For State Wineries, It's a Very Good Year Vintners Struggle to Keep Up with Growing Demand

Article excerpt

Wine connoisseurs used to walk right past the Missouri table at wine-tasting events in St. Louis County, recalls Jim Ashby, former head of Missouri's wine and grape program and current marketing director for Stone Hill Wine Co.

Now they seek out Missouri wines. People who used to steer clear are apt to share tidbits of wine lore they've gleaned from other tastings and trips to the state's 31 wineries.

"The whole thing has turned around," said Ashby. Missouri wineries are winning over the palates of Missouri wine drinkers. They're winning an impressive number of awards, too, at national and international wine competitions.

Glenn Bardgett, owner of the Wine Cellar in Clayton, says he began putting Missouri wines on display as soon as he opened his store a decade ago. Then, "it was emotional missionary work," he said. "Now, it's a definite business factor. They sell, and they make money for us.

"The quality is astonishing. When you put Missouri wines up against other wines, they really do well."

Missouri wines won 27 medals at the National Orange Show's Pacific Rim International Wine Competition this spring. Nine wineries collected three gold/best of show awards, 10 silver and 14 bronze medals.

Missouri's "premium varietal wines are proving to be comparable to, if not better than, California's wine products," said Tony Kooyumjian, owner of Augusta Winery and winner of two gold medals. The state's unique vintages "stand out from the hordes of cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays," he said.

Augusta Winery won a best-of-category award and gold, silver and bronze medals at last month's Riverside County National Wine Competition in California.

The growing sophistication of Missouri winemakers led the state's wineries to another record year in sales last year. At 304,029 gallons, sales were up 4 percent. The wineries' share of all wine sales rose to 4.53 percent, up slightly from 1994 and 60 percent higher than their 2.69 percent share in 1991.

"Sometime we're going to have to slow down because the supply of grapes just isn't there," said Larry Knipp, director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Program, funded by a tax on all the wine sold in the state. Demand for high-quality grapes far outstrips the supply, and new vineyards won't produce significant tonnage for several years.

Stone Hill, the state's largest winery, had to cut off sales because demand outstripped production from its three wineries. Ashby said Stone Hill could have sold 30,000 more gallons of wine last year than its actual sales of 124,932 gallons.

"It's a heady time for the Missouri wine industry," said Ashby. …