The French call it terroir, a practically untranslatable word describing how that nation’s special soil imparts subtle, sophisticated qualities of taste to their wine. Of course, France being France, the term also means much, much more.
Terroir is dirt: clay or sand, gravel or chalk. It is climate: sun-blasted plains or foggy coasts, crisp Alpine cold or humid Mediterranean heat. Terroir is how water flows during a rainstorm, the angle of the sun against a hillside and the direction of the wind in late summer. English wine critic Hugh Johnson has described terroir as the “whole ecology of the vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts to autumn mists, not excluding the way the vineyard is tended, not even the soul of the vigneron.”
Like few other Americans, Elizabeth Barham, an assistant professor at MU, can appreciate both the value of terroir and the worth of the not-so-humble vigneron who tends the vines.
As a youth she studied French culture and language, eventually perfecting her skills at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Université de Provence in Aix-en-Provence. As a doctoral student from Cornell, she spent months in the French countryside, examining how the long, sometimes painful adoption of cooperative food and wine production and sophisticated marketing have helped to make French wine, cheese and other high-value farm products the envy of the world. For her contributions to ensuring the continued vitality of that system, the French government in 2004 named her a Knight in the Agricultural Order of Merit.
Unlike other scholars fascinated by the mystique of France’s great cuisines, however, Barham confesses her investigations have always had something of an ulterior motive. Barham believes producers of new-world food products, winemakers chief among them, are creating delicacies every bit as distinctive as those of their European peers. And that many of those producers are Missourians. Sacre bleu!
It’s time, Barham goes on to say, that Missouri’s winemakers and small farmers take a page from the French, banding together to produce and market items whose names become so synonymous with the virtues of the local terroir d’exception that they would bear its name, or appellation, exclusively. The French, she adds, think this is a great idea.
“They have, in fact, been the biggest supporters of all countries, including our own, for adopting systems of label of origin, appellations or ‘geographical indications’ in World Trade Organization-speak,” Barham says. Missouri doesn’t have the traditions of Europe, she concedes. “But we have a great deal of regional environmental sensitivity and information. Our challenge now is to get Missouri’s regional producers thinking collectively, not just thinking of one another as competition.”
Consider the experience of Champagne, Barham says, the region of northern France where growers and winemakers long ago banded together to proclaim the uniqueness of their bubbly white wine. Thanks to these efforts, and a century-old treaty signed in Madrid, a winemaker can make what he believes to be an equally wonderful bubbly in the Spanish Penedès, Italy’s Tuscan Hills, or anywhere else one might grow a reasonable approximation of French chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. He can carefully ferment and blend the fruit, pour it into a bottle, perform the remuage, complete the dégorgement, age it in a cellar, then pop the cork and shout “Happy New Year.” But unless the label says Champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), meaning it’s been certified as produced in and according to the standards of Champagne and the French Republic, all the world knows it’s nothing but sparkling wine.
“I wrote a paper about the French concept of terroir, about how, yes, there is this concept and it sounds pretty nifty,” Barham says. “But terroir actually has an institutional embodiment in their appellation system and the way that they administer that. Administering an appellation isn’t an easy thing to do. They have hundreds of professionals who work on it. But I’d like to see us construct something similar in this country.”
With this in mind, just over three years ago Barham launched what she called the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project, a program aimed at helping Missouri winemakers, small farmers, chefs and artisans use this “regional environmental sensitivity” to develop and market up-scale products that will, one day, carry an internationally recognized Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée of their very own. “The reason we’re starting with wine as the lead product is that the appellation systems that you see in Europe all started with wine,” Barham says. “That’s because nobody questioned that wine was affected by where it came from.”
On a crowded tabletop in her Gentry Hall office, Barham unfolds a colorful map representing what she and her colleagues have dubbed the Mississippi River Hills Region. The map, designed in consultation with faculty and staff from MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, MU Extension, the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Grape and Wine Program and other related groups, delimits a six-county area that Barham hopes will give birth to the first of Missouri’s appellations.
“A lot of people here in Missouri don’t realize the scale and quality of the state’s wine industry,” she says. “I think people would be really surprised. Of course, once they get out and start visiting the wineries they learn quickly: Missouri is becoming well respected on the national and even global scene for the wines we’re producing.”
One of those producers, Hank Johnson, is the owner of the 310-acre Chaumette Vineyards and Winery near Coffman, Mo., in Ste. Genevieve County. Johnson was one of the first to get on board with Barham’s plan to develop a Mississippi River Hills appellation. He remains a passionate supporter.
“We feel like we owe a great debt to Beth for what she’s already accomplished. There is a lot of enthusiasm for this project, a lot of momentum,” Johnson says over a glass of what he describes as one of Chaumette’s signature wines, an Estate Chardonel bottled in 2003.
Chardonel is a cold-climate-friendly hybrid born of chardonnay and seyval blanc, a grape that is itself a hybrid of two distinct species. When vinified by talented winemakers, chardonel can make a wonderfully unpretentious white wine. This bottle of Chaumette Estate Chardonel, for example, has a lovely golden color and the faint aroma of ripe pear. It tastes of citrus and pineapple, with a crisp, slightly acidic finish that complements lighter fare.
Chardonel, along with the North American-native Norton grape, have become the two most promising fruits for winemakers throughout the Midwest. Johnson is particularly excited about selling Americans on the virtues of Norton, a disease-resistant, full-bodied, red wine grape that is particularly rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant scientists say could have health benefits. “Stop and think about it,” Johnson says. “Ten years ago, who ever heard of Shiraz? Fifteen years ago, who had ever heard of Zinfandel? In 1975 there were fewer than 1,000 acres of Chardonnay in California, now it’s 25 percent of their entire market. So there have been new names to emerge in the national marketplace.”
Next big thing or not, bottlings of Norton, along with chardonel and grape varieties such as Vignoles, Chambourcin, Catawba and Concord, have contributed to a recent jump in Missouri wine sales. Last year, according to statistics from the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, a state government-sponsored promotional organization, close to 60 wineries produced around 600,000 gallons, an increase of 20 percent over the last three years.
Make no mistake, sales of Missouri wines are not poised to overtake their more famous peers. According to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, in 2005 California producers bottled and sold an estimated 532 million gallons of wine. French winemakers, still the leaders in world production, more than doubled California’s output. Add to that record wine exports from relative newcomers such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, and you have got a true embarrassment of enological riches.
Still, Mississippi River Hills winery owners such as Johnson, a former St. Louis insurance executive, remain confident they can sell enough wine to sustain themselves, especially in markets he calls “our backyard,” the Mississippi River Hills region itself and St. Louis.
Johnson even utters a line that would be unthinkable in places like the wine-sodden Napa Valley: “We have four wonderful wineries in the area now: mine, Crown Valley, Cave and Charleville. It would suit me very well if there were ten more.”
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Johnson says local winemakers are currently unable to grow enough grapes to keep up with demand for their wines, and that the larger operations, such as Crown Valley, must buy non-Missouri grape juice to supplement their own fruit. Having more wineries will also help the region reach a critical mass for tourism. People want a variety of places to tour and wines to sample, Johnson says. “The wineries would all be different. The wines would be different. How much more fun would that be?” Most important, he adds, additional wineries would help the wider world recognize what attracted winemakers like him to the area in the first place: its superior terroir.
The Mississippi River Hills region is further south than many of Missouri’s older wine making operations, Johnson says, with slightly warmer surface and soil temperatures. This is good for, among other things, sugar development in his grapes. Soils in the region can be rocky and poor, which, oddly enough, is also a good thing. Rocky soils drain better and are less likely to impart inappropriate tastes to the finished wine.
“Another thing that’s great is this tremendous up-and-down topography that we have here. One of the considerations when picking a site for a vineyard is to make sure that the air can run off the top of the hills. When winemakers talk about drainage we talk about two kinds: water and air. And so if you look out here,” Johnson says with a gesture, “you can see that these vines are sitting on the crest of a hill. You want to stay away from valleys, to be on hilltops. This is where you get the perfect drainage for water and also the kind of air drainage you need.”
Johnson goes on to describe the area’s rich history, the work ethic of its residents and the strong sense of identity locals feel for the place, all qualities and characteristics he believes are reflected in the viticulture. And sure enough, even when obscured by the low clouds of a late-winter rainstorm, Southeast Missouri’s landscape asserts a sense of its unique character, a working definition of what the Romantic poets used to call the “tranquil sublime.”
Many of these hills are as old as any in North America, steep juttings of sedimentary rock formed by the retreat of Cambrian seas more than 500 million years ago. The Ste. Genevieve County wineries are surrounded by picturesque dairy and beef operations, their rock-studded grazing lands winding around thick stands of hardwood. Farther afield, to the east of i-55 and only a geological stone’s-throw from the vast Mississippi River floodplain, rises another set of ancient knolls. Here the soils are better and, with pluck and perseverance, people can make a living raising cash crops on them.
At least that’s the way Christina and Bryan Truemper see it. Their small farm, nine acres of undulating land that Bryan leases from his grandmother, is located near tiny Frohna, Mo., in Perry County, about 10 miles north of the county seat, Perryville. They’ve been growing organic produce and raising premium chickens and hogs for about five years.
The Truempers, engagingly articulate 31-year-olds, are true fresh food aficionados. Both worked in a variety of restaurants before taking up shovel and hoe; both believe strongly that, as the great New York Times writer Craig Clairborn once put it: “to cook well, one must love and respect food.”
“Bryan and I wanted to eat the freshest, healthiest, best food possible. We couldn’t afford to buy it, so we had to grow it,” says Christina Truemper with a laugh. “On paper we’re poverty stricken, but we eat like kings!”
The couple didn’t end up in rural Perry County by accident. Bryan says his grandparents were originally from the area. They moved to St. Louis in the 1930s, he says, but returned in the 1960s to be close to their remaining relatives. Bryan spent summers helping out on the place until eventually moving away after he and Christina became a couple. “We were in Maine,” Bryan continues, “I was cooking in a restaurant, and Christina had a job working with a little organic vegetable farm where we bought produce. We had this idea that maybe we could start our own place, grow our own food. I said, ‘There’s a farm in Missouri I’m sure we could rent…’ ” Christina continues the story from there: “He said, ‘What would you think about being a farmer?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not. No way!’ But here we are.”
Where they are at the moment is ankle-deep in a mess of brown mud, looking out at a rain-soaked livestock pen. The pen is home to a group of wet but contented Berkshire swine, an “heirloom” breed that commands a premium price from pork purists. The couple sell meat from the hogs — along with eggs from a small flock of free-range hens and a vast assortment of organic produce — at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market in St. Louis. They also sell to one of their former employers, Celebrations restaurant in Cape Girardeau.
Distinctive, locally produced foods are an important part of what Barham and the other Mississippi River Hills organizers say will help define the region. At an organizational meeting in 2004, project participant Elaine Hoffmeister Mooney of the Ste. Genevieve Winery explained what organizers were thinking: “If you took a trip to a small village in Germany, you would drink the local beer and wine and eat the locally grown meat and cheese in the restaurant. Then you might tour and visit with the local blacksmith or nutcracker maker. … I think Elizabeth’s idea is to expand what we know and love here, show it off more and, most importantly, market and advertise our region in this manner.”
Barham recalls being gratified that Mooney and the other meeting attendees were so quick to embrace the idea of marketing their regional identity. Fact is, Barham says, she half expected residents to be more reticent about taking advice from an outsider.
“But it was just the opposite, really,” she says. “They were thrilled that someone from the University was getting involved. Everyone was so ready to do something. I think they were all feeling that the region had potential but that they just weren’t able to do anything with it.”
That is changing. With Barham’s help, business people in the region — winemakers, hoteliers, small farmers, restaurateurs, crafts people — organized themselves into interest groups. They first defined what was special about their own products and services, then focused on what they needed to do to maximize this comparative advantage. Next they organized the Mississippi River Hills Roundtable where region-wide strategizing could take place. At the same time, extension agents began offering entrepreneurial training sessions, state tourism officials stepped up with marketing advice and counsel, and experts from MU and the Missouri Department of Conservation pitched in with geographical information system (GIS) data that led to publication of a sophisticated, tourist-friendly Mississippi River Hills map. All the while Barham continued to develop quality standards for a future “label of origin.” People got excited, and the project grew. So far more than 200 businesses have signed on.
All of this couldn’t be happening at a better time, says one the participants, DeWayne Schaaf, 30, executive chef at Celebrations, the Cape Girardeau restaurant supplied by the Truempers. Schaaf has been honored statewide for using fresh local ingredients to create elegant interpretations of regional dishes.
“More people are getting into the whole fine food thing these days, both eating out and preparing it themselves at home,” Schaaf says. “I hope that this idea of an appellation will pull other things into that local fine food trend — the art, culture and history that this region has to offer.”
Like Barham, he thinks there is no better place to begin than with Missouri wines. “They have the opportunity to set the benchmark for everything else,” Schaaf says. “I don’t think Missouri is ever going to be California, or France or Germany or Italy. But that’s not important. We don’t need to produce $50 cabernets. We need to focus on being Missouri. That’s what I think this appellation can do for us.”
Slowly, say people like Christina Truemper, the idea is sinking in. “The farming is still pretty conventional around here, because that’s the way it’s been done for generations,” she says as she reaches down to scoop up Behren, the couple’s 2-year-old son. “But I think for some of the younger people things are changing. We go to buy milk from a neighbor’s farm, for instance. There is a 20, 21-year-old guy there who is positioning himself to someday take over the place. He’s recently started researching what it would mean to be organic and sell more milk locally, not just as a commodity to, say, Prairie Farms.”
“There is wonderful farmland around here,” she adds. “We can make a living off of a nine-acre, rented field. It’s a lot of marketing, and you’ve got to be willing to do the work. But hopefully there will be more of this. I think the younger generation will make it happen.”
By Charles Reineke
of MU’s Illumination Magazine