In the decades before Prohibition, both Kansas and Missouri were top wine-producing states. The terroir of each — imagine row after row of vines growing beneath the bluffs along the Missouri River’s banks and cresting atop undulating Kansas farmland — is extremely well-suited for growing grapes.
In 1873, Kansas State Board of Agriculture records showed that 50 counties were home to established vineyards, according to a new book, “Expedition of Thirst,” by Kansas City food and beverage writer Pete Dulin.
“We think of wine and terroir in France, but the bi-state area also has these distinct regions and climates and types of soil that will have a significant impact on the flavor and aroma of wine and the grapes that are grown,” Dulin said during a recent phone interview from Thailand, where he was visiting family.
A couple years ago, Dulin hit the winding roads of eastern Kansas and western Missouri in his red Ford Focus, visiting 150 wineries, distilleries, and breweries.
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Although he traveled more than 2,000 miles, he said the list only aspired to be exhaustive. Dulin is aware that establishments open and close frequently, so he probably missed some, including the eight breweries that will open in Kansas City during the next 12 months.
Dulin hoped to both catalog these businesses, many of them very small and locally owned, and to do the legwork for people like him who enjoy visiting such establishments on day trips from Kansas City.
On some days he spoke to owners and craftspeople — and tasted their products — at as many as eight destinations. Dulin said that a sort of taste-bud fatigue tends to set in after three or so visits.
For enthusiasts who toss his guide in the middle console on a Saturday morning to see all they can see by evening, he recommends a reasonable approach.
“There are people who will plan a day trip to visit four, five, or six wineries in a day, but after a while you’re not really tasting the nuances of the wine,” Dulin said. “I think it’s better to just pick a handful — visit them, take your time, relax and enjoy.”
For that handful, he recommends starting in Columbia, which is located two hours east of Kansas City on Interstate 70. Columbia is home to a distillery and four breweries: DogMaster Distillery along with Broadway, Flat Branch, Burr Oak, and Logboat brewing companies.
Twenty minutes west of Columbia on I-70 is where explorers can find Les Bourgeois, one of the oldest wineries in western Missouri. Founded in 1974, Les Bourgeois also includes a full-scale restaurant, gift shop, and the Rocheport Distilling Company.
But Dulin said the travel experience is just as much about the people as it is about the destinations and tastings.
Take Sylvan Grove, Kan., with a population of 300, for instance. That’s where a husband-and-wife team opened Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in 2014.
Dulin learned by speaking with the owners that the next closest restaurant is quite a drive from Sylvan Grove. Fly Boy is not only a place to eat and drink, but it’s a gathering spot and local employer.
“(Fly Boy) helps bond the community and helps sustain the community,” Dulin said.
“Expedition of Thirst” — 288 pages of adventure for local wine and beer lovers, available from University Press of Kansas for $24.95 — is full of stories about people who are not only “passionate about creating beer, wine, or spirits, but also creating economic opportunities for themselves and others,” he said.
And, of course, if someone wishes to travel no farther than our own backyard, the book includes plenty of information about Kansas City favorites like J. Rieger & Co., Boulevard Brewing, and KC Wineworks.
Whatever a day-tripper’s interest, Dulin encourages the old drinker’s adage: Drink what you like, like what you drink.
“If there’s something that’s not to your liking, then don’t feel obligated or committed to finish that sample, move on to something else,” Dulin said.