Two-lane roads slice cornfields as men in pickups wave to everyone with four fingers, a thumb hugging a steering wheel, on the way to Jowler Creek Road.
A hillside of purple prairie clover offers a welcome before a drive ends at Jowler Creek Winery and the homestead of the Gerke family.
It is almost as if their driveway extends into a bigger parking lot, and automatically you can see that this country property is different from most. Solar panels gleam from the roof of the winery tasting room. Bat houses rise above the grapes. Small sheep roam beneath the vines.
The bat houses, specifically to draw bats, were something Colleen Gerke remembered growing up around wineries in California.
“When we first started (the winery) we weren’t thinking sustainability,” she says. “We used the bat houses to manage (pests). Somebody who didn’t grow up around wineries might have thought, ‘Who are the freaks?’ But I just thought they (the bat houses) were normal.”
Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery in the Platte City area now touts itself as the state’s first green winery and uses methods of sustainability to keep the harmony of its surroundings.
Similar management practices of treading lightly on surrounding land are common in wineries in the northern Kansas City area.
Co-owners David Naatz and Ginah Mortensen of Riverwood Winery to the north, in Rushville, invite visitors to join them for yoga in the tasting room.
The sessions, which happen once a month, are symbolic of the way the winery operates.
The couple moved to the area 20 years ago. Naatz is from Denver and Mortensen has family in Missouri in Stockton. They moved from Washington, D.C., with the goal of buying a farm. They searched and learned the building where the tasting room is now located was for sale. They noticed abandoned grape vines and began wondering if wine-making might be something to try.
They opened the winery in 2007. The tasting room was originally an old school building built in the 1950s. The schoolhouse closed about 30 years later.
“It was a VFW hall and then an antique mall,” Naatz says. “It is perfect for a winery/tasting room with plenty of seating indoors and out, and an arbor for shaded seating.”
The winery makes small batches with only about seven acres of grapes.
“We don’t have an irrigation system and (the grapes) can do pretty well in this climate once they are established,” Naatz said.
They forgo insecticide because they know that is harmful to the pollinators that help them out. Milkweed and native wildflowers line the grounds.
“In the large grass area behind the tasting room, we have planted a series of raised beds and water gardens with native wildflowers to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds,” Naatz says. “We have connected the areas with mowed pathways and seating areas. At the entrance to the building near the arbor we have six large raised beds planted with native perennial herbs.”
Entertainment comes from the surrounding landscape and wildlife areas nearby. Visitors are encouraged to try the nearby hiking trails or go birding in Benedictine Bottoms Wildlife Area, Little Bean Marsh Natural Area or Bluffwoods Conservation Area.
“We do it because we like it as well and it is fun to get people out,” Naatz said. “It’s a small business, and we enjoy meeting different people and incorporating what we do.”
Past horse farms and rolling hills, on to Cherry Street and Spring Street in the town of Weston, the old church that houses Pirtle Winery comes into view.
Historic Weston is known for its antebellum homes and a long history that includes a few vices — tobacco fields and the booze of McCormick Distilling Company. Its charm now lies in its historic homes and businesses, and quaint B&Bs. The years seem to have stopped 60 years ago downtown where on a recent afternoon a radio in front of a Main Street shop blared “Rock Around the Clock.”
The Pirtle Winery shares a story of this preservation.
The former Lutheran Evangelical Church was built by German immigrants in 1867. After that, it was an African-American Baptist Church, with many of its members part of the tobacco trade and industry that was prevalent through the Weston area.
The building survived a scare in the late 1970s when it was slated for leveling to build a parking lot that was to serve a nearby business.
Elbert and Patricia Pirtle bought the building, and the winery found its home.
A huge wreath of wine corks collected in netting hangs above the heavy door, above original floors and doors. An indoor winegarten is tucked into the lower floor. Many of the features of the building are the same as when it was built in 1867. Recent owners have added a touch with their own stained glass for the window.
Its use of the historic building gives it sustainable credibility, much like Belvoir Winery in nearby Liberty that occupies an old Odd Fellows Home district. Other practices include the wood barrels they use that came from McCormick’s.
Owners Patricia and Elbert Pirtle have since sold the winery to their sons, Scott and Ross.
“This was where they used to make everything,” manager Joe Landewee said from the wine tasting bar inside the old church. “Now it’s the tasting room.”
Landewee was a wildlife and ecology conservation major when he started helping Elbert Pirtle with aronia berry juice that the winery uses for aronia berry wine. Landewee and others use the juice for health benefits. He was helping to make the wine and juice when he took the job.
Aronia berries have a high anti-oxidant content and the juice is believed to help arthritis and Crohn’s disease, which Landewee suffers from.
The winery’s biggest seller is its Mellow Red. Landewee describes it as “Welch’s grape juice with a 12 percent alcohol content.”
Jason Gerke of Jowler Winery grew up on a farm in Windsor and studied agriculture journalism. He always has had ties to the land.
His wife was raised in the middle of California’s wine country in the central coast — in Santa Maria, where “Sideways” was filmed.
“On weekends my parents took us to wineries and we would play,” Colleen Gerke said.
Colleen Gerke studied at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and took a class on winemaking as part of an agriculture science degree.
“We made our own wine and we worked in a vineyard,” she says of the class.
The Gerkes met at the Kansas City Zoo during a dinner for a conference they both attended. A game of elephant chip bingo (a variation of cow-chip bingo) was arranged and the two were watching to see where the elephant dung might land when they started talking.
They lived in the Waldo area of Kansas City, but a job with a dairy cooperative up north took them to Weston/Platte City area.
“The wine idea came from here,” Jason Gerke says of the process, as music from Mumford & Sons floated in from speakers in the background. “We were coming up the long driveway and Colleen imagined that grapevines would look cool there. We learned along the way.”
The two moved to the location in 2003 and then planted 250 Norton vines, Missouri’s state grape.
They thought they might sell the grapes but love wine so they decided to started making it.
They converted the basement into the their factory and started distributing bottles on their lunch hours from their day jobs.
They planted more vines and the winemaking took off. As they the winery grew people started noticing the “green touches.”
The bat houses were something Colleen Gerke just thought wineries did because she saw them while growing up. Then she learned about using sheep to help control erosion and they acquired them to help with soil control. The family has chickens to help with the pests because the house sits next to the grapes.
They like the idea of having a more natural approach to keeping the bugs away rather than a chemical deterrent since their two childen play around the vineyard.
“We still didn’t think we were ‘green’ but other people starting calling us organic,” Colleen Gerke said.
The California native finds that water conservation is in her blood. And solar panels on the building that is the tasting room, a wine-making facility and barrel room for events were added in 2011.
After the installation, the Gerkes finally started considering themselves green, she says. The panels have helped them cut their power needs.
Before she walked through the vineyard, the sheep tromping in the distance, the sun’s heat creating sweaty foreheads, Colleen Gerke reflects on how the winery had grown in just a decade.
“It was just a hobby, but it got totally out of control,” she said with a laugh.
Wineries using sustainable practices
▪ Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery
16905 Jowler Creek Road, Platte City
▪ Belvoir Winery
1325 Odd Fellows Road, Liberty
▪ Pirtle Winery
502 Spring St., Weston
▪ Riverwood Winery
22200 N. Route 45, Rushville