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Wine Makes Us Wet

For a state that still clings to its dry past, Kansas makes surprisingly good wine. But don’t try to ship it.


Kansas winemaker Michelle Meyer had only been in the business for about three years when she had to testify before state legislators. It was 1997, and the Kansas Department of Revenue's Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control had mailed a warning to Meyer and her father and business partner, Les Meyer. The two operate Holyfield Vineyard and Winery about half an hour outside Kansas City. The letter informed the Meyers that they were breaking the law. Their crime? Selling port, a traditional dessert wine fortified with brandy that has almost double the alcohol content of a table wine.

The Meyers called state Sen. Don Biggs, a Leavenworth Democrat, and asked for his help. Biggs offered to sponsor a bill that would make a change to the fairly new Kansas Farm Winery Law, which didn't specifically prohibit wineries from selling port but didn't allow it, either. The Meyers testified before a friendly Senate subcommittee that voted to pass the bill, but then the bill moved to a larger House hearing later that spring.

"I was expecting some more friendly folks," Michelle Meyer says. After she spoke, briefly talking about the Meyers' winery and explaining that being able to sell the very popular port would boost their business, Meyer sat down. A prim-looking older woman then rose to speak. She pointed her finger at Meyer, the winemaker recalls, and said, "You're in the alcohol business!" and proceeded to complain that the Meyers and their ilk bore responsibility for every alcohol-related traffic fatality in the state of Kansas.

Taken aback, Meyer tried to protest, arguing that wine is a drink of moderation, but the woman would not be stopped. "We do not need one more way for Kansans to get drunk," Meyer remembers her saying.

A reporter whispered to Meyer that the woman represented the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the group started in the 1870s and made famous by anti-alcohol crusader Carry Nation. At the House hearing, it seemed to Meyers that the prohibitionist spirit was alive and well.

"The people on the committee started fighting with each other and accusing each other's grandpas of drinkin' ripple. It was hilarious," she says. "All I wanted was to keep making port wine. I wasn't asking for the moon or anything."

Though the bill eventually made it out of committee and passed the state Legislature, the port debacle was typical. "It's all a hangover from Prohibition," says Doug Frost, a Kansas City-based wine expert. Missouri, he points out, through its state-sponsored Grape and Wine Program, helps its wineries grow and gain national recognition. "Holyfield hasn't had that kind of support, and in the early days, Holyfield got quite the opposite -- people throwing roadblocks in front of them," Frost says. "The reason most people haven't heard a lot about Kansas wines is because of Kansas state law, no question."

Frost, a wine writer, has some heavy credentials that suggest he knows what he's talking about. The Court of Master Sommeliers, based in London, has anointed only 56 Americans as "master sommeliers." London's Institute of Masters of Wines has named only 242 "masters of wine" worldwide.

Frost is one of only three people on Earth with both titles.

Until about five years ago, Frost believed there were no Kansas wines worthy of his attention -- and he was mostly right. But one morning in the late '90s, Frost was on a radio program talking about wine, praising Missouri wineries such as St. James and Stone Hill, when a woman called in. "You haven't mentioned any Kansas wines," Frost remembers her saying. "Frankly," he says he answered, "I haven't tasted any Kansas wines that I'd bother telling anyone to try." The caller asked whether he'd ever tried Holyfield wines. When Frost said he'd never heard of Holyfield, she offered to send him some wine. A week or so later, when the bottles arrived, he tried the white, a Seyval, and wasn't impressed. Then he tried the red, a Chambourcin. "I said, 'Well I'll be damned,'" Frost recalls. "It had a genuine fruit to it, and it showed some real character and structure."

Frost called the Meyers, complimented them on their reds, and made some suggestions about getting some new equipment to control oxidation in their whites. He asked them to keep him up-to-date on their progress. "I said, 'I want to taste what you do next, because this is cool,'" he says. About six months later, the Meyers sent Frost a few new bottles. Their whites had improved dramatically, Frost says, and their reds tasted even better. Frost loved their most recent Cynthiana. "It's a pretty, classic, meaty, slightly smoky black raspberry that's just a little bit bitter in the finish, which you can fix," Frost says. Of all the wines he's tasted recently from Kansas, Frost says Holyfield is the best. "These are wines that should be paid attention to on a national level."

Michelle Meyer's goal is not to become, as she puts it, a Gallo on the prairie. Rather, she wants to produce a high-quality wine that puts Kansas wine on the map.

But before that can happen, Michelle and Les Meyer and other winemakers have three major obstacles to overcome: lingering attitudes (in Kansas, anyway) that wine is evil, harsh state laws that prevent most people outside Kansas from trying the state's varieties, and -- maybe the biggest challenge -- the widespread consumer perception that wine just doesn't come from Kansas.

The state is beginning to help its tiny wine industry. In late July, the Kansas secretary of agriculture, Adrian Polansky, announced that he had formed a Kansas Grape and Wine Industry Advisory Council. "Before Prohibition, Kansas was home to a thriving wine industry. I want to do what I can to help grape growers and vintners recapture this important part of our state's heritage," Polansky stated in a press release at the time. But winemakers and wine drinkers will have to wait to see what that means. "We'll have to see if it's real," Frost says. "So far, that's the only good sign on the horizon, but it's a very good sign."

In 1980, when Les Meyer bought 30 acres near Basehor, 15 miles west of Kansas City, he never imagined that he and his daughter would one day operate a commercial winery there. A wine lover who fermented fruit from his orchards into wine in his basement as a hobby -- all of his children grew up tasting wine -- Les Meyer had been a hairdresser all his life. He cut hair at the studio he owned, Hair Magicians at 73rd Street and State Avenue, and thought the acreage he had purchased would make a nice place to build a house. To make extra cash, he enlisted Michelle to help him raise alfalfa to sell to area farmers for their horses. "It was never our intention to have a winery," Michelle says.

In the mid-1980s, Les started reading about grapes and decided to order some vines from a nursery so he could make wine for himself and for his family and friends. He ordered 400 vines in 1986 -- a mix of Fredonia, Aurora, Melody, and Niagara grapes -- and he and Michelle planted all of them. By law, Michelle and Les together were allowed to make only 200 gallons of wine a year as home winemakers, so they sold their excess grapes to others.

Soon they decided to open a business. On a tight budget, Les Meyer bought some old refrigerated dairy tanks and had a welder patch them up so they'd be suitable for fermenting white wines and cold-stabilizing reds and whites. "My dad mishmashed it all together," Michelle says. Then they placed an ad in a trade magazine and bought some used equipment -- a filter, a labeler, a corker. They already had a crusher, a de-stemmer and a press. In the spring of 1994, they filled out a raft of paperwork and applied for the two required commercial winery licenses, one from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the other from the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Both licenses arrived in time for harvest. That season, they picked grapes and put up a prefab metal building to house their wine cellar and tasting room. With that fall's harvest, they made about 2,000 gallons of wine. Their vineyard was one of the first of any size in Kansas since voters ended Prohibition in the state in 1948.

Holyfield Winery -- named for the former name of the road where it's located -- opened for business in December 1994. Friends, family, neighbors and lots of Les Meyer's hair clients came to the opening. Michelle says one new customer told her, "I thought you were putting up a Ponderosa steakhouse."

After the opening, both Les and Michelle kept their day jobs. Les picked grapes between hair clients, and Michelle headed to the winery after a full day as a volunteer coordinator at a Kansas City nonprofit blood center. Though they had to be up for work the next morning, at 11 p.m. they'd be in the basement crushing grapes. After four years, Les Meyer retired from the salon, letting his son take over. Michelle quit her job, too. In 1999, they began entering bottles in commercial winemaking competitions. That same year, their Vignoles won a double gold medal, and their Seyval won a gold medal in the Pacific Rim International wine competition. Doug Frost started to take notice of what they were doing. The Meyers were thrilled.

One of only a few wine masters in the Midwest, Frost makes it his business to know what's going on with wine in the heartland. Other wine writers have called the Jefferson Cup, the contest Frost founded, one of the trade's most democratic competitions. Frost isn't prejudiced against wine made from the hybrid and domestic grapes that thrive in the Midwest -- known in the wine world as nonvinifera. The Jefferson Cup includes categories for nonvinifera wines.

Frost, a decidedly unsnobby guy who favors T-shirts and shorts, sees no place in the wine world for snootiness. He has published two books on wine, he writes regularly for wine magazines and for The San Francisco Chronicle. He also holds wine tastings across the United States on behalf of Spain's national wine-marketing board. If you're a winemaker in Kansas, he's the guy you want to like your wine -- he has taken an interest in wines from quirky and interesting places, and he regularly exposes other wine experts and readers to wines from outside California's Napa Valley.

When Frost's colleagues come to Kansas City or he meets them in California, he often brings a few bottles of Kansas and Missouri wine with him. He makes them taste it blind to get a truer reaction. "I've never had people say, 'What is this crap?' What they say is, 'You're bullshitting me -- this is from Kansas?'" Frost says.

Kansas wines can confuse the casual wine drinker. With its hot summers and cold winters, states like Kansas for the most part must concentrate on hybrid and native grape varieties. Customers won't find local versions of the familiar Chardonnay or Merlot, made from traditional European grapes (vinifera), that are produced in milder states like California and Oregon. When customers walk into Holyfield's tasting room, they ask reflexively for a Chardonnay or a Cabernet, and Michelle Meyer has to tell them there is none. Today, Holyfield makes a variety of white wines -- Chardonel, a dry, crisp wine that's the Midwest's equivalent of Chardonnay; Seyval; Melody; and Vignoles. There also are reds -- Chambourcin, St. Vincent, Cynthiana, Racy Red, Tailgate Red. And there are dessert wines -- St. Francis, port, and raspberry wine.

In 2001, Michelle Meyer got a call from writer Bruce Schoenfeld, a writer for Bloomberg's Personal Finance magazine. Schoenfeld wanted to round up a group of tasters, including a master sommelier, an oenologist and a wine importer, for a blind tasting of wines from anywhere but California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Virginia. Schoenfeld asked Michelle to ship him two bottles of the Meyers' best. Because he wasn't paying for the wine and was acting as a professional judge, Michelle was legally allowed to send it to him, but she drove across the state line to Missouri to ship the package anyway.

The magazine, meanwhile, sent a California photographer and her assistant to Holyfield. "I thought they'd just get a photographer from Kansas," Michelle recalls. "They have photographers in Kansas, right? But instead they sent this fancy L.A. photographer and her assistant, Hector, with all their high-end photography equipment," she says. It was raining, and the grapes were still small and green, so it wasn't the best time to take photos, but the Meyers spent hours coddling the photographer. When she wanted to find a higher vantage point, Les lifted her up on a tractor scoop. When she asked for wind, Les turned on the blower of the tractor's sprayer.

In the end, it paid off. When the article finally came out in September 2001, an idyllic color photo of Les standing in the vineyard in his cowboy hat, white shirt and khakis, and another picture of a bunch of Holyfield grapes took up two full pages. In his story, "Vintage America," Schoenfeld wrote that his panel had tasted 65 wines and declared Holyfield's Chambourcin the best. "Smoky, pungent, with lots of black juice fruit. There's a real complexity there, something to go back to," master sommelier Wayne Belding told the writer. Schoenfeld wrote that he was surprised to hear the internationally known Belding "waxing eloquent about a Kansas red."

Naturally, upscale wine lovers from around the country who read the story began calling Holyfield to order bottles and cases. Gritting her teeth, Michelle had to tell the callers that Kansas law prohibited her from shipping wine. The only way customers could get it would be to visit the winery or send a friend. "They are highly irate when you tell them you can't ship it," Michelle says.

Wine can be shipped for competitions. The following year, one of the Holyfield wines came close to winning Frost's contest, the Jefferson Cup, which awards a best wine in five categories. Frost remembers listening to judges debate the August 2002 competition; he says he heard several argue for Holyfield's Vidal Blanc. "At one point, I really wondered if it was going to win," Frost says. Last year at the Jefferson Cup, one of Holyfield's wines placed among the top ten nonvinifera wines in the United States.

Michelle and Les say the secret of their wine's success is in the care and attention they give the grapes. They spend summer days on tractors, trimming and pruning, pulling leaves, testing the acidity and the sugar levels of the grapes, harvesting by hand. "The grapes will treat you just like you treat them," Michelle says.

Doing what they love best, they are in no hurry to become a huge winery. One recent summer day in his cellar at 11 a.m. Les popped open a bottle of fruity, white Seyval and poured it into wineglasses, holding a cigarette in one hand. He took a swig. "Ahhhh, this is good," he said appreciatively, wiping a drop of wine from his bushy, white beard. By the time other states began to enforce Prohibition, Kansas had already been dry for 40 years.

In 1880, Kansans adopted an amendment to the state's constitution outlawing intoxicating drink. And the state clung to its dry legacy long after the nation as a whole and most other states had gladly cast off Prohibition in 1933.

Before it went dry, however, Kansas was once a favorite for grape growers. At one time, Missouri and Kansas produced 86 percent of the country's wine. Before Prohibition, Kansas had more than 7,000 acres of vineyards, according to Janna Dunbar, a food-project manager for the state's Department of Commerce. Today, only 140 acres are under cultivation.

Even during its dry years, of course, Kansans found ways to drink. Illegal liquor joints dotted the landscape, some run by pharmacists licensed to purchase medicinal alcohol. Women's Christian Temperance Union leader Carry Nation entered the national consciousness in 1901 when she began to gather bands of women to attack the illegal bars -- throwing stones through windows, smashing beer bottles and hatcheting open beer kegs. Nation saw herself as a crusader for family values and was sometimes jailed for her efforts.

"My aunt thought Carry Nation was a goddess," says Robert Smith Bader, a retired academic from Neosho Falls who wrote a history of the state's Prohibition movement. "But she [the aunt] never went to church. It's a mistake to think it was all religious fanatics." Bader says temperance should be seen in the light of the suffrage movement of the day. Many young women saw the dry movement as a way to exert more control. "They saw themselves as moral guardians of the home and family life," Bader says. "I'd say alcohol was very close to being seen as evil. My aunt was fanatical about it."

But Kansans still managed to get their hooch.

In 1917, Kansas legislators passed what was known as the "Bone Dry Bill," making mere possession of alcohol illegal -- except for sacramental wine. The next year, the rest of the nation adopted what became known as "the Kansas idea," approving the 18th Amendment and making sale of alcohol illegal. But the Depression spelled doom for the movement. Americans already down on their luck wondered what was so bad about a mug of beer. Franklin Roosevelt, running in his first presidential campaign in 1932, made the repeal of Prohibition one of his platform planks. He was elected, and the following year Prohibition was ended with the 21st Amendment.

But Kansas refused to go wet.

A 1935 pamphlet published by Kansas State University's Agricultural Experiment Station provided a lengthy, technical how-to on grape growing and griped that Kansas was the perfect location for the crop. "Kansans should both grow and consume many more grapes than they have in the past," the pamphlet admonished. But the pamphleteers named just three uses for grapes: dessert, jelly and grape juice. Notably absent was any mention of wine -- which Frost finds hilarious.

It wasn't until 1948 that Kansas voters narrowly voted to allow the sale of alcohol in the state. But Kansas liquor laws remained prohibitive. The state's constitution still stated that the "open saloon is forever banned," so Kansans who wanted a drink with their meals in a restaurant were forced to smuggle bottles of booze in and hide them under their chairs. And some counties, despite the state's new law, remained dry.

Eventually, Kansans in some counties could drink at private clubs after they paid a fee and endured a tourist-unfriendly waiting period. It wasn't until 1987 that a Kansas resident could order a drink at a bar, a change The New York Times predicted signaled an "economic boom" for the state. "We are celebrating Kansas' entry into the real world," a Kansas restaurateur told the Times.

Today, laws prohibit Kansas establishments from serving booze unless at least 30 percent of their revenue comes from the sale of food. Kansans can't legally buy a bottle of wine in Missouri and cross the state line to take it home. And Kansans cannot purchase a bottle of wine at the grocery store to go with their dinner -- they must stop at a liquor store. Only recently did a controversial state court decision open the way for some cities to allow Sunday liquor sales.

And if some laws still hark back to the state's dry period, so do some of its citizens. The Pitch was surprised to learn that Carry Nation's old outfit, the WCTU, is still in business in 2004.

"I do consider alcohol to be evil," says Frances Wood, 72, a Topeka woman who, with 35 other local members, keeps the WCTU and its cause alive. As the national organization's legislative chair, Wood writes letters to legislators and newspapers and lobbies the Kansas Legislature. Last session, she promoted a ban on Sunday sales and an increase of the state's sin tax. The effort failed. "Our stand is total abstinence of alcohol," she says.

Wood recently staffed a booth at the state fair, where she and fellow volunteers handed out literature and coloring books and let children try on 3-D glasses that simulated what a drunk person would see. "The children loved it," Wood tells the Pitch. "But I never let them leave without making sure they know what the message is, that if they were drunk they wouldn't be able to drive a car and they might hit someone or something."

Wood says the WCTU has tried to recruit younger members, sometimes by holding parties called "Fruestas" (named for fruity beverages) where nonalcoholic cocktails are served. But the group has had little success -- in Topeka, the youngest member is 49. When the national group held its annual convention at a Topeka church in the late 1990s, Wood told a newspaper that the group was in desperate need of younger members. Most are in their 70s and 80s and are old enough to remember Prohibition.

When The Topeka Capital-Journal's editorial page called for an expansion of the state's wineries and more exposure of their products this past March, Wood wrote a chastising reply. "This certainly would give more exposure -- exposure to all of our children seeing a product that is mind-altering. Wine does contain alcohol," Wood wrote. She recommended that Kansas farms instead produce "all the healthful grape juice they care to."

Kansas liquor laws are so arcane that the state itself has had to cheat to get around them.

Winemakers are prohibited, for example, from offering tastings at state and local fairs and festivals, says Norm Jenkins of Smoky Hill Winery, a member of the state's new Grape and Wine Industry Advisory Council. That shuts them out of big festivals that would be great places for them to show off Kansas wine, such as the Kansas Sampler Festival, Jenkins says.

But at this fall's Kansas State Fair, the Kansas Department of Agriculture held a "celebrity grape stomp," featuring state Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky and a wine tasting. But wine tastings at fairs are illegal in Kansas. "Tasting is not allowed but judging is. We opened it to the public where they could come and participate and be a judge," says the Department of Commerce's Dunbar. More than 100 people participated as "judges."

But sneaking around the law will get Kansas wines only so far. Laws have to change, Dunbar says. And that's one of the goals of the new advisory council. "We would like to see the grape industry become what it used to be," Dunbar says.

Vintners would like to see the 50,000-gallon limit on producers lifted and the law restricting a vineyard to two satellite locations repealed. But by far, the most important obstacle remains the legal bar against transportation.

"There's no winery I'm aware of that would ship into Kansas. It's seen as a very tough state, and it's stupid," Frost says.

A civil case filed on behalf of a number of U.S. wine producers is making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. If successful, it would force all states to allow interstate shipping. Attorney Kenneth Starr -- yes, that Kenneth Starr -- may represent the winery interests in the case, which is expected to be heard sometime in 2005. Thirty-seven states have laws that limit the shipment of wine; it is a felony to ship wine in Florida and Kentucky.

Frost says he'd like to discover more Kansas-made vintages, but it's too much hassle to drive all over the state. He has heard, for example, that Eudora's Davenport Winery makes good wine. "They said, 'We can't send it. You're just going to have to drive here.' But I don't have time," Frost says.

Despite the efforts of the new advisory council and the backing of the agricul- ture and commerce departments, change may be difficult. Dunbar predicts more resistance from distributors and other liquor interests, who see small wineries as competition, than from Kansas legislators. But some conservative legislators will probably stand in the way as well.

Sitting in their cellar talking about wine recently, Les and Michelle Meyer trade observations about their product and its admirers. Michelle points out that connoisseurs don't reflect the tastes of the average people who visit their vineyard. "Tourists talk dry and drink sweet," Michelle says. The observation prompts Les to make his own comparison.

"Yeah, just like our legislators -- they've got their fifth of Jack Daniel's, but they vote dry," he says.

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