I had the please of meeting Tony Kooyumjian, the owner of Montelle Winery while sipping my way through the Hermann and Augusta wine regions in Missouri. The guy is a wealth of knowledge on the history of the area and his wines blew me away! (Did you know Missouri is home to the first designated American Viticultural Area -AVA?!?) I knew I had to have Tony on my podcast to learn more about the Missouri wine country AND I wanted to share more of his story here with you as well. From working among the vines as a kid, to becoming a pilot who flew around the world only to discover his love for wine, to getting back to his roots and becoming a winemaker. Tony’s story is a good one…
Have you all visited Missouri wine country? Montelle Winery? You should, but for now here is a bit more about the rich history of the Missouri wine country and how Tony is one of the pioneers working to put it back on the map.
Tony is one of the top 100 winemakers in the United States (he is one of only two in Missouri).
His wines have won many awards from around the world, including the ‘Best of Show’ in California Contests and ‘Best Imported White Wine to Germany. Which he said was “one of the highlights of my” life. And why wouldn’t it be. An American wine from Missouri taking center stage in Germany!! He’s also the proud owner of four Missouri Governor Cup Awards.
Despite being so good at what he does, Tony hasn’t always been a winemaker. He started his career as a pilot for Ozark Airlines in St. Louis (now American Airlines) and he traveled the world, sampling wines from all corners of the globe.
It was during this time that his interest in wine, and the many different variables that go into wine making was born.
In the 19th century, the hillsides of Missouri turned into vineyards at the hands of the predominately German community. They planted several varieties, including Native American grapes such as the Norton, the Catava and the Concord. They also mixed it up with American hybrids that had proved to be successful in the grape growing areas of Ohio.
Before the 18th amendment, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages and brought about Prohibition, the Missouri Wine River Valley was the second largest wine producing region in the United States.
During the decades that followed, the number of wineries in the state dropped from hundreds to one – The Weprich Winery. As their main production was sacramental and medicinal wines, they continued to operate during that era. Prohibition lifted in 1933, and Missouri was desperately lagging behind in the wine industry as other states had taken over.
By the end of the 1960s and start of the 1970s, a small number of pioneers began to restore the abandoned Missouri vineyards and wineries. At that time, the state of Missouri was offering incentives for people to start winemaking as a way to boost agriculture and tourism. One of these pioneers was Clayton Byers, the man who established Montelle Vineyards in 1970.
Missouri’s wine country began to regain its former glory and, on June 20 1980, the FIRST American Vinicultural Area (AVA) in the United States was given to Augusta, Missouri. Today, there are around 130 wineries in the state.
Tony Kooyumjian’s family has a long history of grape growing and wine making. His grandmother emigrated from Armenia to the U.S. in 1915, where she set up a vineyard in the Californian San Joaquin Valley. Together with her son, she ran the vineyard until 1960. During this time, young Tony learned about grape growing from his father and grandmother, although he chose not to make winemaking his career choice (at least not at first).
As the years passed and Tony’s interest in wines grew deeper, he decided to return to his winemaking roots. But, he didn’t go back to the San Joaquin valley. In 1980, he chose to restore the old Weprich Winery (which was later renamed Winery of the Little Hills) in St. Charles in Missouri.
Despite not having a formal education in Enology, Tony learned all he needed to know through extensive reading, practical experience, university courses and or course put the lessons from his youth working the vines into work. All while still working as a pilot.
In 1988, Tony relocated from St. Charles to Augusta where he bought the Augusta Wine Company, which was founded in 1856 and had the distinction of being the first co-op winery in Missouri.
The 11-square mile area of Augusta already had a reputation for its fine wines. It had the added benefit of being the ‘First American Viticulture Area’ in the U.S., due to its unique soils, microclimate and history. Ten years later, in 1998, he acquired the Montelle Winery and, then, in 2001, he decided to take early retirement from piloting and follow his passion for winemaking.
Established in 1970 by Clayton Byers, the Montelle Winery is one and a half miles east of Augusta on the top of Osage Ridge. The winery is an ideal location for meetings, corporate events, weddings and, of course, as a destination for wine lovers who want to sip in Missouri’s best wines. Yet, a visit to the tasting room gives you the opportunity to do more than just taste wine.
In the Klondike Café onsite, the chefs have created seasonal menus that offer a great selection of dishes. From freshly baked pizzas and made-to-order gourmet sandwiches, crazy good chicken nachos, wraps and salads, all dishes contain fresh ingredients. It’s the perfect place to drink wine, eat lunch and enjoy stunning views over the magnificent Missouri River Valley from the vast deck.
Known as Missouri’s most scenic winery, Montelle was the first winery in Missouri to also open a distillery. The state of Missouri encouraged owners to set up small distilleries within their wineries, so Tony saw the perfect opportunity to expand and diversify the business. Now, in addition to their wine, Montelle produces fortified wines, port and four kinds of brandy: grape (grappa), peach, cherry and apple.
The secret of Montelle’s success in producing outstanding wines is their vineyards. Thanks to the prehistoric ice age and past glaciers that cut through the state, Missouri has well-drained highly organic rich glacial soil that is excellent for growing grapes. Weather is also on their side. With cold winters and hot and humid summers, it’s possible to grow unique grape varieties, such as the Norton grape and Chardonel, a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval.
The Norton grape is a Native American Grape has been grown in the Augusta area for over 150 years. The grape produces rich, full-bodied red wines with distinctive fragrant and fresh flavors.