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By Joann Pipkin

In the shadows of the big city lights and jet-set madness, the rolling hills of northwest Missouri lead us to the northland.

Gerke's own Jowler Creek Winery & Vineyard, FCS Financial customersThe hum of Interstate 29 fades. Tucked away in a quiet, forested opening off the back roads between Platte City and Weston, a little taste of wine country makes its home. As Jowler Creek trickles in the distance, its namesake earns its keep as Missouri’s first green winery.

Here, Jowler Creek Vineyard and Winery corners the market on sustainable agriculture while owners Jason and Colleen Gerke pour customers a fun-filled experience right in their own backyard.

Meager Beginnings

True entrepreneurs, the Gerkes didn’t set out to own a vineyard and winery. Both former corporate wage earners, the two are bonded by their love of agriculture and communications — though they come from very different backgrounds.

A traditional Missouri farm boy, Jason was raised in the land of crops and cows in central Missouri near Windsor while Colleen hails from the central coast of California near Santa Maria where the produce and wine industries reign.

After meeting through their involvement in the American Agriculture Editors Association while in college, the two were married and settled into their careers in Kansas City — Colleen at John Deere, Jason at Drovers magazine and later Dairy Farmers of America.

jowler-creek-vineyard and wineryThe couple traveled to the Weston area on the weekends, visiting the area’s shops and wineries and fell in love with its ambiance. Ready for some elbowroom, in 2003 the Gerkes purchased their home in the Platte County countryside.

“We moved in, and as we’re driving up that driveway Colleen’s like, ‘You know, it’d be kind of cool if we planted some grapes,’” Jason explained. “It would be kind of a fun landscape project and would remind her of home. By the spring of 2004, we had ordered 250 vines.”

Their initial planting, they thought, would be enough to break a sweat and not break the bank if the crop didn’t pan out.

“At that time, it was just going to be a hobby, something to do, kind of our therapy at the end of the day from our corporate jobs,” he said. “But since then, that little hobby got out of control.”

Research told them along the driveway of their property was actually the worst place to plant grapes, so they turned their sights to the top of the hill.

“We got bit by it that first year,” Colleen said. “We had so much fun out there so I think the next year we ordered 500 more.”

The couple has continued to add to their little hobby, and currently has a seven-acre vineyard.

Initially, they intended to sell their grapes to another winery in the area. But during her stint at John Deere, Colleen developed a business plan while finishing up her master’s degree in business administration. After running the numbers, the duo found they could make more money by crafting and bottling their own wine.

After making some modifications to their home to meet state regulations, the Gerkes were able to turn their basement into a bonded winery.

In the beginning wine was wholesaled to stores in Kansas City, and the couple often spent their corporate lunch hours making deliveries. Eventually, customers started knocking on their door to taste the fruits of their labor.

“We moved the patio bar from our back deck into the basement, put up some wine racks and on weekends people would come into our basement and taste the wine,” Colleen recalled.

With their hobby-turned business growing and needing more space, and Colleen pregnant with their second child, she left John Deere in 2009 as part of a corporate buy out package and turned her attention to the fledgling winery full time. In the spring of 2010, the Gerkes broke ground on what would become Jowler Creek Winery.

Soon after, Jason and Colleen realized they needed more space — especially when the weather couldn’t accommodate guests outside.

“They don’t just come to the tasting bar and leave; they love to experience it,” Jason said.

The couple rented space in the caves under Park University in Kansas City for storage. This freed up space at the winery to hold more events for customers. In 2012, Jason was able to leave his job and work in the winery full time beside Colleen.

Jowler Creek WineThe Gerkes seized the opportunity to maximize equipment use in 2014 by renting a building in nearby Weston that would serve as a second winery and tasting room. Warehouse space was added to their home location in 2015.

“Weston Wine Company allows us to make eight different wines, use our equipment to be more efficient and grow our sales,” Jason explained. “Now, we have two outlets for our wine, two different brands and diversification.”

At Jowler Creek, marketing is centered on the environment and has an earthy tone. In Weston, the Gerke’s brand targets women with a fun, fiesta and Mardi Gras feel.

Building a Brand

With only infant knowledge of the wine industry, the Gerkes had much to learn in their quest to create a successful vineyard and winery.

“I took one wine-making class in college,” Colleen explained. “I never thought I’d use it.”

Yet, the Gerkes were eager to learn and combined their savvy communications and marketing skills with a lot of sweat and desire to make a go of their newfound business.

“We’ve worked hard to learn and catch up on the production side (of the business) and learn everything we can about growing quality grapes and making quality wine,” Jason said. “Communications and marketing has really helped us be successful to this point. People have to know you’re here before they’ll come and become a customer. We can utilize those tools — social media, marketing, advertising, communications.”

The fruits of their labor have provided. The Gerkes now employ a young woman skilled in enology and viticulture in addition to several part-time workers and volunteers who assist on weekends with events and wine tasting.

“Up until last fall, we were the wine makers, we were the viticulture, we were the vineyard managers,” Jason explained. “We managed all that and did the labor.”
The addition has brought both expertise and energy to their operation.

Today’s operation includes grapes grown in the Gerke’s vineyard as well as those purchased from other growers. In a season, the winery will produce more than 43,000 bottles of wine.

Through creative marketing techniques the Gerkes involve customers in various vineyard wine making activities.

“The hardest part is done in the fall; that’s all done by volunteer labor,” Colleen explained. “Customers will pick from eight until noon. Then, we’ll do a big lunch and hang out afterwards. Then after everybody goes home, we’ll start crushing the grapes.”

The activity is actually one borrowed from another vineyard that mentored the Gerkes early on in their business. “We always joke it’s our Tom Sawyer method of harvesting,” Jason said. “Convince everybody how much fun it is to come and work in the vineyard like he whitewashed the fence, you know.”

The Gerkes make the event a social gathering, with couples turning out to work together. Conversations run rampant while customers grab clusters, snip and drop grapes in a box.

“It’s not hard physical labor, and people spend the morning, enjoy the outdoors, enjoy the countryside,” Jason said. “I feel grateful for their work, and we couldn’t do it without them.”

Going Green

With limited knowledge of grape production going into their venture, pest management became a huge learning curve for the Gerkes, Jason said.

“There’s a reason why a lot of people don’t grow them,” Colleen said. From insect pests to mold and mildew, managing the production side of the equation is a different ballgame compared to that in California where she was raised.

Still, the Gerkes plowed through the barrier and have cornered the market on sustainability in their own little piece of Missouri agriculture.

From solar energy production to composting to eco-based integrated pest management to recycling, the Gerkes are proud of their designation as Missouri’s first green winery.

“We need to be economically sustainable,” Jason explained. “From a social perspective, we want to make sure that we’re good neighbors and use sound practices to support our community. We really try to be sustainable in all our practices.”

Both conventional and new technologies are key elements in the Gerke’s quest to “go green.”

One of the first eco-friendly additions to the operation was sheep. With erosion problems surfacing, Colleen discovered that a number of vineyards in Europe and California use sheep to control vegetation.

She analyzed their costs for spray, labor and fuel and discovered how sheep could be a cost effective alternative to weed control.

Sheep in vineyard“We use the sheep to take care of the weeds and grass under half of our vineyard because we’re able to put our vines on a six foot trellis,” Jason said. “The sheep can’t reach the fruit, but they can take care of the grass. We don’t have to mow, we don’t have to buy diesel, we don’t have to spray herbicide to kill the weeds under the vines so there’s an ecological advantage to that.”

Chickens have also been added to the operation to help control pests. Eggs are marketed through the winery’s tasting room. A charging station for electric vehicles also complements the vineyard.

“It’s what makes us different than our neighbor,” Jason said.

It’s a marketing technique that is helping win over customers, too. “If they forget the name Jowler Creek, you say, ‘You know, the place with the sheep,’ and it’s ‘oh, yeah, yeah, I’ve been there,’” Jason said.

Leaning on Each Other

As longtime members of the agriculture and agri-business communities in Missouri, the Gerkes were already familiar with FCS Financial. So when it came time to expand their operation, turning to FCS Financial seemed only natural.

“We not only expanded the production facility, but also added a little bit more land so that we had more of a buffer, more room on the outside of our vineyard,” Jason explained.

In an area with a huge urban influence, quick action was paramount on the purchase of a neighboring parcel of land. The Gerkes are grateful for FCS Financial’s approval and swift turn-around time.

“How often does a piece of land go for sale right next door to you, especially when it’s something that could help you get exactly what you want without having to buy the whole property,” Colleen explained.

FCS Financial’s Clint Callow added, “I always tease everybody, there’s not a farmer around here that doesn’t have a subdivision on their farm. That’s pretty accurate. The market does move pretty fast. If it’s the right property, it moves very quickly.”

The relationship between the Gerkes and FCS Financial has been a positive experience, according to both parties.

For the Gerkes, a simple loan process was like icing on the cake. “I liked having one contact that we could talk to and get back with us,” Colleen said. “Clint got back to us super fast, and it wasn’t massive amounts of paperwork.”

“We’re looking at trying to figure out how to get into niche markets just like they are,” Callow explained. “It comes into play with our local service. We try to do everything as local as we can. We’re not originating a loan in some other office, some other mortgage company. Everything they get to do is with us. And, if they can’t come to us, we’ll come to them.”

Networking Creates Opportunity

An eagerness to learn combined with keen business and communications skills has served the Gerkes well in building a successful vineyard and winery.

Still, they know networking with others in the industry is key to their longevity.

As active members of the Missouri Grape Growers and various vintners associations the couple has developed a noteworthy resume and identify with key mentors in the industry.

“It’s so different than California,” Colleen said. “It’s like you’re on (the boards) with your competitors but they take you under their wings and help you as much as they can. It’s more like a family, close-knit organization.”

The couple is also active with the Northwest Missouri Wine Trail, cooperating with other area wineries to bring customers to their geographic region.

“We have seen that if we can work together instead of us all doing our own thing, it will bring more people to the region,” Jason said.

The making of good wine begins with harmonious ripening of the fruit while still on the vine. Balancing acidity and sweetness only adds to the recipe.

While the recipe for a successful agricultural business might also begin out in the field, balancing the fruits of one’s labors with suave marketing and consumer-minded needs go the extra mile toward the steadfastness.

And, the Gerkes are bottling that up for customers — one glass at a time.

“We have a lot of educational opportunities,” Jason said. “Through the years, not only were we marketing stuff that helped us with our branding, but we also always had the approach of education. We were willing to present and share information about growing.”

Whether through blending parties, harvest gatherings or self-guided sustainable agriculture tours, the Gerkes are helping customers connect the dots from the field to the flavor in every glass of wine they pour.

“We’re not afraid to try,” Colleen said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Well, there’s a reason no other wineries do that.’ And, there might be a reason they aren’t doing it. But, let’s see if it works. If it doesn’t, we won’t do it again. But, you don’t know until you try.”

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