At Montelle Winery just outside of Augusta, owner Tony Kooyumjian walked along the expansive wooden deck overlooking Highway 94 and the Missouri River bottomland, recalling how the property looked when he and his wife, Cindy, purchased it nearly 20 years ago.
“There were no decks. All there was was a little seating area, and it was like you were walking into a forest because there were trees all around,” said Kooyumjian.
“That point was significant,” he said, motioning to one area, “because that was the one place where you had a view out to Highway 94, but it was just a small tiny opening.”
The Kooyumjians have done much to expand Montelle — adding the deck, clearing trees to increase the view, building a larger tasting room, hiring in a chef, planning events like sunset dinners on the deck during warm-weather months and pop-up dinners in the circa 1928 stone house in the colder months.
Now they are in the process of converting two rooms that had been used for storage and production into an event center for indoor gatherings of up to 100 people with access to an outside patio.
Kooyumjian said he expects the space to be ready for events as early as this fall.
“My wildest hope is we will be open in June, with everything, but by September, October, November, we will be ready for sure,” he said, noting the features will include a large fireplace and one wall that opens completely to the outside.
“We are up on a little point of a ridge 500 feet above the river. We have beautiful views no matter which way you look. We’ll have an outdoor deck, so people can move in to out if they want,” said Kooyumjian.
Montelle Winery has been a venue for weddings before, but with limited protection from rain or chilly temperatures. This new space also will open the possibilities for events including retirement or Christmas parties, said Kooyumjian.
The project is the result of being able to move some things around after building a new warehouse the Kooyumjians built at their other winery, Augusta Winery.
The Kooyumjians are owners of Augusta Wine Company, which consists of Augusta and Montelle wineries.
Grew Up Around California Vineyards
Tony Kooyumjian grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California. His grandmother, who immigrated to America from Armenia in 1915, had vineyards there close to Fresno.
But having grown up around vineyards, Kooyumjian wanted nothing to do with the business.
“My ambition was to get into aviation. So I went to school and studied to be an airline pilot,” he said.
In 1976, he went to work for Ozark Airlines (which brought him to Missouri) and later TWA and American Airlines. While flying for TWA, Kooyumjian was assigned to international routes, flying out of New York to Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“That exposure to Western Europe gave me a new outlook on wine,” he said. “In Fresno, the central valley, it was primarily inexpensive, jug wines, lower quality wines. That was my exposure.”
Drinking the wines of Western Europe suddenly awakened Kooyumjian’s interest in the art of growing grapes and cultivating a vineyard.
“What I saw was when you go to these small villages in Western Europe, the wine in each village tastes a little different. The difference in the soils, in the climate, that intrigued me,” said Kooyumjian.
At the same time, the state of Missouri was encouraging people to plant grapes and open up more wineries.
“They were offering support in the way of education,” Kooyumjian said. “They would have a course going on, bring in experts, as part of economic development, through the department of agriculture. They wanted to expand agriculture in Missouri, to develop a crop that could be grown on upland, rolling farmlands that were subject to erosion. Grapevines help with that. All our vineyards are on rolling hills, moderate slopes.”
Kooyumjian took all the courses that were offered and began reading as much as possible. Although he’d grow up around vineyards, the environment in Missouri was vastly different from California, where there were no severe winters, no summer rains and entirely different varieties of grapes grown.
“And my family never made wine. They only grew the grapes,” said Kooyumjian.
He took short, one-week courses in California at the universities in Davis and Fresno.
“My degree was in science anyway, so a lot of this came easy to me,” said Kooyumjian, noting his degree was in engineering but he had taken classes in chemistry too.
Winery of the Little Hills
By 1980, the Kooyumjians were ready to open their first winery, the Winery of the Little Hills in St. Charles.
“I loved flying airplanes, loved that industry, but things were changing, with hijackings and everything. And (flying) didn’t have any creativity,” he said. “Airline flying is a very strict environment. There isn’t any room for singular thinking or creativity. So I figured starting this winery would satisfy that need.”
The Kooyumjians made the move to Augusta in 1988 because they wanted to grow the grapes used in their wine themselves. Up to that point, they had been purchasing grapes grown in Augusta and shipping them to St. Charles.
“I was looking for the perfect place to grow grapes, and it took awhile, but I finally did find it. That started as a 100-acre farm. We now own 500 acres across several farms, all right here in Augusta,” said Kooyumjian, who pointed out that all of the properties are connecting.
In 1988, the lot at 5601 High St. in Augusta where they would build Augusta Winery was vacant. The new business grew quickly.
“We were getting into wholesale distribution, more and more people were buying our wines,” said Kooyumjian.
Then in 1998, the owners of Montelle Winery approached the Kooyumjians about purchasing Montelle, and the Kooyumjians viewed it as an opportunity for even more growth.
“When I bought the place, there were a lot of customers coming, but it was primarily in October. I bought it in October 1998, and it was a good October/November season, so I used those profits to make improvements, and it was those improvements that started bringing more and more people out and throughout most of the year,” he said.
Those improvements included expanding the tasting room and sales room, adding the deck to provide much more outdoor seating, clearing the trees to expand the view, paving the parking lot and the road up to the winery, and adding a greater food selection.
“The thing I felt was lacking at most Missouri wineries was the food,” said Kooyumjian. “It had been cheese, crackers, sausage, but that was it. Food and wine is a natural pairing, and we want to educate people about enjoying wine with food, so I built a restaurant, hired a chef and cooks, and we started producing lunches. Light fare, but good quality food and it was all fresh.”
Sunset Dinners, More
The restaurant has evolved to offer sunset dinners held on the deck from May to October and also pop-up dinners held in the circa 1928 stone house during colder months.
The sunset dinners have become so popular that reservations are now required. They provide the feel of eating at a gourmet restaurant but outdoors with crisp linens, china and waiter service, said Kooyumjian.
John Richardson is the executive chef at Montelle Winery. It was his idea to add the pop-up dinners during the winter months, said Kooyumjian. Held in the stone house that is original to the property, these dinners only have seating for around 22 people.
With the fireplace and the stone, it’s a very cozy atmosphere, Kooyumjian said.
The hiring of Richardson was the start of a “culinary revolution,” of sorts, meaning Montelle is remaking, not just its menu, but its approach to the food it provides.
“We are trying to modernize it and get local, fresh food from right around here, local fruits and vegetables, keep everything as local as possible,” said Richardson.
Two Wineries, Two Approaches to Making Wine
Currently the Augusta Wine Company, which includes Augusta Winery and Montelle Winery, produces a little more than 40,000 cases per year (one case includes 12 bottles).
That amount is divided somewhat evenly between the two wineries, although Montelle probably sells a little more than Augusta, said Kooyumjian.
The wines are not merely the same wine sold under different labels, but completely different wine made from grapes grown on different vineyards and produced in different methods.
“The thing about grapes is they take on the flavors of the earth, from the ground, from the environment, from the temperature, the rainfall, all this,” said Kooyumjian.
That means the same variety of grapes grown on different farms — even neighboring farms — can have a different taste.
“That 500 acres (that Augsta Wine Company owns) includes seven different farms, so when we put in a vineyard, we have several different places where Norton is grown . . . and so we’ll take grapes from one vineyard and use that for Augusta and take grapes from another farm and use those for Montelle,” Kooyumjian explained.
The differences in the soil and rainfall, etc., leads to a slightly different taste and flavor. But they also use different styles to produce the wine for the different wineries.
“At Montelle, the styles are more modern, more new world, more fruit forward,” said Kooyumjian. “It’s the style of winemaking that we use, the type of oak barrels, the length of time in the barrels . . . Augusta is more traditional, more Old-World style.
“What I wanted to do was produce wine that reflected the flavor of this area. So that’s why we’ve been buying farm after farm after farm, and why we’ve been expanding our planting,” he said.
Augusta Wine Company is a family-owned and -operated business. The Kooyumjians have five children and all of them have worked in the business at one point or anther.
Winemaker Tony and Connie Kooyumjian currently are joined in the business by their son, Tom.
Both Augusta and Montelle wineries are open year-round, and even though it’s cold outside this time of year, Montelle has customers coming in to eat at its restaurant.
“On Saturdays and Sundays, in January and February, the stone house is always full,” said Kooyumjian.
Looking ahead to the future of the business, Kooyumjian said the family has two visions.
“One, to be completely estate bottled, meaning all the grapes that go into our wines are grown either on our vineyards or vineyards in Augusta that we collaborate with,” he said. “Right now we are 90 percent Augusta grapes and 10 percent Missouri grapes. So we want to get it to 100 percent Augusta.
“And two, we want to expand our production to 50,000 cases and cap it. We feel at that volume, the family can run the business. We want to keep it so that we can control everything, the winemaking, the grape growing, we don’t have to turn it over to a general manager who is going to make decisions.
“To us, the quality of the wine is extremely important and customer service is even more important,” said Kooyumjian. “So when you come here on a weekend, Cindy and I will be here making sure that promise is kept.”