Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Flourishing Missouri Wine Industry and Visiting Stone Hill, Home of the Norton Grape

Oct. 28, 2012 – I am in St. Louis for two days preparing to embark on a Mississippi River Board cruise where we will celebrate the Historic Wineries of America. As part of the pre-cruise outings, we spent an afternoon driving about one hour west of the city to the small town of Hermann, home to some of the oldest wineries in Missouri, including the famous Stone Hill Winery that I have wanted to visit for years.

According to the listing on the Missouri Wine Roads app there are around 120 wineries in Missouri. They were primarily settled by German immigrants in the 1830’s along the Missouri River (same river that Lewis & Clark followed west-ward when they started their famous trip from St. Louis). Missouri is famous for having the oldest AVA (American Viticulture Area) in the US, the Augusta AVA, approved in 1980 several months before the Napa Valley AVA was approved.

Missouri Wine Grapes – Famous for Norton (Cynthiana)

Due to the humid summers and cold winters, Missouri specializes in many hybrid and Native American grapes. The most famous of these is the Norton grape (also called Cynthiana) that reminds me slightly of syrah but with higher acidity and more tannins. Missouri is also well known for excellent Chardonnel, Traminette, Catawba, Viognoles, Vidal Blanc, and Chambourcin, amongst other varieties.

Stone Hill Winery – Founded 1847

We arrived at Stone Hill Winery around 2pm on a sunny but cool day in the mid 50’s. The drive from St. Louis to Hermann, Missouri takes a little over one hour, and the fall foliage along the way was beautiful to behold. The Germans settled Hermann in the 1800’s, and it is picturesque country town located on the bluffs of the river with small charming restaurants and B&Bs.

Our group consisted of 16 people, and a cheerful tour guide met our bus. After posing to take photos next to the sign stating the winery was established in 1847 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we started with a view of a Norton vineyard that was trained to a very high trellis system. Harvest was over for the year, but there were still a few loan purple grape clusters hanging amongst the browning leaves.

Next we entered the old vaulted cellars, and the guide explained the winemaking processes. At one time, Stone Hill was the second largest winery in America, producing 1, 250,000 gallons of wine per year, and winning medals in Europe. However, Prohibition decimated the Missouri wine industry, and all of the winemaking property of Stone Hill was destroyed -- a very sad story. For a while they used the old cellars to grow mushrooms, which made it very difficult to clean when the Held family purchased the decaying estate in 1965 in order to revive the winery.

After the tour, our group was treated to a private tasting of more than 20 wines. They were all well made, but some of the group had never tasted the hybrids before and found them unusual. My favorites were the dry Vignoles and Chardonnel, the Reserve Norton, the semi-sweet Traminette, and some of the dessert wines. Afterwards we had a good time buying souvenirs in the large gift shop, and shared a bottle of the Traminette on the bus drive back to St. Louis.

Originally we had planned to stop at a few more Missouri wineries, and I was disappointed when we ran out of time. But we did have a wonderful 5 course dinner at the famous Mike Shannon's restaurant in St. Louis that evening. We even got to watch a big screen TV and celebrate when the San Francisco Giants beat Detroit in the World Series in the Hall of Fame Room.

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