The Kugler's wines took first, second and fourth place in the best of show category at the 10th Annual Amateur Wine Competition in Wichita.
After fleeing their native Czechoslovakia 18 years ago and building a new life in Lawrence, Tony and Kveta Kugler are bringing a little of the Old World back into their lives.
For the last five years, the couple have been cultivating a vineyard in their front yard, south of town. This is the second year their labors have yielded grapes fit to make wine. He remembers running and playing in family vineyards as a child.
"My aunts and uncles have had vineyards in Czechoslovakia for years," Tony said.
The couple fled the oppression of the communist country, leaving behind their engineering jobs, family and possessions. They came to Lawrence in March of 1982 on the recommendation of Czech friend who had defected.
After the Kuglers were profiled in the Journal-World a few weeks after their arrival, job offers came to them.
Tony works with electronic imaging at Allen Press and Kay (as Kveta introduces herself) is a senior programmer analyst at KU. Working their way up from a small, unfurnished apartment here, the Kuglers bought a large house on North 1100 Road six years ago.
"We had a few extra acres, so we thought we'd put in vines," Tony said. "We have two acres of grapes and 1,200 vines of five varieties."
Although he estimates the vineyard could produce as much as 4,000 bottles of wine a year, he makes much less than that. A family in Kansas can make only 200 gallons per year without a license to sell it.
The Kuglers make their wine as a hobby, not as a business. Their vineyard is one of the largest in the state. There are only 17 vineyards in Kansas with more than 100 vines.
Basehor resident Les Meyer has been growing wine grapes since he was a child. His commercial vineyard has been in operation for over ten years, and Kay says he has mentored them on Kansas winemaking.
"He gave us some ideas. He's kind of our role model," Kay said. "He does it smartly. He has volunteer wine-making enthusiasts come and pick his grapes."
Tony and Kay planted the first half of their vines in the spring of 1996. Just the two of them, working in their free time, sowed the field using hand-held hoes. They pruned the vines and maintained the field by hand.
"This is supposed to be a hobby," Tony said. "We have equipment now, like tractors. So in the long run, we won't have to use hoes anymore."
He said friends now come and help them pick the grapes at harvest time, but they are hoping to follow Myers' lead.
"Our strategy now is to have people pick their own and buy the grapes," Kay said.
With each year of harvesting and making wine, the Kuglers have learned a little more. Last year, when they began fermenting their grapes, they first thought the corks were too big for the bottles they had. The didn't realize their corking machine would compress the corks before stopping the bottles.
"We were those people, 'Oh, they sent us the wrong corks,'" Kay laughed. "In 1998, we had the first little harvest, we tried to make wine, and it wasn't very good."
They also had a problem stabilizing some of the wines. They didn't realize that potassium sorbate was necessary to stabilize the wine and end the fermentation. Kay said a few bottles blew the corks across the room while sitting in their kitchen.
Even though they were disappointed, the Kansas Grape-growing and Winemaking Assn.'s judges were not. In the annual amateur wine competition in Salina that year, the Kuglers' wines won two second places.
"We needed the feedback," Kay said. "We are still new. If each year is better than the last, then we are happy."
The two had plenty of reason to be happy. In this year's February 25 competition in Wichita, Kugler's Vineyard wines nearly swept the contest.
They won two first-place blue ribbons, as well as beating out 60 other wines to come in first, second and fourth in the best of show category.
Unlike Tony's winemaking family, the Kuglers try to use the most up-to-date methods for their amateur winery.
"We are more into the modern winemaking, but Mother Nature takes care of everything," Kay said. "Basically you can squeeze grapes and put them in a jar and three days later, you have wine."
The grapes naturally form yeast on the skin if sitting in the right condition. Tony's uncle simply uses that yeast to ferment his wines. The problem with this methodology is that it does not allow the winemaker to control the taste or consistency of his product.
"If you want to have the same wine every year, you have to control it," Tony said.
The process begins with the harvesting. Throughout the summer, Tony and Kay walk through the vines, sampling the acidity of the ripening grapes. As the sugar level of the fruit rises on the vines, the acidity goes down. To get the best grapes, a grower wants to pick them when they are both in the middle of their cycles, with a ph of about 3.5.
"Harvesting time is extremely important. There is a small window that you need to harvest," Tony said.
After picking the grapes, they throw the vines into a crusher. It pulls out the stems and separates them. Next, the grapes are placed in a press that squeezes them to produce the grape juice. Unlike old movies, the Kuglers do not press the grapes with their feet.
"Everybody asks me, 'Did you see that episode of, 'I Love Lucy?,'" Kay said. "It's a classic."
The juice is placed in a large plastic vat to be charged with yeast and ferment. After three or four days, they move the wine into 15-gallon glass jugs called carboys. The wine sits for several weeks in this second fermentation.
"You can taste the wine before Christmas," Tony said. "You usually can taste the white wine first. The red should age for awhile."
Kay said the red should age for a year. With the five varieties of grapes on the vines, the Kuglers produce about 10 different wines. Each grape is used to make both a dry and a sweet variety.
"Eighty percent of Americans prefer sweet wine, because they developed the taste from Coca-Cola," Tony said. "So you have to target that market."
This summer, the couple hopes to return to Czechoslovakia to visit family and give them the first taste of Kugler's Vineyard wines. All of the years of remembering childhood vineyards and working their own will pay off.
"When you are enthusiastic about something, you jump into it," Kay said. "Then you look back and think, 'How did I do all of that?'"
-- Tom Meagher's phone message number is 832-7187. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.