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Kansas uncorks wine industry once more

Highland Community College courses help revive the once-thriving Kansas wine industry.

October 4, 2021

8 Min Read
HCC Viticulture Instructor Candice Fitch-Deitz and Viticulture and Enology Program Director Scott Kohl s
GLASS OF OPPORTUNITY: The growing Kansas wine industry is thirsty for employees, and Highland Community College, Highland, Kan., is working to satisfy the demand. Candice Fitch-Deitz, HCC viticulture instructor, and Scott Kohl, Viticulture and Enology Program director, see plenty of opportunity for careers in the field — from the vineyard to the winery to the tasting room. Photos by Jennifer M. Latzke

Rolling hills of grapevines. Instagram-worthy venues for celebrations. Winery tasting rooms filled with patrons. It’s not Napa Valley in California — it’s Kansas.

Kansas was once more widely known for its vineyards than its wheat fields. Pre-Prohibition Kansas in the 1800s was home to a thriving wine industry. Today, that legacy has been revived — almost a century after federal Prohibition was repealed in 1933 — winemaking and grape-growing are finally returning with a flourish to the state.

Roots of the industry

The northeast and north-central parts of Kansas once were the nation’s wine country. But when Prohibition began in 1920, farmers ripped out those vineyards and planted other crops, and their generations of winemaking knowledge were lost as well.

It took until 1983 for Kansas to pass the Kansas Farm Winery Act, establishing guidelines for wineries and paving the way for farmers to once again legally — and profitably — raise grapes for commercial wine in the state.

Today, the Kansas Department of Revenue reports there are 59 active farm winery licenses in the state, and that number keeps growing, says Scott Kohl, administrator and director of the Highland Community College Viticulture and Enology program, at its Wamego, Kan., campus.

The reemerging Kansas wine industry is ripe with opportunities for farmers looking to diversify their crops and midcareer professionals returning to rural life, he says, and HCC is helping them rediscover Kansas wine-making knowledge.

Fruits of education

In 2008, some Kansas winery owners approached HCC to asked if the college would put together certification programs to teach viticulture (grape-growing) and enology (winemaking), Kohl says.

“We ended up with something like 17 people in our first class,” he says. The class met one night per week on the Wamego campus, and drew students from as far away as Hays and Wichita, he adds. In the spring of 2010, the HCC Viticulture and Enology Program officially gained the ability to grant degrees, and now counts 160 students as having taken the coursework.

“The average age is about 45 years old,” Kohl says. “A lot of our students are second-career folks. An awful lot of them have farming in their background, and a lot of them had grandparents who were farmers.” Many of them are moving back to the country and want to return to their farming roots, but they don’t have the means or desire to be commodity crop farmers.

“The neat thing about growing grapes and having a winery is, you don’t need sections of ground to make a living,” Kohl says. “You know 5, 6, 10 acres of ground is plenty — that’s more than enough.”  

Growing conditions

Kohl says Kansas has always offered good conditions for growing grapes — from the wild grapes of pre-European settlement to the cultured varieties that German settlers brought with them on wagon trains.

The northeast region of Kansas was reminiscent of winemaking regions with which they were familiar. The conditions those first Europeans valued still exist today. “We have lots of sunlight and lots of wind; both of those are really good for grapes,” he says. The wind helps keep fungal diseases from taking hold in grape clusters.

Grapes vines
A TASTE OF KANSAS: Early European settlers in Kansas brought with them the grape vines of their home countries, and grape production and wine making were prevalent across the state — until Prohibition curbed those practices. The Viticulture and Enology Program offered by Highland Community College is helping students return to the state’s roots in winemaking.

“We still have to spray some fungicide to battle disease issues, mold and whatnot, but that’s true of any kind of fruit,” he says. Another challenge to the state’s wine grape growers is herbicide drift from neighboring farms, Kohl says. Communicating between neighbors is key to overcoming that challenge, he adds.

Variety research

The state does provide challenges with its wide temperature swings, which is why varieties like Norton, Chambourcin, Vignoles and Frontenac work better in the state. Other French-American hybrid varieties such as St. Vincent, Seyval, Chardonel and Marquette have been chosen specifically for the state’s climate conditions.

“What grapevine breeders have done is take some of the native North American grapes and crossed those with some of the European grapes to try to create new varieties that have the cold-hardiness, that are acclimated to this climate, but that they also have some of the flavor that we’re more familiar with from European grapes,” Kohl says.

HCC has research vineyards established to test not only traditional Kansas grapes, but also new varieties that are being developed by university vineyard research programs around the country. Candice Fitch-Deitz, HCC viticulture instructor and vineyard manager, says the program is testing vines from nurseries in North Dakota and Cornell University of New York, and working with others. Much like public wheat breeders share seeds with their colleagues for trial plots in other states, the trial vineyards are meant to show grape growers how these varieties might perform under Kansas weather conditions, but also with typical challenges like pesticide drift.

Economic boost

Establishing a vineyard or starting a winery is challenging, to be sure. The first five years are very capital-intensive. Still, grapevines offer some Kansas farmers possible benefits.

A 2021 master’s thesis from Elizabeth Carter, a Kansas State University graduate student in agricultural economics, showed:

• Grapevines can result in $1,062 in profit per acre, versus a profit of $363.76 per acre from irrigated corn, for example.

• While weather conditions can vary, wine grapes required an additional 9.83 inches of water on average. Meanwhile irrigated corn required an addition 20.76 inches of water, in the primary grape-growing region of the northeast part of Kansas.

In 2010, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Office’s survey of wineries in the state reported that total sales at winery tasting rooms were just over $3.4 million. Total Kansas grape production was valued at $401,150, according to the same survey.

Part of the HCC program is to give students practical insights into managing and operating a wine business, Kohl says. The current push to consume local food and beverages is kicking up demand a notch for Kansas wines — especially among younger consumers, he adds.

“They want it to be local, they want to hear the story behind your vines and what kinds of grapes you grow,” Kohl says. “That’s really been a big push as far as the emergence of the local-grape wine industry.” The 2010 Winery Survey reported that agritourism income for wineries was booming, with more than 250,000 visitors counted in 2010. Wineries also offer event space, which provides added income to their tasting rooms.

Practical experience

Students from the HCC program are in high demand, with most, if not all, who are looking for a job in the industry finding employment before they graduate. The 2010 Winery Survey reported that Kansas wineries paid more than $1.5 million in wages and employed 122 workers. Kohl says that number continues to rise.

That’s why, in 2019, HCC opened a “winery incubator” called 456 Wineries, he says.

“Highland Vineyards and Winery is the host winery in that facility, but then we also have space for startup wineries to move in and to use our equipment,” he explains. “They can talk to us about marketing, use our tasting room to sell their wine, and really just kind of get a start at a commercial winery.

“The one thing about Kansas’ wine industry is, there are no fourth-generation winemakers here,” Kohl says. This new crop of winemakers is taking the lessons of the past and uncorking a tasty future for the state.

Kansas wine industry has deep roots

Long before European settlers, the indigenous people of Kansas gathered the uncultivated wild Catawba, Concord, Norton and other wild grapes along the Missouri River bluffs in northeast Kansas, according to a report from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Arizona State University.

In the mid-1800s, European settlers not only brought their language and customs to the frontier towns of Kansas and Missouri; they also brought the crops that they raised back home. German settlers sought out land that reminded them of the German Palatinate region, famous for its wine.

By 1872, German-speaking immigrants in Kansas produced 35,000 gallons of wine. And in 1880, the Kansas State Board of Agriculture reported the state had produced 226,000 gallons of wine. Kohl says around 85% of grapes for wine in the U.S. were grown in Kansas and Missouri at that time.

But then came Carrie Nation and her axe, and the Temperance Movement, which led to Kansas passing one of the first statewide laws in the nation, to prohibit the selling and manufacturing of alcohol in 1881.

Overnight, the legal Kansas wine industry screeched to a halt.

In 1920, federal Prohibition was introduced with the 18th Amendment. Even after Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, Kansas didn’t repeal its statewide Prohibition until 1948.

It then took until 1983, a century after Kansas had passed its statewide prohibition law, for the Kansas Legislature to approve the Kansas Farm Winery Act. Even then, the ghosts of Prohibition were there. Licensed farm wineries, by law, can produce at maximum 100,000 gallons of wine per year.

Today, Kansas growers are returning to their roots, growing varieties that many of their ancestors grew on some of the same ground, Kohl says.

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