It Takes a Village to Make a Good Vintage: For a small Missouri winery, the support of neighbors is
“We love to give this driving tour,” said Dan Burkhardt on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon in late March. And even in the worst of weather conditions, it’s easy to see why. Bethlehem Valley, the 220-acre farm Burkhardt owns with his wife, Connie, is breathtaking. Situated about an hour and a half west of St. Louis in rural Marthasville, Bethlehem Valley makes you forget that you’re anywhere near a major metropolitan area. On that particular day, moisture from an earlier rainfall cast a gentle mist over the rich, rolling hills and woodlands that surround the farm’s small, perfectly groomed vineyard.
But beyond scenic beauty, Bethlehem Valley represents something that’s just as important to the Burkhardts: community. “That’s the best thing,” said Connie Burkhardt, referring to the network of people who help guide Bethlehem Valley wine from grape to glass. Dan Burkhardt agreed: “The farmer, the vineyard manager, the winemaker, the wine distributor, the restaurant owners and the servers … they’re all essential, and that’s the fun part of it, to work with each one of them.”
At Bethlehem Valley, the flow chart starts with the Hellebusch family. Norman Hellebusch takes care of the farm, with help from his 13-year-old son, Kris, and his 87-year-old father, Herb, who also still runs his own farm. The Hellebusches once owned the land that is now Bethlehem Valley, and Kris Hellebusch is the third generation to work the property. “We bale hay, we brush off the pastures whenever we need to,” said Norman Hellebusch, who also holds down a separate full-time job. At harvest time, he transports some 25 tons of grapes from the farm to the winery that produces Bethlehem Valley wine. On this particular Saturday, Norman and Kris Hellebusch are mending a fence, trying to finish the last of their cold-weather tasks before the spring farm work begins.
“Norman makes all this possible,” said Dan Burkhardt. “If [he] wasn’t up here taking care of it [all], you just couldn’t do it.” Norman and Kris Hellebusch also oversee the farm’s herd of beef cattle. “When you’ve got a piece of land like this, you’ve got to do something with it or it really goes back to nature pretty fast. We’ve got 220 acres and only about 10 are good for growing grapes,” said Dan Burkhardt, who grew up on a farm in Michigan. “You’ve got to take care of the other 210 acres to get the 10.” The cows seem happy to oblige; Dan Burkhardt often finds hoof prints in the vineyard.
The vineyard, which produces Norton and Chardonel grapes, is cared for by Fred Dressel, owner of Evergreen Vineyard Management. “We’re at Bethlehem [Valley] during every season,” said Dressel, whose crew consists of himself, his brother, Joe, and three other skilled, full-time workers. “In the winter, we prune [the vines], in the spring we tie them up, in the summer we comb them, which [involves] exposing the fruit to the sun,” said Dressel. Then there’s harvest time, when each and every grape is picked and sorted by hand. “It’s a lot of fun; just the actual getting there and being able to get the fruit off the vine and knowing it’s going to be taken off to the winery.” It can also be exhausting. But Dressel’s crew, which performs work at other area vineyards as well, doesn’t mind. “I just love being outdoors and the camaraderie, it’s like family,” said crew member Jeff Jensen. The Burkhardts enjoy the harvest as well; each year, they cook up a huge lunch feast for their workers.
But Jensen cautioned that vineyard work isn’t for everyone. “People come and go all the time,” said Jensen, who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., and previously worked in forestry and health care. “A lot of people say it’s monotonous, [but] that’s because they don’t understand what’s going into these plants. Once you do this job and you do it year-round, you appreciate every time that you open a bottle of … wine. You know what went into it.”
No one knows more about what goes into Bethlehem Valley’s wine than the craftsmen at Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta, Bethlehem Valley’s production partner. “We’ve processed every grape that’s come out of [its] vineyards,” said owner Chuck Dressel. In addition, Mount Pleasant’s own Norton is made almost entirely from Bethlehem Valley’s grapes.
Dressel and Mark Baehmann, Mount Pleasant’s winemaker, work with a staff of about six people to turn Bethlehem Valley’s harvested grapes into wine. “Grapes grown in other areas all taste different,” said Baehmann. “So for me, that’s the fun; to taste the same varietal and see how different they are.”
The results, so far, are impressive. Last year Bethlehem Valley’s 2002 Norton received a score of 87 from Wine Spectator; its 2001 Cynthiana (a previously used name for Norton) earned an 85. The Burkhardts credit the vineyard’s location – on two southeast-facing slopes that seem as if they were created to grow grapes – and an attention to detail that informs every aspect of their vineyard’s operation. “When the vineyard crew comes here to work, they know we really care about the place because of the way it looks and the way we take care of it,” Dan Burkhardt said. “I like to think that that attention to detail … kind of rubs off on everybody who takes care of the vineyards, makes the wine.” At the end of the day, he said, “It all boils down to that. Taking care of the grapes.”
Good help is hard to find
But finding workers who know how to do that isn’t always easy. According to Bryan Siddle, operations manager for Crown Valley Winery in Ste. Genevieve, “The biggest hurt in our industry is finding good help.” Siddle, who oversees 165 acres of grapes, said the shortage has a far-reaching effect, since skilled workers are vital for improving the quality and profile of Missouri wines. “[It all starts] in the vineyard,” said Siddle.
Jim Anderson, program coordinator for the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Grape and Wine Program, said the state is trying to build a better “viticulture” workforce through the Mid-America Viticulture Enology Center at Southwest Missouri State University-Mountain Grove. “I think it’s … important to let people know what it takes to make a bottle of wine,” said Anderson. Or, in this case, who it takes. Anderson said Missouri’s wine industry currently employees about 300 people, up from 50 to 75 workers 20 years ago. There are now 52 wineries in Missouri; when the Grape and Wine Program started in 1984, there were 15 to 20.
The Bethlehem Valley way
While the state works on expanding Missouri’s wine industry, the Burkhardts prefer to keep their operation small. The couple, who work full time in the financial services industry, didn’t enter the wine business to make money. Instead, they wanted to produce a Missouri wine that could be served in St. Louis’ best restaurants. Matt McGuire, owner of King Louie’s restaurant in south St. Louis, said they’ve succeeded. “[Their] Chardonel, it stands up against anything on our list from California.”
In the meantime, the Burkhardts plan to continue producing and marketing their wine the Bethlehem Valley way. “It [comes] down to the relationships,” said Kevin Hodges of Parker’s Table wine shop in Clayton. “The whole wine industry is based on relationships.” Hodges should know. After meeting the Burkhardts, he referred them to sales representative Darryl Vennard of Premier Cru Wine Co., a distributor who fit perfectly with their profile; they’re now a team. Some work relationships are familial, such as Burkhardt’s sister, Laura Adams, and her husband, Paul, who make up Bethlehem Valley’s marketing department.
The Burkhardts said they’re always looking out for new ways to educate others about wine. They recently set up tastings for severs at two St. Louis restaurants; the goal is to help them feel confident in recommending Bethlehem Valley wine to their customers.
The Burkhardts also enjoy meeting workers at other wineries, where the conversation usually turns to hungry wildlife, such as turkeys with a taste for Cabernet grapes. At Bethlehem Valley, the problem is raccoons that sometimes devour up to 1,500 pounds of grapes at a time. But whatever the topic, Dan Burkhardt said almost every winery has this in common: “They’ve always got a guy like Norman somewhere.”