Though I know now that it’s not true, I’ve long imagined that the relationship between Missouri winemakers, brewers and distillers is much like that of the Sharks and Jets in West Side Story. You know, just with another culturally defined gang of street toughs in the mix.
So you can understand the potential cause for concern as more and more wine producers have begun expanding their portfolios to include products not normally associated with vintners and vineyards. They’re looking to expand their reach beyond the vine into new, but well-charted, territory, the blowback from which could be fairly messy. Lucky for all of us, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Riff and Bernardo and Tony don’t die at the end of this story — unlike any further analogies I may make involving Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musicals.
FEAST TV: Go behind the scenes at Charleville Vineyard for insight on this industry trend from Tony Saballa, a winemaker who's also a brewer.
While it would never occur to most winemakers that they may one day open their doors to brewing beer or distilling spirits, it initially didn’t even occur to Joal Russell to make wine. Alongside her husband, Jack, Russell initially planted grapes on their Ste. Genevieve property two decades ago as a retirement project for the pair. Their original intent was to sell the grapes to other winemakers. After planting two vineyards, the couple soon realized, as Russell says, “the money is in the bread, not the wheat.”
The Russells opened Charleville Vineyard in 2003, and in less than 12 months, Joal and Jack knew they needed to expand their offerings. After listening to their customers lament about palate fatigue from an entire day spent tasting wines, they began considering alternatives. “Then we had groups of women tell us, ‘If you had beer, our husbands would come with us.’”
The Russells initially thought they would simply bring in beer from a supplier and sell it alongside the vineyard’s wine, but their son Tait, a home brewer, argued that if they were to offer any beer at all on the premises, it should be their own. Charleville’s initial efforts included brewing in 5-gallon batches. Once they ran out, they made more. As demand quickly increased, so did their batches, equipment and need to bring in additional help.
Crown Valley Winery opened in Ste. Genevieve the same year as Charleville, with the same oenophilia-driven intent: create and sell good wine. It had gotten off to a good start, especially with its port-style wines, which is why the winery began looking into distillation. “To make port-style wines you need to use high-proof brandies, and at the rate we were going, we were buying in large volumes,” explains Bryan Siddle, Crown Valley’s director of operations. “Because of the volume, we started looking into the idea of distilling our own beginning in 2005-2006. When I learned that to make a spirit you have to use mash and make a beer wash, I thought to myself, ‘Well, then why don’t we start making beer too?’”
As both the head brewmaster and head winemaker at Charleville Vineyard, Tony Saballa understands the interconnectivity that beer, wine and spirits have with one another. To help with the growing demand that a 5-gallon brew tank just couldn’t meet, Saballa, a teacher in the brewery school at the University of California, Davis (yes, I checked – it’s real), came to Charleville to continue growing out its dual programs. Having also worked as a winemaker in California, Saballa brought with him larger commercial-grade brewing equipment along with his expertise in both wine and craft beer.
“What I’m seeing now in the industry is a lot of brewers that are acting as winemakers, even if they don’t realize it yet,” says Saballa. “These guys have a fascination with fermenting and aging beers in wine or distillery barrels. They’re making sours and adding acidity, and when you’re looking at wine, you’re looking at acidity and pH and tannins. There are a lot of similarities.”
For Tony Kooyumjian, owner and winemaker at Augusta Winery, the foray outside the grapevines was started by the state of Missouri. In an effort to boost agricultural businesses in the area, Missouri’s then Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division created an addendum to the state’s wine licenses making it possible to make both spirits and wine under the same license. “They wanted to add in the spirits, pretty much exclusively fruit spirits, because they figured that people who had orchards might be able to make additional income by making a spirit out of their produce,” recalls Kooyumjian. “Sounded like a good idea to me.”
Already making fruit-based wines, Kooyumjian researched the idea of distilling fruits. Having found that the Black Forest region of Germany was heralded for its spirits, he flew overseas to learn the process and came back with an entire distillery system. “When I was over there, I noticed that everyone was using equipment from the Holstein Company,” Kooyumjian says about the famed German still maker. “When I got back I found that they’d never sold a still to anyone in the U.S., so we negotiated directly, which is how I got one of the first Holstein stills in the country. Of course, now they’ve sold hundreds of them.”
You would think that one of the great ancillary benefits of operating a multiproduction beverage business would be the overlap of ideas and ingredients, and for the most part that’s true. Augusta now makes a grappa using the residual pomace from the white grapes it uses to make wine. Crown Valley distills its wine to make the company’s vodka, and its Missouri Moonshine is actually a subrecipe of its porter beer. Charleville, in addition to growing grapes for its wine, now grows a small selection of hops that it uses to make an annual limited-edition beer. Yet in speaking with each winery, you begin to understand that the additional segments, while maybe originally seen as mere complements to the winery, are their own freestanding entities.
“Brewing is completely different from wine making,” Saballa stresses. “Brewing requires greater specificity and technicality. Making red wine, you could crush and ferment the grapes in the same bins that the fruit was picked in, and it doesn’t require too much conditioning in regards to controlling temperature. Beer requires a lot more control.”
“Each business is unique,“ agrees Crown Valley’s Siddle. “Not only in your consumers but in your production standpoint – wine making is different than brewing and distilling, and when it comes to brewing and distilling, the beer wash is the only thing that’s the same.”
For many of the wineries that take on distilling and/or brewing, the surprising result is how strong the addition actually becomes. At places such as Charleville, where they’re producing wine just once a year but brewing beer several times a week, it can seem a bit confusing at first. “Sometimes I have to stop myself [while brewing] and say, ‘We are a winery,” Saballa admits about his production ethos. So with all this rapid growth, how do the area’s brewers and distillers – the ones who solely brew or distill – take to the idea of one of their fellow actors wanting stage presence in two or even three different parts of the same play?
“Considering that craft beer is only about five percent of the total beer market, there’s plenty of room for growth,” says Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.’s Florian Kuplent. “I have to quote Tom Schlafly: He always says that more breweries are good for the whole industry as long as they make good beer.”
Spiritmakers feel the same way. “I don’t look at it as competing with other small craft distillers,” explains David Weglarz, master distiller of StilL 630. “I think any awareness of our very existence helps to promote our niche industry. Any success by any of us is good for the rest of us because regardless of where or how a consumer gets interested in craft spirits, the important part is that they’re interested.”
Ralph Haynes of Pinckney Bend Distillery is currently working on a presentation for the Franklin County Municipal League titled “Beverage Tourism.” In it, he echoes the sentiments held by his colleagues: that craft businesses are stronger together than as individuals.
“Breweries, wineries and distilleries share two important things in common: yeast and cash flow. Without one we don’t have a product, and without the other we don’t have a business,” Haynes writes in his presentation. “We would not be where we are today without the generosity of our local beverage community. They understand, as we all do, that the rising tide raises all ships.”
In the end, the expansion of wineries into other beverage markets isn’t one of malice or market share, it’s of market visibility. Growing, nurturing and creating from the soil around us, winemaking is a deeply romantic occupation. And as more wineries begin to supplement their first loves with brewing and distilling divisions, you begin to see a larger picture – one where this change showcases not a shift away from winemaking, but an evolution towards a more comprehensive, crafted production front for each winemaker to explore.
“All wineries are capable of producing great products,” explains Siddle about the Missouri wine evolution. “Whether you are producing wines, beers or spirits, the craft of the business is the art. No matter what we’re doing, we are hand-crafting a locally made product for consumers to enjoy.”
WINERIES: THEY'RE NOT JUST FOR WINE ANYMORE
Missouri wineries continue to grow their portfolio beyond wines. Below are just a few of the beverages that are currently being produced by some of the area’s best winemakers.
Charleville Vineyard, also known as Charleville Brewing Co., offers a wide selection of beers, including an annual brew made from hops grown on premise, as well as their Charleville Brewing Co. Barley Wine, which took home the silver at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.
Crown Valley has also stepped into the brewing game, making over a dozen beers, such as their Wooden Nickel IPA, Raspberry Wheat and Plowboy Porter. They’ve also opened up a distilling operation, crafting spirits that include cold-filtered Crown Valley Vodka and Missouri Moonshine.
Tom Kooyumjian at Augusta Winery boasts that he was the first micro-distillery in the state, and he’s put that experience to use by making grappa and other fruit-distilled spirits.
Go behind the scenes at Charleville Vineyards for a chat with Tony Saballa, a winemaker who's also a brewer, and get more insight into the growing trend of wineries producing spirits and craft beer.