A local winery has earned national recognition for the quality of its restaurant, named as one of the top 10 in the United States.
Readers of USA Today and 10Best chose from 20 initial nominees selected by a panel of experts from around the country. Chaumette Vineyard and Winery’s Grapevine Grill was voted number seven in the nation.
Owner Hank Johnson said he’s not surprised by the distinction, as he’s been aware of the great quality of food produced by Executive Chef Rob Beasley for almost two years now.
“About two months ago, we got an email from USA Today,” Johnson said. “We thought it was junk mail or some solicitation. We read it more closely and it said, ‘Our representatives have nominated Chaumette to be part of the competition for the 10 best winery restaurants in the United States.’
“And then the two months went by and last Friday, we were notified that we placed number seven in the nation. Six of the top ten were from California. One was from the East Coast, one up North and one down South, but nobody in the Midwest except us. So we were really, really pleased with that.”
Johnson said Beasley has been a perfect fit with the spirit of Chaumette, in providing a consistently high quality dining experience for every guest at the winery.
“He’s been cooking since he was a child and he’s been a chef for many years. He’s managed kitchens of several very highly-regarded restaurants in St. Louis. He’s in his second year now with and he is fabulous. I get raves about the food by knowledgeable ‘foodie’ people. So we’ve come to the conclusion, and I humbly say, that this is the best place to dine between St. Louis and Memphis.”
Beasley said his approach is to obtain only the best ingredients and to let them speak for themselves.
“My basic mindset is to try to take things that are in season and utilize them the best that we can,” he said. “It makes my life and jobs as a chef much easier. If you start with great ingredients, you have to do less to them.”
Part of this mindset is to offer a few fantastic dishes that can be consistently offered rather than a wide array of generic dishes.
“We can’t have a four-page menu,” Beasley said. “The less that we do, the more focus we can put on it. I would rather do a good job on 10 things than a mediocre job at 20. So we’ve tried to hone in and make sure we control what we’re doing so that we can execute it consistently.”
A large factor in the realm of ingredients comes from Beasley’s connection with the Honolulu Fish Company in Hawaii, Johnson said.
“Every Thursday, he gets a call from the Honolulu Fish guy, and he says, ‘Here’s what has come in today,’” Johnson said. “And our chef says, ‘Well, send me 20 pounds of this or that.’ It goes into a special container and off it goes. Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours later, that container comes here.”
Beasley said he’s experienced the corporate side of the culinary world before, recalling strict limitations on what a chef could or could not do. At Chaumette he said, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“Hank is great about empowering you to run your part of the operation,” Beasley said. “For a lot of chefs, they walk in and get told the menu and the recipes, and told not to deviate. Here, it’s the opposite. He tells me to cook — to do my thing and make people happy.”
Johnson said a large factor in putting Chaumette and Grapevine Grill onto the national (and international) map is the amount of times in a year the winery is used as a wedding venue, bringing in people who might otherwise have never come to the winery.
“We’re in the wedding business here,” Johnson said. “We have 71 weddings this year. We like that kind of business because it brings new people here that otherwise wouldn’t come. We’ll probably have 8,000 people come, and maybe 75 percent of them have never been here before. And they like it!”
He said the wedding venue aspect of the business is growing, with closer to 100 weddings anticipated for 2018.
Johnson said he is constantly hearing great things about the food after weddings, because the quality of food served for weddings is the same as is served any other day at Chaumette. Beasley said the volume of guests provides a challenge, but it’s a challenge he and the rest of the staff are ready and able to accommodate.
“We can really pump out some food,” Beasley said. “There’s times where we’ll have a wedding or something going on at the barn, something going on downstairs, maybe something at the pool and 150 people for lunch. Then you turn around and do another 100 for dinner — it’s a lot to pull together and coordinate.”
At the end of the day, though, Chaumette is known for its wine. Beasley said apart from the gorgeous grounds, the wine was the first thing about the place that struck a chord with him.
“The biggest shock was the wine, honestly,” he said. “Because it’s easy to stereotype Midwest wines. I was in Iowa for a long time, and there were a lot of ultra-sweet wines — but I was used to better wines than that. When we tasted the wines here, we knew that somebody was doing something right.”
Johnson said Chaumette grows five varieties of grapes, which are used to craft 14 distinct wines. He described the many reasons that Chaumette wines have won gold medals over California wines — but he said it boils down to growing a quality crop and the care made after harvest.
“I read somewhere that from the time the grape comes off the vine, the winemaker has 3,000 decisions to make,” he said. “And most of them affect the ultimate flavor.”
Of the Chaumette wines, Johnson said it stands out because sugar isn’t used as a crutch to cover up faults or imperfections.
“This is not like some other Missouri wines,” he said. “This is dry wine. This is real wine. This is not soda pop wine. This is the kind of wine you buy in a fine wine store.”
Chaumette’s story begins in 1990 when the Johnsons acquired the property as a getaway from city life. That soon grew into a successful winery, which soon necessitated the addition of a restaurant, which is how the operation arrives where it is today.
“When we built this building, I said, ‘We’ll never go into the restaurant business,’” Johnson said. “Because we’d heard all of these terrible stories. Well, of course people came, and they started saying, ‘We’re hungry!’ So of course, we had to get into the restaurant business.”
For Beasley, having the opportunity to live his passion is reward enough. Although, being able to do it at Chaumette makes it even better.
“I’m truly blessed,” he said. “And I know that phrase is way overused, but I’ve known that for a long time — that I’m very blessed to be able to do what I do every day, to make a living at it and to have fun with it.”
For more information about Chaumette Vineyards and Winery, visit www.chaumette.com or call 573-747-1000.