Wining with Jerry Smith, co-owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Mo.

Monday, March 30, 2009
Owner Jerry Smith posed in the vineyard at River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Mo.

Southeast Missouri has its share of wineries, with about 13 locations in the region, one of which is River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Mo.

Jerry Smith and his wife, Joannie, bought the farm that currently houses the winery in October 1980 and began planting grapes in 1981. River Ridge Winery opened for business Sept. 17, 1994. Business reporter Brian Blackwell recently traveled to Commerce to walk the vineyards and discuss Smith's views of the wine business. Smith and his wife, Joannie, own the winery, which employs nine full-time and 15 part-time employees.

Q: How did you get interested in the wine-making business?

A: When I was in the military I had my appendix removed in 1974 and couldn't fly for six weeks. So I traveled across Europe for six weeks and visited so many wineries. I had wanted to get into the business for a number of years and that was the straw that broke the camel's back. When I came to Cape Girardeau I met Gordon Nunnelly who planted an experimentation with 21 different kinds of grapes to make wine. He and I bought textbooks from University of California at Davis, which is a top school for wine making. We studied and made different types of wines from one grape. Without him I couldn't have pulled this off in my lifetime.

Q: Why has your winery succeeded all these years?

Owner Jerry Smith at River Ridge.

A: The first year we produced 2,400 bottles of wine. Last year that number was 35,000 bottles. Our consumption of premium-quality table wine per capita has increased by 23 percent. We like what we're doing. If you open your ears to what the customers want, then you'll succeed. You have to give people what they want. On the other hand, you have to also give them what they need. It's a situation you have to balance. We have one of the best areas in the country to grow grapes, with milder winters. Our climate is similar to that of the Napa Valley in California, which produces some of the best wine in the world. We try to make this a utopia where people want to work. Our goal is to have fun and make money. I'm at a point in my life where I don't want to retire, and if I'm not having fun I need to find something else to do.

Q: Has the winery been what you thought it would be?

A: It's wildly better than I ever dreamed of. The biggest accomplishment is to show that a husband and wife can dream and work together. I would not have accomplished this without Joannie. I grew up on a farm, so I was used to growing agricultural products. It's so much fun to raise an agricultural product from the soil and then see that finished product sold. We sell most of our wine here but do offer it in a few places such as Schnucks and Patricia Ann's.

Q: How did the January winter storm affect your winery?

A: In the short-term, a little of our business was down and we lost some trees. But it didn't hurt the vineyard. I have steel poles every eight feet that protect the grapes from damage. Also ice is an insulent and that helps protect the fruiting bud. Now 2007 was a bigger challenge, when we had a massive ice storm. The challenge was to step out of the box to consider something we'd never done before, which was bringing grapes in from another state. Here we have two years of inventory in case something like that happens but we felt like this was needed. In any vocation you can become complacent. You get to the point where you know things and that's when it's dangerous. Nature and the public will let you know that you don't know everything when you get to that point. Hopefully we'll never have to import grapes again to make our wine.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I want to expand the [restaurant's] kitchen, vineyard and wholesale sales and open another business in Commerce. We'll call the restaurant Rascal Flatts, though the name could change. We're naming it after what Commerce was called at one time. The restaurant will have decks outside and the best quality seafood like shrimp and po-boys from Louisiana and Mississippi. We'll also have sand for the kids to play in. I expect the restaurant will open in April 2010.

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