(Chris Lee ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Then they got bitten by the wine bug.
While living in Washington, Mo., after college, the couple began visiting wineries in Hermann, Mo., and Augusta, Mo., where they fell in love with wine and the possibility of producing it themselves. Someday, they thought, they'd make a go of it.
So, in 2006 they planted 600 vines on their property west of the Mississippi River, in Friedheim, and just last month, after years of juggling jobs and a growing family, the winery opened its doors.
Their Apple Creek Vineyard and Winery is Missouri's newest, but it has plenty of company. In the last 10 years, the number of wineries in the state -- and the country -- has shot up as more Americans like the Gamels decide to embrace a life in wine.
In 2000, the U.S. boasted 2,688 wineries, and by 2010 that had risen to 7,626. In Missouri the number more than tripled, from 31 to 108, during the same period.
Most of these wineries, according to University of Missouri research, are small, and many are in emerging wine regions.
"It's been phenomenal," said Cary Greene, chief operating officer of Wine America, a Washington-based wine trade association. "It feeds on itself. The reason there's growth in wineries is that there's a growing consumer base, and the reason there's a growing consumer base is that there are more wineries."
The forces behind that cycle go beyond the changing American palate, which has shifted away from beer in recent years: Barriers to entry have been lowered, states have passed laws allowing more on-site purchasing of wine, and more newly formed groups have launched initiatives to capture the economic impact of winery-related tourism.
An even greater factor, perhaps, is the apparent desire to change professional course.
"I think it's part of the zeitgeist of our age," explained Fabio Chaddad, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri who is studying the growth of the industry and ways to sustain it. "Folks are wanting a better way of life, they're trying a rural lifestyle, giving up 9-to-5 jobs to do something they love."
But idealism may not be enough to help these new wineries survive, so Chaddad is taking a critical look at what they need to do to succeed.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chaddad has spent two years tracking the industry's growth and surveying winemakers. The next phase of his research will look at how wineries can stay afloat -- and what the economic implications are.
"We are looking at potential vectors of development," Chaddad explained, "especially in rural areas."
Terry Steele, who opened Steelecrest Winery in the fall of 2011 on Highway V near Jackson, said those who start wineries usually are in their later years and are of the opinion that it's an easy lifestyle. But that's not the case.
"They find out you end up working harder than what you would at a regular job," he said. "I work harder now at nearly 60 years old than I did when I was 30 years old, but it's a different kind of work. I really enjoy the people."
Steele said his customers are laid back and come there to have a good time. He, too, remembers the good times he had at wineries in Hermann while he was living in St. Louis.
"It was some of the highlights of my late 20s and early 30s. It was just a wonderful time and I thought that Jackson needed something like that," he said. He spent four years building his winery, which includes an outdoor pizza oven. He incorporated many reclaimed materials in the building, including 100-year-old bricks and refrigerators that date to the 1930s.
The atmosphere is what draws people to Missouri wineries like his, Steele said. Those older than 40 might be turned off by bars that target college students, he said.
"I wanted a place you could come, bring the kids, mom and dad could have a few drinks and turn the kids loose to play," he said.
In Missouri, Chaddad calculates, wineries have an economic impact of about $1.6 billion, thanks to a multiplier effect, as wineries tend to cluster in areas that lure tourists who patronize hotels, restaurants and festivals.
"We're talking about Hermann, the Ozarks. This is not only generating jobs -- it's generating them in rural areas where they're desperately needed," Chaddad added. "To realize the economic impact in rural areas, we need these wineries to survive and grow."
For Missouri producers, and others in emerging wine regions, the key to their individual successes rests with the region at large and acquainting consumers with lesser-known grapes, such as Missouri's norton and chardonel varietals.
"If we can get to where we have national recognition, it can really propel all these little wineries," said Charles Dressel, president of Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta. "We need to create a regional identity. It's always better to sing in a choir than by yourself."
Chaddad's research will look into how Missouri wineries can better band together to sell wine beyond the state's borders.
"That's the challenge for emerging regions. In addition to surviving as a sole winery, they have to build a reputation for the region," he said.
"We'll look at the collaboration between wineries and related business, and we want to understand how clusters evolve. How can we form co-ops to market wine from Hermann nationally?"
To get Missouri-grown varietals recognized beyond the state's borders, quality has to be a priority, winemakers acknowledge.
Five years ago, an organization called the Missouri Wine Technical Group began holding quarterly "brown bag" meetings, where winemakers submit wines and are critiqued by peers.
"You fill in an eight-page document on how you made the wine, a panel tastes it, and then we 'out' the winemaker, and they have to stand up and take advice," said Cory Bomgaars, head winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, Mo., 135 miles west of St. Louis. "It's amazing what it's done for some of the substandards, and it's upped what we consider standard."
Indeed, just growing grapes and putting wine in a bottle isn't going to cut it.
"It needs to be very, very good and deliver a good value to the consumer," Dressel said. "A lot of wineries say we've got a dynamite location, or a wonderful lake, and therefore we have a winery. That's not a winery, that's a wedding venue. You have to develop a product."
Clearly more winemakers are at least trying to do that.
"There's a growing number of these small winemakers out here in California, as well as across the country. Virginia is a big new growing area. Washington state, Oregon, New York are growing very quickly," said Doug Minnick, co-founder of the Garagiste Festival in California, which showcases small-scale winemakers. "I think there are more ways to get into winemaking now. Once you source fruit, there are any number of ways to get wine made. There are services, places with shared equipment."
In many states, including Missouri, government is helping winemakers clear some of the regulatory hurdles and helping promote their businesses.
"The state and federal governments see wine as key to rural development, so there's lots of incentives," said Peter Hofherr, chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, and head of St. James Winery in St. James, Mo., near Rolla, Mo. "They have tax credits for winery and vineyard development. They have a program where one penny of every bottle goes to research and promotion and marketing for the wine industry."
With a greater appetite for wine and more impetus for getting into the business, the number of small wineries likely will keep rising.
"The audience for this type of wine is growing," Minnick said. "The wine tends to be better. This is handmade wine, and wine benefits from this type of attention. Winemakers have their noses in it every day. It's a labor of love, and it shows in the glass."
For Shellie and Matt Gamel, the labor of love is only starting to pay off. Shellie just gave herself her first paycheck, and Matt is still working a full-time job. But they hope Apple Creek will be self-sustaining one day soon.
"We're not looking to be the mega-giants of the state," Shellie Gamel said. "We just want to make quality wine, make a little money doing it and let everyone know we can make good wine here."
Staff writer Melissa Miller contributed to this report.
2055 State Hwy Y, Jackson, Mo
1930 County Road 401, Friedheim, Mo