Through the grapevine: Baltimore Bend's path leads from vine to glass

Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Richard Livingston, business partner for Baltimore Bend Vineyard and Winery, pours grapes into plastic drums that hold approximately 80-100 pounds of grapes. The grapes harvested from the vineyard are transported to the tasting room where they will begin the process of being made into wine. (Charles Dunlap/Missouri Farms)

On a dewy, unseasonably cool Saturday morning in early September, a group of approximately 15 family, volunteers, FFA students and employees are standing in a field harvesting an atypical plant for the west-central Missouri farming region -- grapes. The harvest for the Baltimore Bend Vineyard and Winery, in Waverly, begins early -- around 7:30 a.m. -- and the group will harvest until approximately noon. That Saturday, Sept. 6, the workers were collecting the last of the white grape varieties. Harvest of the red varieties will occur in early October.

Baltimore Bend was the first vineyard in Lafayette county. Since then, five more vineyards and wineries have developed. It started through an idea of Richard Livingston and his daughter, Sarah (Livingston) Schmidt. Livingston was an already established corn and soybean farmer before deciding to grow grapes. Other partners in the business include Livingston's wife, Kathleen, and son, Scott. The first vines were planted in 1997 on wind-blown glacial loess soil that is approximately 60-90 feet deep before hitting bedrock. It would take three years before they had market viable fruit to sell to wineries and another three before Baltimore Bend began its own winery operation.

The vineyard is nestled behind a line of trees and surrounded by crop land off of U.S. Route 24 and Baltimore Bend Road. If you're driving on Route 24 and looking for it, you can see a glimpse of the vines past the trees. The vineyard grows a number of varieties, including ones native to Missouri ― Norton, Chambourcin, Chardonel, Carbernet Franc, Valviri Muscat, Seyval Blanc and Vignoles. To start the vineyard, various tests had to be conducted to see if their land would be able to grow the grapes.

"They like a little more acidity in them. We did soil samples and then applied fertilizers and lime to adjust things. Then we came in the fall before and deep plowed it, and the following spring we planted," said Livingston.

It takes three years from the initial planting of the vine before any fruit can be harvested for wine making. This allows for the root structure to take hold into the ground. After the plants become established and after the harvest, they are cut back in the winter, which leaves spurs along the vine with a couple buds that will grow into the bunches.

It takes anywhere between $7,000-$9,000 to plant an acre of vines. This cost includes soil treatments, equipment, posts and wire on which the vines grow. If a person were to start a never before grown vineyard, they would operate at a loss for at least the first three to four years.

Sarah Schmidt, vintner and business partner of Baltimore Bend Vineyard and Winery explains how grapes enter the crushing machine. It first takes the fruit off the stem before the fruit drops into the crusher which lightly breaks open the fruit before heading to the press. (Charles Dunlap/Missouri Farms)

"The first two years, you pull all the grapes off because what you're trying to do is establish the root system on the plant. If you don't do that the plant tries to use all its energy to produce the fruit rather than expand the root system," said Livingston.

Baltimore Bend harvests its grapes by hand. While it's labor intensive, it does allow for better control of what is collected. There are vine harvesting machines, but they harvest every grape, including unripe or rotten fruits, which can affect the quality of a wine, especially in small, artisanal operations such as Baltimore Bend.

"We're getting about ― off the other two varieties ― we got about two ton off of those. The whites are a little less. The reds, typically, we get four to five tons off of an acre. This is about an acre of white so we're getting about two ton off an acre of white," said Livingston.

After pressing, one ton of grapes will release approximately 150 gallons of juice, which will then be treated with yeast to begin the fermenting and aging process. Baltimore Bend ages wine in two ways ― either in stainless steel tanks, or in oak casks.

"Most of our wines are aged in stainless steel tanks, and they'll age about nine months. The white wine that goes into a barrel is also about nine months," explained Livingston. "White wines tend to pick up the oak flavors a lot faster than the reds, and what we're trying to do is enhance the flavors of the wine and not overpower it with the oak taste. The reds, on the other hand, take a lot longer. They'll take anywhere from 18 to 24 months to age in an oak barrel."

"It's really a nice industry. Of course, we're all in competition," said Livingston about the other vineyards and wineries. "But, on the other hand, I can call my competitors and say 'I have this issue. What's going on here?' and they'll say 'well we've seen this and you'll need to try this and try that.' It's a very competitive, but very friendly industry among wine makers and vineyard managers."

After harvesting, Livingston and company transport the grapes to the Baltimore Bend tasting room for processing the next day. The clusters are placed into a machine that separates fruit from stem. The machine also starts the juicing process by crushing the grapes. The crushed grapes then move to the press.

"The whites go directly to the press so we get it off the solids as quickly as possible. If we were to leave the juice on the skin it would impart a pinkish color, and you wouldn't get a true white wine," said Schmidt.

She serves as Baltimore Bend's vintner. According to Livingston, she recently finished a two-year certificate program in Enology ― the study of wine and winemaking ― from Washington State University, in Richland, Wash.

While pressing, the juice from the grapes falls into the press pan, before moving to the storage tank for fermentation and aging. The press drum rotates, pushes against the grapes and then rotates again to let the juice fall naturally with gravity through holes in the press.

"The cycle we have it on does different strengths of pressure ― starts lighter and gets heavier. We try not to push it too much because that affects the quality of it," said Schmidt. "The best juice is the free run ― that's when it's not even pushing on it, no pressure at all ― that's the best juice they say."

When they process the red varieties ― which gives a larger quantity of juice ― the free run will go into the oak barrels for the premium wines, while the pressed will go into blends and sweeter wines. Schmidt says she's aware of trends in wine, and adjusts the types of wine Baltimore Bend produces according to those trends.

"The moscato is the number one selling varietal and has been for the last five to seven years, so we were trying to capture that trend. And so we decided three years ago to put in this Valvin Muscat," she noted. "It's not the same as a moscato but it's in that family. It gives a lot of the same aromas and flavors."

Along with the varieties grown by Baltimore Bend, Schmidt says they also purchase other varietals from vineyards in creation of continuing or new wine blends.

"We're always trying to do a new and different thing," she said. "We came out with a port style. It's a fortified wine that we do, so that's another branch out from the regular stuff we've done. We just kind of try different things to see what's going to fly and if it doesn't work, we don't continue it."

Many Missouri wineries, according to Schmidt, are incorporating micro-breweries or distilleries into their operation as well. However, for the time being, Baltimore Bend is focusing on wine.

"We're in our infancy still. We're still focusing on just the basic wine right now," explained Schmidt. "What we have done is looked at partnerships. We have a guy (Jim D. Pierce) ― Of The Earth Distillery is up near Rayville ― and so we're partnering with him. He just got started a year ago and he's using our pomace to make his grappa. We're partnering with him to feel out the distilled spirits segment."

Baltimore Bend sells its wine throughout Missouri with bottles being sold in Kirksville, Columbia, St. Louis, Maryville and Springfield. A large portion of consumers, though, are in the Kansas City area.

"We try to get out and make people aware of our wines as much as we can," said Schmidt.

She added the winery regularly competes in a select number of wine competitions, including the Missouri Wine Competition of the Governor's Cup, the Jefferson Cup Invitational, Finger Lakes wine competition, and International Eastern. In the past year they won the Jefferson Cup for their C2 and Arrowhead Red wines.

"We have a lot of local support, which is wonderful. We also have people come from the (Kansas City) Metro area and Columbia because we're ― you know ― an hour's drive from either one of those," said Schmidt.

Baltimore Bend is in the northwest vine growing region of Missouri and is part of the Kansas City wine trail. The tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sundays from 1-6 p.m. during April 1 to Dec. 31. From Jan. 2 to March 31 they are open Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 1-6 p.m.

Conctact Charles Dunlap at concordianreporter@centurytel.net