Missouri’s New Wine Country

    Fledgling vintners in Southeast Missouri take different tacks to compete

    from the January 2007 issue of Wines & Vines


    Missouri has a thriving wine business, but it’s challenging when you’re a new winery in a new wine region. The wineries in southeast Missouri are in that situation, and their strategies for competing offer excellent examples for other boutique wineries.

    These strategies include food service, events and exploiting the region’s history. Crown Valley Winery, for example, offers an array of attractions probably unmatched anywhere, from its state-of-the-art vineyards and winery to wine shops, antique stores, entertainment, a variety of lodging, restaurants, a golf course—and a sanctuary for abused tigers.

    History and Evolution

    Now ranked 10th in wine production among the states, Missouri was the nation’s second-largest producer in the late 1900s, a legacy of German immigrants who settled along the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City. They founded Hermann in 1837, and it once had 60 wineries. Italian immigrants settled near St. James, and also planted grapes and made wine.

    Prohibition killed the wine business, but it had a rebirth in the 1960s. Now Missouri has 56 wineries and 1,200 acres of vineyards, virtually all planted in French hybrid and native grapes.

    Missouri’s Modern Industry

    Vintners have revived their old heritage, and the town of Hermann, “Missouri’s Rhine Village,” now has seven wineries including 100,000-case Stone Hill Winery, the state’s most prominent. These complement the town’s German-themed restaurants, inns and shops. Hermann celebrates Maifest and Oktoberfest and many occasions in between, attracting visitors who also sample the local wines.

    The wineries of Southeastern Missouri—”Missouri’s new wine country”—don’t have a wine heritage. Mostly created in the 21st century, they sprouted as growers found a relatively benign climate, and now almost a dozen are producing wine. It has been dubbed the Mississippi River Hills by state agencies active in promoting the wine and tourism businesses.

    The biggest draw is Ste. Genevieve, a town founded by French settlers in 1699. The historic town contains homes and other buildings dating to the French colonial period as well as Spanish and early American times after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With numerous inns, restaurants, historical sites and the inevitable antique stores, Ste. Genevieve is a popular weekend getaway, and its wineries take advantage of that mood.

    Ste. Genevieve Winery is right in town. Offering free samples of wines from local grapes and fruit, it also sells local food and gift items. Ste. Genevieve’s winemaker is Elaine Hoffmeister Mooney, daughter of the owner and founder, and a graduate of the wine program at California State University at Fresno.

    Cape Girardeau is another interesting town along the Mississippi, although the city has largely turned its back on the historic riverfront in favor of shopping malls and other development. Nearby attractions are Trail of Tears State Park, where many Cherokees perished during their forced relocation to Oklahoma, Mastodon State Park and a 19th century grain mill.

    The nearby wineries have each seemingly taken a different tack toward attracting customers, and virtually all sell most of their wine on site.

    Villa Antonio is a farm owned by an Italian-American family that hosts weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations in 19th century log cabins and outdoor pavilions. The family has 7 acres of vines and is adding 4 or 5 more, hoping to eventually have 15 acres of vineyards on the 40-acre farm. They are not professionally trained winemakers, but make 1,200 cases of wines, the most popular a sweet white.

    River Ridge Winery does have a restaurant, which serves meals outside. The winery lies on 150 acres on a high ridge along the river, on a long farm road far from anywhere. Owners Jerry and Johnnie Smith bought the property in 1981 and planted grapes, building a winery in 2000.

    Jerry Smith says the area is a little more benign than central Missouri. “It only drops to -2°F instead of -14°,” he says, noting that the area is becoming warmer. “We haven’t had a hard freeze in 20 years.” They plant vines with the graft just under the soil for protection against freezing and cover the vines with straw, then dig them out each year.

    Smith uses three trellis systems: bilateral cordons 6 ft. high for hybrids; Geneva double curtain for Norton due to its high vigor (“It’s like kudzu!”); and very low bilateral cordons for vinifera, with vertical shoot positioning because of the winter kill.

    He claims the growing season is comparable to northern Napa Valley. “We do have to deal with the rot and fungus,” he admits. “The flowable systemic fungicide Abound from Syngenta Corp. has worked miracles for us—though it costs $255 per gallon,” he says.

    The winery produces about 5,000 gallons of mostly dry wine in a modern facility featuring stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. Smith makes 70% of the wine from estate grapes, including eight surviving Sauvignon Blanc vines of 25 planted 20 years ago. He also grows Chardonnay, which was killed to near the ground a few years ago but came back in two years.

    He also spends $4,000 to $5,000 per year on bird netting; the birds descend at 17 to 18% sugar.

    Cave Winery has a large natural cave used for a tasting room and for functions during the hot Missouri summer, but the large opening causes wide temperature fluctuations and it’s not suitable for aging wine.

    The winery has 14 acres of vines in four varieties, including TraminetteChardonelNorton and Chambourcin. The newly built, 6,000 sq.-ft. modern winery produces about 1,600 cases, but has the capacity for far more. Marty and Mary Jo Strussion bought the property for retirement, not intending to get into the wine business, but it soon seemed compelling. One of the popular specialties in their tasting room is an “Italian ice” made with sweet wines.

    Chaumette Vineyards and Winery
    Chaumette Vineyards and Winery is owned by Hank Johnson, who bought the 310-acre property in 1990 and put in vines “as a lark.”

    Chaumette Vineyards and Winery is owned by Hank Johnson, who bought the 310-acre property in 1990 and put in vines “as a lark.”

    He has a grapevine nursery, and says he’s even shipped Norton to California, perhaps to growers spooked about Pierce’s disease, to which the vine is resistant. Among his other ventures, Johnson is experimenting with 130 Eastern European grape varieties to see if any could thrive in Missouri’s continental climate.

    Johnson recently started building a spa and 27 small vacation homes that can be rented when not used by the owners.

    Nearby Charleville Vineyard and Winery has been growing grapes for 11 years, and making wine for four. It has a rustic B&B with two bedrooms in a cabin built in the 1860s. Owners Joelle and Jack Russell also added a microbrewery that is popular on warm days to supplement the wines.

    That brings us to Crown Valley Winery, which is in a class by itself. A modern new facility, it’s comparable to anything found in California in equipment, materials and processing. The 44,000 sq.-ft. building, opened in 2003, contains 39 stainless steel tanks that can hold 110,000 gallons of wine. Cellars hold 800 barrels. The winery has Willmes and Bucher presses, processed 427 tons of fruit last year and produced 36,000 cases this year.

    The winery filters all wines to 0.45 micron to remove yeasts, since so many are sweet. Australian winemaker Daniel Alcorso says, “It’s not enough to make good wines for Missouri. We want to make good wines, period.”

    The 600-acre property includes 165 acres of vines, mostly hybrids and natives, as well as 25 acres of blackberries and raspberries. It claims the largest Norton plantings in the United States. The vines are harvested by machine—winery owner Joe Scott, Sr., also owns the local John Deere dealership—including a $225,000 Korvan harvester for grapes. Operations manager Bryan Siddle claims it’s the only mechanical grape harvester in Missouri, and adds that it’s already paid for itself by saving labor costs. The winery has a smaller, $91,000 picker for blackberries. Crown Valley is also experimenting with 20 acres of 40 other varieties of vinifera vines, including Viognier and Syrah, with the state university. The winery buys about 15 to 18% of its fruit from California, and offers many European varietals in its tasting room and retail shop. It is building another winery to produce sparkling wines, which would be the state’s first.

    Scott doesn’t miss any bets to attract visitors—and wine buyers. The property includes exotic animals, and visitors can tour it (for a charge). A deli serves food. Overall, “Crown Country” includes four B&Bs, three restaurants (one very upscale), an 18-hole golf course, two hotels, three antique shops, the winery—and its unique sanctuary for tigers rescued from commercial exhibits, performers and misguided individuals. Most of the structures have been built or acquired in the last few years.

    Fighting a hostile climate, these wineries in the Mississippi River Hills are taking various approaches to create a wine country in Southeastern Missouri. Some seem sure to prove that you don’t have to be in Napa Valley to succeed.

    Wines and Vines CoverArticle written by Paul Franson, of Wines & Vines magazine 

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