Each year in April, the Community Counseling Center Foundation fills the Bavarian Halle with tables of wine from local wineries. The Community Benefit Wine Festival is the foundation's second-largest fundraiser and raises money for the Community Counseling Center, a not-for-profit center for mental health care.
This year's event will feature a band, appetizers by local restaurants and 14 wineries eager to show their products. The foundation gives much thought to the event, but what many people don't think about is how much thought and work went into the wines featured there. On the cusp of the benefit, the Southeast Missourian asked a few local winemakers "how to get from vine to wine." ~ Chris Harris
Like any other farm, wineries have yardwork year-round, according to Jerry Smith, who owns and operates River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Mo., with his wife, Joannie. There is a slight lull in outdoor cultivation during the winter, but the first pretty day in January, workers start pruning the vines, culling them of last year's now-dead canes and prepping them for new growth. The pruning should be over by April so the new grapes can come in.
Early variety grapes begin budding in the spring and mature through the summer. Wine-growing regions vary from mostly cool climates with short growing season to fairly warm and temperate climates with a long growing season, like Missouri. The growing season in the state stretches from April to October.
Smith said that after they prune the vines, they clean between rows, kill the weeds in April and May and fertilize around the base of the vine. Grapes are grown on hills so the breeze can freshen the air around the vines. Grapes will mold if there is no air flow. "Grapes don't like poor drainage of air or water," Smith said.
Good circulation and good weather make for great wine. Smith said grapes like dry, hot weather with plenty of sunshine.
As with most fruits, when grapes ripen, the sugar levels rise. Most grapes are good to go at 21 to 23 percent sugar. A semidry wine like a rose or white Zinfandel can be picked at 20 to 21 "brix," the industry term for sugar level. A dryer red like a Cynthiana should wait until grapes are at 23 to 25 brix.
To test the brix, Smith squirts a drop of grape juice onto the end of a hand-held device called a refractometer and looks through the lens. The refractometer tells him the sugar level in the berry. Once the winery thinks the sugar level is right, they pick the grapes.
Chemical analysis and advanced equipment help, said winemaker Andrew Meggitt of St. James Winery in St. James, Mo., but in the end it comes down to taste.
Seasonal helpers who sign up in the tasting room at River Ridge pick grapes by hand on the six-acre vineyard and place them into a "lug" -- a tub that holds 22 to 24 pounds of grapes. They walk to end of the row and dump the tub into a micro-bin, about the size of a four-person hot tub. They continue the process until the row is bare.
A machine picks St. James' grapes, which stretch across 160 acres in Phelps County. The grapes are picked at night because the cooler temperatures help seal and preserve the grapes' flavor, which can vary from spicy with hints of clove and cinnamon to fruity like a blueberry or plum, Meggitt said.
The normal picking season runs from August, September and October, sometimes into November. Meggitt said he's an easygoing guy except from August to November.
Within two hours of being picked at River Ridge, the grapes start through the wine process.
Smith picks up the micro-bins with a forklift attachment on the front of his tractor, and they're put into a crusher/destemmer to break the skin and remove the stems. The white wine grapes then go into a grape press that looks like an old-fashioned ice cream maker, only large enough to crush two tons of grapes an hour. The grapes are put in the bucket and a plastic bladder is filled with air. It expands and pushes the grapes against the wall of the press, causing the juice to come out.
Grapes for red wines are put skins, pulp, juice and all into an open-top tank. Winemakers put yeast into the mix and the grapes ferment. Once fermentation slows, they float a lid on the liquid and then inflate a rubber tube to seal it off and protect it from oxygen, which will react with the alcohol and ruin the wine. Lighter varieties take seven to nine months to become wine. Red wines take two to three years to complete the process.
Once a wine has come of age, the winery opens the vat and starts bottling the liquid.
While the shape of a wine bottle may differ from wine to wine or even winery to winery, it's mostly a reflection of tradition rather than a necessary shape for optimum wine preservation.
"In a way, while we don't want to be like Europe, subconsciously you yield to that bottle tradition," Meggitt said.
White or semisweet wines get put in a Hock bottle, a tall, slender bottle with a wide base that slowly and evenly tapers in to the neck and top. A Burgundy bottle has a fatter base with a steeper slope into the neck. Reds tend to go in a Bordeaux bottle with pronounced shoulders and a 2-inch neck.
But any of these bottles will adequately hold any type of wine, Meggitt said. The choice to put a certain type of wine in a certain style bottle hangs more on tradition and brand -- or wine style -- recognition.
"People recognize your product in a certain package," Meggitt said.
If a shopper picks up a Burgundy-style bottle, they know relatively what they're buying.
One misconception about bottling is that closure indicates quality.
St. James bottles 95 percent of its wines with a screw cap, Meggitt said, and he thinks it keeps better. When he first came to the winery in 2002, they ran trials of natural cork, high-quality natural corks and screw caps and found the screw caps worked perfectly.
"There's been no doubt for us," he said. "They all work, but it depends on what you're willing to try. People don't have a problem with soda or food, they've been using screw caps for years and years."