Business Spotlight: Fields of Vino
Radio magnate Ken Meyer's $1M grape-growing venture taps into his family's heritage
Monday, July 02, 2012 11:41 AM
Nestled between fields of tall cornstalks and freshly-baled hay is a young Lawrence County vineyard, its bottles just recently joining other Missouri wines on the shelves of local retailers. Meyer Farms Inc., owned by Springfield communications industry icon Ken Meyer, operates a 30-acre vineyard near Freistatt, southwest of Mount Vernon.
Ken Meyer inspects grapes at Meyer Farms Inc., his 30-acre vineyard southwest of Mount Vernon.
Meyer Farms wines are named in honor of women in the Meyer family. “A benefit we didn’t think of was ladies with those names purchasing ‘their wine’ and people buying gifts because of the name,” President Bonnie Bell says.
Jana, produced from norton grapes, is a full-bodied, dry red wine. Janie, a vignole wine named after Meyer’s late wife, is a semisweet white wine. The Catawba blend is named Connie, a medium-bodied rose. The Seyval blanc blend, called Sophie, is a light-bodied sweet white. Joy, made from a chambourcin blend, is a medium-bodied sweet red. “Sweet sells better in the Midwest,” Bell says. “The West Coast is just discovering it.”
Meyer Farms Inc.
Owner: Ken Meyer
Address: 3000 E. Chestnut Expwy., Springfield, MO 65802
Phone: (417) 862-3990
Fax: (417) 869-7675
Products: Vineyard for wine production, distribution and sales
2011 Revenues: $189,000
Employees: 3 full-time; 9 part-time
Meyer’s family is no stranger to the wine business. Before Prohibition – when Missouri was second only to California in U.S. wine production – Meyer’s grandfather, Edward Roethemeier, purchased the Lawrence County farmland in 1918 and was among the early farmers in the region to begin cultivating grapes and selling wine. Meyer spent many days in his grandfather’s vineyard, located just down the road from his boyhood home, picking grapes for pocket money.
“During the war, they’d trade wine for sugar and then sugar for tires,” says Meyer, who owns a handful of radio stations under Meyer Communications and at 84 years old still works in the day-to-day operations.
After Meyer’s parents died, the family farm was divided into fourths. Meyer bought out his two sisters, and he rents the remaining portion from his brother.
Incorporated in 2006, the vineyard cost $1 million in startup, including the planting of grapes in 2007 and machinery purchases.
“It takes a good three years to get enough grapes for wine,” says Meyer Farms President Bonnie Bell, noting September 2011 was the first time Meyer Farms bottled and sold wine.
While the 2011 harvest was 43 tons, Meyer estimates the outfit will reap 120 tons and produce 2,000 cases of wine in 2012. Jeff Gould manages operations, and Levi Yoder serves as full-time vineyard specialist for the six varietials.
After the harvest season, typically August and September, Meyer Farms grapes are sent to winemaker Cory Bomgaars at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport on the Missouri River. Les Bourgeois produces wines under its own label and also serves as winemaker for other vineyards. Meyer Farms wines are distributed by Glazer’s, a Dallas-based wholesaler with 43 offices in 12 states.
With bottle prices ranging between $8 and $15, retailers carrying Meyer Farms wines include Price Cutter, Hy-Vee, Brown Derby International Wine Center and Harter House in Springfield, Heather Hill Farms in Ozark, and Summer Fresh in Mount Vernon.
Meyer Farms has yet to break into the restaurant market. “It’s more difficult to get into chain restaurants because they have rules on a certain wine list they must have. However, we just found out that we will be the wine of the month at the Outback in Branson in the near future,” Bell says, adding Twin Oaks Country Club also carries the wines.
Meyer Farms is growing a Valvin Muscat hybrid grape to be harvested this year to develop a sweet Moscato wine. “In the past, it was hard to purchase Muscat grapes. Wineries had to get them from the coast,” Bell says.
The hybrid vines were purchased from Cornell University New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. While few Missouri vineyards grow the Valvin Muscat, Blumenhof Vineyards won the 2011 Governor’s Cup at the Missouri Wine Competition last fall for its Valvin Muscat.
Meyer Farms plans to open a full winery with retail in 2014. “We have begun the process of getting all the licenses,” Bell says. “Until we get the winery open, we are being creative with our marketing. This fall, we will host invitation-only wine dinners, pairing our wines with food. We now have wine tastings in our retail locations.”
Since Meyer Farms began selling its wine in September, sales have netted $189,000 in revenue.
“There are a lot of up-and-coming Missouri wineries. That’s nice to see it coming back around since it’s really where it all started,” says Cynthia Hader, manager of Barrel Wine and Spirits in Price Cutter, which held a Meyer Farms wine tasting June 22. “The tastings are the best way people can learn what they want and increase sales.”
Other marketing plans include a booth in the E-Plex at the Ozark Empire Fair and a September launch of MeyerFarmsWines.com. Following the trend of targeting wines to appeal to Generation X and Y wine drinkers, Meyer Farms may distribute a red and a white with humorous labels next year.
The number of vineyard acres planted statewide is increasing, according to the Jefferson City-based Missouri Wine and Grape Board. Grapes were grown on 1,700 acres across the state in 2011, an increase of 100 acres compared to two years ago. The value of last year’s statewide production was $4.3 million, up from $3.9 million in 2009, according to state board data.
Meyer is in the last months of his term on the statewide wine and grape board, which funds marketing and research of Missouri wines through a 12-cent per gallon tax on wine sales. His term ends in October.
“I hope to be reinstated by Gov. Nixon after my term ends,” says Meyer, the only board member from southwest Missouri. “Missouri wine country is usually considered to be the middle and eastern part of the state, but more and more vineyards are starting in southwest Missouri.”
Meyer hails the research on grape plants and cultivation led by Anson Elliott at the Fruit Experiment Station for Missouri State University. “He’s even working on a new norton grape,” Meyer says of the official Missouri grape.
Meyer and Bell join more than a hundred Missouri vineyards encouraging wine enthusiasts to give them a try and return Missouri to its wine roots.