Kansas City is known for its contributions to cuisine, music, art and sports. So why not wine?
Indeed, Kansas City has played parent to skilled winemakers who have gone on to craft excellent wines and wineries in the Pacific Northwest. Several of the area’s native sons and daughters have ventured forth to tend grapevines in Washington and Oregon and are contributing to those states’ burgeoning reputations for distinctive wines.
It’s hard not to see their success springing from a Midwestern mindset that values toil, sweat and a happy attitude toward all that life throws at them.
These vintners have sunk roots deep into their new land, and they take their work seriously but seem never to take themselves too seriously. Maybe that’s simply how people in the wine business approach the great challenge of grape-growing and winemaking.
Or maybe it has something to do with attitudes inculcated from years spent in an area that knows not to act too high and mighty.
At the very least, these six winemakers have strong ties to the Kansas City area, a place they once called home.Laying down roots
Chris Berg is a winemaker and grape grower in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but his story started in Prairie Village, where his mother grew up. A University of Kansas grad, he played in area bands and worked at Free State brewery in Lawrence after graduation. In 1998 he moved to the Portland area.
“My folks had been looking for vineyard and/or winery property with some friends,” Berg says.
They settled on a beautiful 20-acre property in the hills of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA (a federally recognized growing region known as an American viticultural area) in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country.
His wife, Hilary, who grew up in Wichita and attended KU, has also made a name for herself in the Oregon wine community as the editor for the Oregon Wine Press magazine.
Berg’s resume includes work at a who’s who of Oregon wineries, including Hamacher, Lemelson, Adea, Rex Hill, Archery Summit, Elk Cove and Belle Pente.
The couple produce around 4,000 cases a year of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, bubbles and Melon de Bourgogne under their own Roots Wine Co. label, as well as two other labels, Klee and Theo.
“It has been fun meeting people that are passionate about Pinot Noir,” Berg says of his Oregon experience, but his home is never far from his mind.
Asked if he misses the Kansas City area, he responds: “Yes, let me list the places: Planters, the Hurricane, Classic Cup, Nelson-Atkins, Gates, Li’l Jakes, Crowne Plaza, Boulevard brewery, Royals, Chiefs, Gomer’s, Harry’s in Westport. Just to name a few. I miss the people, the genuine nature of the Midwest.”Cooking with wine
Jeff Ferrell grew up in Overland Park, graduated from KU with a degree in film studies and started making music. A bandmate, Matt Rice, worked in a wine shop, and he became Ferrell’s gateway to all things wine.
“Having no previous experience with wine and spirits myself, his knowledge was invaluable to my initial interest and understanding of fermentation and winemaking,” Ferrell says.
After living 26 years on the Plains and working in restaurants to make ends meet, in 2006 Ferrell packed up and made his way to Oregon with no particular plan. He landed in Portland with $30 in his pocket; that was, until he spent it on a large pizza.
But after cooking in restaurants to keep the bills at bay, Ferrell found his nascent wine interest fired up again. He used his spare time to read about Oregon wines and winemaking methods in hopes of landing a position at a Willamette Valley winery.
Enter old friend Rice, who was working for Owen Roe Winery and helped Ferrell get a job there.
“After being thrown into the deep water that is harvest,” Ferrell says, “and getting my hands and nose into everything that I possibly could, while working a hundred hours a week — after week, after week — I have to say that I became a devotee. The multi-disciplined nature of winemaking appealed to my lifelong interests in science, art and history, while the actual work of winemaking had an immediate familiarity that came from years and years spent in kitchens.”
Ferrell, now vice president of operations at Owen Roe, still uses this kitchen reference for new hires as he tells them: “A winery is a lot like a kitchen, only the pots and pans are bigger, and the recipe takes forever.”
Though Ferrell finds his life in Oregon and his career in the wine industry satisfying and rewarding, there are parts of Kansas City that he misses, namely the people, places and, of course, the barbecue.
“I'll generally try to bring a case of wine home with me to spread out between friends and family,” Ferrell says. “When I can, I like to repack the case with bottles of barbecue sauce for the flight home.”A heart for El Corazon
Spencer Sievers, winemaker and owner of El Corazon Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., moved to Lawrence from the Northwest in 1999 to open a health food store.
“I was looking for something different to do,” Sievers says. “I’d been in the Northwest all of my life and thought I could use it to get out of my comfort zone a little bit.”
After several career shifts, a wife and a child, he found himself working in the kitchen of the now-defunct restaurant Krause Dining in Lawrence and became fascinated by the world of food and wine.
After travels from Panama to Portland, he found himself making wine in 2006.
“I was hooked,” Sievers says.
Sievers was born in Walla Walla, so it was a homecoming in 2007 when he founded El Corazon with his friend Raul Morfin, assistant winemaker at the region’s highly regarded Reininger Winery.
Last year the young business made 2,000 cases of wine from fruit sourced mostly from the Walla Walla Valley AVA, with the remainder coming from other Washington regions.
The name? El Corazon (the heart) represents the feeling that drew Sievers to Washington to make wine.Birthing Natalie’s Estate
Owen Roe Winery founder David O’Reilly’s reach wasn’t limited to KC’s Matt Rice and Jeff Ferrell.
In fact, the same man brought Natalie’s Estate Winery founder and winemaker Boyd Teegarden into the winemaking fraternity a few years before.
Teegarden grew up in North Kansas City. After graduating from Kansas State University, he went to work for the E Gallo Winery, a job that shipped him from Denver to Miami. The company’s legendary wine training sparked something further: He began traveling to different regions and wineries to learn about their operations.
“I started to see the unbelievable opportunities this job had opened up for me as my love of wine and the industry was taking off,” remembers Teegarden.
Teegarden met and married his wife, Cassandra; the two wanted to start a life away from the hustle of Miami. Not wanting to lose a valuable employee, Gallo offered Teegarden a position in Portland. There he met O’Reilly, then sales manager for Oregon’s acclaimed Elk Cove Vineyards. The two became fast friends.
Meanwhile, O’Reilly was starting a new winery, Sineann, with business partner Peter Rosback. O’Reilly asked Teegarden to help.
“It was time to put everything I had worked on learning over the years to the test in the winery, so I jumped at the chance,” Teegarden says. And he started making wine that same year with grapes that O’Reilly and Rosback gave him as payment.
Over the next four years, Teegarden helped make Sineann wines while continuing to make his own wine, eventually sharing it with restaurateurs and retailers.
“The people I showed my wines to were so positive and kept asking me if they could buy them,” Teegarden says.
As daughter Natalie turned 1 year old, the couple purchased their 15-acre property in the Chehalem Mountains of Willamette Valley and planted it with Pinot Noir. Space was rented at Medici Vineyards, where Teegarden had helped make Sineann wines and where O’Reilly had launched Owen Roe Winery.
The Teegardens now utilize both Oregon and Washington grapes and produce more than 1,800 cases of wine a year.
“I think they’re getting better with every year,” he says.
Teegarden is grateful to O’Reilly for showing him how to take that leap from wine sales and distribution to winemaking.Finding his passion
Jon Meuret was working as a dentist in Kansas City when he took the plunge — and quickly took it further than most enthusiasts. He went on to establish Maison Bleue Winery at Walla Walla, Wash.
“I got interested in how they make wine,” he says, and began taking university courses through Missouri State University and then the University of California at Davis.
Meuret began working for Kansas City winemaker Michael Amigoni, whose eponymous winery is in the West Bottoms.
“We shared all the viticultural work,” Meuret says, “and I started doing some of the winemaking.”
As the obsession grew, he traveled to the West Coast and to France in week-and-a-half stints and volunteered time with winemakers willing to let an amateur enthusiast sit in.
“I knew that I really didn’t like my (dentist) job that much,” Meuret says. “I enjoyed the dentistry side, but I did not like the business side.”
Meuret hatched the idea of a full-scale move into wine, and location was key.
“If I was going to give up a profession that I spent years training for, I needed to make sure it was someplace where I thought world-class wines were possible.”
He was impressed by the work of Washington wineries such as Betz Family, Cayuse and DeLille. And he liked that you could get “bang for your buck” for vineyard land in central and eastern Washington. “The price is much lower than in California.”
With a global sense of the diversity of wine styles, Meuret was looking for something lighter and more elegant than traditional Napa red wine styling.
“Washington in general has the Old World sensibility,” he says.
Of his move to the Northwest, Meuret says: “This wasn’t a midlife crisis; this was serious. My family thought I was crazy, especially my wife’s family. ‘You can always go back to being a dentist,’ they’d say. That’s like saying the day after you’re married you can always get a divorce. You go in to succeed.”
He and his family have recently moved from central Washington’s Yakima Valley to the Walla Walla Valley to be closer to his favorite vineyards.
“To make great wines, you have to have control of the vineyards, either through owning them or by having a great relationship with the growers,” Meuret says.
He loves it in Walla Walla. “There is a sense of community: it’s like a little Boulder or Lawrence, but with a great sense of wine community.”Family and community
Brad McLeroy was a Kansas City wine retailer when he first visited Oregon in the early 1990s, attending a large industry convention (party) called the International Pinot Noir Celebration. He loved the area and its wines.
“It was still new and buzzing, and everybody was friendly and easy with information,” he says.
By 1993, McLeroy had moved to Portland, enrolling in culinary school.
“Not that I was going to be a chef,” he admits, “but as a (future) winemaker, I was learning how flavors evolve. I worked at a couple of wineries, and my fate was sealed. But I was 24 years old and didn’t have the capital to buy anything.”
McLeroy crafted a long-term plan, moving back to Kansas City, purchasing a store to reopen as Gomer’s Midtown liquor store and working for eight years to build up capital.
But finding good Oregon vineyard property from Kansas City proved vexing.
“We’d hear about a property, book a flight and by the time we made it to Oregon, it was already bought,” he says. “Unless you lived (there), you weren’t going to be able to buy land.”
He and his wife, Kathleen, packed up the U-Haul and the two dogs, and they were back in the Willamette Valley, center of Oregon’s Pinot Noir vineyards.
McLeroy learned all he could working at Rex Hill Vineyards, or alongside winemaker Matt Kinne at McKinlay Vineyards, eventually landing a job in the cellar of one of the state’s most high-profile estates, Domaine Drouhin.
When the McLeroys finally found the right property, it had to be a fast decision. His wife’s parents had decided to join forces with the couple to create a vineyard and eventually a winery. But there was no time for them to fly out from Denver to approve the choice.
“This was it,” McLeroy says.
It was an old filbert orchard, and as soon as the crop was harvested, the trees were torn out and the first three of acres of grapes were planted the next spring.
The McLeroys were challenged by the transition to a farming lifestyle, but they look back with gratitude for what it has meant to their family.
“It’s like using different parts of your body,” McLeroy says. “It’s almost therapeutic, to look at the crops and see how they’re growing, to look at the weather and see what the earth has to offer.”
With 10 successful vintages, Ayres Vineyard Winery (named for Brad’s maternal grandfather) has become highly respected and sought-after by wine lovers. And McLeroy remains involved in industry events like the International Pinot Noir Celebration. It’s one of the salient, unusual traits of the Oregon Pinot Noir industry: vintners sharing otherwise proprietary information in the endless pursuit of better quality.
“The more we share the knowledge,” McLeroy says, “the more the industry is going to go forward.”