By Joe Stumpe
From the observation deck of Grace Hill Winery, Natalie and David Sollo can look out over 10 acres of rolling vineyard they call home. The gorgeous view represents a considerable investment of money and more than a decade of hard work.
“It’s pruning in the winter, trellising in the spring, spraying in the summer, then restoring and getting ready to plant new plants in the fall,” David said. “There’s always something going on in the vineyard.”
The payoff: this year, the Sollos harvested a vineyard-best 25 tons of grapes. With grapes they buy from other area growers, that’ll be enough to produce about 50,000 bottles of wine.
It’s quite an operation, especially since both Sollos have day jobs in Wichita: Natalie is a pediatrician and David an anesthesiologist.
Natalie, a Kansas native, and David, who’s from Colorado, met during their first week of school at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. They cultivated an appreciation for wine while completing their residencies in Cincinnati, then fell in with a group of fellow physicians and wine lovers after moving to Wichita in 1989, visiting wineries around the world. When their two sons reached college age, David innocently suggested the couple buy some land in the county.
“I didn’t tell her I was going to plant grapes until we bought the land,” David said. “She said, ‘I should have seen it coming.’ It’s one of the only times I hoodwinked her.”
The Sollos planted their first grapes in 2004 and opened to the public four years later. Today there are 14 varieties of grape grown here - Cabernet franc, Chambourcin and Norton being the most important for producing reds, and Chardonel, Seval Blanc and Vignoles for whites.
David spends more time in the field -”I like to tend the vineyard” - while Natalie handles the paperwork associated with producing an alcoholic beverage. Both participate in the all-important blending process, using their experienced their experienced palettes and that of friends. Their sons, Jeff and Brian, work there along with winemaker Michael McGuire and several part-time employees.
Grace Hill bottles mostly blends, the most poplar being Peckerhead Red and Dodging Tornadoes, both sweet reds, plus Leaning Shed and the White Barrel Reserve White, a dry red and white, respectively. The wines are widely available in area liquor stores, many featuring colorful labels by Wichita artist Janet Fisher.
The Sollos have also turned Grace Hill into a destination spot for the region, with a tasting room, gift shop and 2,000-square-foot event center that attracts thousands of visitors a year. On a Friday night in late September, 180 people paid to sample the winery’s fall release of a half dozen wines. The next morning, about 100 volunteers showed up to pick one of the year’s last harvest of grapes, being rewarded with lunch and wine in exchange.
“We get lot of people from Wichita,” David said of the volunteer pickers. “Airbus has a lot of people from Europe -- a lot of them will come out. We’ve had people from France, Spain, Italy, people from Kansas City, Lawrence, Oklahoma City. Even a few from California, which is fun.”
Now among a few dozen winemakers in the state, the Sollos credit Norm Jennings, former owner of Smokey Hill Winery in Salina, with valuable help getting started. The accumulation of better equipment and their own experience has allowed to improve their wines, David said.
Because of climate and soil conditions, Kansas winemakers’ biggest challenge is producing good dry wines. A sip of Leaning Shed shows that the Sollos have achieved that, although David said there’s still room for improvement.
“We’re a good regional winery, and we have to be to be able to compete on a global market,’ he said. “You go to the liquor store, there are wines from all over the world you’re competing with.”
“Our ultimate goal is to make really excellent dry wines from our own vineyard here in Kansas. We’re certainly making progress.”
Grace Hill Winery is located at 6310 S. Grace Hill Rd., about two miles west of Whitewater. For directions, hours and more information, visit gracehillwinery.com