Hermann: A Rhineland Village on the Missouri

    German settlers who fled Philadelphia formality and founded Hermann in the 1830s planted grape arbors on the steep Missouri River hills 80 miles west of St. Louis.
    Hermann, Missouri

    Photo: Peter Newcomb for The New York Times

    GERMANS drink wine, too. And that goes a long way toward accounting for Hermann, Mo.

    It explains why the German settlers who fled Philadelphia formality and founded Hermann in the 1830s planted grape arbors on the steep Missouri River hills 80 miles west of St. Louis. It explains why the wineries survived and the breweries didn’t, and why many of the wines made in Hermann are white, light and sweet.

    And it explains the essential gewürztraminer character of the place — a verdant lightness that envelops the hills, hushes the powerful Missouri, makes the rain fall softly and the leaves gently, and makes even the rock outcroppings crumble like cake.

    Hermann has called itself a Rhineland village, but that sells it short. Hermann is an 1850s Missouri River town playing the part of a Rhineland village, which is a lot more interesting. That allows the county courthouse to sit on a bluff and proclaim its presence to the river the way courthouses do in river towns, while squared-off red-brick houses with backyard grape arbors run up San Francisco-like hills on streets named Schiller and Mozart.

    That Old World feel has also made the town popular with Midwestern second-home owners, especially those from St. Louis.

    “Even for those who aren’t wine drinkers, the wineries and the wine heritage, and all the attractions surrounding that, add so much to the area,” said Mark Grimm, a St. Louis lawyer who is building a 3,200-square-foot second home outside Hermann. “And then to have this within an hour to an hour and a half of St. Louis is just fantastic.”

    Jim Dierberg, who is also from St. Louis and has had a second home in Hermann since the early 1970s, liked it so much that he bought the local bank.

    “We came here for Maifest, and it was instantaneous love,” he said, referring to one of the town’s annual German festival. “So on Sunday, we inquired if the bank was for sale, and on Tuesday we bought it.”

    Mr. Dierberg is the chairman of First Banks, and he added the bank in Hermann to his family’s company, which now has more than 200 branches. But he did not stop there in his involvement.

    His local investments also include stakes in the Hermannhof Winery; Tin Mill Brewing, a European-style brewery in two old mills; and six old family wineries that were dismantled stone by stone, reassembled above Hermannhof and converted into guesthouses.

    The Scene

    Hermann is steeped in wine culture, with eight wineries within a 20-mile radius. Some are cottage industries, growing grape vines the way their neighbors grow grass. They’re a vestige of the late 19th century, when Hermann was America’s leading wine producer. Cuttings from Hermann were once sent to France, and even to a valley in California called Napa.

    The wineries bring tourists who stay in the region’s more than 70 bed-and-breakfasts, nose around the antiques shops and buy authentic German sausages from the Swiss Meat Market 12 miles south of town. Local residents are more often found downing a burger and a Bud at the Barrel.

    Those with a taste for elegance and a beverage that isn’t Busch-bred are better off at restaurants like Europa, whose name sums up its menu; the Vintage, where the German food is good but the Stone Hill wines are better; and the Cottage, which has a limited menu but a lush hilltop setting.

    Hermann also officially celebrates its German roots. On the third weekend of May, there’s Maifest, which focuses on dancing, parades and crafts. Octoberfest brings four weekends of wine tours, music and food, and in December, the town features a traditional German Christmas market.

    But for Mr. Dierberg, the town is not just about German wines and German heritage, it’s about the way it looks.

    “Mainly, it’s the buildings that do it for me,” he said. “But it’s also the way the hills sit against the water, and how they come down into the valley. I can be driving out of St. Louis, and I might be in a hurry and talking on the phone, and even if it’s cloudy, I come into this valley and it’s like the sun comes out, and everything’s nice.”


    Unlike the Ozarks several hours south, the Hermann hills have no water parks, music theaters, casinos or magic shows — just rambling woods cut by fields, white-fenced horse farms, brick farmhouses enveloped in ancient trees and wineries. And its residents like it that way.


    Being nestled in a crook of the wide Missouri has two major disadvantages: Hermann is steamy in summer, and the low-lying areas near the Missouri River and its tributaries are susceptible to flooding after heavy rains. Cultural and arts events are scarce, and to take in something in St. Louis is a 160-mile round trip.

    Jim Grebing, Hermann’s tourism director, said: “It’s not really a child-friendly place in that instead of water parks, we have wineries and bed-and-breakfasts. And many of the bed-and-breakfasts don’t take children because of the antiques and breakage and so forth. On the other hand, many of the people who go to the bed-and-breakfasts go there to get away from the kids.”

    The Real Estate Market

    With little building going on, old houses trump new ones in Hermann. Compact three-bedroom cottages deliver four-season views of the river and low upkeep for $150,000. A furnished B & B-ready cottage is listed for $169,900. Roughly 10 percent of the housing stock in the area are second homes, according to Mr. Grebing.

    The median price for a house in Hermann is $170,000 to $180,000, said Judy Warden of Warden Real Estate. Recent sales include a four-bedroom house that was built in 1941 for $88,500. And an 1880s two-bedroom brick cottage with a backyard grape arbor and a separate summer kitchen sold for $96,500.

    Unusual for Hermann, which likes to consider itself the anti-Branson, a development of five second homes, each one on 32 acres, is being built on the other side of the river around an artificial lake. Jeff Kelly, a builder from Chesterfield, near St. Louis, who is on the development team (and is building his own second home), said, “We figure it’ll be removed from the sprawl of St. Louis for another 15 or 20 years.”

    Speaking of the development, Mr. Kelly added: “The wine-country aspect adds to the appeal tremendously. Plus the culture, plus the rolling Midwestern countryside, plus the occasional alpaca farm.”

    Even so, Katy Wehrle, a broker with Wehrle Real Estate, said: “It’s slow right now. Interest rates have held things back, and gas prices haven’t helped. But even with that, people who have a 6,000-square-foot home in St. Louis are buying a 1,500-square-foot home in Hermann. They see it as a steppingstone to get them to where they really want to be.”

    She added, “This has always been a well-kept secret in that regard, but I think its days as a secret are about done.”


    POPULATION: 2,751, according to a 2006 estimate by the Census Bureau.

    SIZE: 2.3 square miles of land.

    LOCATION: 80 miles west of downtown St. Louis.

    WHO’S BUYING: Mainly people from St. Louis and others from throughout the Midwest.

    GETTING THERE: The airport in St. Louis has flights from around the country. From there, it’s about a 75-minute drive to Hermann.

    WHILE YOU’RE LOOKING: The Hermann Hill Vineyard Inn and Riverbluff Cottages (711 Wein Street, 573-486-4455; www.hermannhill.com) is a bed-and-breakfast that offers rooms or cottages from $169 to $331 a night. There are about 70 other B & Bs and inns in the area.

    Article © 2007, The New York Times.

    Originally published on NYTimes.com

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