America's Rhine Rangers: California's Challengers, Europe's Saviors

In the 1800s, the state that competed for wine primacy was … Missouri. Here's the forgotten story of its wine pioneers
Aug 30, 2011

Throughout the 19th century, millions of emigrants from Europe's great wine regions arrived in the United States. It is well-known that many set up shop in California and carried on their craft there, quickly making it one of the top wine-producing states. Less well-known, however, is that for a time, the tide of immigration centered the heartland of American wine in America's Heartland: in Missouri, specifically.

The Show Me State reportedly led the nation in wine production for just a few years, around 1870 (though records from the time can be spotty), but it trailed only California from that time until Prohibition was enacted in 1920. The largely forgotten history of Missouri wine is a story populated by heroes, eccentrics and formidable mustaches. In many ways, it follows the broader story of immigration and industry in America in the decades surrounding the Civil War.

The Missouri Rhineland, as it is still known, was first settled in the 1830s by a few waves of German immigrants. In 1837, a group of native Germans living in Philadelphia "were appalled at the loss of native customs and language among their countryman in Philadelphia" and wanted a corner of the country they could call their own, says Jon Held, an owner of Stone Hill Winery, founded in 1847 in Hermann, Mo. George Bayer, a teacher, was sent west to survey and purchase acreage for a potential new homeland; his party was attracted to the area that would become the town of Hermann in part because the steep cliffs along the Missouri River reminded them of Germany's Rhine River.

Bayer journeyed in the spring, but unfortunately, the first settlers arrived in December, when the weather in Missouri is rather less appealing. After the first brutal winter, the settlers found out that their crops did not take well to the conditions of the area, and frustrations mounted against the settlement's leader. Bayer was soon fired and expired (of a "broken heart," some say). When he died, the hapless city father was thanked with banishment to a far corner of the cemetery; it was forbidden to bury anyone else within 75 feet of him. Things were not going well.

But one crop that thrives where others often can’t is the grape, and the resourceful Hermannites caught on to this quickly. Though they had little success with the vinifera varieties of their home country in Missouri's wildly variable climate, the Missouri Germans adopted indigenous American grapes and created hybrids from species such as Vitis aestivalis, Vitis riparia and Vitis labrusca. (A bit of wine lab magic did eventually manage to create a "Missouri Riesling" hybrid, but this did not particularly resemble, or even contain any genetic trace of, its German namesake; few wineries still make it, because it is not very good.)

In time, the red hybrid Norton became the most popular, and it's still the flagship grape of Missouri wine today. It was "the one and only grape that was pretty similar to the European grapes," says Held. "We describe it as having the aroma of Syrah with the taste of Nebbiolo."

Writing in an 1865 guide, The School for American Grape Culture, Missourian Friedrich Münch described Norton as "a dark red wine … of very peculiar excellence, which at the same time, in some of the diseases peculiar to this climate, is of the greatest service." Long before anyone became aware of the French Paradox, Münch presciently praised the wine as "an elixir of life about the environs of the heart," and went on: "When three or four years old, it is hardly to be surpassed by any wine." Impressed by its hardiness and yields, he asserted, "Were all the vine positions in Missouri planted with this vine, this one state could supply the whole Union, cheaper than any good foreign wine can be had, though it is now sold at three to five dollars a gallon."

As the number of German immigrants—and later, Italians—in Missouri increased, the transplants powered the wine industry's growth. "They came over and those were their principle beverages: wine and beer," says Held. "The same thing applies to St. Louis becoming a huge brewing capital. I think they were less hung up on quality and flavors than we are today, and more it was just part of their diet."

The winemaking team at Stone Hill Winery, circa 1990

Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Mo., was one of the leading wine producers in America at around the time this picture of its winemaking staff was taken, 1890.

But Missouri wine wasn’t just drunk by the locals. Sales receipts show that by the turn of the 20th century, the wine was shipped to all corners of the country. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly enjoyed it at the White House. Stone Hill grew to become the second-largest winery in America, putting out 1.25 million gallons per year, equivalent to 526,000 cases. (Today, annual production is about 115,000 cases.) In 1901, a bottle of Stone Hill "Pearl of Missouri" Extra Dry Champagne christened the original U.S.S. Missouri. The winery's sparkler also launched the latest U.S.S. Missouri, a nuclear submarine, in 2009.

Perhaps Missouri's greatest contribution to the world of wine during this time was a generously mustachioed man named Charles Valentine Riley. In 1870, as the official state entomologist, he helped discover what was killing all the great vineyards of Europe: the phylloxera aphid. His work led directly to the solution of grafting vinifera vines onto the pest-resistant rootstocks of indigenous American grape species. Riley's office may have been in Missouri, but it was Montpellier, France, that erected a statue honoring his efforts.

Yet another Missourian, Hermann Jaeger, cultivated many of the hardy rootstocks initially used to thwart the louse, but though he too was honored by the French government, he eventually ran into financial and legal troubles. In 1895, he sent his wife a note cryptically reading "it is better I make an end to it before I get crazy," and rode out of town, never to be seen again. Later that year, Riley too departed Missouri and this life, via a bicycle going way too fast.

The Volstead Act introducing Prohibition would be the greatest undoing of Missouri wine, but other factors conspired as well. In 1917, the United States entered World War I, and products with a German-sounding name on the label became a hard sell. A town neighboring Hermann, Potsdam, even rebranded itself as "Pershing."

After Prohibition, the Missouri wine industry lay fallow for decades. But a slow revival began in the 1960s, and in 1980, the Augusta region became the first federally recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA), a year before Napa Valley. (Hermann followed as an AVA in 1983.)

The state may never regain the prominence of regions that can host vinifera more easily, but production is steadily growing—104 wineries making 400,000 cases a year today—and many of the historic winery facilities are once again open to visitors seeking a taste of this remarkable chapter in American wine history.

Vineyard Pests Phylloxera Red Wines Sparkling Wines United States

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