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EUREKA, MO.

How Claverach Farm Pushes Winemaking Boundaries in Missouri

Sam Hilmer makes natural wine using hand-harvested European and French-American hybrid grapes

  • 10 min to read

Something about Claverach Farm seems almost magical. Not in the idyllic, pastoral way you might expect of a small farm – owners Sam Hilmer and Rachel Shulman have no illusions or sentimentality about the long hours, taxing physical labor and very real challenges that modern farmers face. The magic is that these two people, with the help of just one part-time field worker, are able to maintain a 300-acre farm in Eureka, Missouri, and grow “every vegetable you can imagine,” plus five acres of wine grapes. The magic is that Hilmer, the winemaker, can make natural wine (wine with minimal chemical or technological intervention) using hand-harvested grapes he’s grown in Missouri’s extreme heat. The magic is that his wines are garnering recognition from winemakers and oenophiles across the country and world.

Hilmer has been making wine for the better part of 20 years, but always in small volumes. Now, with a natural-wine distribution company in operation and even more unique offerings on the horizon, Claverach is poised to work more of its magic on the local wine industry.

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The land where Claverach is located today has been in Hilmer’s family since the 1890s. He was raised there, although both of his parents worked jobs off of the farm and only raised a small herd of cattle. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s – much to his mother’s dismay – that Hilmer took up vegetable farming as a full-time job. By 1997, he’d planted his first grapevines.

“I decided I wanted a farm, and my mom pretty much wanted to kill me – ‘You can’t be serious,’” Hilmer recalls with a laugh. “The big question is how to make a living on a farm like this. That’s been my main question since I became an adult, but I’ve stayed with it.”

For the most part, Hilmer has used sustainable farming practices on his family’s land from the beginning, whether growing tomatoes or Chambourcin grapes. He uses minimal chemicals, and plants, prunes and harvests every grapevine by hand. Because Claverach is a small operation, this approach has so far proved manageable, although highly labor intensive and time consuming, especially in Missouri’s climate, which can prove challenging for some grape varieties.

“The viticulture – really putting in the work in the vineyard, and putting the care in to the quality there was what really motivated me,” Hilmer says. “That’s my focus – really getting to know what the grapevines need. It’s a long season, so you have to be there from the very beginning and nurture the vines along.”

It took Hilmer about three seasons for the vines to yield fruit, which is typical of grape growing. He admits he made a lot of mistakes in those early days and struggled along until 2000, when he made his first wine. Three years later, Hilmer made what he considers his first true natural wine. Natural wine is generally regarded as one made with limited chemical or technological intervention, in both the vineyard and the winemaking process, although there’s no official definition.

He’s applied the same low-intervention approach ever since, eschewing the chemicals commonly used in winemaking, such as sulfur dioxide, which is used to kill unwanted yeasts or bacteria and safeguard wine against oxidation.

“That style of not manipulating the product really spoke to me, and [chemical and technological manipulation] really didn’t,” Hilmer says. “I knew that the quality of the raw material was paramount; you have to grow grapes that are as ripe as possible, as clean as possible and they have to taste good if you want to make wines that aren’t manipulated.”

Far from a new trend, this style of grape growing and winemaking is as old as the first cask of wine. Some of the oldest and most well-regarded wineries in Europe exclusively produce natural wine, simply because that’s always how it’s been done. Over the past century, though, grape growing has seen the same modern changes as any other agricultural crop, with chemical intervention both in the vineyard (spraying to prevent diseases, mildew, mold and pests) and in the cellar (again, the addition of chemicals like sulfur dioxide).

In the past 15 years, there’s been a growing movement among vintners to return to this natural style of grape growing and winemaking. This has led many winemakers to explore historical styles of wine, including the French méthode ancestrale to produce pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat. To make a pét-nat, wine is bottled before primary fermentation has finished, resulting in natural bubbles with no added sugar.

The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov hailed the return of pét-nat just this March, featuring 20 from around the world. “This informal, unpretentious sparkling wine, which can be made from an untold number of grapes in styles ranging from hazy, unfiltered and full of sediment to clean-as-a-whistle, has caught on all over the winemaking world,” he wrote.

Hilmer has been making pét-nats at Claverach since 2015; that first year, he produced three: a white, red and rosé. “I’ve always been drawn to wines that are more eccentric,” he says.

Claverach makes both sparkling pét-nats and still (non-sparkling) wines. Plenty of other wineries across the country produce natural wines and pét-nats – in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, New York, Vermont, for example – but Hilmer is pioneering them in Missouri.

“It’s a little nuts trying to make natural wine in Missouri, because there’s so much that can go wrong,” Hilmer says. “The Midwest is not predictable; that’s the one thing you can bet on.”

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Many of the grapes grown at Claverach are Vitis vinifera, a species commonly cultivated in Europe, including Cabernet Franc, Petit Manseng, Marselan and Cabernet Sauvignon. Like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these grapes are grown in some of the most well-regarded wine regions in the world, yet they’re rarely raised for commercial winemaking in Missouri.

European grape varieties flourish in climates with a moderate year-round temperature and a mostly dry grape-growing season, so while they thrive in say, Napa, Sonoma or Alsace, places that remain cool and dry for much of the spring and summer, they tend to wilt in Missouri’s summer heat and humidity. Spring also brings challenges in the Midwest; if a cold spell hits after bud break, it can wreak havoc in the vineyard. This is especially true of the low-intervention wines that Hilmer produces, as he doesn’t filter them or use fining agents to chemically reduce bitterness and astringency.

To better imitate the elevated, rocky slopes in Europe where Vitis vinifera varieties thrive, Hilmer recently planted Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec on a stretch of limestone on a hill on the farm. Shulman says preparing the vineyard required breaking up large pieces of limestone to create holes in the rock for young grapevines. She and Hilmer expect the vineyard to yield higher-quality grapes than those grown in a flat field, as this isn’t the first time they’ve planted European grapes in Missouri limestone.

“We’ve found that when you grow grapes in rocks, not only is the quality of the fruit better, but the grapes are just generally happier, so you don’t have to spray as much,” Shulman says. “What’s happened in the past, if you didn’t spray those baby vines, after it rains, they lose all their leaves and die because they’re so sensitive to mildew and mold. But because they were grown on rocks, and because Sam was really dialed into the nutrition he put out into this field for the grapes, we didn’t have to spray them once, and they were some of the healthiest-looking vines on the farm.”

One of the reasons that production at Claverach is so limited is because Hilmer and Shulman spend a lot of time in the vineyard with their grapes; this is true of all of the varietals that they grow, but especially the Vitis vinifera.

“Our focus is on growing clean fruit,” Shulman says. “That’s why we hand-harvest all of our grapes. Every vine needs to be touched at least 10 times a season – every single vine. So it’s a ton of labor.”

In places like Napa Valley or the Loire Valley of France, these European grapes naturally thrive. However, in Missouri’s climate, many grape growers plant hybrid grapes, which are crosses between more sensitive European varieties and hardier native American grapes like Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia. These native vines are naturally resistant to harsher temperatures, rain and other weather conditions and pests.

Hybrid grapes yield fruit that grows well in more rugged climates and can be used to make exceptional wine. Chardonel, a popular grape grown in Missouri, for example, is a cross between French Chardonnay and hardy Seyval Blanc, itself a French-American hybrid. Like its Chardonnay parent, Chardonel is often aged in oak and used to make dry, buttery white wine.

“Grown carefully, hybrids like Chambourcin, Chardonel, Traminette and Valvin Muscat can really make great wine,” Hilmer says. “I grow Chambourcin, which I feel is a fairly versatile grape, and can make some pretty decent wine if you treat it properly in the vineyard.”

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The ability to experiment and push the limits of what’s possible to grow in Missouri is part of what drew Hilmer to making natural wine almost a decade ago.

This spring, the winery is releasing two new products rarely made in Missouri: a white and red vermouth. Both start with a base of blended wine infused with herb and root tinctures made with fresh ingredients grown on the farm. Some of the aromatics are sourced elsewhere – like the blood oranges Hilmer uses to make bitters for the vermouth – but he sources as much from the farm as possible.

“I’ve always grown various herbs on the farm, and I started making tinctures out of them because I thought it would be a fun way to preserve them,” Hilmer says. “Vermouth has been in the consciousness of the food-and-beverage scene here recently, and I thought it would be a great use of the special things we grow here in the field.”

Both vermouths are fortified with grape brandy from Post Familie Vineyards in Altus, Arkansas, and sweetened with passito, or wine made from grapes that have been dried to concentrate their juice. In this case, Hilmer is using passito pressed from semi-dried Petit Manseng and Chambourcin.

“The passito balances the whole thing with [its] sweetness,” Hilmer says. “It’s a way to not have to add cane sugar or anything other than grape sugar; you’re not bringing in anything from the outside, sweetening-wise.”

The red vermouth is made with a base blend of Chambourcin, the white with a base blend of Bianca. As with sherry, these base blends are oxidized, meaning they’ve been exposed to oxygen. When Hilmer bottled the Bianca a couple of years ago, he intentionally left headspace in the tank to allow for such oxidation over time. “This wine is slightly oxidized in a charming way,” he says. “Oxidation isn’t really something to be avoided in making vermouth; it can actually help complexity.”

Like the renewed interest in pét-nat, vermouth and other fortified wines such as sherry have been increasing in popularity across the world, especially with bartenders.

“I think vermouth is the one that’s really speaking to the bar scene at the moment,” he says. “The world of fortified wines is really interesting, because it can be a signature of your place – where you are in the world and what you grow.”

Hilmer will produce 30 cases of each vermouth (for a total of about 800 bottles) and plans to sell them through retailers as well as to bars and restaurants. He bottled the vermouths this spring and hopes to release them in early summer.

Hilmer and Shulman also see a connection between the playfulness and resurgence of interest in pét-nat and vermouth with that of the modern American craft-beer movement, where the exploration of untraditional ingredients and brewing techniques is embraced and encouraged.

“Wine, compared to beer, is a much more rigid, traditional thing,” Hilmer says. “You look at the craft-beer industry, and there’s no place it won’t go. The imperative is: Is it good? Does it taste good? And in wine, people get freaked out if it doesn’t fit into a little box of what’s proper and what’s not. I think you’re seeing that strangeness in wine is being embraced a little more.”

As owners of a small-scale winery – what some may call a craft winery – Shulman says that she and Hilmer often discuss that disconnect between the local beer and wine communities.

“Why can’t wine have what beer has in terms of the craft scene?” Shulman says. “I wish people could get into and enjoy wine because it’s pleasurable, the same way they do beer, and not get so hung up on being scared or feeling intimidated by it.

“That’s one of the reasons that the pét-nat is fun for us – the whole idea of pét-nat is that it’s kind of irreverent. It’s a dirty wine: It’s unfiltered, cloudy, there’s schmutz on the bottom unless you disgorge it. That’s interesting to us, because it fits within this craft-wine model, where it’s not this polished, stodgy product.”

And at least in the wine industry, Claverach’s work is slowly gaining international attention. Recently, on a trip to Kansas City, French winemaker Éric Texier tasted Claverach’s still Chambourcin at a Kansas City restaurant, and shared a photo of the bottle on Instagram with the caption: “Chambourcin! I know a few old Ardechois [in south central France] farmers who would be delighted to drink this. F*** vinifera.”

Hilmer and Shulman may not agree with Texier’s blunt appraisal of Vitis vinifera, but given the rarity of Chambourcin and other hybrids on wine lists across the country and globe, they understand the spirit – perhaps the delight – in which it was written. Although French law prohibits grape growers from raising hybrid grapes for commercial wine production, Chambourcin and other crosses are still grown and used to make wine for personal consumption in France.

“[Texier] was amused by the fact that he was drinking Chambourcin in the U.S.,” Shulman says with a laugh.

In March, even more wine experts and enthusiasts got a taste of Hilmer’s work at Third Coast Soif, the second-annual natural-wine festival hosted in Chicago. The fest features natural wines made across the country and world; Claverach was the only Midwest winery invited to participate, joining small producers from Oregon, Washington, California, Utah and New York, as well as winemakers from Europe and Mexico. Hilmer poured his 2017 rosé pét-nat, made with a blend of all his grapes – hybrids and Vitis vinifera – for the 400 or 500 people at the festival.

“It’s like the crème de la crème of natural-wine producers in the world; I might be a little out of my league, but that’s OK,” Hilmer says. “I’ve been stuck on this idea of making wines that reflect this particular place and how to make them for a long time. It validates that focus; it makes me feel like I should keep doing this, because it's often challenging.”

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As Hilmer and Shulman’s attention and time are increasingly focused on winemaking and grape growing, they’ve had to reevaluate other elements of their work. Over the years, produce from the farm was sold to restaurants around town, but more recently that’s changed.

Today, all of the produce raised at Claverach either goes back into the business via dinners hosted at the farm’s barn event space – where Hilmer is the chef – or is stored for personal use. “Doing dinners as opposed to the farmers’ market has allowed us to grow ‘weird,’ high-labor products, like edible flowers,” Shulman says. “You could never take them to farmers’ markets because you’d just lose money on it.”

Perhaps the biggest change is the small natural-wine distribution company Shulman launched in 2016. In addition to selling Claverach’s limited stock of natural wines, Shulman sells natural wines from around the world to local restaurants and retailers.

To support their network of natural-wine producers, Claverach is taking a new approach to its farm dinners this year. Instead of hosting regular meals on Friday and Saturday nights at the farm as they have in the past, Shulman and Hilmer have scaled back to a few dinners a month, each in partnership with a different winery producing natural wine. The farm also hosts dinners with wine pairings for private events.

Whatever the format or frequency, the dinners are another part of the magic at Claverach. Guests get to see, taste and experience all of Hilmer and Shulman’s work come together directly on the farm, both on their plates and in their glasses. It’s a chance to form a deeper connection between where local food and drink really comes from, and to appreciate its freshness and unique flavor.

“Sometimes I feel foolhardy, like maybe I’m going in the wrong direction with this [winery] – it’s expensive, slow and in a certain way, a research project and an art project,” Hilmer says. “But ultimately I want it to lead to wines that make me proud, and maybe even surprise people [who] say, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know that was possible in Missouri.’ That’s really my passion.”

Claverach Farm, claverachfarm.com

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