The Midwest may be known as the breadbasket of America, but cash crops like corn and soybeans are far from the only things grown on the plains of Kansas.
Prior to Prohibition, the Sunflower State was one of the top grape-growing areas of the country. But the devastation caused by the temperance movement and subsequent decades of strict restrictions on alcohol have hampered the Kansas wine industry’s rebound.
Recently, however, a spate of new wineries in Eastern Kansas, particularly along the I-70 corridor, are focusing on wine education and attracting drinkers from across the region.
“They call us a flyover state, but we’re also a very heavily drive-through state,” says Jeff Sollo, managing partner at Grace Hill Winery in Whitewater, Kansas, and vice president of the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association (KGGWA). “So as far as being able to get off the highway and sit in a pretty place, drink a glass of wine and experience local culture, a winery is a fun way to do that.”
“We Were Bigger Than California”
California wasn’t always America’s marquee wine region. Throughout the 1800s, Midwestern states led the industry.
As European immigrants moved west from New York in search of land that would afford them the ability to farm and make a living, many landed in Missouri and Kansas. As they began to establish vineyards along the Missouri River, plantings spread into Eastern Kansas, where limestone-rich and sandy soils grew everything from native to French vines.
“There were a lot of folks that came from Europe—many from Germany—and settled in the Midwest, and they all knew how to grow grapes, and some of them brought grapes with them,” says Scott Kohl, viticulture and enology program director at Highland Community College in Highland, Kansas. “That’s how some of it got started. There are obviously some native North American grapes that they found here and said, ‘Hey, look, great. Let’s grow these.’ The interesting thing is that all of the grapes were kind of concentrated in the Northeast part of the state, for the most part.”
Kohl says that in the 19th century, around 80% of U.S. wine was made in Kansas and Missouri. But in 1880, Kansas instituted its own pre-Volstead Act alcohol ban. “The rest of the nation can thank us [for Prohibition],” he says.
Many vineyards continued to make wine illicitly, or sold their crop across state lines. However, the state’s temperance movement soon hit a fever pitch when Carrie Nation became a passionate advocate, giving lectures across the state and smashing up barrooms with a hatchet.
Prohibition in Kansas didn’t end until 1948. And it wasn’t until 1983, nearly half a century after the repeal of the Volstead Act, that the state passed the Kansas Farm Winery Act, making the production and sale of wine legal once again.
“At one time, we were bigger than California,” says Tom Holland, Kansas state senator, owner of Haven Pointe Winery and former president of the Kansas Viticulture & Farm Winery Association (KVFWA). “Kansas was killed by Prohibition big time, basically for 100 years. The industry is finally getting back on its feet.”
Growing a New Wine Culture
According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were 433 acres of grapes on 148 farms across Kansas that year. It’s a far cry from the state’s former peak of 7,200 acres, but healthy progress.
“When we first started in 2010, there were maybe a dozen or so wineries, so it’s multiplied almost [five times] since we started [the program at Highland Community College],” says Kohl. He was instrumental in establishing the college’s vineyard, developing its Associate of Science degree and technical certificates in viticulture and enology, and pioneering the 456 Wineries incubator program.
Around 160 students have earned a degree or completed program courses at Highland as of 2021, but Kohl says some of the lasting anti-alcohol sentiments in the state earned him hate mail at the outset. For that reason, when the incubator opened in 2019, it was established as a separate business from the school, which now encompasses the vineyard.
“The college owns the LLC, but we are a separate business entity,” he says. “We do all of our wine production [for Highland Winery] there, and then we have space for startup wineries to rent a room inside for wine tanks. We share the crush pad and bottling line and all that.”
Holland sees an opportunity for the state to focus on agritourism. “There has been a movement among a number of wineries to look at things like reinstituting the [Grape and Wine Advisory Council],” he says. Holland points to Missouri as a model for what Kansas wine should be working toward.
The council, first established in 1988, had a sundown clause for 2016 and, under then-Governor Sam Brownback, it dissolved entirely. Since then, leadership has fallen to the KGGWA and the KVFWA.
There’s been a recent push for legislative collaboration between the organizations. Currently under debate is the definition of a “farm winery.” As it stands, the law requires a farm winery to use at least 30% Kansas-grown grapes in their wines. A new bill would eliminate that requirement, which Sollo says will likely “cause a little bit of consternation.”
Holland agrees. “It used to be [higher],” he says. “The battle within the industry right now is you have certain wineries that could [not] care less about growing Kansas grapes or using Kansas produce to make wine. They just want to put wine in a bottle, put a picture of Dorothy on it and say, ‘Here you go.’ Those folks want to get rid of the domestic content requirement altogether.”
Chambourcin, Vignoles & Norton, Oh My
The oldest Kansas winery still in operation today is Holy-Field in Basehor, owned by Les Meyer and his daughter Michelle. The winery opened its doors in 1994 and grows 10 different Native American and French hybrid varieties on 14 acres, including Cynthiana, Seyval and Chambourcin.
“Chambourcin is the red workhorse grape in the state,” says Holland, who helped pass legislation in 2019 naming Chambourcin the state red grape and Vignoles, a hybrid developed by grape breeder J.F. Ravat, as the state white.
Wineries must look to grapes that grow well in the state’s climate of extreme temperatures. Cold-hardy grapes, typically bred with native parentage, have shown the most success.
“Merlot and Chardonnay and that kind of stuff that’s used to a Mediterranean climate where you don’t have these crazy swings like you have in the Midwest, those kinds of grapes just don’t make it here,” says Kohl. “They die during winter, usually.”
Holland also favors floral and fruity Traminette, which he grows at Haven Pointe. Grace Hill works with Norton, Vidal, Seyval, Chardonel, Frontenac Gris, Noiret, Petit Pearl and Marquette. “In a state where we don’t have a ton of vineyards, the amount of varietals grown is a little mind boggling,” says Sollo.
Many of these grapes cater well to the local palate, which favors sweet and semisweet wines. “If you don’t have a sweet wine, you’re going to have a tough time making sales,” says Kohl. “The Kansas palate is still very sweet, but it’s a relatively new state for winemaking.”
Sollo agrees, and acknowledges that this sometimes earns Midwest wine a negative reputation. But he points out that drinkers on the coasts are bigger fans of sweet wines than they sometimes let on.
“The reason I think we get that label is that we make really, really good sweet wine with the types of grapes that we’re growing and the shorter growing season that we have,” says Sollo. “There’s just not a lot of tannin in [the grapes]. That lends really well to sweet [red] wines and to drier, crisper white wines. I think that’s what we do well in Kansas.”
Over the past 10 or 15 years, Sollo has found that guests have become more open to learning about lesser-known varieties, embracing a “support local ethos.”
“Most people, when they come out, they’ve never tried a dry Chambourcin before,” he says.
Wineries must approach marketing with an open mind, locals say.
“We’re aware that Kansas wine drinkers are not the same as a Napa wine drinker,” says Taylor Berggren-Roesch, events coordinator for KC Wine Co in Olathe. “Our goal is to make the wine tasting experience very approachable, easy and fun—just having the average person in and educating them and telling them a little bit about wine. It makes it a fun atmosphere, not stuffy.”
Climate Woes & Pesticide Drift
One of the biggest challenges facing Kansas is universal: climate change.
“We’re still not sure what’s going to happen,” says Sollo. “For the most part, it hasn’t been too bad, but the last couple of years we’ve had wetter and wetter harvest seasons. In 2020, 2019, 2018, our yields were down and some of our quality was a little less than we would have liked because we got some rains around harvest. But you’re in Kansas and the weather’s always going to be a bit challenging. You’re dealing with literally everything under the sun.”
That includes chemical pesticides used by neighboring cash crop farms. Chemical drift, or contamination of vineyards by synthetic pesticides, fungicides and other treatments applied to adjacent farms, can have negative effects on fruit. Kohl adds that some farmers don’t understand the value of a modestly sized vineyard.
“A lot of the traditional farmers say, ‘Oh, a three-acre patch of grapes, that’s just a garden,’ ” he says. “But with three acres of grapes you could easily make 200 or 300 cases of wine, which translates into $50,000–$60,000 of product, whereas you need a [640-acre] section of corn to make that much income. It’s just a matter of teaching different practices and changing attitudes.”
Moving Toward an AVA
With efforts to reinstate the Grape and Wine Advisory Council and organizations coming together to rebuild a once booming industry, moves to establish Kansas’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA) may be next.
“It’s really kind of a jumping off point to try and get Kansas’s first AVA, because we’ve talked about [it] in the past and some people have been open to it, but we haven’t ever really rallied the support to really go for it,” says Sollo. “But it seems like things are trending that way. So hopefully, in the next couple years we’ll have one.”
Kohl believes an AVA would, at the very least, “help wineries market themselves within the state.” Holland sees it as a branding opportunity to put Kansas grapes on a broader map.
“When people go to a wine trail, they want to drink wine that is made from local grapes,” says Holland. “There’s no reason in talking about a Kansas wine industry if you just have wineries trucking in grapes from California. To me, the AVA goes hand in hand with the council, the branding of Kansas wines and helping to promote our regional wine trails and develop that agritourism experience.”
For Berggren-Roesch, the recent growth of the Kansas wine industry will only bolster these efforts.
“If there’s only 10 of us trying to say, ‘Hey, Kansas wine is good,’ it’s hard to convey that message,” she says. “But if there’s 30 or 40 of us, then we can really start getting some good messaging out there.”