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By David Knopf, News Editor
There’s a tradition in England where properties separated by walls or fences are connected by a v-shaped, double ladder.
They’re called fence stiles, structures that make it easier for one neighbor to visit another.
The idea inspired a Ray County vineyard and winery to adopt the name – as well as the philosophy it conveys.
“Good fences make good neighbors; a Fence Stile makes neighbors good friends” is a slogan that greets visitors as they enter the business in the far western part of the county.
William and Shriti Plimpton bought their 60-acres property in 2006. It’s located on a gravel road leading to Orrick Road, a blacktop just a stone’s throw from the Excelsior Springs city line.
It was the 57th property the Plimptons considered in their search and had the rolling hills, slopes and gentle inclines that are ideal for grape vines.
“We are one of the highest points in Ray County,” said William, who manages the vineyard and much of the wine-making while his wife travels. An executive for the Cerner Corporation, she oversees the company’s contract with a chain of hospitals and clinics south of Sacramento, Calif.
“We made our design and wine-making plan jointly, but since I’m here all the time I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations,” said William, who’s assisted by Richard Deiss, a Napa Valley, Calif., native with a very impressive title – Wine Consultant.
Truth be told, in his faded cowboy hat, jeans and boots he looks more like a cowboy than an advisor. On a recent 100-degree afternoon, Deiss and Plimpton were busy wrestling an oversized grape-press onto a fork truck – not the kind of physical work usually found in a consultant’s job description.
The operation shifts gears a bit when Shriti returns home Thursday evenings, just in time for the weekend. It’s the winery’s busiest, most public times with outdoor movies Friday night – in season, of course, with fire-pit Fridays taking over when its colder – and live music Saturday afternoons. Laid-back socializing takes place Friday through Sunday, however, inside in a dedicated wine-tasting room and outside on Fence Stile’s large covered patio.
The Plimptons originally planned to build their winery on a hill overlooking Excelsior Springs’ historic district, but backed off when a slow-moving bureaucracy and a host of development requirements became unattractive.
As it turned out, locating inside Ray County’s western edge gave them an ideal terrain and pristine rural aesthetics, while still being centrally located and close to The Elms, which supplies a flow of customers.
“They’re pretty well spread out,” William said of visitors who come from Ray and Clay counties and up and down the I-35/29 corridor. “We’re blessed being so close to The Elms.”
If there’s a disadvantage – one outweighed by the positives – it’s access to good water for the wine-making process.
“The problem with this piece of property is that the wells out here are very deep and the brackish,” he said. “Everything else here is great for growing grapes.”
Having purchased plants with deep roots, ones that survived the extremes of the 2012 drought year, the Plimptons produce healthy grapes without irrigation.
“Our tap roots were actually at the level where there was still moisture,” William said.
But a supply of good water was still needed for the bottling process.
“We actually have to truck water in for wine making and tasting purposes,” said William, who stores it in a 16,000-gallon cistern. “Wineries use a lot of water for wine-making.”
Fence Stile is one of two commercial wine-producing businesses in Ray County, the other being Van Till in Rayville. A third operation, Crooked River Vineyard, operates in Millville, but has yet to enter the licensing stage.
As it turned out, William Plimpton said he and his wife were lucky to wind up in Ray County, where government bureaucracy is less cumbersome and demanding than in other area counties.
“Ray County is extremely easy to work with when it comes to starting a winery,” said William, who is building a new combination winemaking, tasting and storage facility to replace the current 36-foot by 72-foot converted horse barn the couple uses.
When tree branches had gotten overgrown in the right-of-way outside their property, William said he called the county, which sent a crew the next day. Snow removal has also been prompt, he said – a necessity for a business that depends on retail trade.
“Of course, Ray County must like the tax revenue,” he said.
If the Plimptons and their wine consultant could have their way, Ray County would eventually become a little Napa Valley, the winemaking capitol of California.
“I’d like to see Highway 10 become the Highway 29 (a California road) of Missouri,” William said. “The more wineries the better, in our opinion. I’d like to see wineries all up and down 10 highway between Excelsior Springs and Richmond.”
There are 250 to 300 wineries established along the 31 miles of California highway between Napa and Calistoga, Deiss said.
Something like that, just on a smaller scale, is possible here.
The hilly terrain is ideal, he said, as is Missouri’s track record as a wine-producing state.
“I’d like the people of Missouri to realize that we make excellent wine in Missouri,” said Plimpton. “You don’t have to go to Europe or California to find good wine.”
Local wineries that do exist – eight in Northwest Missouri in an area bound by the Missouri River to the west, Iowa border to the north, Highway 13 to the east and Highway 291 to the south.
They joined together to form the Great Northwest Missouri Wine Trail, established a Web site (www.newmissouriwine.com) and pamphlet, and work to promote each other’s businesses.
It may not be Napa Valley, but it’s a start, William and Shriti Plimpton believe.
“When you go into one of these wineries, we’re going to hand you one of those brochures,” he said.
Learn more about Fence Stile at www.fencestile.com or search for it on Facebook. Weekend hours are 6 p.m. until dark Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 to 4 Sunday. Wines, a limited selection of beer and pop, and cheese and crackers are available for purchase. Visitors are welcome to bring their own food; outside beverages aren’t permitted.