Meet one of our newest members, Ethan Butler from Skidmore, Missouri.
1. How did you get started in winemaking?
When I was in the Air Force stationed at Zaragoza, Spain a guy and I took our two Spanish employees out for lunch. We were working a holiday weekend and everyone was bummed for having to work but we were making the best of the situation. One of the Spanish guys was happy that we cared about them enough to take them out for a meal. Afterwards he invited us over to his country home. We went to what looked it would be an old wood shed where I came from. Inside we went down a flight of stairs and in the middle of the room was a wine barrel, probably around 300 to 500 gallons. He picked up some glasses from a shelf and wiped them on his shirt and we filled them from a valve. The wine was a typical table wine and it was good but a little on the dry side. That experience stuck with me and even before I had any thought of making wine, I always thought how neat it would be to have that setup myself. He sent us home with a bottle each. You guessed it, rinsed a couple of bottles out with water, filled them and stuck some used corks in them. If only I had a few of those bottles again. To make another long story short, years after that, I was recovering from back surgery and not able to lift more than a jug of milk for 3 months and not much more for a year. My wife, Kwan and I were going to University Extension seminars for something to do as we were trying to grow a garden and fruit trees. One of the seminars was “Growing Backyard Grapes”. A one or two hour crash course on growing grapes not only for personal use but enlightening people to marketing opportunities to sell to the wineries or to hobby wine makers. I told my wife, “I can do that.” I already had the tractor and 25 acres of grass land that we had been wanting to do something with other than let people take our hay.
I did consult a few other wineries on the type of grapes to plant. I told one that I wanted to be different and not do like everyone else was doing. I was told “No, don’t reinvent the wheel.” I didn’t realize what “different” I wanted but I didn’t want to do the same thing as all the wineries that we had been visiting.
My wife’s picture of backyard grapes was two or three vines, mine started out with 550 the first year, and the same the second year. We Joined and attended annual meetings for the Missouri Wine and Grape Growers Association. I soon learned I wasn’t going to make very much money selling grapes.
My brother made a little wine of which I had never tasted so I started asking him about making wine. I am the type of person that would rather have someone show me than tell me or read it out of a book. I didn’t understand what he was telling me. I started buying books, several books. Bought some equipment and had the opportunity to pick some apples from friends as I didn’t have grapes or fruit yet. So that fall, I ground and pressed apples and pears (on shares) with an antique grinder and press that had been given to me. My half of juice was around 50 gallons.
I still didn’t understand the whole concept and wanted to make a pure product so added little to no sugar. I got apple and pear cider that people and I liked. I also made a cranberry wine from concentrate that most everyone loved. I learned a lot with that 50 gallons divided up into carboys; primarily to add sugar for a higher alcohol content. I continued with whatever I could get to ferment. The meads have been real popular. My wife and I as well as others were surprised I could make a drinkable product!
With my back issues I am not fit to work for someone else but am able to work on the farm and take breaks as needed. This endeavor as well as others I’ve tried, have the goal of making supplemental income. Eventually we decided to operate a commercial winery and that is where we are at the moment. In the last two months we have gotten our federal permit and our state manufacture’s license. So, now I can make larger batches.
2. What do you find to be the hardest part of growing grapes?
Pests and diseases. I can see a bug eating leaves and tell ok, bug, spray bug spray. The harder part is diseases, is it mildew or some other funky thing and what do I spray and where do I get the spray? We are not an organic farm and vineyard but would like to be as organic as possible. If we have a beetle or mildew, I don’t have any problem spraying. The problem I have is a spray schedule that we spray something every two weeks just to spray! I’ve spoken with a few others and I’m not the only person that feels this way. For the most part I’ve found other vineyards helpful until I ask the question, what do you spray? Everyone refers me to the University spray schedule.
3. What do you find to be the most rewarding in growing grapes/fruit?
The whole process of planting a tree, vine, seedling or seed, nurturing it for as many as several years and eventually picking fruit. Taking that fruit through the fermentation and ageing stages and having a product that others think is good and good enough that they say they are willing to buy.
4. What is your favorite wine to make?
Apple wine. I’ve made several batches as that is what I’ve had available. I’ve made one batch of grape and I think it is ok. I have only taken little samples but need to sit-down with a glass of it. We are looking at a possible considerable grape crop this year and am hopeful and looking forward to it.
5. What do you find the most challenging in winemaking?
Time and facilities. I have time issues with everything, nothing new and will always have them. I’ve been making wine in my basement and have temperature and humidity issues. Short of expensive equipment I haven’t found an easy fix. Hopefully the winery will have better atmospheric conditions!
6. What do you find the most rewarding in your winemaking?
Others and I enjoying the wines I’ve made.
7. Have you taken any classes?
No, but would if they were offered in my vicinity or were offered on weekends within a few hundred miles.
8. What is your favorite wine to drink?
Wine that I’ve made. I don’t have a background of drinking or drinking wine. My brother even says that I was the last one to ever accept or drink a beer. I’ve always liked wine but didn’t know how to tell the types apart or what kind of wine that I liked. It was like playing Russian Roulette if I would like the wine I bought. I’ve learned that a sweet wine is what I like but I have been working hard to enjoy wine on the dryer side. I still am particular to what I would call semi sweet. I am no expert. My mead according to the hydrometer is dry but to me it still tastes semi sweet to sweet. I don’t worry about it as I see others have the same issues. In my area the majority of people want sweet and I mean sweet!
9. When did you join MWS and how has the group helped you?
April 2017? Might be a little early to say but it looks hopeful. The offer for a reduced price on the Winemaking magazine is good even though I didn’t get around to utilizing it. As I am at least four hours away from a meeting, I don’t really see me attending a meeting but have put the Annual Picnic and Christmas Party on my calendar. I will do my best to attend the Saturday events. There have been some postings on Facebook and would like to see more. I recognize I am new and no one knows me yet but I’m looking forward to interaction with others. It was also good to see the opportunity to order grapes. Even in the MWGG Association they talked about having a list of for sale grapes and fruit but never saw it circulated. I have had others ask me for grapes and it would be nice to have a source I could refer them to.
One important thing that I am looking forward to in MWS is the opportunity to taste other wines, get feedback on mine and share ideas.
Lisa and John Nordmann, joined Missouri Winemaking Society in 2014. They started their journey in 2012 with their son,Timothy. Timothy had just purchased 500 pounds of Chardonel grapes from a local vineyard. We will say it was by far a very bad wine. We decided that the grapes were at fault. So we went back to the same vineyard andpurchased 700 pounds of Vignoles. Again, the wine was not great. Our theory of bad grapes was not adding up. So that is when John and I decided to join Missouri Winemaking Society.
One of the meetings we attended was about fault wines. So we brought our bottle of Chardonel. Right away the members said the fault was caused by not chilling the grapes prior to pressing. We then delved into every book, online research and a free file on white wine making from More Wine. In 2015 we purchased 200 pounds of Chardonel from Shady Grove Vineyard, 200 pounds of Cayuga from 4M Farms and Vineyard and 200 pounds of Chambourcin from Jacob Schneider. We also made Chardonnay and Reisling from Winexpert Kits and several fruit wines. Our goal was not to make an award wining wine. All we wanted was to make a drinkable wine. Mission accomplished.
Today I have become the main winemaker where as John is the taster and moral support guy. We have had insurmountable support from every member in the Missouri Winemaking Society. Everyone is so willing to help out and give us so much information. With their support and helpfulness, in 2016 I was brave enough to purchase 1200 pounds of grapes - Cayuga, Seyval Blanc, Chardonel and Chambourcin. I will say that our 2016 may be good enough to enter into a wine competition. But more importantly we are enjoying our wine, one bottle at a time.