In March of 2005, entrepreneur Bob Nolan closed on 74 acres of rough Augusta farmland, where his initial plan to start a vineyard for growing grapes would quickly mature into a bigger dream of establishing a family winery.
Unwanted trees both on the hilltop and near the road tainted the view of the sprawling countryside with its undulating horizon speckled with church steeples and quaint houses. A brilliant mulberry tree, however, stood at the crest of the hill, making its claim, standing guard and looking out over what would one day be Noboleis Vineyards & Winery.
Here, we take a year-by-year look at how it all got started:
- A mere three weeks into his new role as owner, Nolan, with the help of vineyard manager Fred Dressell, plants nearly seven acres of three grape varietals: Chambourcin, Traminette and Norton, the latter being the mainstay of Missouri's wine industry. They plant the Norton crop on the north-facing slope, where growing conditions are less desirable than on other slopes, with the hope that the vigorous Norton vines will produce higher-quality fruit.
- A few months later, as the plants take root, the leaves begin to show, and they realize that half their crop of 1,500 Nortons aren't Nortons at all - they are a completely different grape, believed to be Chardonnel - because of a mix-up from their supplier. So they rip out the impostors, plant the real Nortons and wait. And wait.
- Though some viticulturists who are new to the game would assume you can dive right into the harvesting, crushing and production of the product, Nolan knows that the first three years are key and that the time it takes to get a good vineyard going is "part of the deal."
- So in the meantime he goes to work. This year they dedicate three more acres of their vineyard to white grapes: two for Vignoles (a varietal they'd not initially planted) and one additional acre for Traminette. They make improvements to the property, ripping out unsightly brush and taking down much of the old fence. The vision of a simple vineyard with a kickball field for the grandkids and a picnic bench under the mulberry begins to evolve into something more complex.
- In April, as if the Norton disaster weren't enough, Noboleis loses most of the production from its immature vines as part of a late freeze that kills 85 percent of Missouri's wine crop. Yet they manage to save one ton of Chambourcin, which they had harvested two weeks earlier than normal.
- They send off their Chambourcin harvest to a nearby winery to produce what will ultimately become Noboleis' first wine.
- With the entire family on board, each one "bringing something different to the table," according to Geis, plans for building the winery begin to grow. A son, Pat, with a background in food consults on the kitchen design; another son, Rob, offers business support through his company; daughter Chris serves as general manager and accountant; a grandson in school for product design gets to work on the new website; and Nolan's wife, LouAnn, remains what their daughter calls his "right-hand man." Other members of the family, including grandchildren, help with bottling.
- The vines now are beginning to flourish and grow to maturity. The vineyard's 10-ton 2008 crop is sold to various Missouri wineries.
- With operations in the vineyard beginning to stabilize, the dream of building a winery comes into focus. They break ground in November, with plans to turn what was once the family kickball field into the site of a tasting room, kitchen, retail shop and, as envisioned by Nolan himself, a state-of-the-art production facility complete with 150-foot wells underneath that tap into underground water, providing geothermal heating and cooling for the whole building.
- Winemaker Brandon Dixon joins Noboleis before the winery is even completed and begins working with the family on their plans for Noboleis' future.
- By July the winery is finished. They pick their fruit in the fall, making this year's harvest their first batch of grapes that will be fermented and bottled on-site. They also begin to crush for another vineyard down the road.
- The tasting room makes its debut on Oct. 2, 2010, to what Nolan describes as an unexpected crowd.
- In February their Jefferson Cup award-winning 2009 Noboleis Blanc is featured at Midwest Grape & Wine Conference, paired with one of the six courses served at the closing dinner. It is an honor they never expected, as they are such a new winery.
- In March a tornado rips off half the roof of the building and hurls it into a patch of trees a few hundred yards away. Insulation flies everywhere, covering everything in its path - even the mulberry tree. And they also lose half a row of Nortons ... again.
- But they continue to look ahead, with plans to plant two more acres of Vignoles - their best seller - and to build a pavilion that overlooks the vineyard. They also would like to see an expansion of some sort, in both the kitchen and the tasting room, but Nolan isn't sure when. "It could be 2012 or 2015 - we just don't know."
THE NOBOLEIS GRAPE-TO-GLASS PROCESS
○ Between August and October (depending on the variety and when it was planted), the fruit's sugar level is tested, telling the vineyard manager and winemaker when the grapes will be ready for harvest.
○ When it's time, a large machine drives down the line, shaking off the fruit but leaving the vines intact.
○ Back at the winery, bins are filled with the fruit, which gets dumped into a hopper that shakes it around before going into the de-stemmer.
○ White grapes are pressed and their seeds are removed before they go inside, while red grapes are punched down a few times a day, activating the fermentation process.
○ Juice is distributed to tanks or barrels.
○ As the wine sits for three months to two years, depending on the blend or varietal, the winemaker ensures its flavors and aromas are in balance. He tastes the wine, performs lab tests and determines the wine-making process he will use for each variety.
○ Wine is bottled, labeled and sent to the tasting room to be enjoyed.