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Missouri wineries strive for respect.

Missouri's days as the Rodney Dangerfield of the wine industry may be over. It seems the Show Me state's wines are starting to get some respect.

Measured in medals, bottles, quaffs or satisfied sighs, the Missouri wine industry is gaining an approving nod from drinkers and experts, despite the sniffs of some sophisticates. The recent surge of wines at national and international competitions has given Missouri vintners a shot of confidence. "We can kick the snot out of some California wineries," says Thomas Held, one of the owners of Stone Hill Winery's three large operations in Missouri.

The low opinion of Missouri wine is "more from the pretentious type of person who's used to drinking expensive California or European wines," Held says. "Most consumers want something different. That's why regional wines have grown."

Missouri will probably never threaten the California wine industry, but the wines the state is producing are raising eyebrows and pleasing palates in national and international competitions and giving wine drinkers an additional choice. Long pigeonholed as producers of wine sweetened to the point of being nearly undrinkable, Missouri wineries are now producing more dry reds and whites--from Norton and Chambourcin to Chardonel and Seyval.

Katie and Clyde Gill operate the Peaceful Bend Winery near Steelville, Mo. They say the word about Missouri wines is getting out slowly. About 5% of their sales are to out-of-town buyers, including some in California.

"Enough wineries have won enough awards, and we're getting the respect level up. It's hard to get the word out to consumers. Even people in St. Louis have no idea Missouri is making quality wine," Katie Gill says.

"We're trying to catch up. (Missouri) is still young. We're learning. California discovered early that it could grow European varieties of wine. We're still blazing the trail," she says.

Earning respect for Missouri wine has been a slow process, too. Bruce Schoenfeld, who writes for Wine Spectator magazine, is no convert.

"I have some familiarity with Missouri wines. There's no region of the country that doesn't say it does well in blind tests. I have a hard time believing Missouri wines would do well (at tasting contests)," he says. "If you have a great meal in Missouri wine country, you want a great wine, not a Norton."

But Missouri winemakers are confident that those who try the wines will be surprised to find that the stereotype of Missouri wines being overly sweet jug wine is just that, a stereotype.

In the 2005 San Francisco International Wine Competition, Missouri wines won numerous medals, most notably double golds for Stone Hill 2004 Vignoles and 2003 Chardonel in Hybrid White and Red classes.

Held says Stone Hill winery, the second-largest producer in the state, isn't worried about growing to the size of some of the more recognizable California wineries. "We're not national in scope. We don't want to be. We will make as much as the vineyards will allow," he says.

Bill Alter is director of sponsored research at Missouri State University, which operates the state's Fruit Experiment Station at its Mountain Grove campus. He's been through New York, Virginia and Texas sampling wine and feels, "Missouri wines stack up against them and they're getting better. They are scoring well in competition."

Tim Puchta, owner of Puchta Winery in Hermann, says it's amazing to watch people taste Missouri wines without knowing their origin. "When the tasting is blind, suddenly these (Missouri) wines become very, very good," he says. "When you tell them they're from Missouri, they get angry."

Critic Schoenfeld suggests Missouri winemakers should concentrate on getting regional acceptance of their wines by offering them in local restaurants. "Why be one of a thousand wines on a shelf in L.A. when you can be the one in Springfield? Far be it from me to say what they should do commercially, but it is a long, long road," he says. "I'd start from the inside out and get on the menus of some of the great restaurants in the state. That's the way to build an industry."

James Clary, owner of Clary's Restaurant, a well-regarded American cuisine restaurant in Springfield, says a party in the restaurant recently featured Whispering Oaks wines and the response was "great." As a result, he is considering adding the local wines to his wine list. "Ten years ago, Missouri wine was sweet and jug-like. Now they are producing good varietals," he says.

Dick Ferrigno, owner of Ferrigno Winery in St. James, Mo., says he has been shipping his wines to Napa Valley and San Francisco for years. "Younger people are noticing. They like wines from all over the place. They don't expect for Missouri wines to taste like they do at home," says Ferrigno, who has been in the winemaking business for 23 years.

State winemakers often point to Chambourcin, a medium-bodied, spicy dry red wine or Seyval, a light, pleasant white wine that rivals the more popular Pinot Grigio, as appealing wines from Missouri.

"A good Seyval is better than a bad Cabernet," Ferrigno says.

Sweet wine is made by Missouri wine-makers because of local demand, not because winemakers don't know any other way to make it. "Visitors talk dry, but they drink sweet," Puchta says about customers' preferences.

The proof of the popularity of Missouri wines can be seen in the parking lot of the Stone Hill Winery in Branson, Mo., the No. 1 vacation spot in the state. A big smile rolls across Dennis Seibel's face as he watches another tour bus park outside the winery. Among the visitors are Missouri wine fans David and Linda Hicks of Andover, Kan.

"We learned about wine while I was stationed in Germany," David Hicks says. "The Rhine wine here is as good as what we drank in Germany."

The upsurge is a good sign for the state's wine industry, which contributed $26 million to the Missouri economy last year. Winemakers are hoping to do even better this year. Operators hope to surpass the 1.5 million people who visited state wineries last year.

"We're getting a mix of visitors from all over the Midwest. Wine is in vogue again. People are venturing out and enjoying the regions. They take a day trip and go to a few wineries and enjoy something in their own state," says Jim Anderson, director of Missouri's Wine and Grape Program.

Puchta is excited about the future. "It's looking really good. Wineries are growing. Sometimes, they can't keep up with demand. A lot of (wineries) are doing expansion projects to keep up," he says.

Wine production at Puchta more than doubled last year to 47,000 gallons from 23,000 the year before. It won't be long, Puchta says, before the winery will be producing close to 100,000 gallons. "A lot of what we're doing is because we're blessed to be where we can grow grapes," he says.

Missouri winemakers have the Norton grape to thank for their success. German settlers brought the grape to Missouri from Virginia in the 1800s.

Norton was found to produce a medium-bodied dry red wine that became popular regionally.

The hybrid grape grew well in certain parts of Missouri, especially along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Wineries popped up along the tributaries and in other regions of the state where Norton and seven other types of grapes could be grown.

By the 1880s, according to the Wine and Grape Program history of Missouri wine, the state was selling 2 million gallons per year.

In the early 1900s the state boasted about 100 wineries. That came to a halt with the passage of Prohibition, and the wine industry in Missouri took a long time to come back to prominence.

Last year, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Missouri wineries produced 800,000 gallons of wine from 1,100 acres of grapes that accounted for $26 million in sales.

Over the years, Missouri wineries have changed from mere production sites to tourism meccas, and winery operators recognize the need to cater to those who travel many miles to sample their various vintages.

"With tourism being so big to the Missouri economy, wineries are becoming a destination in the entertainment business. You can go to the store and buy wine. Going to a winery is about having a good time," Puchta says. "There can be a party atmosphere or it can be tranquil and laid back. There's something for everybody. People have a lot of fun."

Anderson says wineries are diversifying by adding bed and breakfasts or restaurants. Others offer live entertainment. At Peaceful Bend, the Gills have worked hard to offer visitors good wine and music throughout the season, which runs through October.

"With our area on the outside edge (of the St. James wine area), we're either the first stop or the last stop. We prefer to be the last stop (because) people sit down and relax and enjoy themselves. If we're the first stop, people are in a hurry," Katie Gill says.

Adding to winery owners' hopes for good years ahead in sales is the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that does away with the law in some states that banned out-of-state wine from being shipped directly to consumers.

States like Arkansas, New York and Michigan have had such bans. The court ruled in-state and out-of-state wineries must be treated the same.

"Legislators are going to have to open their borders," Anderson says. "People were getting wine in Missouri and their states wouldn't allow them to reorder. That's probably going to change soon."

Puchta says there probably won't be any immediate relief for local wine-makers. "States are going to have to decide on allowing shipping or go back to Prohibition and not allow anything. Wholesalers and retailers in those states don't want the little guy to be able to ship his wine in," he says.

(Steve Koehler has been a newspaper reporter for the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. for 22 years, and has won national and state writing awards from the Associated Press and state press associations. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.)

RELATED ARTICLE: HIGHLIGHTS

* Long pigeonholed as producers of overly sweet wines, Missouri winemakers are focusing more on dry reds and whites from French hybrid grapes.

* National and international awards for Missouri wines are heightening interest and morale among the state's industry.

* Wine critic Bruce Schoenfeld suggests that Missouri winemakers should concentrate on getting regional acceptance in local restaurants.

* Local palates still demand sweet wine, "talking dry but drinking sweet," according to winemaker Tom Puchta.
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Author:Koehler, Steve
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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