Chandler Hill Vineyards Takes It Up A Notch
Chuck Gillentine’s Chandler Hill Vineyards aims to take the wine and food at Missouri wineries up a notch.
‘The state has marketed the wineries as a fun place to come and I think we’ve taken that another step,” says Gillentine, the CEO.
Or two or three steps. There are quality estate made wines, fine food and a compelling history to contemplate with it.
But first things first — there’s no denying it: as the property appeared around the curve of a country road in Defiance, Missouri, our jaws dropped. The winery building and tasting room — that opened in 2008 – is spectacular and the view over acres of vines from its 5,000 square foot deck is gorgeous.
‘What won out was to try to make the building both Tuscan-like and to sit up on the hill here like a Napa style winery.” The architectural plans were by Matt Wolfe, from Wolfe Architecture & Design, based in St. Louis.
Sipping wine on the deck, under large awnings, is like being on a huge luxury yacht that’s got stuck in a vineyard. It’s hard to imagine a bigger deck but Gillentine has plans to enlarge it to deal with his growing number of customers. It does all feel more like California dreaming than a Midwest farm winery.
But winemaking is the focus. While some Midwesterners turned to grapes and winemaking as a way of saving their farms, not Gillentine. Originally from Texas, he’s lived in St Louis for the last three decades and recently retired from the family run cardboard paper manufacturing business. He started collecting wine in the late 1980s and at one stage his cellar boasted more than 2000 bottles from all over the world. Together with the skills of winemaker Tom Murphy — Gillentine says Murphy does 90% of the winemaking work — the Chandler CEO’s experienced wine palate could partly explain the quality of the wines.
Chandler Hill offers wines from Missourian, Californian and even Chilean grapes. The Missouri wines are made on the premises from the estate’s 51/2 acres of vines and 3 more acres sourced from local farmers. The estate vines were planted using a special laser technology computer program and the soils were tested to ensure the most suitable French hybrid vines were planted.
The line-up of wines from local grape varieties includes Norton, Chambourcin, Dry Vignoles, Vidal Blanc, Traminette and also fruit wines. For the vinifera grapes, Murphy and Gillentine oversee the making of the wines at Cuvaison, a vineyard and winery in the Napa Valley, together with Cuvaison’s Associate Winemaker Todd Heth.
2013, their first full year of production, produced about 3500 cases on site and another 3,000 cases from out of state.
Gillentine’s favorite is the Dry Vignoles which is in the style of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with citrusy, grapefruit flavors. ‘We made nearly 200 cases of the Dry, and it’s gone,” he said.
The wine list is integrated into the lunch and dinner menus and is divided into Missouri Wines and West Coast Wines. There are three different tasting options, wine by the glass and a range of wine styles from dry table wines to dessert wines.
With the ‘eat local’ food movement failing to spark an effective ‘drink local wine’ movement, Gillentine may have hit on a way of getting conservative wine lovers to experiment with the tastes of their local grapes: by selling Missouri wines alongside the Californian stuff. ‘Our local sales have gone up more than our West Coast sales,” he said.
Chandler wines are also on the wine lists of about half-a-dozen restaurants in St. Louis, including Napoli and 360 and are carried by five supermarkets and liquor stores.
Total wine sales bring in about 40% of the business with 35% from about 90 weddings per year and the rest from the restaurant.
For a local winery, Chandler Hill’s restaurant is among the most gourmet style in the state. The lunch and dinner menus range from club style sandwiches and antipasto plates, to fig and prosciutto flatbread, Aegean salads and Roasted Pork Tenderloin. Executive chef Eric Byington is ready to recommend food and wine pairings. ‘I really enjoy our Crimson Arrow Port,” says Byington on the winery website, ‘It matches perfectly with our flour-less chocolate cake.”
The restaurant aims to take advantage of the winery’s close proximity to St Louis — it’s a few miles down Highway F, just off Highway 94 and Gillentine says there’s quite a population of potential customers within about 10 miles.
The restaurant was very busy when we visited on a Sunday. However, it’s success has come as something of a surprise to Gillentine. He said they always thought that the vineyard and the view would be a draw for weddings. ‘What we didn’t know was the value of having a nice restaurant with it,” he added.
However, Chandler Hill’s food and wine experience is very upscale and the prices reflect that. The cheapest glass of wine starts at $8.50, the bottles start at $24, which is expensive for a Midwest winery.
‘We discussed that at the beginning,” said Chandler. ‘I think the wine is worth it and I hope that the local wineries are raising the prices somewhat because I think they could get a little bit more for it — we just figured that we were putting together a very nice thing here.”
With a compelling history. Chandler Hill Winery is named after Joseph Chandler, an African-American, who bought the land in 1905. According to an article by Bob Brail, Chandler is thought to have been a freed slave originally from Boonville who either escaped or was freed around the time of Civil War. He taught himself to read and write, worked the land, started a family and formed close relationships with other families in the Defiance area. He died in 1952 at the age of about 95.
Gillentine said there’s a neighbor who remembers Chandler. ‘He’s in his mid-70s now but he remembered him [Chandler] when he was a young kid. Everybody called him Uncle Joe.” He even grew grapes on the property.
‘I think a story is always good with a place like this and there’s a ton of history through this area,” said Gillentine, who added that Daniel Boone owned land adjoining Chandler Hill.
Gillentine wants to continue growing the wine, food and history story of Chandler Hill. The next project — apart from enlarging the huge deck – could be turning an old house on the property into a brewery-restaurant.
‘We’ve got to do something with that house and I think it would be great for a little restaurant-beer garden,” he said.
This article was sponsored by Chandler Hill Vineyards in Defiance, Missouri.