Rural area gets new life through wine production

Dennis and Cindy Reynolds check on grapes in their vinyard in Miami County, Kansas. Contributed Photo
Dennis and Cindy Reynolds check on grapes in their vineyard in Miami County, Kansas. Contributed Photo

The Jefferson Cup Invitational is sometimes called the Olympics of wine competitions, where the ?best of the best? are selected from wineries in all of America?s wine-making regions.

The results are in: Winning the top selection in its category is a wine from Somerset, Kansas.

Dennis and Cindy Reynolds are the owners of Somerset Ridge Winery in Somerset, an unincorporated community in Miami County, Kansas. Dennis and Cindy grew up in the Kansas City area and met each other at the University of Kansas.

Dennis became a trial lawyer and Cindy a business executive, but they developed a passion for wine and grape growing.

Dennis?s parents retired to a place in the country in Miami County.

The property sat on a limestone ridge. Having traveled to grape growing regions in Europe and America, Dennis thought that this setting might be ideal for grapes.

He and Cindy had grown weary of the constant travel and the corporate life, so they decided to get back to their roots, so to speak.

Dennis is also a history buff.

?I learned that this had been a large wine-making region before Prohibition,? Dennis said. ?In 1901, more than 7,000 acres of grapes had been grown here. We?re the same latitude as northern California.?

Dennis and Cindy decided to give grapes a try. They began planting the vineyard in 1998 and established the winery in 2001. It was the first winery to be established in Miami County since 1881. Dennis and Cindy bought property adjacent to his parents and expanded operations in 2005.

The couple named the winery Somerset Ridge, after the large limestone ridge located on the property.

?The limestone adds character to the grapes,? Dennis said. ?In Europe, certain varieties are planted near rock beds for the mineral and for good drainage.?

Today, Somerset Ridge has 13 different varieties and more than 8,000 grapevines. The winery produces more than 5,000 cases annually, including the award-winning dry whites and reds, semi-sweet whites and reds, and dessert wines. The tasting room at the Somerset Ridge Winery is open Wednesday through Sunday. The winery also has an outlet at a store in Overland Park. In addition, Dennis and Cindy are active in the local food movement.

Many of the winery?s customers come from the Kansas City area which is only a 25 minute drive away, but the winery has also had visitors from as far away as Japan, China, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and more. Not only has Somerset Ridge become a destination winery, it has helped lead a remarkable renaissance of wine-making in the region. There are now several vineyards and five licensed wineries in Miami County.

Dennis and Cindy helped create the Somerset Wine Trail, a 20-mile route which connects the wineries in the region. Dennis served as vice president of the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association and was chair of the state Grape and Wine Council from 2008 to 2010.

?We were able to get legislation through which helped the industry to grow,? Dennis said.

This is an impressive record for a winemaker in rural Kansas. The winery is located near the unincorporated town of Somerset with a population of perhaps 100 people. Now, that?s rural.

?We?re in the business of making people happy,? Dennis said. ?It is very fulfilling to grow something in Kansas and see it through to the very end. It is truly value-added.?

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And there?s more. Not only has this initiative stimulated other wineries, it has helped grow other businesses as well ? including new life for a historic general store and Grange Hall in New Lancaster, Kansas.

The New Lancaster General Store is shown above. Stephen and Kristin Graue purchased the general store and another historic building in the small rural community. contributed photo
The New Lancaster General Store is shown above. Stephen and Kristin Graue purchased the general store and another historic building in the small rural community. contributed photo

Middle Creek Winery, New Lancaster

Stephen and Kristin Graue are owners of Middle Creek Winery and the New Lancaster General Store in Miami County. Stephen grew up in southeast Kansas, where his initial efforts at beverage-making were not a resounding success. ?As a kid, I made root beer and sold it to my friends,? Stephen said with a smile. ?It was awful.?

He also remembers his grandmother?s place which had grapes growing near her house.

Stephen served in the Army. After his service, he became a registered land surveyor and then worked in human resources. In 1996, he and his wife Kristin, a Kansas State University graduate in accounting, bought land south of Louisburg. The property they bought had an old fence line with grapevines growing on it, like his grandmother?s place had.

Stephen and Kristin decided to explore the possibility of growing grapes commercially. They toured the grape growing region of Missouri and gained assistance from the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemaking Association. A K-State Research and Extension specialist recommended a source for vines.

They bought six commercial vines, and the grapes did so well that they decided to pursue it. ?They expanded the vineyard.

?There was a market for grapes,? Stephen said. ?But my wife, the accountant, saw that we could add value by winemaking.?

They converted the old horse barn to a winemaking facility. In 2010, they opened the Middle Creek Winery. Today, the business has more than 2,000 vines in the vineyard.

Their goal is to produce artisan, handcrafted wines from Kansas grapes, honey and fruits. Free wine tastings are available on Saturdays and Sundays at the winery.

This area has become a key wine region for the state. Middle Creek Winery is part of the Somerset Wine Trail and has hosted visitors from as far away as New Zealand, Germany, and Scotland. ?We?re the new Napa,? Stephen said.

One day, while driving through the nearby community of New Lancaster, Stephen noticed a couple of old, closed buildings for sale. One had been a Grange Hall and the other a general store, and both were in disrepair. He thought one of them could be a winery outlet.

Stephen reported to Kristin about the two old historic buildings. He asked her which one she wanted to buy, and she answered him: ?Both of them.? They took the plunge and decided to invest in both. They got them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Grange Hall had served as a meeting hall for the Grange and for the Kansas Anti Horse Thief Association (never heard of that one). The Graues are repairing it now.

The general store was first built in 1874 and then rebuilt after a fire in 1903. The Graues made repairs and repainted the interior and exterior. It was reopened as the New Lancaster General Store and Winery on Oct. 18, 2014, the first day of the annual Miami County Farm Tour.

The store once again serves as a gathering place for the community. It features Middle Creek wines, other Kansas products and the work of Kansas artists.

?We have a lot of fun with the people,? Stephen said.

New Lancaster itself is a rural, unincorporated community. How many people live there? ?In the town proper, about 20 people,? Stephen said.

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Stephen and Kristin Graue had a decision to make. They chose to purchase both historic buildings, which was a major commitment.

Stephen and Kristen, as well as, Dennis and Cindy have been important people in the growth of wine development and the trail in Miami County, which has spurred so much more in the area. The growth both have provided for their rural areas is amazing.

The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves. The Kansas Profile radio series and columns are produced with assistance from the K-State Research and Extension Department of Communications News Unit.

By Ron Wilson / Director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas
State University.

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