“One of the enduring myths of wine appreciation is the idea that price is the greatest measure of quality. I can say with utter confidence that you don't always get what you pay for — sometimes you get more! -- Robert Whitley, publisher Wine Review Online
The Cooper's Oak Winery takes pride in family heritage
Like most wine drinkers, Dan and I enjoy finding great wines at affordable prices. The time we brushed the dust off a 15-year-old Barolo and discovered a $20 sticker comes to mind. That remarkable “white whale” is probably a once-in-a-lifetime find, but we never know what’s waiting around the corner. We turned that corner recently when tasting some pretty impressive wines from The Cooper’s Oak Winery in Higbee, Missouri.
The winery is relatively new on the Missouri wine scene. What makes it unique is the adjacent barrel-making shop, A & K Cooperage, where master cooper Dale Kirby has been handcrafting American and French oak wine barrels for 42 years. His son Matt, also a master cooper, decided it was time for the family to fill a few barrels with their own wine (see Dan's feature on the cooperage in Kindred Spirits). As a hobbyist winemaker, he began purchasing local grapes, along with varieties from prominent California wine regions, for several years before opening the winery in 2006. His cousin Charlie Hargis said, “If you can make it, I can sell it,” and soon joined the family venture as sales manager. Most of the local grapes are provided by nearby Cedar Lane Vineyard, a small family operation owned by James and Charla Fashing. “We focus more on quality than production so the winemakers we partner with can make the best wines,” he said.
Our first experience with the Cooper’s Oak was during a Missouri River Wine Trail weekend which featured five wineries in the Rocheport area. Cooper's Oak is a bit off the trail, so Charlie offered a tasting at the Rocheport General Store. It was the last stop on the tour. His featured pour was a memorable red, St. Vincent – one of the best wines we’d had that day. After the tour, Charlie shared his growing passion for wine, especially blends. He uncorked a bottle of Toasted Oak, a smooth Cabernet/Merlot blend with a hearty core of dark cherry and light overtones of smoky oak. “I like the finish of a Merlot, but the start and mid-mouth of a Cabernet, so this is one of my favorites. It’s our best selling dry wine and it’s great for aging,” he said.
We also tasted the Triple Oak Bliss, Charlie’s “signature blend” of Missouri’s noble Norton with California’s Merlot and Cabernet. We discovered tantalizing hints of blackcurrant mixed with vibrant plum and spice on a bold frame – a blissful wine from the initial whiff to the final sip. Charlie’s appreciation for wine is only exceeded by his penchant for mastering blends. “As a kid, I ate rainbow snow cones, and I’ve always liked Neapolitan ice cream,” he said with a smile. So the creative manipulation of wine blends comes naturally, and he thrives on the challenge. “Blending three good wines can make an excellent wine if you can maintain a perfect balance. Each variety contributes its unique flavors and characteristics,” he said. He draws on the strengths of each to create the Triple Oak Bliss. Although Dan and I aren’t wine experts, we consider ourselves to be learned amateurs. We know a grand wine when it dances on the palate. And these blends danced!
While Charlie is a blended wine aficionado, Matt champions for the varietals, preferring the intensity reflected in the inherent characteristics of each grape. With a cooperage on site they can experiment with various degrees of barrel toasts, so the potential for premium wines, whether blended or varietal, is endless!
A few months after learning about the winery and cooperage, we took a ride to Higbee to see the operation, from timber to barrel and vine to bottle. The Cooper’s Oak Winery is tucked in gently rolling hills at the edge of town. A small vineyard and patio grace the entrance, and beyond is a spacious tasting room. Charlie met us at the tasting bar for an afternoon of swirling, sniffing, and sipping wine, followed by a few days at the cooperage.
We started with a generous pour of an earthy Chamborcin paired with aged Cheddar. Next up, a hardy Cabernet, with big notes of blackberry and a hint of oak, followed by one of the most expressive Merlots we’ve had. He paired them with beef from a local farm where cattle graze in pastures along the Chariton River. “We don’t have much of a view here, just bold red wines and good customer service,” Charlie expressed with pride. Given the choice, we’ll take the robust complexity of their bold reds and the winery’s genuine country hospitality. Charlie also appreciates the bold reds but confesses to being a “sweet drinker” for 30 days. “Then a Norton paired with Cajun surf and turf changed my life,” he said.
However, sweet wines tend to be favored in Missouri, according to Charlie, so he wanted us to sample a few offerings, including their best seller, My Sweet Dear. It was surprisingly pleasant for a sweet wine. Our next pour was a Vidal Iceberg Ice Wine produced from grapes grown in the Niagara area and aged in French oak barrels. This intensely sweet wine was amazing when paired with strawberry cheesecake! For an encore, we were treated to Sugar Oak, a limited-edition Norton port that sings its fruit to life when drizzled over ice cream.
The afternoon was winding down when Charlie handed us a glass of Toasted Oak and said, “Follow me.” He led us down a flight of wooden steps into the wine cellar where the historic Higbee jail is built into the storage area. For Dan, the musty aroma brought back memories of his grandpa’s basement where dusty bottles were tucked into the cobwebs of his youth; tears stood in his eyes. Charlie dipped the “wine thief,” a gadget used to draw samples, into a fermented barrel. “Now taste the wine in your glass, and then taste this,” he said releasing the toasted-oak aged wine into another glass. Dan and I have shared the pleasure of more than a thousand new wines, but this was the first time we tasted the same wine at different stages of maturity – an awakening that further enhanced our appreciation for the winemaking process.
When the winery opened, Matt showcased five wines, including a white and red named for his wife Michelle. Since then, he’s planted two vineyards, one at the winery and another one north of town. Today, he offers 15 varieties, including reds, whites and dessert wines. This year’s production is expected to hit 18,000 bottles. “It’s been a learning process and a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too,” he said.
Matt is committed to creating superior wines at affordable prices and building a business that will continue to flourish for future generations. Like Robert Whitley said, “You don’t always get what you pay for – sometimes you get more!”
If you go
The Cooper’s Oak Winery is located in Higbee, Missouri at 96-A West Jones Street. Hours: Saturday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check out www.coopersoakwinery.com for a calendar of events. For a tour of the cooperage, call (660) 456-7507.
Where to Dine
For a taste of local flavor, head to Emmet’s Kitchen & Tap in nearby Fayette which features modern American cuisine. Chef/Owner Rob Schluckebier applauds the latest trend – simplicity in the kitchen with a focus on fresh, local/seasonal produce – “things you can reach out and touch,” he said. Rob’s philosophy is to “let Mother Nature do the work. She’s the first chef.” He believes the simplicity inherent to contemporary cuisine lets each dish speak for itself – but it takes patience, imagination and passion to bring out the voice.
After a day at the winery, Dan and I met The Cooper’s Oak folks and James Fashing from Cedar Lane Vineyard at Emmet’s for dinner. It was a delightful celebration of flavor. We started with two appetizers – a lightly coated Bayou Shrimp with honey-jalapeño dipping sauce and a spicy Angry Shrimp laced with sweetness from caramelized garlic and Vidalia onions. For the entrée, Charlie suggested the highly acclaimed Beef Tenderloin Tails, poised over potato mashers and topped with onion rings. Everyone, except me, ordered this tempting dish. I couldn’t resisted the Pan-Seared Tilapia, one of Rob’s signature dishes which came beautifully composed with grilled asparagus and drizzled with lemon/caper butter sauce. Rob offers an extensive menu as well as an impressive wine list. Keeping with the spirit of “local,” our meal was complimented with The Cooper’s Oak Toasted Oak, a hearty Cabernet/Merlot blend which also speaks well for itself!
Rob has been a professional cook for 20 years, but he’s uncomfortable calling himself a “chef.” He says, “I leave that up to other people. It’s a respect thing. It’s not that I don’t respect myself, but the term is often used too loosely. You can go to culinary school but, like any craftsman, it takes years of experience to be a chef. You have to live the life and have a passion for the industry. That’s what gives you drive and keeps you inspired.”
Food has inspired Rob since childhood. He was born and raised in Missouri’s rolling hills, and some of the meals his mother and grandmother prepared influence his cooking today, especially the BBQ ribs and steaks. “We get high-grade beef from farmers who put a lot into it. All we have to do is give the steaks a little rub down with spices, cook them properly and let them go. Spices should compliment, not overpower,” he stressed. Rob is well known for his Creole and Cajun dishes which are full of depth and flavor but not laden with hot peppers. “If it’s hot, you don’t know what you’re eating,” he said.
Rob’s menu reflects his footsteps over the last 20 years, including time spent in Chicago, Pensacola (Florida) and New Orleans restaurants. He returned to his roots to open Emmet’s eight years ago. “I probably could have made a ton of money other places, but I wanted to give my family the same quality of life I had while growing up. That’s something that money can’t buy. We’re fortunate to have The Cooper’s Oak Winery nearby. They grew up around wine like I grew up around food. We both draw from our experience,” he said.