It was a typical Sunday morning back in September. The Kansas City Chiefs playing football out of town so there was no home game.
By JASPER J. MIRABILE JR.
And of course this chef does not work on Sunday because my restaurant is closed. It’s been a family tradition that we all get together at least one day a week, so Jasper’s Restaurant is not open on Sundays.
I had received an invitation from my friends at Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery to come out and join them for the 2013 grape harvest. I look back now 10 years ago when I first started going to visit Dennis and Cindy Reynolds at the vineyard and reminisce about all the great times I have shared with friends and family.
I drove out past Louisburg Cider and made the first left hand turn onto Somerset Road. Just five minutes down the road I arrived at my destination.
As I turned into the entrance, everything looked different from my first arrival 10 years ago. There are now grape vines just to the right of the driveway and a beautiful new gazebo and outdoor fire pit seating area along with a tasting room and of course the hillside vineyard.
Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery evolved out of the love of wine that husband and wife co-owners Dennis and Cindy Reynolds shared since they were married in 1983.
Over the years they traveled to wine regions throughout North America and Europe, and developed a joint passion for wine and the culture of the grapevine.
They pursued traditional careers for 20 years: Dennis as a trial attorney and Cindy as a business executive. But their love of wine and desire to work together in their own business eventually led to the establishment of Somerset Ridge.
When Dennis’ parents retired to a former cattle ranch near Somerset, Kan., in the early 1990s, Dennis thought the limestone ridge the property sat on would be ideal for grapes. They began planting the vineyard in 1998 and established the winery in 2001. Dennis and Cindy bought property adjacent to his parents and expanded operations in 2005.
The vineyard now encompasses over 10,000 grape vines. The vines are pruned and the grapes are harvested entirely by hand to improve wine quality. Somerset Ridge uses sustainable farming methods in the vineyard and no pesticides nor synthetic fertilizers.
Somerset Ridge was the first winery to be established in Miami County since statewide prohibition in Kansas was implemented in 1881. However, prior to prohibition, the area around Somerset was a significant wine-making region.
Now, the area is once again a grape-growing and wine-making hub, with numerous new vineyards, five licensed wineries and the establishment of the Somerset Wine Trail, all occurring since the opening of Somerset Ridge.
I was greeted Cindy, who was getting harvesters who had signed up to help harvest grapes organized and was giving instructions to some of the new harvesters who had decided to come out and pick grapes.
We were each given a special little tool, along with a basket, to start harvesting grapes. We then were organized into groups and sent to specific rows of vines to start our morning harvest.
I began picking the grape bunches and just relaxing. No time for cell phones, Facebook, Twitter or thinking about work. This was my time in the vineyard to relax and enjoy myself. I met some friends and we talked across the vines. After about an hour, we took a break and had coffee and juice, along with fresh baked cinnamon knots.
Basket upon basket of grapes were being placed onto a cart and driven away by Cindy’s husband and their son, Alex. I wandered over and watched Dennis and Alex in the grape pressing area. Wine making in Kansas, a sight to be seen and experienced by everyone. I felt lucky indeed.
In the next two hours we picked more grapes than was imaginable. I took a break at one point, looked to my east as the sun was rising and my mind began to wonder.
I closed my eyes and imagined I was in Italy at my friends vineyard. I recalled the first time I harvested grapes in Italy in 1974. It was memorable indeed and I have never forgotten that time spent with family and friends.
At Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery, I had the same feeling I had when I met the Reynolds family 10 years ago at their first harvest. I imagined I was back in Italy, and had a magical feeling I never thought I would experience living in Kansas.
Lunch time came and we gathered in the vineyard at long communal tables. Bread was broken, wine was poured and multiple dishes of wonderful local meat, cheese and vegetables were passed, all simply prepared and bountiful with flavor.
A toast by the Reynolds began the harvest lunch. New friendships were made at the table and memorable times were shared by all. I could have sat there for hours just staring at the vineyard.
Before I left the vineyard, I stopped by the spacious tasting room and enjoyed a few more tastings of just released wines, along with local artisan cheese, chocolates and Kansas cider.
The room was filled with wine memorabilia, baskets, glasses, cookbooks and more. The tasting room was getting busier and busier as I shopped, people tasting wine, enjoying conversation and purchasing bottles to take home.
The gazebo and porch were filling up with locals sharing cheese boards and wine. Whoever thought you would see this in Kansas?
I sat down last week with Cindy and Dennis at our annual Slow Food KC Harvest Event at Somerset Vineyard and Winery and discussed this years grape harvest. I was full of questions and the Reynolds were more than willing to talk with me, of course, over a glass of fresh grape juice, not fermented, right from the press.
Jasper: Tell me about the harvest of 2013?
Dennis: We had nearly perfect weather for growing grapes in 2013. Plenty of rain early in the season, with dry, sunny weather for the latter part. We all loved those cool nights in September and early October and so did the grapes. We started our harvest in early September with white varietals and finished just last week with Cabernet Franc. The fruit quality this season was excellent.
Jasper: How many vines do you have at the vineyard?
Cindy: We have about 10,000 vines. We also spend time designing and planting vineyards for other land owners near us who enjoy the beauty of grapevines but might not have the expertise or time to take care of them. We take care of the vines until they bear fruit and then we buy their grapes each season. It’s a great way for us to have access to more locally grown grapes, which is what we’re all about.
Jasper: What wines are you producing? What is the biggest seller?
Cindy: We produce a full range of wines, from dry whites and reds to dessert wines. We are lucky that we have strong, balanced sales in all categories. Our dry reds continued to grow this year …Flyboy Red and our reserve reds.
This will be our second year to produce Crimson Cabernet Barrel Reserve … a cross between the Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. We were the first winery in the world to commercially bottle Crimson Cabernet and it sold out within just a few weeks. We are strong believers in this vine. Additionally, Buffalo Red
and Citron are shipped to customers all over the country.
Jasper: How many wines are you producing this year?
Dennis: We’ll produce about 20 different wines this year.
Jasper: I heard you have a special new wine?
Cindy: We are very excited about the upcoming release of Somerset Nouveau. In the spirit of Beaujolais Nouveau, all four wineries of the Somerset Wine Trail will release a nouveau-style wine made from the 2013 vintage of the Chambourcin grape on Nov. 22, the weekend before Thanksgiving. All the wineries will have special events to celebrate the release. It should be a fun event for people to get out and do a tour of these four local wineries showing their take on this year’s Chambourcin harvest. In France, Beaujolais Nouveau Day is a much-anticipated day where people get out and celebrate the first wines of the season. We are hoping to generate that type of excitement in Kansas City.
Jasper: What’s on the horizon for Somerset Ridge Vineyards & Winery?
Dennis: We continue to expand our vineyards on our own property as well as surrounding locations so that we can meet the increasing demand for our wines. We strive every day to perfect our regional wine-making style and provide good, affordable, local wine for our customers to enjoy. Our first sparkling wines are just about ready … more on that later. We continue to promote our wine trail … four growing businesses, each growing their own grapes and making delicious wines. Kansas Wine Country is one of the fastest growing wine regions in the country.
Dennis and Cindy continue to pursue their passion by creating artisanal, regional wines that pair well with local foods, supporting the growing local, sustainable food and wine movement, and helping to reestablish the once proud Midwest grape and wine industry.
I am honored to host a 2013 Somerset Nouveau Wine Dinner at Jasper’s on Nov. 11 with the winemakers. I do hope you get to experience this years harvest and meet the family. I’m talking Italian Pork & Local Wine my friends. Please be sure to sign up early, as this is one event that will be sold out.
For more information about Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery, go to its website. The winery is located at 29725 Somerset Road, Somerset, Kan.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.