TOPEKA – The Midwest is considered the “breadbasket of America” due to its favorable climate and rich soil. However, Kansas isn’t typically the first place on a person’s wine country tour list.
Prairie Fire Winery CEO Bob DesRuisseaux argues that it should be.
“This is a great place to grow perennial crops. We typically get avid rainfall throughout the year that we don’t have to irrigate, so it’s very sustainable,” DesRuisseaux said.
DesRuisseaux acknowledged a heavy wine history that originated in Kansas, stating that some grapes are actually native to Kansas.
“They have been here forever. The earliest writings started back in 1724 when this was still France,” DesRuisseaux said.
Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, a French explorer, traveled throughout northeastern Kansas and, according to DesRuisseaux, wrote extensively about the wild grapes found here.
“They were so plentiful that their harvesting was easier than ours is now,” DesRuisseaux said. “They would pull wagons underneath the vines, would then cut them to make wine.”
Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wrote about the same findings nearly 80 years later in their historic expedition across the western United States. According to Prairie Fire Winery’s website, Kansas began to see nurseries cultivating grapes for sale since 1857.
It was during the nation’s first statewide prohibition on selling and manufacturing alcohol in 1881 that winemaking in Kansas fell out of trend. The appeal of the law did not happen until nearly a century later in 1948. Still-conservative laws surrounding wine making existed until the 1980s.
Today, there are about 50 wineries and vineyards in the state of Kansas.
On Feb. 13, the Kansas Senate held a committee hearing on the designation of the state’s red and white wine grapes. DesRuisseaux attended the meeting.
The nominated grapes were a red grape, Chambourcin and a white grape, Vignoles. DesRuisseaux said both grapes are native to Kansas and while he emphasized the importance of the bill in helping with marketing for competition brands, he does not see growth of the industry in the state as his competition.
“Our competition is every single winery globally,” he said.
Along with co-owning Prairie Fire Winery in Paxico with his wife, Julie, DesRuisseaux is president of the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association. The KGGWA is a non-profit organization whose goal, according to its website, is to improve the industry practices and products in Kansas of grape growing and winemaking.
The Prairie Fire Winery tasting room is located at the vineyard on Bacchus Ranch at 20250 Hudson Ranch Road in Paxico.
Olivia Schmidt is a senior from Lawrence studying journalism.