For many of us the state of Kansas brings to mind the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, with a tornado tossed house, wicked versus good witches and magical red shoes that can take one home. But in the nineteenth century Kansas was known for grape growing and wine production.
In the mid 1800’s, German immigrants moved into neighboring Missouri and began planting grapes in abundance along the Missouri river and developed a thriving grape culture that flowed into Eastern Kansas. By the 1870’s Missouri and Kansas were one of the largest grape growing regions in the United States. By that time Kansas had wineries across the entire state but it was also the home of Carrie Nation, a radical member of the temperance movement, who campaigned to outlaw alcohol sales. Because of her efforts, Kansas was the first state in the union to ban the sale of alcohol and passed statewide prohibition legislation in 1881 almost forty years before a national ban was enacted.
Vineyard owners were reluctant to give up their vines and in 1900 there were still approximately 5,000 acres of grapes planted across Kansas despite the state prohibition. Most of the grapes were sent to Missouri for wine making or used for bootleg Kansas wine. In 1919 when national prohibition was enacted the wine industry in Kansas and Missouri was destroyed. Even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the business of wine making was slow to return in Kansas as strict liquor laws remained in effect. It was not until the passage of the Kansas Farm Winery Statute in 1985 that the wine industry started to reemerge.
In 1987 the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association (KGGWA) was formed to further the economic growth of the Kansas wine industry and by 2005 there were 13 licensed farm wineries in the state producing over 50,000 gallons of wine from just 170 acres of grape vines. By January of 2010, the number of wineries had grown to 23 and were located across twenty-one counties from central to eastern Kansas. Today the majority of the thirty plus wineries in the state are clustered around Kansas City, KS with a few near Topeka and others in centrally located Salina, home to one of the oldest wineries, Smoky Hill Winery and Vineyard, founded in 1991.
Kansas geography provides favorable conditions for growing grapes due to its latitude, long, sunny growing season, and soils that range from limestone to sandy. The majority of winemakers use native American, American hybrid, and French hybrid grape varietals rather than traditional Vitis Vinifera grapes to make wine. These grapes do well in the hot summer months and are hardy enough to withstand the cold Kansas winters. The favored white grape is Chardonel, a cross between Chardonnay and the hybrid grape Seyval. It is typically barrel fermented and produces a dry wine with tropical fruits and creamy texture. The red wine grapes of choice include the native American grape Norton, which produces a full bodied wine similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, and the French – American hybrid Chambourcin, most often made into a medium to full bodied red or Rose wine.
A great way to experience the unique grapes and wines of Kansas is to travel along one of the wine routes that have been established. The Kaw Valley Wine Trail includes 14 wineries in and around Northeastern Kansas. Details and a map of their locations can be found on the Kansas Viticultural and Farm Winery Association website at www.KansasFarmWineries.com . For a visit to central Kansas Wineries start at Somerset Winery in Paola and follow the Somerset Wine Trail to five wineries located throughout Miami County. For more information on the Somerset Winery and the trail visit www.paolachamber.org/somerset-wine-trail .