By Paul Franson
from the January 2007 issue of Wines & Vines
Missouri has a thriving wine business, but it's challenging when
you're a new winery in a new wine region. The wineries in southeast
Missouri are in that situation, and their strategies for competing
offer excellent examples for other boutique wineries.
These strategies include food service, events and exploiting the
region's history. Crown
Valley Winery, for example, offers an array of attractions
probably unmatched anywhere, from its state-of-the-art vineyards
and winery to wine shops, antique stores, entertainment, a variety
of lodging, restaurants, a golf course—and a sanctuary for
History and Evolution
Now ranked 10th in wine production among the states, Missouri
was the nation's second-largest producer in the late 1900s, a legacy
of German immigrants who settled along the Missouri River between
St. Louis and Kansas City. They founded Hermann in
1837, and it once had 60 wineries. Italian immigrants settled near St.
James, and also planted grapes and made wine.
Prohibition killed the wine business, but it had a rebirth in
the 1960s. Now Missouri has 56 wineries and 1,200 acres of vineyards,
virtually all planted in French hybrid and native grapes.
Missouri's Modern Industry
Vintners have revived their old heritage, and the town of Hermann, "Missouri's
Rhine Village," now has seven wineries including 100,000-case
Stone Hill Winery, the state's most prominent. These complement
the town's German-themed restaurants, inns and shops. Hermann celebrates
Maifest and Oktoberfest and many occasions in between, attracting
visitors who also sample the local wines.
The wineries of Southeastern
Missouri—"Missouri's new wine country"—don't
have a wine heritage. Mostly created in the 21st century, they
sprouted as growers found a relatively benign climate, and now
almost a dozen are producing wine. It has been dubbed the Mississippi
River Hills by state agencies active in promoting the wine and
The biggest draw is Ste.
Genevieve, a town founded by French settlers in 1699. The
historic town contains homes and other buildings dating to the
French colonial period as well as Spanish and early American
times after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With numerous inns,
restaurants, historical sites and the inevitable antique stores,
Ste. Genevieve is a popular weekend getaway, and its wineries
take advantage of that mood.
Genevieve Winery is right in town. Offering free samples
of wines from local grapes and fruit, it also sells local food
and gift items. Ste. Genevieve's winemaker is Elaine Hoffmeister
Mooney, daughter of the owner and founder, and a graduate of
the wine program at California State University at Fresno.
Cape Girardeau is another interesting town along the Mississippi,
although the city has largely turned its back on the historic riverfront
in favor of shopping malls and other development. Nearby attractions
are Trail of Tears State Park, where many Cherokees perished during
their forced relocation to Oklahoma, Mastodon State Park and a
19th century grain mill.
The nearby wineries have each seemingly taken a different tack
toward attracting customers, and virtually all sell most of their
wine on site.
Antonio is a farm owned by an Italian-American family that
hosts weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations
in 19th century log cabins and outdoor pavilions. The family
has 7 acres of vines and is adding 4 or 5 more, hoping to eventually
have 15 acres of vineyards on the 40-acre farm. They are not
professionally trained winemakers, but make 1,200 cases of wines,
the most popular a sweet white.
Ridge Winery does have a restaurant, which serves meals outside.
The winery lies on 150 acres on a high ridge along the river,
on a long farm road far from anywhere. Owners Jerry and Johnnie
Smith bought the property in 1981 and planted grapes, building
a winery in 2000.
Jerry Smith says the area is a little more benign than central
Missouri. "It only drops to -2°F instead of -14°," he
says, noting that the area is becoming warmer. "We haven't
had a hard freeze in 20 years." They plant vines with the
graft just under the soil for protection against freezing and cover
the vines with straw, then dig them out each year.
Smith uses three trellis systems: bilateral cordons 6 ft. high
for hybrids; Geneva double curtain for Norton due to its high vigor
("It's like kudzu!"); and very low bilateral cordons
for vinifera, with vertical shoot positioning because of the winter
He claims the growing season is comparable to northern Napa Valley. "We
do have to deal with the rot and fungus," he admits. "The
flowable systemic fungicide Abound from Syngenta Corp. has worked
miracles for us—though it costs $255 per gallon," he
The winery produces about 5,000 gallons of mostly dry wine in
a modern facility featuring stainless steel tanks and French oak
barrels. Smith makes 70% of the wine from estate grapes, including
eight surviving Sauvignon Blanc vines of 25 planted 20 years ago.
He also grows Chardonnay, which was killed to near the ground a
few years ago but came back in two years.
He also spends $4,000 to $5,000 per year on bird netting; the
birds descend at 17 to 18% sugar.
Winery has a large natural cave used for a tasting room and
for functions during the hot Missouri summer, but the large opening
causes wide temperature fluctuations and it's not suitable for
The winery has 14 acres of vines in four varieties, including Traminette, Chardonel, Norton and Chambourcin.
The newly built, 6,000 sq.-ft. modern winery produces about 1,600
cases, but has the capacity for far more. Marty and Mary Jo Strussion
bought the property for retirement, not intending to get into the
wine business, but it soon seemed compelling. One of the popular
specialties in their tasting room is an "Italian ice" made
with sweet wines.
Vineyards and Winery is owned by Hank Johnson, who bought
the 310-acre property in 1990 and put in vines "as a lark."
He has a grapevine nursery, and says he's even shipped Norton
to California, perhaps to growers spooked about Pierce's disease,
to which the vine is resistant. Among his other ventures, Johnson
is experimenting with 130 Eastern European grape varieties to see
if any could thrive in Missouri's continental climate.
Johnson recently started building a spa and 27 small vacation
homes that can be rented when not used by the owners.
Vineyard and Winery has been growing grapes for 11 years,
and making wine for four. It has a rustic B&B with two bedrooms
in a cabin built in the 1860s. Owners Joelle and Jack Russell
also added a microbrewery that is popular on warm days to supplement
That brings us to Crown Valley Winery, which is in a class by
itself. A modern new facility, it's comparable to anything found
in California in equipment, materials and processing. The 44,000
sq.-ft. building, opened in 2003, contains 39 stainless steel tanks
that can hold 110,000 gallons of wine. Cellars hold 800 barrels.
The winery has Willmes and Bucher presses, processed 427 tons of
fruit last year and produced 36,000 cases this year.
The winery filters all wines to 0.45 micron to remove yeasts,
since so many are sweet. Australian winemaker Daniel Alcorso says, "It's
not enough to make good wines for Missouri. We want to make good
The 600-acre property includes 165 acres of vines, mostly hybrids
and natives, as well as 25 acres of black- berries and raspberries.
It claims the largest Norton plantings in the United States. The
vines are harvested by machine—winery owner Joe Scott, Sr.,
also owns the local John Deere dealership—including a $225,000
Korvan harvester for grapes. Operations manager Bryan Siddle claims
it's the only mechanical grape harvester in Missouri, and adds
that it's already paid for itself by saving labor costs. The winery
has a smaller, $91,000 picker for blackberries. Crown Valley is
also experimenting with 20 acres of 40 other varieties of vinifera
vines, including Viognier and Syrah, with the state university.
The winery buys about 15 to 18% of its fruit from California, and
offers many European varietals in its tasting room and retail shop.
It is building another winery to produce sparkling wines, which
would be the state's first.
Scott doesn't miss any bets to attract visitors—and wine
buyers. The property includes exotic animals, and visitors can
tour it (for a charge). A deli serves food. Overall, "Crown
Country" includes four B&Bs, three restaurants (one very
upscale), an 18-hole golf course, two hotels, three antique shops,
the winery—and its unique sanctuary for tigers rescued from
commercial exhibits, performers and misguided individuals. Most
of the structures have been built or acquired in the last few years.
Fighting a hostile climate, these wineries in the Mississippi
River Hills are taking various approaches to create a wine country
in Southeastern Missouri. Some seem sure to prove that you don't
have to be in Napa Valley to succeed.
written by Paul Franson,
of Wines & Vines magazine
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