Working-class wine

Le Bourgeois Vineyards offer low-key day trip

It's easy to make bad wine.

Just smash up some grapes, toss in some yeast and wait a couple days. Then invite your friends over and watch them feign enjoyment as they secretly plot your bloody demise.

Making good wine, however, is an ambition that requires much more discipline. It also requires time, money and a bunch of complicated processes that make you sound really smart when you say them all at once.

For Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, Mo., the only thing that matters is the end product: eleven one-of-a-kind wines with names like "Pink Fox" and "Jeunette Rouge."

"You always have a couple of snobs who come to up to the table like, 'Oh, it's Missouri; I'm not tasting that,'" said winemaker Jacob Holman, who oversees most of the lab work, fermentation and blending for Les Bourgeois.

"We kind of fight that," he continued. "It's just a matter of getting more Missouri wines into people's mouths and breaking that stigma."

Perfect blend
Spring is bottling season for Les Bourgeois, a scenic winery and bistro that sits on the bluffs of the Missouri River, 15 minutes west of Columbia or a couple hours from Lawrence.

On April 16 Les Bourgeois will celebrate the unveiling of its annual "collector's series" wines with an outdoor party and art show. Hundreds of mouths - snobs and knobs alike - will audition the 2004 Chardonel, 2003 Port and 2004 Syrah.

If all goes well, Holman and his fellow winemakers will be hoisted on a litter, couriered to the winemaker pyramids and rewarded with eternal protection from the goddess Nephthys. If all does not go well, they'll go back to the drawing board.

Known as a "blending winery" on account of its ability to grow a variety of grapes and tinker with the recipes from year to year, Les Bourgeois may be one of the few area wineries that's as much of a college hangout as a tourist destination. The vineyard's A-Frame Winegarden packs in 20-somethings on weekends, and the winery's best-seller is "Riverboat Red," an uber-sweet concoction that's as much a wine cooler as a wine.

"We're an educator," says A-Frame general manager Ray Guynn. "We're teaching them something besides beer."

Cheap thrills
Les Bourgeois fills a niche for good wine at affordable prices: glasses range from $3-6 while bottles are $10-25. Tastings are free - and generous.

"You definitely get what you pay for - in a good way," says Elissa Odle, a 25-year-old hairdresser from Columbia who frequents the A-Frame.

"It's not a snobby winery at all," she added. "The fraternity and sorority crowd has caught wind of it, but that's only on Friday and Saturday nights. During the weeknights it's perfect."

The 84,000 gallons of Les Bourgeois wine set to be released in 2005 make it the third largest winery in Missouri, ahead of more than 50 competitors. Though Missouri is still a small fish compared to California, Washington, Oregon and New York, the state does have one claim to fame.

"Before prohibition we were number one," Holman says proudly.

Twenty years after opening a glorified mom-and-pop business, Les Bourgeois sports 30 acres of vineyards, a yummy bistro and seven-days-a-week wine tastings. The winery benefits from is location on the scenic Katy Trail (bikes are available for rental nearby), and the outdoor seating overlooks the enormous bluffs along the Missouri River.

"I love it out here," Odle said. "If I get married, I'll get married here."

Harvest moon
April will bring the first fuzzy buds to the vineyards of Les Bourgeois, precluding the epic harvest season to come.

"You work 100 hours a week during harvest and you forget what it's like to go home," Holman said. "I'll just sleep six hours on the palette and get up and start again."

By summer's end, 200 tons of harvested grapes - Vidals, Chardonelles, Vignoles and Nortons (the state grape of Missouri) - will have been crushed, fermented and funneled into 3,000-6,000 gallon tanks. Holman and his staff then have free reign to mix and match test samples of the different grape types until they find the perfect blends.

"I'll set up 10 trials and go down every avenue," Holman says. "You don't ever want to get a pump out until you've made your decisions."

The winemakers will also micromanage the yeast levels (which determine the dryness of a wine) and filtration processes (to take out the cloudy gunk). They'll deal with the occasional spill or errant clamp removal (imagine a hard-gushing fountain of wine coating your face) and emerge about a year after harvest with labeled bottles in hand.

"The yeast does all the work," cellar master Drew Lemberger says modestly. "We just try to help it."

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