Raising a glass to retirement

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Whispering Oaks Vineyard and Winery is a product of owner Larry Green’s childhood spent alongside Italian winemakers.

SEYMOUR – It may be nestled on the western edge of Wright County, but Whispering Oaks Vineyard and Winery actually represents a little piece of Italy. Well, at least when it comes to wine. And that ties back to owner Larry Green’s early years spent living in the middle of an Italian community — but not one located in Europe.

“I graduated from high school with a girl whose father was the master winemaker for the community I lived in,” says Larry, who moved to the Seymour area with his wife Miriam in 1967. “They were Italian, and had immigrated from Italy back after World War I into Chicago and didn’t like city life. So they migrated over into Iowa where I was born and raised.”

That exposure offered Green an invaluable appreciation for wine — both about how to make it and how to be responsible with it. So when retirement approached, he turned to the beverage as a new way to keep active. “(I decided) to put in a small vineyard and make my own wine,” says Larry, who had already experimented with making it from blackberries.

From there, one thing led to another and Whispering Oaks was officially born in 2004. Today, the operation looks different today than it did back then. To begin with, it’s a much larger family affair. Early on, the couple’s son, Nathan Green, quit his job and began working at the winery full time. He still works there today, as does his wife, Amy, who does all of the winery’s social media and marketing.

Whispering Oak's building is located next to part of the vineyard, and fronts U.S. 60.
Whispering Oak’s building is located next to part of the vineyard, and fronts U.S. 60.

In order to increase their exposure — and keep from making people travel on dirt roads to their farm — the family bought property fronting U.S. 60 and built a dedicated building for the cause. They also drastically upped grape production. “Instead of picking them by the bucketful, we were bringing them in by the ton,” says Larry, who notes that the winery’s best year came in at a whopping 28 ton. Some of those grapes are exported to other wineries, which have made their way all the way to Oklahoma and up near St. Louis.

Challenges in the business 

While developing different types of wine involves a lot of five-gallon, trial-and-error batches, there are a few fundamental guidelines the Greens stick to with their wine. Rule one: you should always be able to taste the grape the wine is made from.

“That’s just always been my belief, and I got that from the Italians that I knew and learned from,” says Larry, who doesn’t like traditional additives — such as oak tannin — distorting the flavor of his wine. “I taste a wine and if I can’t taste the flavor of the grape, to me, it’s just not a very good wine. You should be able to tell the different flavors.”

Like a good bread, those flavors begin with yeast. “Different yeast will bring out different things in the wine,” says Larry, noting that alcohol is created by the yeast eating the sugar out of the grapes. Because of this, it’s crucial to harvest when the sugar level is desirable. “Before we harvest them, we test the grapes to see how high the sugar level is,” says Larry. Those levels dictate when harvest should occur — which at Whispering Oaks, can be a time-consuming process. “All our grapes are hand-picked,” says Larry.

WO 2

White and red wines are made differently; white grapes are pressed soon after harvest and the skins are discarded.

What’s your type (of wine)?

According to Larry, different types of wine carry a distinctly different production process. “White wines are usually made by pressing the juice out of the grape immediately after harvest,” says Larry, noting that the grape skins are removed to keep the taste from becoming too strong. “The sooner after harvest the better because then you don’t get those stronger flavors into it.”

His thinking, however, is different when it comes to red grapes. Instead of pressing the juice off, the whole mash is fermented together. “That way, the alcohol can get into the skins and seeds and whatever else is in there and get as much flavor out as possible,” he says. The result is a heavier wine with a more robust flavor.

While there’s work to be done all year long, there is a very intense two or three-week period where time is of the essence. Many of the grapes ripen at nearly the same time, and all must be quickly picked and fermented before they go bad. But by the end of September, most of the  work is done. “We have an October harvest festival, because by the first Saturday of October we should be done with all that,” says Larry.

Connecting with customers 

Larry Green poses with just a few of his wine barrels.

While things have become increasingly relaxed since they relocated to Southwest Missouri, the Greens still feel the conservatism of the area. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have customers. “There are people hidden out in these hills that are very liberal, and you just don’t know about them because they don’t open their mouths,” Larry says. “They’re afraid to.”

But while they do have a local customer base, other visitors — many hailing internationally — have also made their way to the winery. “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house draws in a lot of people,” says Miriam Green, mentioning visitors from China, Denmark and Georgia — the country, not the state.

While the couple says they love meeting such visitors, there are other benefits to owning the winery. One — drinking the wine — could be considered obvious, given their business. Another benefit, however, comes in near the top of the list. “The best part is probably I haven’t set on my rear end and gotten old,” says Larry Green. “I’m 78 years old, (but) it keeps us moving, it keeps us active, it gives us a purpose.

Want to visit?

Visitors are welcome to visit and sample wine at Whispering Oaks Winery (520 Lucky Rd., Seymour) Thursday through Monday from 12 to 6 p.m. Wine can also be purchased at Farmers Market of the Ozark on select Saturdays, at Homegrown Foods in Springfield and at Mugs Coffee Company in Willow Springs. For more information, call (417) 935-4103, connect via their website or find them on Facebook.