The History of Missouri Wine


Immigration Surges with Missouri’s Entry into Statehood

Steamboat near Hermann, Missouri in the 1800s.
Early pioneers on a steamboat near Hermann, Missouri in the 1800s.

When Missouri achieved statehood in 1821, tens of thousands of immigrants came looking for a better life. Many were escaping political, religious and economic oppression in Europe. Missouri’s abundant and virtually untapped resources attracted large numbers of immigrants from Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and eventually Italy. The rich soils, expansive waterway connections, timber and abundant game made Missouri a veritable Eden for the poor and landless.

German Author Favors Settlement in Missouri

In 1824, Gottfried Duden, an optimistic traveler from Germany, arrived
on Missouri soil. He believed that many of Germany’s woes resulted from overpopulation and poverty. Thinking emigration was the solution to these problems, Duden and his friend Louis Eversmann had set sail for America
to study the possibilities of German settlement in the United States.

Arriving in St. Louis, Duden and Eversmann found Nathan Boone, son of Daniel Boone and surveyor of government lands. Boone led them on a tour of the Missouri River valley. Leaving the area several days later, the German duo lost their way and headed west instead of east. Soon they found the home of Jacob Haun, of Pennsylvania German descent. Haun talked them into purchasing adjoining tracts of land, near present-day Dutzow, and offered to shelter and feed them until they could establish their own farms. Duden agreed. For almost three years he lived in a cabin near Lake Creek, recording the weather, growing conditions and daily doings on his farm. In 1829 Duden published his findings back in Germany and it soon became a best-seller. The next excerpt is from his initial observations.

“I do not conceal the fact from you that the entire life of the inhabitants of these regions seemed to me like a dream at first,” Duden wrote. “Even now, after I have had three months to examine conditions more closely, it seems to me almost a fantasy when I consider what nature offers man here.” He went on to describe “acorns… as big as hen’s eggs and wild grapevines… heavy with sweet fruit.”

The Editor’s Introduction to the English translation of Duden’s book called the Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America:

… a masterpiece of promotional literature. Duden’s adroit pen wove reality with poetry, experience with dreams, and contrasted the freedom of the forests and democratic institutions in America with the social narrowness and political confusion of Germany. He glorified the routine of pioneer existence, praised Missouri’s favorable geographical location, and emphasized its mild and healthy climate…

So overwhelmed with what he saw and experienced, Duden feared Germans would not believe him:

“It appears,” he wrote, “too strange, too fabulous.”

To struggling—even starving—Germans back home, these words offered an almost irresistible allure of freedom and plenty. Feeling the oppression back home, the promotional writings of many Germans, including Duden’s glowing account, inspired thousands of Germans to emigrate to the “New Rhineland.”

Old World Winemaking Reaches Missouri

As German settlers pushed westward, many carried carefully-wrapped clippings from their old world vineyards. Many of the groups traveled down the Ohio River from Cincinnati, to the Mississippi and up to the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis, right in the footsteps of Gottfried Duden.

Hermann City Print
A print of the city of Hermann from 1869.

Moving to a new land caused a deep yearning to preserve their heritage. In 1836, the German Settlement Society was intent on establishing a new “Fatherland” in America. They selected some land on the south bank of the Missouri River, west of St. Louis, and founded Hermann. The original town was laid out with some plots originally sold as wine plots, beginning in the 1840s. Though their settlement met with many hardships and the soil on the hills nearby wasn’t appropriate for many forms of agriculture, by 1846 they had produced their first wine from locally cultivated grapes. In 1848, the town’s wineries produced 1,000 gallons. By 1855, 500 acres of vineyard were in production and wine was being shipped to St. Louis and beyond.

Railroads further boosted the growth of the Missouri wine industry, but the completion of the first transcontinental route in 1869 also made it possible to market California wines in the eastern United States. These California wines became very popular because they were made from grapes familiar to the Europeans. However, Missouri’s wine production continued to flourish. It remained second only to California until Prohibition.

By the turn of the century, Stone Hill Winery, which the German immigrant Michael Poeschel began building in 1847, was the third largest winery in the world (second largest in the U.S.), producing more than a million gallons of wine a year. Its wines, such as Hermannsberger, Starkenberger and Black Pearl, won eight gold medals at world fairs between 1873 and 1904.

Black Pearl Wine Label
Label of Black Pearl wine from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann.

Italian immigrants also played an important role in Missouri’s first vineyards. Many Italians had ventured to Arkansas with the intention of working as sharecroppers on the cotton plantations. Some members ended up in the Ozark Highlands of Missouri near St. James. It was here that they began to cultivate vineyards keeping with the traditions of their homeland.

Missouri Vines Save European Vineyards from Parasites

As trellises spread across the landscape, Missouri viticulture soon raised another flag of worldwide acclaim. In 1876, an insidious louse began a relentless assault on vineyards throughout France. The parasite had come from America and found the France roots particularly appealing-pushing the French wine industry to the brink of ruin.

Fortunately, Missouri’s first entomologist (bug scientist) Charles V. Riley made an important discovery. In 1871, at the invitation of the French government, Riley inspected France’s ailing grape crop. He diagnosed the problem as an infestation of phylloxera, an American plant louse. He found that some Native American rootstocks were immune to the advances of the dreaded louse. By grafting French vines onto them, healthy grapes could be produced. Millions of cuttings of Missouri rootstock were shipped to save the French wine industry from disaster. Statues in Montpelier, France, commemorate this rescue.

Prohibition: The Dark Years

Before Prohibition, there were wineries in 48 Missouri counties. Bluffton, Boonville, Cape Girardeau, Hannibal, Owensville, and Stanton were just a few of the many towns that boasted wineries. Long before anyone had ever heard of Harry Truman, Independence was known for its wine production by companies such as Shaffer’s Winery and Lohse’s Native Wine Garden.

In fact, Missouri’s Weinstrasse region grew to include more than 100 wineries before coming to an abrupt halt in 1920 with the addition of the 18th amendment to the Constitution — Prohibition — which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States. This amendment dealt a fatal blow to Missouri’s wine industry. Many families lost their livelihood. At Stone Hill Winery, Ottmar Stark ordered all his vineyards destroyed, virtually ruining the local economy.

In fact, the survival of many historic buildings in Hermann is largely attributed to the economic downturn caused by Prohibition. Instead of destroying older homes and building new ones, the old buildings were continually lived in and kept up, which allows us to appreciate early German construction even today.

The only Missouri winery to survive this dry period was St. Stanislaus Novitiate, located in St. Louis, where Jesuits continued to produce sacramental wine. Following repeal of the act in 1934, Missouri’s wine industry was nothing but a memory. High liquor taxes and license fees discouraged the industry’s rebirth. A few dozen wineries did reopen, but much of Missouri remained legally dry, and a there was little demand for anything other than sweet, dessert-style wines.

Exploring Missouri Wine Country Book CoverArticle courtesy of Brett Dufur, author of “Exploring Missouri Wine Country

This guidebook is the perfect companion to help you explore Missouri wine country by car, by bicycle, by boat and even by train. From basic wine-tasting tips to highlighting Missouri’s dynamic new generation of winemakers, and even starting a vineyard, this book takes you from the vine to the wine. If you’ve ever wanted to take a day trip to a Missouri winery —or plan a romantic weekend getaway— this book is for you. Buy the book online…

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