Wine is Jerry Smith's livelihood.
The owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Smith spends most of his day bottling wine, roaming the grounds of the property and sharing a good laugh with his employees and customers.
"I feel very blessed," said Smith, who achieved his 20-year dream of opening a winery in 1994. "It took me a long time and a lot of work to get where I am today, but it's been worth it. I have a place that has really good food, an amazing gift shop and great wine."
Despite a lagging economy, Smith said his business has been virtually unaffected. The winery has seen an increase in visitors and sales this year.
On any given weekend day, between 300 and 500 people visit the winery. Smith said that's an increase from last year, though he did not have exact attendance figures.
While he would not divulge monetary figures for competitive reasons, Smith admitted wholesale sales of wine are up 400 percent compared to the first half of 2007. Sales of wine, food and merchandise inside his restaurant and gift shop have also increased by 15 percent.
Though the economy has left his business relatively unscathed, Smith said the unusual weather patterns have damaged his winery the most, though he said the effect was minimal. The first quarter of 2008 — January, February and March — marked the first down quarter in the winery's history.
Ice storms, snow and excessive amounts of rainfall all were contributing factors to the decline. On two occasions, his business was without electricity for four to five consecutive days. Roads were so treacherous at one time that visitors had trouble making the drive, though he emphasized the winery did not close during those times.
But River Ridge Winery is not alone.
Tower Rock Winery in Altenburg, Mo., reported increased sales and record crowds for the year during the past three weekends, said co-owner Cheryl Breuer. On a normal weekend day, about 25 people visit the winery. But this month, attendance has increased to about 40 people a day.
She said most visitors are repeat customers from Jackson, Cape Girardeau, Chester, Mo., and Perryville, Mo. But visitors from as far as Kansas City, Mo., have visited her winery recently, she said.
Breuer attributed the larger-than-normal crowds to low humidity, events such as weddings and family reunions in Altenburg and gas prices keeping people closer to home for vacations and other outings.
On average, the winery produces 1,400 gallons of wine each year. In 2007, damage to their crops limited their production to 500 gallons, compared to 25,000 in 2006. Breuer could not speculate on the amount they will produce this year, though she believes it will be more than 500 gallons.
"If we have a good harvest during the late-August to late-October months, then we may surpass our average," Breuer said. "But it's just hard to tell at this point in time. We'll have to keep an eye on the weather."
Unlike River Ridge Winery, Breuer's business escaped damage from the region's weather this year.
"We lucked out because we were just to the north of where the majority of the damage from the ice storm occurred this year," Breuer said. "And the rains didn't hurt us because they came at a time when the wine industry is normally down attendance-wise. Also, the rainfall came before any of our grapes started to really grow."
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