October 10th, 2007
By Matthew Hathaway
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
COFFMAN, Mo. — When Hank Johnson first proposed building a creole village of vacation homes on the grapevine-covered hills of his Chaumette Winery, one might have suspected he was drinking a little too much of his own vintage.
After all, this stretch of southern Ste. Genevieve County doesn't have any of the tourist trappings of outstate Missouri's biggest destinations. There are no resort lakes, outlet malls or country-western theaters. The nearest town of any size is Farmington, and that's 14 miles away.
But there is wine. And money.
The five vineyards near Coffman represent one of Missouri's fastest-growing areas for wine production. They're being watched closely by much of the Missouri wine industry, largely because of the deep pockets of the vineyard owners here.
Two of the wineries are owned by former corporate executives like Johnson, 64, a retired vice president of the Daniel and Henry Co, an insurance brokerage. The biggest operation — Crown Valley Winery — is the pet project of Joe H. Scott Sr., a wealthy developer of resort hotels and time-share properties who also owns about 2 million square feet of office, retail and warehouse space in the St. Louis area.
Johnson's plan is to build a wine-loving community in a mock French colonial town inspired by the historic homes of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri's oldest city. There's no evidence that the French settlers ever made their own wine, but that anachronism is easy to overlook with a glass in hand.
The Villages at Chaumette might be a pastiche of the 18th century, but the business plan is rooted in a trend of the 21st — the growing appetite for wine, and for what some marketers call "the wine lifestyle." It's a term that has been used to hawk everything from ergonomically correct corkscrews to magazine subscriptions and, lately, to sell land.
Last month, the New York Times highlighted the phenomenon of high-end homes being built in vineyards elsewhere in the country, often on winery-owned land, and described the trend as an adaptation of those leisure communities that long have built around golf resorts and ski lodges. Developers elsewhere have broken ground on at least 10 of those wine-focused communities, which offer units that vary from tiny time-shares to sprawling mansions.
The Chaumette development might be the first project of its kind in the Midwest, but it's not the first time Johnson has sought to broaden wineries' sources of revenue, which might otherwise rise and fall with Missouri's unpredictable weather.
Because of an April freeze, some eastern Missouri wineries lost between half and all of this year's harvest, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Grape and Wine Program of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
To guard against a bad crop, he said, Missouri's 72 wineries are focusing more on capturing tourist dollars that might otherwise be spent at nearby businesses.
"Wineries spur economic development, and they're usually followed by B&Bs, restaurants and shops," Anderson said. "For some winery people, who have both enough land and capital, the question is, why not do all of that ourselves?"
WHAT VISITORS WANT
Johnson said that, not long after he started making wine in the early 1990s, he realized that his new business was about more than what's in the bottle. He opened a restaurant, offered tasting classes and even moved a chapel slated for demolition from Creve Coeur to the winery to bolster Chaumette's wedding bookings. But it wasn't enough.
"Our visitors want fine dining, smart shopping and art galleries," Johnson said. "They want outdoor activities, a spa and, maybe most importantly for some, a place to own."
Johnson has sold a dozen of the 26 condos currently under construction, and he's planning the second and third phases of the development that could include more vacation homes and year-round housing. So far, Johnson's marketing consists largely of answering questions from winery visitors curious about the construction hubbub.
The cost of the condos, which vary in size from about 1,200 to 1,300 square feet, start at about $210,000, with a $200 monthly maintenance fee. Owners can recoup some of those costs by letting the winery rent out their units on a daily basis and splitting the proceeds.
Merry Dahms, a real estate agent who lives in Lafayette Square and who has toured the site, said the development is unusual in that it's geared toward adults — without much for children to do.
"It's about a really elegant lifestyle, not a family vacation," she said, comparing it to Innsbrook, the popular Warren County resort, "only a lot more sophisticated."
An anchor of the planned community will be a day spa opening next month that will specialize in so-called vinotherapy — the use of grape and wine products in massages, facials and the like. The Belle Haven Spa, modeled after a similar operation near Sonoma, Calif., hopes to have another lure for the country club set: It wants to make a name as the place to recuperate — under medical supervision and in secluded luxury — from the embarrassing swelling associated with recent nose jobs, face-lifts and other cosmetic surgery.
Many architectural details of the three-acre first phase are lifted from the Bolduc House, the Green Tree Tavern and other French colonial buildings of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., located about 20 miles from the development. The new buildings will look as if they are built in the vertical-log style of the oldest Missouri homes, and modern eyesores like air-conditioning units will be hidden by stockades. Motor vehicles will be landscaped out of view.
Last month, as crews were getting ready to raise roof trusses, project engineer David Givens pointed out that no two buildings in the development share the same roof pitch. Uniformity would be more efficient, but it's a modern notion.
"We're just a couple of hundred years behind the style," Givens said.
Johnson said an eclectic group of wine aficionados, most of them from St. Louis, have signed contracts on the condos. They include a doctor, a psychologist, a college professor, a calligrapher, an Episcopal archdeacon and the owners of an advertising agency.
At least one St. Louis company also has signed a contract on a unit, though an owner of the contracting firm spoke to a reporter on condition of anonymity because he believed upcoming labor negotiations might become more rocky if workers knew the company was buying a wine country retreat for the bosses and clients. The owner called the development "cutting edge," and said it will fill a niche for an upscale resort that's a little more than an hour's drive from downtown St. Louis.
Chaumette also is recruiting the new wine aficionados, like Percy Huston, 47, a banking executive from Cape Girardeau, Mo. He and his wife have spent much of the last 12 years teaching themselves about wine, and they see their condo as the next stage of that education. Soon, they'll be able to make his own wine, under Chaumette's supervision.
Condo buyers will be able to rent rows of vines planted close to their units. They can tend the grapes themselves, or pay Chaumette workers to do it for them, and have the winery bottle their own private-label wines.
Christopher Ruess, a winery consultant and wine festival organizer based in St. Louis, said he expects the trend of vineyard living to take root in Missouri.
"They've been doing this in California for the last 10 or 12 years," he said. "We're just now catching up."