The folks who founded Chandler Hill Vineyards know the value of a good story.

Located near Defiance, Mo., just down the road from the historic Daniel Boone home, one of Missouri’s newest wineries overlooks the Femme Osage River Valley. And according to Chuck Gillentine, CEO of Chandler Hill, the complex history of the land is as crucial to wine production as sunlight.

“This land was owned by a man named Fluesmeier who fought in the Civil War – first on the Union and then on the Confederate side,” says Gillentine, who co-founded Chandler Hill in 2008. “Somehow a freed slave named Joseph Chandler made his way to the property in the 1870s and worked for the Fluesmeier family. Eventually Mr. Fluesmeier deeded him the 40 acres that is now Chandler Hill. It was during our construction that we learned Chandler once planted grapes on the property.”

FEAST TV: Head with us to Hermann, Mo., for more on the Missouri wine industry's booming pre-Prohibition days and a special visit to Adam Puchta Winery.

During the excavation of the land, Gillentine ran across stones that used to be Chandler’s cabin along with artifacts. The stones are piled in the parking lot and serve as part of a bubbling waterfall, and the artifacts are proudly displayed inside the tasting room. Also, all of the winery’s Missouri wines are named after something on the property. There is the Fluesmeier Traminette (named after the original landowners), Old Bridge Chambourcin (named after the one-lane bridge over the Femme Osage Creek) and, most notably, Savage Norton (named after the Savage rifle found on the property). But this is more than just a simple marketing ploy. Gillentine knows that the soil and history create a context – a way to make the wine come to life.

“Giving the wine a story makes a difference,” says Gillentine. “I can talk to people about the hardy, savage Norton grape and the Savage rifle we found. You will see this in other wineries in our region. The labels tend to tell the story about the land.”

Scores of others connected to the Missouri wine industry also say the story matters. And with a growing number of consumers demanding opportunities to eat and drink locally produced food and beverages, understanding the role Missouri has played in the American wine industry is more relevant than ever.

“If there are people with prejudices against Missouri wine, I would encourage them to give it another try. Local products pair so perfectly with local grapes from farm to table to glass,” says Danene Beedle, marketing director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, a wine-industry stakeholders association responsible for researching, developing and promoting Missouri grapes, juices and wines. The Board is funded by tax on all wine sold in Missouri. Beedle gives the examples of pairing Missouri-raised grass-fed beef or lamb with Norton, locally sourced trout with Chardonel, and anything grilled with Chambourcin.

“Once local wine drinkers understand the history of Missouri wine, they will appreciate the product so much more,” says Beedle. “Missouri soil is prime for growing grapes. They may not be the [grape] names that you know, but we would not have designated viticultural areas if we did not have good grapes.”

As unlikely as it may seem, history reveals that grape growing and wine making are part of Missouri’s DNA.

THE POWER OF THE PEN AND A TYRANNICAL GOVERMENT

According to several local historians, today’s Missouri winery owners are the sons and daughters of one man: Gottfried Duden. In their homeland, Germans were facing overcrowding, a struggling economy and tyrannical leadership. Duden, a German lawyer and writer who eventually settled in Dutzow, Mo., traveled to Missouri in the 1820s. He became enamored with the scenery and the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. In his Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America, his propaganda-like tome published in 1829 in Germany and widely distributed through Europe, he expounded on the fertile virtues of the countryside, how it reminded him of his native home near the Rhine River and how it would be the perfect place for scores of German families. Apparently they took his advice.

“At one point he did make mention of the grapevines he found growing native here and how lush and hardy they were,” says Dorris Keeven-Franke, archivist at the St. Charles County Historical Society and a blood relative of one of the German families that Duden wooed to the area. “The Germans who then settled in the towns of Hermann, Augusta and Dutzow were making wine as early as 1832.”

Predating much of the German settlement activity, French immigrants had been planting grapes in communities along the Mississippi River since the late 18th century. By the 1830s, around the time the German settlers arrived, French Canadian settlers in Ste. Genevieve began to produce wine.

THE SHOW-ME STATE STARTS TO SHOW ITS STUFF 

By 1847 Stone Hill Winery was established in Hermann, and around that same time Friedrick Muench led an exploratory trip into Missouri to search for native vines. He and his brother, George Muench, founded Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta in 1859. The Missouri winemaking industry was well under way – Stone Hill alone was producing over 1 million gallons of wine per year with native American and French hybrid varietals.

But, according to Michael Leonardelli, enology extension associate with the Grape and Wine Institute at the University of Missouri, the thing that really brought Missouri to international prominence was a sap-sucking aphid known as phylloxera.

It seems the early explorers had taken back to their homeland in Europe several grapevines and had unknowingly also transported phylloxera. Once those insects jumped to vinifera (European) rootstock, the widespread devastation of French vineyards occurred at an alarming rate. Enter Missourian Charles Valentine Riley. According to Beedle, Riley saved the French wine industry by grafting phylloxera-immune American roots to the vinifera varietals that thrived in Europe. The new hardy American roots were shipped overseas and the epidemic was halted.

“The French reciprocated with a statue honoring the Missourians for saving France’s winemaking industry,” says Dianna Graveman, a historian and co-author of Missouri Wine Country: St. Charles to Hermann. “I always thought this was pretty generous of the French considering the root-destroying insect came from America in the first place.”

This development brought international respect to the Missouri wine industry. That degree of respect is reflected in the sheer number of wineries and the level of wine production. According to Leonardelli, Missouri was the leading producer of grapes by the 1880s. By the turn of the 20th century, Stone Hill Winery was the second largest in the United States and third in the world and had won eight gold medals at various world fairs.

GRAPE-STAINED STREETS 

What happened next is the saddest chapter in Missouri’s wine history: the 18th Amendment. Legend has it that the brick roads of Hermann were blood red with wine and busted oak barrels lined the sidewalks. Prohibition not only stopped Missouri wine production but also sent the local economy backward.

“Vines were removed from the ground, so there was no chance of any wine being produced,” says Leonardelli. “Some of the wineries, like Stone Hill, started using their cellars for mushrooms. It takes at least three years to get good production from grapevines. And right after Prohibition we had the Great Depression and World War II. So the Missouri wine industry didn’t [begin to] come back until the 1960s.”

RISING AGAIN FROM THE MUSHROOM CELLARS 

It was more than two generations after Prohibition when Missouri wineries began to reappear – many of them with different families. Peter Hofherr was just a young boy when his father founded St. James Winery in 1970. He can still recall making trips over to Stone Hill, which reopened in 1965, to help them clean out the cellars and make them ready for wine production.

“Back in the ’70s it was unusual to have a winery, so people would stop just for the novelty of it,” says Hofherr, CEO of St. James, one of Missouri’s largest wineries. “Most people didn’t even know that wineries existed in Missouri at that time.”

Some of the novelty, however, wore off by June 20, 1980, when Augusta became the country’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA). An AVA is a designated wine-grape-growing region with certain qualities (such as soil composition and sunlight) and with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the Department of the Treasury. This is kind of a big deal considering that it beat out Napa Valley by almost three years. Other Missouri AVAs include Hermann AVA (which makes up Gasconade and Franklin counties – 1987), Ozark Mountain AVA (southwest Missouri – 1986) and Ozark Highlands AVA (near St. James – 1987).

Armed with designated areas and a growing consumer demand, oenophiles who had been amateurs began to create new wineries. And this acceleration of new wineries throughout the state has increased in the last 10 years or so. In 2002 there were something like 70 wineries. According to the Wine and Grape Board, Missouri saw its 100th winery established in 2011 and today there are more than 120 of them. While leading states such as California and New York have been reducing their wine production, the gallons produced in Missouri continue to climb at a rate of 16 percent per year.

“Missouri has long quietly played a major role not only in the U.S. but in the international wine industry, contributing the rootstock that allowed the French wine industry to recover from phylloxera in the 19th century and today producing the wood in which wine is aged in many parts of the world,” says Leonardelli.

COMING OF AGE ... AGAIN 

In the basement of a First Bank in Warrenton, Mo., amateur winemakers from Missouri, Kansas, Indiana and Illinois gather for the Missouri Valley Wine Competition, hosted by the Missouri Valley Wine Society. This year there were a record 376 entries. Many of the wine makers, including Bob Truetken, have entrepreneurial aspirations. Truetken, president of the Missouri Valley Wine Society, plans to open Deerfield Vineyards in Warrenton this coming summer.

“I think that the industry is just gonna get bigger and bigger,” he says. “Within five years you could see 300 wineries in Missouri. And I think that is a good thing. There is important work being done at the University of Missouri to develop better rootstock and produce even better varietals, so the grapes will yield better results down the road.”

And it is this stepping up of the game that interests Hofherr, who currently serves as chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. When he gazes at the landscape, he is hopeful, but his enthusiasm is tempered with some realities. There is increased pressure from international wine and spirits companies, a shrinking market share with more small wineries and continued misconceptions about Missouri wine – namely that it is only made in sweet styles. Additionally, consumers are generally not familiar with the flavors and aromas of wines made from varietals that grow well in Missouri. He remains, however, hopeful that with continued cooperation among wineries, the future will be bright.

“What you have now are an increasing number of people who grew up and have been professionally trained in the industry. We are not the mom-and-pops that we used to be,” says Hofherr. “We need to work together [as an industry] to have a bigger voice for policies and to make our industry better. Cooperation floats all boats.”

Recently, industry cooperation has become more formalized. In 2003, the Missouri Wine and Grape Board was created to support and promote Missouri’s winemaking and grape-growing industries. Out of that mission, the board turned to the University of Missouri which has one of the country’s top plant science research labs, to create the Wine and Grape Institute of Missouri. Since its foundation in 2006, the institute has already become a leader in the research of continental climate and its affect on grape varietals. They also offer experts like Leonardelli to act as extension agents and offer a professional support system for local winery owners.

“Wine is an emotional product, and the love of it can make people irrational,” says Hofherr. “They may be enjoying the process and the product, but if you want to start a winery, then you are talking about a complicated business. You have agricultural production, retail and wholesale businesses wrapped in one. Passion may propel the industry, but we need partnerships to get better.”

NO LONGER THE RODNEY DANGERFIELD OF WINE 

If the history of Missouri wine does not propel you to pop open a bottle, then take it from Doug Frost, a Kansas City-based sommelier. Frost is one of three individuals in the world to simultaneously hold the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles.

“Missouri has led the way with critically important Midwestern grapes such as Norton, Chambourcin, Traminette, Valvin Muscat, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles and Seyval Banc,” says Frost. “These grapes also prevail in other regions, but the Midwest is nearly completely dependent upon them, while the rest of the country dabbles in them. These hybrid grapes offer the way forward for two-thirds to three-quarters of the states in America. Missouri has been the benchmark and has proven that these grapes can produce high-quality wine.”


Excerpts from the Hermann Wochenblatt Newspaper 

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, October 3, 1845

“... if a cellar is a main requirement of obtaining a good wine, in relationship to this, again no area can be better suited for this than Hermann, where nature herself has formed the most beautiful rock cellars, so that several of them can be used without turning a hand for improvement. So it seems not to be an overstatement when we say, after surveying and considering everything, that nature gives us a definite sign to turn to viniculture, because we find everything here that is needed for this.”

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, October 3, 1845

“... if a cellar is a main requirement of obtaining a good wine, in relationship to this, again no area can be better suited for this than Hermann, where nature herself has formed the most beautiful rock cellars, so that several of them can be used without turning a hand for improvement. So it seems not to be an overstatement when we say, after surveying and considering everything, that nature gives us a definite sign to turn to viniculture, because we find everything here that is needed for this.”

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, October 24, 1845

“Many wild grapes have been grafted by local residents and were left standing where they were growing in the middle of the forest, and we promise ourselves very interesting results in a few years. It is regrettable, though, that these vines usually grew into the top of the trees and then have to be cut down to harvest the grapes, which is bound to reduce the harvest in a few years. … Hopefully by that time we are going to have enough cultivated grape plants that there won’t be any more demand for wild grapes.”

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, October 31, 1845

“Equally when one comes from large cities one must miss the assortment of daily food stuffs (victuals) which one finds there in open markets everyday. We don’t have fresh meat everyday, which some people often think they can’t do without in this meat eating country. Yes, it happens quite frequently that during the hot season our hausmutter (house mothers) have to make do for weeks with serving us all kinds of other dishes than meat containing meals. But that does not scare a good housewife and it would not even upset her if a guest would enter unexpectedly, who − unless he belonged to the French gourmets or was a professor of the art of gourmet cooking − would still have every reason to be satisfied with our cooking. ...Very many residents cultivate their own gardens, which are connected to each house in Hermann, with all varieties of vegetables, which are in demand and we lack nothing here, except maybe asparagus. ... In the hot season we do not need any ice to cool our water, but we go directly to the spring in the neighborhood, where we fetch the cool crystal clear water to drink and forget the heat of the summer.”

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, October 17, 1845

“It is regrettable indeed that not more attention has been paid to the wild grapes, which grow in Missouri in abundance and which they may well deserve. But that they really deserve it must be clear to anyone who drank wine which was made from the pressed juice of these grapes. Here in Hermann between seven and eight barrels of wine has [been] made from wild grapes by varied persons and we can admit that we were surprised when we brought it to our tongues, and if we hadn’t seen the proof with our own eyes, we would never have believed it, that this was wine from wild grapes.”

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, October 3, 1845

“...We can accomplish it easily in this country, that all import of wine from Europe comes to an end, especially since the vines which we plant here give a juice (wine) which surpasses most European wines in quality, and if not that, it is of equal quality. Moreover, it should be mentioned that this branch of agriculture gives the Germans who live here an advantage over their native fellow citizens because many of the former have been familiar from their youth on with viniculture in their old homeland.”

– From Hermann Wochenblatt, November 14, 1845

“It has to be acknowledged that the residents of our settlement are putting much activity and energy into making viniculture a considerable branch of agriculture here in the course of a few years. … Our hills, which frequently have been joked about − and in some respects justifiably so − will still grant us a more comfortable and profitable existence than other areas, which have been called superior because of their location and quality of ground.”

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