“Wait a second,” you say. “There’s a history of winemaking in Kansas? It’s not a new thing?”
It’s true—Kansas actually has a long and storied history of grape growing and wine making.
A kind of crazy, roller-coaster history, in fact…
Back in the 1800s, Kansas was a wild n’ wooly place. It was the state your mama warned you about. But there was more going on than raucous saloon fights, railroads and cattle drives. Kansas was also growing a LOT of grapes.
During the first half of the 1800s, French and German immigrants established a thriving grape and wine culture in Missouri. It soon spread into Kansas. By the 1870s, the two states made up one of the largest growing and winemaking regions in the whole US-of-A. From Russell in the west to Paola in the east, wineries stretched across the land. And it was beautiful.
The Hatchet Descends
By 1880, Kansas had produced 226,000 gallons of wine, according to “A History of Wine in America” by Thomas Pinney. That’s a lot of vino.
But…Kansas was also home to Carrie Nation (yes, she of the bar-smashing hatchet) and the early temperance movement. Kansas became the first state to pass statewide prohibition in 1881. Love her or hate her, Carrie Nation got stuff done. (Plus, she’s the namesake of an awesome band.)
Now, the Kansas vineyard owners weren’t going to just throw in the towel. Nope. In 1901—that’s 20 years after Kansas prohibition went into effect—over 5,000 acres of Kansas vineyards were still producing grapes. This wasn’t a secret; it was well-documented at the time.
It wasn’t a secret, either, that these grapes were either being sold across state lines to the wine industry in Missouri, or being used to make bootleg wine.
And here you thought bootlegging was just for sour mash whiskey.
The party was over in 1920, when the National Prohibition Act (or Volstead Act, to use its informal name) went into effect. Whatever you call it, the grape and wine industry in Kansas and Missouri was destroyed. Even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, strong liquor laws in Kansas prevented the recovery of the wine growing industry.
Kansas Wine: The Comeback Kid
The first ray of light came in 1985, when the state changed course and passed the Farm Winery Act. This established guidelines for winemaking in Kansas, and set the stage for a comeback.
The rebound was slow, as the vineyards and wineries had fallen into disrepair and disuse during the long, (literal) dry spell. But if there’s anything we scrappy Kansans are known for, it’s hard work and determination. Chalk it up to the pioneer spirit.
By 2005, 13 licensed Kansas farm wineries produced 50,000 gallons of wine from only 170 total acres of grapes. By 2010, ten more wineries came on the scene.
The Saga Continues…
Today, there are more than 30 farm wineries in Kansas, located in counties across the state. Many Kansas wines routinely win regional and national wine competitions. In 2010, four of the 20 prestigious national Jefferson Cups were awarded to Kansas wines.