(photo by Leonna Essner, Staff)
"Any good winemaker will tell you that the wine is made in the vineyard, and it's just my job not to mess it up," claimed Smith, owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce. "The real crux of making the good wine is ripening of the fruit."
All of River Ridge Winery's wine is made with Southeastern Missouri fruit, Smith said. Sixty percent of all grapes used at the winery come from Smith's farm. The other 40 percent comes from three Cape Girardeau County farms -- two west of Dutchtown and one west of Fruitland. French hybrid and vinifera grapes are used to produce the wine.
"Our very, very earliest arrivings begin to ripen about the beginning of August," Smith noted. "We're stubborn to pick them. Rather than make the same-old, same-old wine each year, we like to experiment."
Approximately 80 to 90 percent of ripening occurs the last 10 to 20 percent of the time the grapes are hanging on the vine, Smith noted. "If you want good flavor, let it ripen," Smith advised. "People are fooling themselves if they think, 'Well I can pick the grapes a little bit early and do something else to it.'"
All of River Ridge Winery's grapes are picked by hand, Smith said. "And we're farmers," he continued. "We do the pruning in the winter time, plant the cover crop, do the mowing between the rows, Roundup the weeds underneath the vines. I do all the spraying of fungicides, picking and repairing of the trellises."
Grapes are picked and placed into containers that look like plastic dishpans, Smith said. Each container holds 20 to 24 pounds. When the picker fills it, the container is carried to the end of the row, where it's very carefully poured it into a 32-gallon container. When 10 of these containers are full --each holding about 150 pounds of grapes -- they're brought to the winery in the back of a truck.
Transportation usually takes place within two hours after the grapes are picked. "We take the least intrusive path in the production of our wines," Smith assured.
At the winery production room, the grapes are brought to the crush station where an Italian crusher stemmer breaks the skin on the grapes. A bladder press presses the juice out.
"All of the juice goes into stainless steel tanks, ferments and subsequently is aged in French Oak barrels. Years later, it's bottled, capsuled, labeled, cased and sold all right here on the premises," Smith explained.
The Smiths' grape vineyard of four acres was designed around eight varieties of grapes. The reason for so many varieties is if they only had one variety, they would all have to be picked on the same day, Smith said.
Between 2,000 and 4,000 grapes of one variety are crushed and pressed in the production room at one time, Smith said. "While you catch your breath, it's fermenting," he said. "Then one day or a week later, we pick another variety. So from about Aug. 10 or 15 to Oct. 10 or 15, it is really, literally, crush time here."
Winemakers can't ripen fruit in the Midwest section of North America without putting 17-feet of wide plastic netting over the grape vines to keep birds away. Smith said otherwise birds will strip the vines of grapes before they get high enough in sugar, low enough in acid and at the right pH level to make good wine.
"We love birds and feed them, but they are really a menace to us during the growing season," Smith explained.
Winery harvest appears to be good this year, too, according to Smith. "Last year, we picked and processed 38,000 pounds of grapes," he said. "We've all ready passed 50,000 pounds this year. We've increased production 800 percent in the nine years we've been open."
In 1980, Smith and his wife, Joannie, purchased the farm their winery sits on, with the intention of some day having a winery. After about 20 years of pursuing grapes and wine as an amateur, the Smiths applied for and received their federal and state licenses to become an official winery in 1993.
"That meant we had to make wine, age it, and do all the things that had to be done to it before we opened for business, and we actually opened for sale Sept. 17, 1994," Smith said.
In the winery's first year, the Smiths made wine in reconditioned portions of about 500 gallons, which was about 2,500 bottles. By 1999, they were making 15,000 bottles a year, Smith said.
"Last year we produced about 18,000 bottles of wine, and we're on a course to produce just over 20,000 this year," Smith estimated.
Due to the growing production rate, the Smiths built a new production building that lies behind the winery's main building, which includes a gift shop, tasting room and the Fermentation Room cafe, where visitors can grab a bite to eat.
This weekend the winery is holding its annual Octoberfest homecoming, where Smith will release Missouri's first red dessert wine. Musical entertainment is scheduled every weekend at the winery's pavilion until the weather gets too cold for the musicians to play, Smith said.
On Nov. 1, Smith will release three specialty wines: the 2000 Joie De Riviere, which translates into "Joy of the River" (a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend), Zinfandel and Syrah.
River Ridge Winery is open every day from noon to 6 p.m. During holidays, except for Christmas, the winery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, contact Smith at (573) 264-3712.