Thanking the Forefathers of Missouri Wine

Hermann Missouri played a vital role in the salvation of French wine from a viscious pest. Napa Valley also had help from Hermann with its grape production. Photo via Edward Kemper Collection, Columbia.
Hermann Missouri played a vital role in the salvation of French wine from a viscious pest. Napa Valley also had help from Hermann with its grape production. Photo via Edward Kemper Collection, Columbia.

The winemaking history of Missouri is long and proud. Prior to prohibition, Missouri was ranked second in the nation in wine production and was winning prestigious awards for its quality wines. It is even credited with helping save the French wine industry. So where did this illustrious history begin? Here is a highlight of some of the forefathers of the Show Me State wine industry.

French settlers found a home in what would become southeastern Missouri in the late 1740s, establishing Ste. Genevieve, where they found the climate, soil and landscape favorable for winemaking. While the French may have come early to the game, German settlers weren’t far behind. Thanks in large part to a German author named Gottfried Duden who settled in Missouri in 1824 near present day Dutzow and wrote a book about his findings. His book became a best seller back in his homeland and served as the inspiration for many Germans to make Missouri their new home.

“I do not conceal the fact from you that the entire life of the inhabitants of these regions seemed to me like a dream at first,” Duden wrote. “Even now, after I have had three months to examine conditions more closely, it seems to me almost a fantasy when I consider what nature offers man here.” He went on to describe “acorns… as big as hen’s eggs and wild grapevines… heavy with sweet fruit.”

wine_history_husmann
Image provided by the Hermann Chamber of Commerce.

German immigrants settled towns like Hermann, Dutzow, Defiance and Augusta, and the Missouri wine industry began to grow. It wasn’t long before Italian settlers found their way to the state and started making wine in the Rolla, Rosati, and St. James areas. In the mid-1800s the quality of Missouri wine was given a boost when self-taught scientist, George Husmann started researching soil types and crossing wild grapes with cultivated vines to create hybrids that could withstand the demanding weather patterns of Missouri.

Husmann’s research, along with that of state appointed entomologist, Charles Valentine Riley, is credited with helping to save the French wine industry in the 1870s. A blight in the form of a louse called phylloxera had made its way to Europe and was decimating French vineyards. Riley and Husmann found that Native American rootstocks were resistant to the pest. Millions of cuttings of rootstock were taken to France and grafted to their vines, saving the industry. Two statues commemorating the event were erected in Monpellier, France, where they still stand today.

Stone Hill cellar etching, provided by the Hermann Chamber of Commerce.
Stone Hill cellar etching, provided by the Hermann Chamber of Commerce.

By the turn of the century, Missouri was producing nearly three million gallons of wine a year and winning international awards at World Fairs. This all came to an abrupt halt with the passing of the 18th amendment, also known as Prohibition. The once great industry had been completely dismantled. Vines were pulled from the ground, barrels of wine dumped in the streets, and grand underground cellars reduced to propagating mushrooms.

However, we have the forefathers of the current, thriving Missouri wine industry to thank for restarting and reinvigorating the winemaking traditions of the area. Jim and Betty Held along with their family re-opened and started the rebuilding process of Stone Hill Winery in 1965, and Jim and Pat Hofherr and their family opened St. James Winery in 1970.

Fast-forward several decades and the industry now boasts more than 130 wineries and 1,700 acres of vineyards, producing 1.25 million gallons of wine every year. We are thankful to those who paved the way, those who repaved it, and those who continue to forge the path forward. We are grateful for local wine and the passionate people who craft it!

Sources:

“Wine History”: Hermann Area Chamber of Commerce, http://visithermann.com/taste-tour/wine-history/

“The History of Missouri Wine”: Missouri Wine Country, http://www.missouriwinecountry.com/articles/history/

“Ste. Genevieve’s Wine Country”: Ste. Genevieve Area Chamber of Commerce, http://www.stegenchamber.org/tourism/wineries.html

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