Order in the Vineyard

Sit with Dennis Reynolds in his Leawood home on a balmy, late summer morning and listen to him extol the virtues of growing grapes, barrel aging and fermentation and it’s easy to forget you’re talking with a man who traded in his courtroom duds to establish one of Kansas’s most successful up-and-coming wineries.

Sipping espresso from a green demitasse cup emblazoned with the word “dad” that his daughter Holly made, Reynolds discusses the bold career transition he began when he and his wife Cindy, president of Guy’s Snack Corporation, planted a vineyard in Miami County in the late 1990s. A former trial attorney who established a successful Overland Park litigation practice with partners in 1986, Reynolds now calls himself an artisan winemaker. 

The Reynolds have 45 acres–located 25 minutes from Johnson County and one-quarter mile from the township of Somerset, Kan.–17 of which have 8,000 grape vines producing fruit for their boutique winery known as Somerset Ridge Vineyard and Winery. The postage-stamp size chunk of land is well-suited for prolific grape growing, not unlike the jewel-box vineyards found in California and regions of Europe that produce millions of bottles of wine each year.

“With the efficient use of our relatively small acreage we’re able to produce a lot of wine,” says Reynolds. Instead of donning a suit and packing a briefcase for a day in court, Reynolds dresses in jeans and Polo shirts with the Somerset Ridge logo and commutes to the vineyard and winery for a day spent nurturing grapevines, greeting customers and overseeing the fermentation of the full range of wines the operation sells.

“This suits my personality well,” says Reynolds. “It’s nice to create a product from the beginning to its end. I enjoy every part of the process.”

Somerset Ridge was licensed in 2001 and now produces more than 5,000 cases of award-winning, handcrafted wine annually, including European-style reds, an off-dry German-style white, a traditional port and a late-harvest white dessert wine. Situated in a pastoral setting on the far western edge of the Ozark shelf with softly rolling hills that gather mist in the early morning and are dappled with sunlight in the afternoon and a topography perfectly suited to growing grapes in the Kansas climate, Somerset Ridge is a dream he and Cindy started entertaining in the 1980s.

“We married in 1983 and mutually enjoyed discovering wine in our travels to Napa, Sonoma and Europe,” says Reynolds. 

The couple began researching Missouri and Kansas’ winemaking history and was surprised to learn that this area was the country’s largest wine-producing region during the late 1800s, prior to prohibition. Reynolds points out the irony that the art of winemaking is today burgeoning into a serious industry in a state that so vehemently opposed fermented beverages during a tumultuous time in history.

“Kansas was the first state to write into its constitution a prohibition on alcohol,” says Reynolds.

It was during Reynolds’s 40th birthday sojourn–a gift from Cindy–to California’s verdant wine country in June 1996 that he experienced his career-altering epiphany. Reynolds describes climbing onto a hilltop at one of his favorite wineries and gazing over the serene setting.

“Cindy and I already had wine in our blood,” says Reynolds. “That day convinced me that I needed to get into the business somehow.” 

Today the couple is involved in helping put the region on the map as a serious wine-producing area. Reynolds is chairman of the Kansas Grape and Wine Advisory Council, a group that meets four times a year with the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, the Kansas Department of Commerce and other interested stakeholders to set policy and address concerns.

“Because of the council’s efforts, changes have been made to legislation that allows Kansas wineries to ship to other states and within the state,” says Reynolds.

Indeed, Somerset Ridge ships cases across the country, with the largest mail-order contingent being wine-hungry Californians.

“People in California are extremely curious and open to wines produced outside their state,” says Reynolds. “I think it’s due to the fact that the industry is so prominent there. They’re used to exploring.”

Cindy says there’s a whole subculture built around people traveling from winery to winery throughout the U.S.

“We get visitors from every corner of the country and internationally,” she says. “I discovered you can easily fit a case of wine in a Harley-Davidson’s saddlebags.”

Reynolds acknowledges that Kansas Citians are sophisticated when it comes to wines and says Somerset Ridge’s philosophy is not only to provide wines for sale on-site, but to make it convenient for consumers to purchase in retail stores (the product is available in excess of 70 stores currently) and sip glasses in selected independent restaurants throughout the metropolitan area such as Jasper’s, Taste, Bluebird Bistro and Pizza Fusion. Thomas Goerdel, general manager and sommelier at JP Winebar in Leawood, features Somerset Ridge wines and believes the operation’s reserve wines are competitive nationwide. 

“Somerset Ridge is breaking barriers for the Midwest, especially with their limited-release Cabernet Franc,” says Goerdel. “Their attention to the art of winemaking is impressive.”

Somerset Ridge is a family affair with Cindy, Blue Valley North sophomore Holly and son Alex, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, pitching in during harvest, directing traffic on busy weekends and lending a hand on the veranda and in other areas of the winery. In addition, Cindy, who Reynolds defines as a “marketing whiz,” collaborates with her husband on the branding, distribution and business strategy for Somerset Ridge.

Reynolds says Somerset Ridge’s business has actually expanded during the recent compromised economy, with the winery’s $10 to $18 price point being a good bargain for savvy wine connoisseurs.

The most recent Aha! moment Reynolds experienced was the absolute importance of loving the process of winemaking.

“If you focus on growing good grapes like we do, it’s amazingly easy to make great wine,” says Reynolds. 

words: Kimberly Stern 

photos: Gary Rohman