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Rural Missouri Magazine

Missouri by bottle
Rural Missouri editor discovers a vibrant industry in the state’s wine-producing regions

by Bob McEowen
James Fashing, a photojournalist and writer with MFA’s Today’s Farmer reviews the offerings of St. James Winery with Ann Miller, the winery’s marketing director.

Four days, 18 wineries. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. Not one to shy away from a difficult assignment, I volunteered.

It began when a postcard came in the mail. The Missouri Grape and Wine Program and the state Division of Tourism were inviting travel, food and wine writers to participate in a media tour to showcase Missouri’s $26 million wine industry. I like a glass of wine now and then and I’m interested in agritourism. I’ll go.

As soon as I met the other participants I realized I was out of my league. My knowledge about wine might fill a glass. White wines go with white meat. Red wines for red meat. Refrigerate after opening. That’s about the extent of my wine savvy — though I suspected my food rules were wrong. (Turns out they were.)

Clearly, these people thought about wine a whole lot more than I did. On our trip was an editor with a wine industry trade magazine, a publisher of an Ohio wine magazine, a food and wine columnist from Texas, a freelance food writer and an ag journalist who also grows a few acres of grapes. I had a lot to learn.

The dump bucket is your friend

The first lesson came early. Tasting wine does not necessarily mean drinking wine. With at least four winery stops each day — not to mention lunches and dinners that included wine — you need to pace yourself.

Cory Bomgaars, the winemaker at Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, answers questions from reporters during a barrel tasting in the winery’s cellar. Six food and travel writers recently visited Missouri wineries at the invitation of the Missouri Grape and Wine Program. .

That crock that sits on the counter of a tasting bar is not there to hold bottles. It’s for emptying your glass. If the winery pours more than you need for a taste, it’s OK to dump out the rest. If you want to spit, that’s fine, too. It doesn’t mean you don’t like the wine.

Most of Missouri’s wineries offer tours of their production facility (if they have one) and a scenic spot to picnic or enjoy a bottle of wine with friends and family. But the tasting room is really the main attraction.

“When you go to the grocery store and look at wine it’s confusing. Going to a winery allows people to taste and find something they like,” says Tim Puchta, a sixth-generation winemaker and chairman of the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Grape and Wine Advisory Board.

Drink like an expert

Before going on this trip I thought you drank wine like any other beverage. It turns out there’s a method — what Clyde Gill, the winemaker at Peaceful Bend Vineyard near Steelville, calls the “Five-S” method.

First, you swirl the wine in the glass to release its aroma. All my companions could do this with aplomb. I was just as likely to swirl the wine right out of the glass and onto my shirt. Here’s a tip for you: Keep the glass on the table. It will swirl easier.

Second, sniff the wine. Put your nose right in there (but don’t get your nose wet) and take a big wiff. Smell all those flavors? We smelled flowers and citrus and berries and tobacco and a whole lot more in the wines we sampled. Funny, I thought wine was made from grapes.

Next, sip the wine and, while it’s in your mouth, swish it around a bit. Take account of all the tastes and textures of the wine. Tony Kooyumjian, owner of both the Montelle Winery and Augusta Winery says to enjoy the “terroir” — that’s a French term that, loosely translated, means you can taste the dirt the grapes were grown in. Finally, swallow the wine and notice the aftertaste.

That’s it: swirl, sniff, sip, swish, swallow. See, that wasn’t so difficult.

Winery tastings usually start with dry wines and gradually move to sweeter wines. Like most wine aficionados, my traveling companions preferred dry or semi-dry wines. Most consumers like sweet wines. Fear not, all Missouri wineries sell far more sweet wines than dry. Two million visitors to the states’s wineries each year can’t be wrong.

Kooyumjian says the first thing people should do when selecting wine is ignore any advice they may have received. “My philosophy of wine is forget about the review, forget about what your neighbors like, choose what you like,” he says.

The tastes of Missouri

Clyde and Katie Gill serve samples during a wine tasting at Peaceful Bend Vineyard near Steelville.

Even if you know wine you’ll likely find a trip to a Missouri winery a new experience.

“Missouri wineries are unique in that our wines are very different,” says Patty Held-Uthlaut, daughter of Jim Held, who resurrected Missouri’s wine industry when he reopened Stone Hill Winery in 1965. “We have an education challenge ahead of us. My dad’s philosophy from day one was to get visitors to our winery so we can get them to taste our wines and show them how wonderful they are.”

The traditional European grapes California and New York wineries use to make Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon don’t grow well in Missouri. Instead, our wineries grow native American and French hybrid grapes.

Funny thing about French hybrid grapes — in Europe they’re called American hybrids. That’s because, in the late 1800s, France’s wine industry was decimated by an aphid that attacked their vine roots. They were saved by the importation of hearty American rootstock from Missouri. Small world, huh?

Winemakers in Missouri have spent about 150 years figuring out what grows well here. One of the best, it seems, is the Norton. Also called Cynthiana, the Norton is Missouri’s official state grape and produces a slightly spicy, berry-like dry red wine that wins lots of awards in competitions. Nortons go well with red meat or game.

Other varieties you’ll see at Missouri wineries include Vidal, Seyval, Vignoles, Chardonnel and Chambercin. While they differ from more common wines they serve the same purpose. Each wine complements or contrasts well with particular foods. A visit to a winery will help you sort this out.

While the old white with chicken and fish, red with beef rule isn’t entirely wrong, it’s limiting. Red wine might be a better choice for chicken with a hearty sauce, for example.

Wines named after grape varieties (Seyval, for example) contain just that grape, or nearly so. When you see a name that describes the winery’s scenery or conjures up some bucolic image — Riverboat Red or Velvet White — that’s usually a blended wine. These tend to be sweeter and aimed more at the casual wine drinker.

Blended wines may or may not be made mostly with Missouri grapes. By law, to be labeled a Missouri wine the bottle must contain 75 percent homegrown grapes. Otherwise it’s an American wine.

Like most wineries in the state, Charleville Vineyards near Ste. Genevieve grows American and French hybrid variety grapes.

Nearly every winery offers a full range of wines, both red and white, dry to sweet. A few offer wines made from fruits other than grapes. Sainte Genevieve Winery has 12 fruit wines, including cherry, elderberry, pear, strawberry and an incredible cranberry wine. Some wineries offer champagne. Others make dessert wines like port (a wine fortified with brandy) or late harvest wines — the longer the grapes stay on the vine, the sweeter the wine. Ice wines are made with grapes picked after a frost. They’re like candy with a kick.

One of the striking things about this trip was how much a particular wine can vary from winery to winery. We tasted at least 18 Nortons and no two were exactly alike. Since wines vary so much you’ll want to sample offerings from several wineries.

“People are not going to like every winery. They’re not going to like every wine,” says Puchta. “I have no qualms about sending somebody down the road to another winery if they don’t like my product. We’ll find you something that you like.”

For what it’s worth, this group of traveling writers liked Adam Puchta wines quite a bit. But his comments speak to an attitude prevalent among Missouri wine makers. They don’t care whose wines you buy just as long as you’re drinking Missouri wine.

“One of the things we try to do here at the winery is promote a wine culture. We want people to drink wine,” says Puchta, whose Bavarian ancestors considered wine an essential part of everyday life.

Bunches of wineries

One thing clear on this trip is that Missouri is not lacking for places to sample wines. We have 52 wineries in this state, the 10th highest number of any state in the nation. Many of Missouri’s wineries are grouped in clusters (that’s a little grape lingo). This makes it easy to plan a day trip exploring a wine region. The Hermann and Augusta districts are well-known. New on the scene is Ste. Genevieve’s “Route du Vin,” an easy 40-mile loop linking five wineries near this French settlement south of St. Louis.

The shining star in this region is Crown Valley. Seemingly overnight, local entrepreneur Joe Scott built a state-of-the-art 44,000-square-foot winery on a 330-acre estate near Coffman. With a French winemaker and a facility that rivals any in California’s Napa Valley, Crown Valley is a
must-see.

Three remaining area wineries couldn’t be more varied. Chaumette Vineyard and Winery is upscale and sophisticated. At Charleville Vineyard (and micro-brewery) tastings are held in a small metal building and the owners will likely show you a log cabin they’re restoring. Cave Winery features a picnic area in a cave.

Diversity is the hallmark of Missouri wineries. There are large production facilities like St. James Winery (which recently overtook Stone Hill as the state’s No. 1 wine seller) and tiny boutique wineries like Katie and Clyde Gill’s Peaceful Bend near Steelville.

Some wineries — such as Les Bourgeois in Rocheport, Native Stone near Jefferson City and OakGlenn near Hermann — offer stunning vistas. Other wineries are steeped in history. Tour the arched stone cellars at Hermann’s Stone Hill or Hermannhof wineries and you’ll step back to Missouri’s pre-Prohibition days when the state was America’s No. 2 winemaker and Stone Hill was the third largest winery in the world.

Food, wine and travel writers on a tour of Missouri’s wineries take notes while Paul LeRoy, winemaker at Hermann’s Hermannhof Vineyards pours a sample. The group tasted more than 100 wines at 18 wineries in four days..

The Adam Puchta and Son Wine Company turns 150 this year, making it the state’s oldest continually operating family winery (if you count a few years of illicit winemaking). Even relatively new player OakGlenn is rich in tradition. This winery features an 1850s cellar built by George Hussman, the man who shipped all that rootstock to France.

Clearly, Missouri’s wineries offer something for everyone.

“The Missouri wine industry is so diverse,” says Mary-Colleen Tinney, of Wine Business Monthly. “If you’re looking for a good time and a great view, a place like Les Bourgeois is a great place to go. If you’re interested in the big tasting rooms you’ve got Mount Pleasant and Chaumette. If you just want to be stunned with what a winery can do, go to Crown Valley.”

Eighteen wineries in four days? Few people will ever attempt such a hedonistic adventure but a day or weekend spent in one of Missouri’s wine regions is time well-spent.

Frankly, I was blown away. I thought because I had been to Hermann and Augusta I knew about Missouri’s wine industry. I had no idea of the growth and dedication taking place. I was glad my out-of-state companions saw it, too.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Tinney. “I didn’t expect to see such an influx of people, planting vines and creating wineries. They seem to be pretty gung-ho about recreating the wine industry they had before Prohibition. That’s a great thing.”

For a map and complete listing of Missouri’s wineries write the Missouri Grape & Wine Program, P.O. Box 630, Jefferson City, MO 65102; log onto www.missouriwine.org or call 1-800-392-9463.

 

The Critics' Choices

We asked the writers who toured Missouri's wineries to reflect on their favorite wines and wineries. Some made up their own categories. One writer, a member of the Missouri Grape and Wine Program's Advisory Board, declined to take sides. Otherwise, what follows are their impressions:

Donna Marchetti
TheWineBuzz, Cleveland, Ohio

Favorite wines:
Stone Hill Missouri Champagne
Peaceful Bend Late Harvest Chardonel
Adam Puchta Norton

Favorite wineries:
Showcase winery: Crown Valley (Ste. Genevieve).
“Salt of the Earth": Peaceful Bend (Steelville).

"To get a good picture of Missouri wines and the history of Missouri wines all in one experience, I think my choice would be Hermannhof.”

Mary-Colleen Tinney
Wine Business Monthly, Sonoma, Calif.

Favorite wine:
Hermannhof Norton

“Tim Puchta’s wines are awesome. Mount Pleasant’s wines are really good. I think Crown Valley has some really good wines, too. Hermannhof had great wines. A lot of the Hermann wineries had great wines.”

Favorite wineries:
Overall (Tie): — Mount Pleasant (Augusta)/Hermannhof (Hermann)
Scenic: OakGlenn (Hermann)
Fun: Les Bourgeois (Rocheport)

Renie Steves
Wine/travel writer, wine judge, cooking school owner,
Fort Worth, Texas

Favorite wines:
Stone Hill Missouri Champagne
Augusta Vidal Blanc
Hermannhof Norton
Hermannhof Chambercin
Mount Pleasant Vintage Port
Sainte Genevieve Winery Cranberry

Favorite wineries:
“Native Stone and Peaceful Bend. Hermannhof was my overall favorite, without a doubt.”

James Fashing
photojournalist and grape grower, board member of the Missouri Grape Growers Association, Columbia, Mo.

Favorite wines:
Adam Puchta Norton
Peaceful Bend Late Harvest Chardonel
OakGlenn White Port

Favorite wineries:
“I’d say the quintessential Missouri wineries would be one of the Hermann ones, either Hermannhof or Stone Hill. Hermannhof was a pleasant surprise. The cellars were awesome and the winemaker was genuine. Probably Hermahoff was my favorite.
The neatest one would have to be Crown Valley. But two that I liked that were the most friendly were Peaceful Bend and St. Genevieve.”

Finally, the view of a non-expert . . .

Bob McEowen
Rural Missouri managing editor, Jefferson City, Mo.

Favorite wines:
Adam Puchta Norton
Hermannhof Vignoles
Stone Hill Seyval

Favorite wineries:
Hermannhof remains one of my favorite Missouri wineries, not just for its wines but for its historic charm. Hermannhof's cellars are rivaled only by those of Stone Hill. In my view, Stone Hill deserves its reputation as Missouri's flagship winery. Stone Hill's Hermann location has it all — scenery, historic cellars, a great restaurant and excellent wines. Furthermore, the Held family deserves recognition for what they've done to resurrect the Missouri wine industry.

 

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