Thursday, June 16, 2011

Visiting Tony Kooyumjian and his Montelle Winery in Missouri

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Tony Kooyumjian at Montelle Winery

Montelle Winery is located atop Osage Ridge just one and a half miles east of Augusta, Missouri. It commands a magnificent view of the Missouri river, the village of Augusta and the surrounding farms and vineyards. The present owner, Tony Kooyumjian, acquired the winery in 1998.

I visited Montelle Winery recently with fellow participants of the Drink Local Wine Conference 2011 in Missouri. – which is about is about spotlighting wine made in the 47 States of the US that are not one of the big three: California, Washington State, and Oregon - held its third annual conference on April 1-3, 2011, in St. Louis, Missouri. I have provided an overview about the Drink Local Wine Conference 2011 in Missouri here. One of the highlights of the conference was the DLW 2011 Missouri Twitter Taste-off; 20 wineries participated with 2 wines each. I have provided a general overview about the wine producing State of Missouri here. Missouri is relying heavily on French American hybrid grapes; I have written about it here. Interestingly, the first American AVA was the Augusta AVA in Missouri; see here. This is the first of the final three postings about 3 Missouri winemakers: Montelle Winery, Mount Pleasant Winery and Sugar Creek Vineyards and Winery.

Wine Producer Missouri

Missouri produces top-flight wine, although it does so with few European (vitis vinifera) grapes – such as Chardonnay or Merlot - in sight. Missouri’s more than 100 wineries specialize in French-American hybrid grapes and native American grapes like Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, and Norton - the latter one being the most prominent Missouri-grown variety. The State’s climate is harsh and humid and vinifera grapes have a hard time to thrive under these conditions, although recently there has been more interest in planting vinifera grape varieties.

Missouri’s wine history dates to the 1830s, when German immigrants established Hermann and the Missouri River as one of the main viticulture areas in the US, growing the American grapes that they found there when they arrived, including Norton. 50 years later, more wine was produced in Missouri than in any other State in the US. But then came Prohibition and brought Missouri’s wine industry to a halt. However, Missouri’s wine industry came back, starting in the 1960, in particular after French American hybrid grapes became available. Indeed, the Augusta AVA in Missouri is the first federally approved AVA (gaining the status on June 20, 1980, eight months before the Napa Valley AVA).

Picture: Map of Missouri

Today, Missouri has more than 1,400 acres planted in grapes and more than 100 wineries. Missouri is again a serious wine producer, relying heavily on French American Hybrids when it comes to quality wines. However, overall, Missouri has become a small player, accounting for less than 0.5% of total production in the US.

Montelle Winery

Montelle Vineyards is a very scenic winery, apparently the most scenic in area. The view from the large patio is gorgeous, so the best is visiting on a beautiful spring or fall day when you can marvel at the rolling hills and beautiful colors of the rural land around you. “In the high season and with good weather, we have up to 1500 people coming through during a day” said Tony.

Pictures: Montelle Winery

The Augusta region was nationally known for its wine during the 19th century, but Prohibition halted the state’s winemaking for decades. Then, in the late 1960s and early1970s, a few pioneering souls began to refurbish the old vineyards and winery buildings. One of these pioneers was Clayton Byers, who founded Montelle Vineyards in 1970; it was the third winery in Missouri to open up again. The winery was later purchased in 1998 by present owner and wine maker Tony Kooyumjian.

Montelle Vineyards is located in the Augusta AVA. “It is our mission to produce wines that exemplify the uniqueness of this eleven square mile area” said Tony Kooyumjian.

Winemaker and Owner Tony Kooyumjian

Tony Kooyumjian is a third generation vineyard owner and grape grower. His grandmother immigrated to California from (Turkish) Armenia in 1915 and established a vineyard in San Joaquin Valley, which she operated with her son until 1960. Tony initially decided to choose a career other than grape growing; he became a pilot.
While working as a pilot, Tony’s appreciation of wines, along with a statewide resurgence in interest to reestablish the Missouri wine industry, lead him to reopen the old Weprich Winery in St. Charles; his first vintage was 1980.

Pictures: Tony Kooyumjian at Montelle Winery

In 1988 Tony moved to Augusta and established the Augusta Winery in the center of the town. In 1998 he purchased the Montelle Winery. In 2001, Tony made the decision to retire early from the airlines and devote all of his energy to producing fine wines in Missouri. Although he never received a formal education in Enology, Tony attended numerous short courses at various Universities and read and researched the subject extensively.

The Wine Portfolio

Montelle Vineyards has achieved recognition for its dry and semi-dry table wines. These wines include Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles and red wines such as Chambourcin and Cynthiana (Norton). Montelle Vineyards are also noted for dessert (Port and Icewines) and fruit wines. The fruit wines include blackberry and raspberry fruit wines. In addition, Montelle is also the first winery in Missouri with a distillery. It produces four kinds of brandy: apple, peach, cherry and grape grappa).

Pictures: The Wines of Montelle Winery

Montelle Vineyards produces 40.000 cases annually. Half of it is sold on the premise, the remainder in Missouri and neighboring States.

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Drink Local Wine 2011 Missouri Twitter Taste-off

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