Dave Johnson speaks while a magnum bottle of 2001 Norton and its younger sibling look on

Most people did prefer the older Nortons, but there were plenty of punters who liked the youngest ones best.  The youngest and oldest Nortons had very different flavor profiles.  Dave characterized the 2011 barrel sample as having that fresh Norton grape character, similar to a Beaujolais Nouveau  (the light, fruity French wine, usually made from the Gamay grape, that’s designed to be drunk as soon as its harvested and put in a bottle) but really full-bodied and much darker in color.  Some people would say the younger Nortons have an almost ferocious, fruity dry taste.

By contrast, after spending time in oak (twelve months for Stone Hill’s Nortons) and then the bottle, the clear fruit character of the younger Nortons disappears. The older vintages had developed a new layer of oak flavors and aromas and then another layer of complexity developed in the bottle (bottle bouquet) like subtle cigar box, spice and floral smells.  The more senior wines had lost their acidic impact on the palate and had a much smoother, velvety feel in the mouth.

Across this ten-year span of Nortons many of the changing characteristics were following a predictable pattern that comes with aging.  However, like human beings, different wine vintages don’t age at the same rate or in the same way. Some people get grumpy as they get older, others mellow, some people are wrinkled prunes by the age of thirty, others look okay into old age.  It’s the same with wines.  Depending on the weather, crop load (the amount of fruit on the vines), fermentation processes and other factors, different vintages will express different tastes and smells.  “One Norton might be lighter and more delicate, another might be more muscular and tannic, regardless of how old they are”, says Dave.  So of these ten vintages, which are his favorites?  One of the older wines, the 2005, was Dave’s choice for drinking now. “It was at the perfect stage and was a very nice vintage” he says. The 2011 showed great potential. “At this stage it’s very young and not terribly complex, but with barrel aging and time I think it is going to be a great vintage.”  Dave was especially happy with this Norton because about 15 years ago Stone Hill started trying to make the younger Norton wines more enjoyable and less acidic to adapt them to suit the wine drinking habits of most customers.  “There might be a few people who buy Norton and lay it down in their cellar,” says Dave, “but the reality is probably most bottles of Norton are aged about as long as it takes to get from the cash register to the tables out in front of the winery.”  One thing Dave will be watching is how this particular Norton deals with the aging process because while he likes the basic style of the wine he says it may not age as long as some of Stone Hill’s older vintages.

Ten Norton glasses for each taster

Ten Norton glasses for each taster

This vertical tasting is a unique opportunity for Stone Hill’s winemakers to assess a cross-section of Norton vintages, observe the reaction to them from customers and inform their winemaking process.  While Dave made no suggestion that there’ll be any radical changes to their winemaking on account of this Norton taste test, he said one method they’ve been using to tweak the flavor of their Nortons is pneumatage. This technique is part of what’s called wine cap management, where the word ‘cap’, refers to the grape skins that float on the surface of the juice during fermentation and need to be pushed back down into the juice to impart their flavors and contributions to the fermentation process. Dave explains: “When you ferment a red you end up with a cap of skins floating on top of the liquid, the CO2 clings to the skins and they float to the top.  So you have to mix that back into the liquid in order to extract from the skins all the things that you want.  Of course the original method for doing that many, many centuries ago was treading the grape juice.  Another method is the small lot technique of punching down, when you simply push the skins – or cap – down into the liquid with some kind of punch down device, often just a board on the end of a two by four, something like that.   There’s also pumping over, when you pump the liquid out from under the cap to over the top.  Pneumatage is a method where we inject a sudden burst of filtered, compressed air to the bottom of the tank.  It goes “bang!” almost like the sound of a gun and this huge bubble of filtered, compressed air goes into the tank and rapidly rises up and breaks through the cap, and causes a folding over motion that blends the cap back down into the juice.”

The Norton tasting

If like me you missed this tasting and are planning on testing Stone Hill’s Nortons yourself, the 2008 is the one most likely to be available in retail outlets across the Midwest (usually for $19), but the 2009 through to the 2002 are currently for sale and all available at the winery, although the older vintages are in limited supply (and range in price from $25 to $30).   2001, 2000 and 1999 are available too, but they’re not usually for sale.  Perhaps if you asked them nicely?

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Stone Hill’s 10 Year Vertical Norton Wine Tasting.  Dave is especially proud of this milestone because it will mean they’ve been making a Norton capable of aging for 10 years, for 35 years.  “That’s a unique situation for many wineries, let alone a Missouri winery”, he says.

As we finished our conversation I told Dave I’d do my very best to get to next year’s big 25th anniversary scheduled for the same time in April.  He politely reminded me that this was unlikely as wedding anniversaries don’t generally change dates.

All photos courtesy of Lucinda Huskey, Stone Hill Winery’s Public Relations Manager

The dinner

The Wild Vine author Todd Kliman

21 Mar

Over the weekend I quizzed Todd Kliman about his book, The Wild Vine, a creatively written history of the American wine industry focusing on its native grape, the good old Norton.  The book was published in 2010 under the byline, “A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine” and has been recommended to me by several wineries as required reading.  The interview was looking unlikely for a while but Todd ultimately agreed to take time off from museum hopping and barbecue sampling in Kansas City to meet me on the lawn of The Nelson Museum.  I took my video camera along and the result should be ready for viewing soon.  The, at first odd, but understandable thing about the video is that you don’t see Todd’s face!  This wasn’t because of Todd’s undoubted modesty.  As food editor and restaurant critic for DC’s The Washingtonian he didn’t want his identity revealed (even by humble D. Wood in Kansas City) or it would compromise his efforts to review restaurants fairly.  So without the face of the star, the creative demands on the interviewer/film maker were intense!

I’d bought his book the other week and really enjoyed it. The Wild Vine is an enticing combination of investigative journalism and creative, history story telling.  I learnt a lot about numerous American wine characters, living and dead, including Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Norton, Jenni McCloud and the Held family.  Also, the details of the now surprising rise of Norton and the all conquering Missouri led US wine industry in the mid-19th century and then the disappearance into obscurity until very recently.  It was difficult to cover the scope of the book in a few minutes of video, but hopefully the Nortonian flavor comes through.  Watch this space…

Midwest Wine Conference: Missouri’s First Mobile Bottling Trailer

17 Feb

In the foyer of the Midwest Grape & Wine Conference, to the right of the registration desk, there was a large, white vehicle that looked to me like an ambulance.  It was ready for action with its back door open and I could see a man inside, who I assumed was a medic, probably checking heart monitors and other instruments.   I know health care in this country is expensive and problematic so I thought to myself, “This is great! At least this conference is concerned about peoples’ health – they even have an ambulance standing by in case people get a bit too excited about the free bar.”  I realized my mistaken assumption a bit later when Danene Beedle from Missouri Wines told me that the vehicle I’d seen in the foyer was in fact a brand new, mobile bottling trailer belonging to Old Woolam Custom Bottling  – the first bottling operation of its kind in Missouri.

Brent Baker's mobile bottling trailer

Brent Baker, the man inside the vehicle, turned out to be the head bottler (rather than a medic).  He said their service is for wineries that don’t have their own bottling machinery. “We can run about 1200 bottles an hour and that is filling, corking, capsuling and labeling.  So we have empty bottles after the rinse go into the machine, they get filled and when they come out they’re complete and ready to sell.”  Brent says their operation can save winery owners a lot of time. “When you’ve got to bottle, you can spend a full day doing 150 to 200 cases by hand, when we can do about 600 in a day”, he says, “and so they can focus more on perfecting the craft of making wine, going out and doing sales and marketing and self-distribution.”

Brent’s business is a Missouri first, but he said mobile bottling is widespread across Europe, Australia, New Zealand and also California, where there are about 100 mobile bottlers and many of the wineries, even the larger ones, prefer this method to either having their own machinery or sending their grape juice away to be bottled. “Mobile bottling is very big in California, Washington, Oregon and becoming very big in Virginia, New York and Texas”, he says.  “It’s becoming a really big thing because the cost factor of buying a fully automated bottling line is cost prohibitive and, in a lot of cases, you may only run it two weeks out of the year.  They can be anything from $50,000 to several hundred thousand to install.”  It’s also quicker than sending the grape juice away to be bottled and ensures it gets into bottles as quickly as possible.  “It’s very high quality, the fill height is perfect, the cork depth is perfect every time, the label, it  just makes a really professional product,” adds Brent.

The high-tech insides of Brent's bottling trailer

The mobile bottling machine can even do screw caps, although Brent estimates screw cap bottles still only cap about 20% of wine bottles in the USA.   As you probably know, in Australia and New Zealand screw caps, even for quality wine, are very popular and my Australian dad – who’s a big wine drinker – is a big fan of them.  There’s interesting further reading on the history of the screw cap and the pros and cons versus the cork and other bottle-sealing devices here and here.

For anyone who’s had the opportunity, it’s always fun to watch a bottling process in operation: the upright bottles like soldiers clunking along, the corks being squashed in, the conveyor belts going this way and that.  In this BBC News  report about how climate change is effecting Spain’s wines (from my former life as a Madrid correspondent), at the end of the video there are some neat shots of the bottling operation in Penedes, Catalonia, of Miguel Torres, one of the world’s biggest winemakers. Of course, there are big bottling plants like the Torres winery and then there are much smaller mobile operations like Brent’s.  Comparing the two and their difference in size and flexibility reminded me of the US Army compared to the Navy Seals, or perhaps a real train (here’s one leaving Kansas City’s Union Station) compared to a model train (here are some model train sets inside Union Station, annual event).  That’s what it felt like anyway, when I contemplated the much bigger, factory style bottling operations as I stood inside Brent’s high tech, shiny, mobile bottling trailer.  Here’s a video of Brent’s trailer in action.

Brent Baker of Old Woolam Custom Bottling

Brent has long been connected with the art of putting alcoholic beverages into bottles.  He used to own a brewery and for the last decade has worked at a number of wineries, helping them with their bottling processes, often by hand.  Brent can remember being taken to Stone Hill Winery as a kid, where his parents’ friends, Jim and Betty Held, were renovating the buildings and reviving what is now one of Missouri’s most respected wineries.  It could help explain why he’s a patriot for Missouri wines.  “There’s always been good wine in Missouri,” he says.  “The thing about the Missouri wine industry is that sometimes it gets poo pooed by California and other states, but we’ve got some very good varietals in Missouri and a lot of really good winemakers who are trying different things – even pumpkin wines.  Kansas is growing, Iowa’s growing, Illinois is growing, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky. It’s pretty amazing what we’re doing here in Middle America.”  And Brent’s mobile bottling trailer is ready to help things along.

The author, Danny, is an Australian gun for hire who’s just moved to the Midwest from Spain via San Francisco.  Apart from being a wine lover, he’s a former BBC News reporter and a history documentary maker. If you need videos for your website to tell the unique stories about you and your winery, its people and history, highlighting your quality wines and awards, please get in touch.  Or if your winery’s website or blog is languishing without any content, and needs articles or blog entries, also get in touch.  I can also set up your internet social media for you, from websites to Twitter. Email danjwood@hotmail.com or call 816 863 2496

Mission Impossible III: The Verdict on Norton Wine

23 Jan

In Stone Hill Winery’s tasting room, Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill since 1978, summarized my quest for a drinkable Norton in no uncertain terms. “The Nortons you’ve had – and I read your little blog – that you didn’t like, is that because you don’t like Norton or is that because you didn’t have any good quality Nortons?  I guess we’ll find that out when we taste some other Nortons.” A good point made with the aplomb of a wine expert.  Dave, fellow Stone Hill winemaker, Shaun Turnbull, and Thomas Held, family owner and head of sales and marketing, were all eager to try the fruits of their labor with me.  I could have felt a little pressured in this situation, after all, what if I really did hate their beloved Norton grape?

Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri

Fortunately Stone Hill Winery was the last stop on my wine quest.  By the time I climbed the vine-covered hill towards this winery in Hermann, I was well on the way to answering Dave’s questions.   At my first stop, Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, winemakers Cory Bomgaars and Jacob Holman invited me to a taste test they were performing on samples of wine taken from their tanks, including Norton from the 2011 harvest.  These samples were high in acid but even at this early stage of their development they were probably as good as the half-dozen Nortons I’d tasted before this trip.  With a specially made Norton glass (see picture) designed to eject the wine directly onto the tongue, I also tried Les Bourgeois’ 2009 Norton and after a few sips it was clear the sour, tart flavor in Nortons I’d tried before this quest, were under control.  The acid was there but not too dominant and there were some nice, peppery, pomegranate flavors coming through.  So far so good.

St James Winery, a couple of hours south, was the next stop.   I was more than an hour later than planned because I’d had so much fun trying wines with Cory and Jacob.

Jacob Holman, winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The vineyard's restaurant is in the background

Les Bourgeois 2009 Norton

Ann Miller, marketing manager at St James Winery, greeted me with friendly understanding and took me around her winery.  After an engaging chat with CEO Peter Hofherr I was in a tasting situation again.  The ladies in the tasting room, with Ann’s help, treated me to a St James 2007 Norton and also their 2008 Reserve Norton.   (Another wine investigator who took a sceptical and amusing position on Missouri wines in this blog, raves here about the 2007 St James Norton .)    I could appreciate the 2007, but I enjoyed the more oaky 2008 Reserve.

St James 2007 Norton and the 2008 Reserve Ozark Highlands Norton

Ann Miller, Marketing Manager, pours a Norton in the tasting room

Ann and Peter kindly gave me a bottle of the 2008 Reserve and a day or two later I happily drank a couple of glasses with dinner and watched my wife and mother in law drink it with gusto.   As I left St James I felt like I was getting the hang of the Norton style now and at least starting to appreciate it’s distinct qualities when it’s handled by a good winemaker.  The overbearing and unpleasant sour and tart flavors I’d tasted and smelt in Nortons before this trip were being replaced by smell and taste characteristics including floral, sherbet, blackcurrant, gooseberry and pomegranate.

So back to Stone Hill Winery.  We started with a couple of Norton samples from their tanks where the 2011 harvest is gestating. Like Les Bourgeois tank samples they were acidic but interesting to taste and an improvement on Nortons I’d tasted before this trip.   Then we moved on to their 2009 Norton which is aged in American oak and compared it to the Cross J Vineyard 2009 Norton.  The Cross J is sourced from Thomas’ parents’ private vineyard and then aged in European oak.  At this point I was a little distracted as I admired the professional swirling, sniffing, tasting and spitting of my three companions and a little embarrassed when I tried to imitate them and my wine spit rebounded a little off the container and landed ominously close to Dave.  They politely turned a blind eye as Shaun poetically described the Cross J in relation to the regular 2009 Norton: “It’s more of a spicy taste, more clove and spice with cinnamon on the nose, a leathery forest floor, in there is a truffle note, it’s a bit more elegant, European in style”.   All I could offer was:  “I’m enjoying them both and not getting those tart flavors.”   My tongue to brain communication skills are not as advanced as Shaun’s but I did feel my Norton education was taking some steps forward helped by his verbal gymnastics in a South African accent.  The European style that Shaun is referring to distinguishes Norton wines from the big, fruity flavor of many Californian and New World reds.   When handled well, the Norton is a more subtle, softer wine that relies on its acidity and the tannins it can get from oak barrels – rather than a Cab or Syrah with their natural tannins – to give it structure.  Dave compares the old world style of Norton to Italy’s Barbera grape.

Stone Hill's winemakers from left right: Dave Johnson opens, Thomas Held reads and Shaun Turnbull prepares to taste.

So it was on to the 2005 Stone Hill Norton.  With the 2005 I moved on from appreciating the Norton to thoroughly enjoying it.  Shaun came up with more poetry:   “It’s more beefy and spicy. Fruits…”  He continued thoughtfully after poking his nose back in the glass,  “You probably get a bit more rose pot-pourri, but not that live, flowery or floral characteristic. Pine as well on the nose, kind of pine needles.”  I asked if this 2005 was like a toned down version of the 2009 Crosss J?  “Yes,” said Sean.  “It’s not so much fresh fruit, you’re getting more of a tertiary age character now, it’s almost more drier prune than plummy. “  Dave pitched in, “It’s starting to develop what I call bottle bouquet and that’s what good red wine does when you age it.  The fruit, the clear Norton varietal character, starts to become subdued and now you start to get some other things that weren’t in there to begin with.   It’s chemistry.” And so it was.  This was a classy wine with its fruit in the background, gentle on the tongue with velvety textures and delicate, woodie aromas.   I was really hoping I’d get the rest of this bottle to take home.  (I didn’t, but Thomas kindly gave me a bottle of their 2008 Norton Port and I drank some of that last  night – it was very nice).  The Norton quest was over and the verdict unanimous: the Norton grape can and does make lovely, distinctive wine.

Stone Hill's 2005 Norton, the 2009 and the Cross J 2009 Norton

Mission Impossible II: Meet the Defenders of Norton

19 Jan

I’m back from the quest to find a drinkable Norton.  The nearly 500-mile road trip took me to some of the biggest, most respected and oldest wineries in the state of Missouri.  On the journey, I tasted a number of Nortons at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, St James Winery and Stone Hill Winery.  I’ve also questioned four other regional winemakers by phone or email, including Adam Puchta Winery.  The striking common feature of Norton winemakers was their impressive degree of dedication to their grape, a commitment that sometimes bordered on fanatical.  So as a self-declared Norton heretic, I was a little uneasy visiting these winemakers to question their faith!  I felt fortunate that they all graciously welcomed me with open bottles and willingly submitted to full interrogations.  The quest is over, but before the results are revealed, here is what some of the Defenders of Norton had to say about why they grow their beloved grape…

Cory Bomgaars 

Head Winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyard

Quick Facts about Les Bourgeois Vineyard: Located in Rocheport, Missouri, about 2 hours drive from Kansas City or twenty minutes from Columbia ~ 135,000 gallons of wine made each year or about 12% of Missouri’s total wine output ~ Approximately 3,500 gallons of Norton produced in 2011.

Cory ponders Vignole blends

 “What Norton gives you is a quality wine, and it has this cult following behind it, and it gives a very distinct wine to the region.  Just like Oregon has Pinot and Chile has Malbec – having a wine for the region that gives you distinction is always a plus.”

“There’s no reason to grow Cab here in Missouri because we’re going to make Cab that’s okay; we’re going to get our butts kicked by other places in the world that are making outstanding, world-class Cabs.  Why not make a wine out of a grape that is distinctive? Missouri can grow the best Norton in the world.”

“Norton has some advantages for our area.  It’s hearty, so it definitely can deal with our winters.  It’s also very disease resistant.  Norton is a native species, or mostly native. It has some European parentage, and it evolved to grow in this environment. It is also resistant to most of the diseases so you don’t need the chemical input in the spray as much, and if it’s managed correctly, you can make a nice red wine out of it.”

Peter Hofherr

Chief Executive Officer, St James Winery

Quick Facts About St James Winery: Located in St James, Missouri, about four hours drive from Kansas City or one hour from Jefferson City ~ Missouri’s biggest winemaker producing about 470,000 gallons of wine each year or roughly 50% of Missouri’s total wine output ~ Norton makes up about 50% of varietal sales.

Peter next to a barrel of his Norton

“We think it’s one of the grapes that grows best in our terroir, and so we find it very interesting from a production standpoint, as well as the interaction with the consumer and the history of the grape.  So all those things together really make us want to grow it.”

“We see ourselves as sort of on a wine frontier here.”

Dave Johnson

Senior Winemaker, Stone Hill Winery

 Quick Facts About Stone Hill Winery: Located in Hermann, just over an hour from Columbia and just over ninety minutes from St Louis ~ Missouri’s second biggest wine maker, producing about 260,000 gallons of wine in 2011, about 25% of the total production in the state ~ 25 acres out of 185 acres produce Norton grapes.

“Well, there are two reasons we grow it.  One is because it is basically, right now, the best grape variety for us to make unique and high quality dry red wine that’s adapted to our climate.   We can grow it with what you might call minimum input.  I don’t know that we can quite grow it without any sprays, but you can come very close, and in some years you can do that.”

Dave on the right, with Thomas Held (left), family owner and director of sales & marketing, and Shaun Turnbull (center), winemaker

“Then there’s the history involved.  It has a great history. It is the grape that was the focal point of the wine industry in Hermann before prohibition.  The bulk of the people in and around this town made their living from the wine industry, and of course that all came to a screeching halt with prohibition.

“Norton wines before prohibition were major players in wine competitions in Europe and all over the place, winning major awards. A wine, supposedly a Stone Hill Norton, won the award as the best red wine “of all nations” at an international competition in Vienna in 1873.”

Tim Puchta

President, Adam Puchta Winery

Quick Facts About Adam Puchta Winery: Located in Hermann, just over an hour from Columbia and just over ninety minutes from St Louis ~ The oldest winery in the United States still owned by the same family ~ Approximately 40,000 gallons of total wine production with Norton sales making up about 3,500 gallons. 

Tim enjoys a Norton

“Since the Norton was part of our history, I grew up around it, and I really loved the grape.”

“My great-great grandfather started this winery back in 1855, and we’re currently the oldest winery in the entire United States that’s still owned by the same family and never left that family.  It was the primary grape of my ancestors when this winery was operating from 1855 until prohibition shut us down.  It was the largest grape we had in planting during that time.”

“I think one of the things is, I’m kind of an acid geek. I cannot stand fat, flabby wines and part of the profile we have here is you’ll find a lot of my wines are pretty balanced, but they’re a little acid forward which makes them better food wines, in my personal opinion. I just really like the acid profile and the spice profile that you can get with Norton.”