By Charles Reineke
of MU's Illumination
The French call it terroir, a practically untranslatable word
describing how that nation's special soil imparts subtle, sophisticated
qualities of taste to their wine. Of course, France being France,
the term also means much, much more.
Terroir is dirt: clay or sand, gravel or chalk. It is climate:
sun-blasted plains or foggy coasts, crisp Alpine cold or humid
Mediterranean heat. Terroir is how water flows during a rainstorm,
the angle of the sun against a hillside and the direction of the
wind in late summer. English wine critic Hugh Johnson has described
terroir as the "whole ecology of the vineyard: every aspect
of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts to autumn mists,
not excluding the way the vineyard is tended, not even the soul
of the vigneron."
Like few other Americans, Elizabeth
Barham, an assistant professor
at MU, can appreciate both the value of terroir and the worth of
the not-so-humble vigneron who tends the vines.
As a youth she studied French culture and language, eventually
perfecting her skills at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Université de
Provence in Aix-en-Provence. As a doctoral student from Cornell,
she spent months in the French countryside, examining how the long,
sometimes painful adoption of cooperative food and wine production
and sophisticated marketing have helped to make French wine, cheese
and other high-value farm products the envy of the world. For her
contributions to ensuring the continued vitality of that system,
the French government in 2004 named her a Knight in the Agricultural
Order of Merit.
Unlike other scholars fascinated by the mystique of France's great
cuisines, however, Barham confesses her investigations have always
had something of an ulterior motive. Barham believes producers
of new-world food products, winemakers chief among them, are creating
delicacies every bit as distinctive as those of their European
peers. And that many of those producers are Missourians. Sacre
It's time, Barham goes on to say, that Missouri's winemakers and
small farmers take a page from the French, banding together to
produce and market items whose names become so synonymous with
the virtues of the local terroir d'exception that they would bear
its name, or appellation, exclusively. The French, she adds, think
this is a great idea.
"They have, in fact, been the biggest supporters of all countries,
including our own, for adopting systems of label of origin, appellations
or 'geographical indications' in World Trade Organization-speak," Barham
says. Missouri doesn't have the traditions of Europe, she concedes. "But
we have a great deal of regional environmental sensitivity and
information. Our challenge now is to get Missouri's regional producers
thinking collectively, not just thinking of one another as competition."
Consider the experience of Champagne, Barham says, the region
of northern France where growers and winemakers long ago banded
together to proclaim the uniqueness of their bubbly white wine.
Thanks to these efforts, and a century-old treaty signed in Madrid,
a winemaker can make what he believes to be an equally wonderful
bubbly in the Spanish Penedès, Italy's Tuscan Hills, or
anywhere else one might grow a reasonable approximation of French
chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. He can carefully ferment and
blend the fruit, pour it into a bottle, perform the remuage, complete
the dégorgement, age it in a cellar, then pop the cork and
shout "Happy New Year." But unless the label says Champagne
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), meaning it's
been certified as produced in and according to the standards of
Champagne and the French Republic, all the world knows it's nothing
but sparkling wine.
"I wrote a paper about the French concept of terroir, about
how, yes, there is this concept and it sounds pretty nifty," Barham
says. "But terroir actually has an institutional embodiment
in their appellation system and the way that they administer that.
Administering an appellation isn't an easy thing to do. They have
hundreds of professionals who work on it. But I'd like to see us
construct something similar in this country."
With this in mind, just over three years ago Barham launched what
she called the Missouri
Regional Cuisines Project, a program aimed
at helping Missouri winemakers, small farmers, chefs and artisans
use this "regional environmental sensitivity" to develop
and market up-scale products that will, one day, carry an internationally
recognized Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée of their
very own. "The reason we're starting with wine as the lead
product is that the appellation systems that you see in Europe
all started with wine," Barham says. "That's because
nobody questioned that wine was affected by where it came from."
On a crowded tabletop in her Gentry Hall office, Barham unfolds
a colorful map representing what she and her colleagues have dubbed
the Mississippi River Hills Region. The map, designed in consultation
with faculty and staff from MU's College of Agriculture, Food and
Natural Resources, MU Extension, the Missouri Department of Agriculture's
Grape and Wine Program and other related groups, delimits a six-county
area that Barham hopes will give birth to the first of Missouri's
"A lot of people here in Missouri don't realize the scale
and quality of the state's wine industry," she says. "I
think people would be really surprised. Of course, once they get
out and start visiting the wineries they learn quickly: Missouri
is becoming well respected on the national and even global scene
for the wines we're producing."
One of those producers, Hank Johnson, is the owner of the 310-acre
Chaumette Vineyards and Winery near Coffman, Mo., in Ste. Genevieve
County. Johnson was one of the first to get on board with Barham's
plan to develop a Mississippi River Hills appellation. He remains
a passionate supporter.
"We feel like we owe a great debt to Beth for what she's
already accomplished. There is a lot of enthusiasm for this project,
a lot of momentum," Johnson says over a glass of what he describes
as one of Chaumette's signature wines, an Estate Chardonel bottled
Chardonel is a cold-climate-friendly hybrid born of chardonnay
and seyval blanc, a grape that is itself a hybrid of two distinct
species. When vinified by talented winemakers, chardonel can make
a wonderfully unpretentious white wine. This bottle of Chaumette
Estate Chardonel, for example, has a lovely golden color and the
faint aroma of ripe pear. It tastes of citrus and pineapple, with
a crisp, slightly acidic finish that complements lighter fare.
Chardonel, along with the North American-native Norton grape,
have become the two most promising fruits for winemakers throughout
the Midwest. Johnson is particularly excited about selling Americans
on the virtues of Norton, a disease-resistant, full-bodied, red
wine grape that is particularly rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant
scientists say could have health benefits. "Stop and think
about it," Johnson says. "Ten years ago, who ever heard
of Shiraz? Fifteen years ago, who had ever heard of Zinfandel?
In 1975 there were fewer than 1,000 acres of Chardonnay in California,
now it's 25 percent of their entire market. So there have been
new names to emerge in the national marketplace."
Next big thing or not, bottlings of Norton, along with chardonel
and grape varieties such as Vignoles, Chambourcin, Catawba and
Concord, have contributed to a recent jump in Missouri wine sales.
Last year, according to statistics from the Missouri Wine and Grape
Board, a state government-sponsored promotional organization, close
to 60 wineries produced around 600,000 gallons, an increase of
20 percent over the last three years.
Make no mistake, sales of Missouri wines are not poised to overtake
their more famous peers. According to the San Francisco-based Wine
Institute, in 2005 California producers bottled and sold an estimated
532 million gallons of wine. French winemakers, still the leaders
in world production, more than doubled California's output. Add
to that record wine exports from relative newcomers such as Australia,
New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, and you have got
a true embarrassment of enological riches.
Still, Mississippi River Hills winery owners such as Johnson,
a former St. Louis insurance executive, remain confident they can
sell enough wine to sustain themselves, especially in markets he
calls "our backyard," the Mississippi River Hills region
itself and St. Louis.
Johnson even utters a line that would be unthinkable in places
like the wine-sodden Napa Valley: "We have four wonderful
wineries in the area now: mine, Crown Valley, Cave and Charleville.
It would suit me very well if there were ten more."
This isn't as crazy as it sounds. Johnson says local winemakers
are currently unable to grow enough grapes to keep up with demand
for their wines, and that the larger operations, such as Crown
Valley, must buy non-Missouri grape juice to supplement their own
fruit. Having more wineries will also help the region reach a critical
mass for tourism. People want a variety of places to tour and wines
to sample, Johnson says. "The wineries would all be different.
The wines would be different. How much more fun would that be?" Most
important, he adds, additional wineries would help the wider world
recognize what attracted winemakers like him to the area in the
first place: its superior terroir.
The Mississippi River Hills region is further south than many
of Missouri's older wine making operations, Johnson says, with
slightly warmer surface and soil temperatures. This is good for,
among other things, sugar development in his grapes. Soils in the
region can be rocky and poor, which, oddly enough, is also a good
thing. Rocky soils drain better and are less likely to impart inappropriate
tastes to the finished wine.
"Another thing that's great is this tremendous up-and-down
topography that we have here. One of the considerations when picking
a site for a vineyard is to make sure that the air can run off
the top of the hills. When winemakers talk about drainage we talk
about two kinds: water and air. And so if you look out here," Johnson
says with a gesture, "you can see that these vines are sitting
on the crest of a hill. You want to stay away from valleys, to
be on hilltops. This is where you get the perfect drainage for
water and also the kind of air drainage you need."
Johnson goes on to describe the area's rich history, the work
ethic of its residents and the strong sense of identity locals
feel for the place, all qualities and characteristics he believes
are reflected in the viticulture. And sure enough, even when obscured
by the low clouds of a late-winter rainstorm, Southeast Missouri's
landscape asserts a sense of its unique character, a working definition
of what the Romantic poets used to call the "tranquil sublime."
Many of these hills are as old as any in North America, steep
juttings of sedimentary rock formed by the retreat of Cambrian
seas more than 500 million years ago. The Ste. Genevieve County
wineries are surrounded by picturesque dairy and beef operations,
their rock-studded grazing lands winding around thick stands of
hardwood. Farther afield, to the east of i-55 and only a geological
stone's-throw from the vast Mississippi River floodplain, rises
another set of ancient knolls. Here the soils are better and, with
pluck and perseverance, people can make a living raising cash crops
At least that's the way Christina and Bryan Truemper see it. Their
small farm, nine acres of undulating land that Bryan leases from
his grandmother, is located near tiny Frohna, Mo., in Perry County,
about 10 miles north of the county seat, Perryville. They've been
growing organic produce and raising premium chickens and hogs for
about five years.
The Truempers, engagingly articulate 31-year-olds, are true fresh
food aficionados. Both worked in a variety of restaurants before
taking up shovel and hoe; both believe strongly that, as the great
New York Times writer Craig Clairborn once put it: "to cook
well, one must love and respect food."
"Bryan and I wanted to eat the freshest, healthiest, best
food possible. We couldn't afford to buy it, so we had to grow
it," says Christina Truemper with a laugh. "On paper
we're poverty stricken, but we eat like kings!"
The couple didn't end up in rural Perry County by accident. Bryan
says his grandparents were originally from the area. They moved
to St. Louis in the 1930s, he says, but returned in the 1960s to
be close to their remaining relatives. Bryan spent summers helping
out on the place until eventually moving away after he and Christina
became a couple. "We were in Maine," Bryan continues, "I
was cooking in a restaurant, and Christina had a job working with
a little organic vegetable farm where we bought produce. We had
this idea that maybe we could start our own place, grow our own
food. I said, 'There's a farm in Missouri I'm sure we could rent...' " Christina
continues the story from there: "He said, 'What would you
think about being a farmer?' And I said, 'Absolutely not. No way!'
But here we are."
Where they are at the moment is ankle-deep in a mess of brown
mud, looking out at a rain-soaked livestock pen. The pen is home
to a group of wet but contented Berkshire swine, an "heirloom" breed
that commands a premium price from pork purists. The couple sell
meat from the hogs -- along with eggs from a small flock of free-range
hens and a vast assortment of organic produce -- at the Kirkwood
Farmers' Market in St. Louis. They also sell to one of their former
employers, Celebrations restaurant in Cape Girardeau.
Distinctive, locally produced foods are an important part of what
Barham and the other Mississippi River Hills organizers say will
help define the region. At an organizational meeting in 2004, project
participant Elaine Hoffmeister Mooney of the Ste. Genevieve Winery
explained what organizers were thinking: "If you took a trip
to a small village in Germany, you would drink the local beer and
wine and eat the locally grown meat and cheese in the restaurant.
Then you might tour and visit with the local blacksmith or nutcracker
maker. ... I think Elizabeth's idea is to expand what we know and
love here, show it off more and, most importantly, market and advertise
our region in this manner."
Barham recalls being gratified that Mooney and the other meeting
attendees were so quick to embrace the idea of marketing their
regional identity. Fact is, Barham says, she half expected residents
to be more reticent about taking advice from an outsider.
"But it was just the opposite, really," she says. "They
were thrilled that someone from the University was getting involved.
Everyone was so ready to do something. I think they were all feeling
that the region had potential but that they just weren't able to
do anything with it."
That is changing. With Barham's help, business people in the region
-- winemakers, hoteliers, small farmers, restaurateurs, crafts
people -- organized themselves into interest groups. They first
defined what was special about their own products and services,
then focused on what they needed to do to maximize this comparative
advantage. Next they organized the Mississippi River Hills Roundtable
where region-wide strategizing could take place. At the same time,
extension agents began offering entrepreneurial training sessions,
state tourism officials stepped up with marketing advice and counsel,
and experts from MU and the Missouri Department of Conservation
pitched in with geographical information system (GIS) data that
led to publication of a sophisticated, tourist-friendly Mississippi
River Hills map. All the while Barham continued to develop quality
standards for a future "label of origin." People got
excited, and the project grew. So far more than 200 businesses
have signed on.
All of this couldn't be happening at a better time, says one the
participants, DeWayne Schaaf, 30, executive chef at Celebrations,
the Cape Girardeau restaurant supplied by the Truempers. Schaaf
has been honored statewide for using fresh local ingredients to
create elegant interpretations of regional dishes.
"More people are getting into the whole fine food thing these
days, both eating out and preparing it themselves at home," Schaaf
says. "I hope that this idea of an appellation will pull other
things into that local fine food trend -- the art, culture and
history that this region has to offer."
Like Barham, he thinks there is no better place to begin than
with Missouri wines. "They have the opportunity to set the
benchmark for everything else," Schaaf says. "I don't
think Missouri is ever going to be California, or France or Germany
or Italy. But that's not important. We don't need to produce $50
cabernets. We need to focus on being Missouri. That's what I think
this appellation can do for us."
Slowly, say people like Christina Truemper, the idea is sinking
in. "The farming is still pretty conventional around here,
because that's the way it's been done for generations," she
says as she reaches down to scoop up Behren, the couple's 2-year-old
son. "But I think for some of the younger people things are
changing. We go to buy milk from a neighbor's farm, for instance.
There is a 20, 21-year-old guy there who is positioning himself
to someday take over the place. He's recently started researching
what it would mean to be organic and sell more milk locally, not
just as a commodity to, say, Prairie Farms."
"There is wonderful farmland around here," she adds. "We
can make a living off of a nine-acre, rented field. It's a lot
of marketing, and you've got to be willing to do the work. But
hopefully there will be more of this. I think the younger generation
will make it happen."
Elizabeth Barham, assistant professor at the University of
Missouri, launched the Missouri Regional Cuisines project to
promote regional awareness of Missouri food and wine products.
This map shows the Mississippi River Hills region,
which runs from southern Jefferson County to northern Scott County.
The region is highlighted in green on the Missouri side of the
river and green dots on the Illinois side.
Hank Johnson, of Chaumette Winery in Ste.
Chaumette's winery building with vineyards in the foreground.
A striking painted mural in the tasting room of Chaumette
Young grapevine rootstocks
Christina and Bryan Truemper have been growing organic
produce and raising premium chickens and hogs for about five years.
DeWayne Schaaf, executive chef at Celebrations, the Cape
Girardeau restaurant supplied by the Truempers.