From the Loire to Tuscany to Napa to ... Missouri?

Show-Me State's little-known wine industry hopes to attract a new audience in light of a global wine shortage

Missouri has 125 operating wineries and more than 400 vineyards.
Missouri Wine and Grape Board

HERMANN, Mo. — When news of a pending global wine shortage made headlines last month, wine lovers around the world feared they might not be able to find their Loire whites and Rioja reds as easily as they can now. Supply was forecast to fall as demand continued to rise, taking wine prices with it.

But in one small corner of the wine world, winemakers were gearing up for what was to be a record harvest.

A shortage of wine? Not in Missouri.

Missouri winemakers have been much busier than usual this fall as they work to keep up with what has been an especially bountiful grape harvest after a couple years of small yields.

“We’re going to produce a lot more wine than we have in perhaps any year,” said Dave Johnson, a senior winemaker at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. “It’s one of the largest, if not the largest, productions.”

The result would bring in higher prices for grapes, thus higher prices for bottles of wine. What’s bad news in the Loire Valley or la Rioja could be good for business in Callaway County, Mo.

“Certainly if there would be a global wine shortage, it would be in the best interest of Missouri wine,” said Johnson, who has been a winemaker for 35 years. “There’s nothing that we’d like to hear more.”

Official yields won’t be reported to the state until April, but growers have already noticed the glut of grapes. Johnson said this year’s harvest has the potential to increase Stone Hill’s wine production as much as 30 percent, and it’s the same story at other Missouri wineries.

Coming out of a recession and unprecedented drought, it may be just the boost the state’s little-known wine industry needs.

Bigger crop than expected

According to a Morgan Stanley Research report, 2012 wine production was already short about 300 million cases — the largest shortfall in decades. Wine production in Europe dropped 10 percent alone that same year. Global demand for wine is also on the rise.

“Missouri has seen some increase in demand for Missouri wines in general,” Johnson said. “There are also more acres of grapes. There’s not a shortage of Missouri wine.”

It’s the weather that led to this year’s high yield in Missouri. The first sign of good fortune came when the spring and fall frosts never came. The cold typically has the potential to wipe out an entire year’s harvest.

“So you’ve got fruitful buds that have a lot of flower clusters on them, that didn’t get frosted,” Johnson said. “Now you have to have good weather for what’s known as berry setting, when the flowers are pollinated.”

The good summer that followed made it an ideal year for the state's vineyards.

“We knew it was going to be a big crop, but it ended up being 20 percent more than what we even dared anticipate,” he said. 

A long history

Before Prohibition, Missouri wine flourished.
Missouri Wine and Grape Board

Missouri has a long history when it comes to winemaking. When German settlers founded Hermann in the mid-19th century, they almost immediately started growing grapes.

Stone Hill was Missouri’s first winery, founded in 1847, and is said to have been the third-largest winery in the world by the turn of the century. The region became locally known as the Missouri Rhineland, named after German wine country and serving as a testament to the state’s heritage.

It was Missouri rootstock that rebuilt France’s vineyards after the phylloxera louse nearly wiped out that country’s industry in the 1870s. Commercial production shut down during prohibition, but has experienced steady growth since the industry was reestablished.

“The Missouri wine industry in general has shown some steady increases, if you will,” Johnson said. “Maybe not as much as before the economy took a downturn (in 2008). Before that, I think it was a little more aggressive.”

Now that the American wine industry is largely centered in western states such as California, Missouri is unlikely to regain its old place in the market.

“We can’t go back to pre-prohibition, and a lot of things have changed in other states,” said Danene Beedle of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. “Our industry was pretty dormant for a while. In terms of growth, over the last 10 years we’ve seen wineries more than double in our state, in terms of locations.”

Billion-dollar industry

Today Missouri has 125 operating wineries and nearly 400 vineyards. The industry supports 14,000 jobs has an economic impact of more than $1 billion annually. In 2012, Missouri ranked 14th in wine production among U.S. states, but it could be poised to move up in the ranking.

“Missouri tends to be the regional leader of wine production in the Midwest,” Beedle said. “I think there is a demand for more regional wine for the whole local movement.”

Even outside the Missouri Rhineland, the state’s wine industry is booming. In another part of Missouri, the “Little Italy of the Ozarks” is experiencing an equally fruitful harvest as their German neighbors to the north had.

“We found it was a strange harvest, but a good one,” said Ann Miller of St. James Winery in St. James, about 60 miles south of Hermann. “Traditionally in Missouri, we all begin harvesting in August and are usually done by October. But we weren’t done until November.”

St. James Winery is Missouri’s largest, producing around 200,000 cases of wine each year, and distributing that wine in 18 other states with a growing market in Illinois and other bordering states. Early Italian immigrants to the state cultivated wine in this region of Missouri.

“We’ve had wonderful harvests,” Miller said. “As far as grape shortage in America — no, we’re not worried about that at all. Specifically in Missouri — no, we’re not worried.”

Big opportunity

In fact, a wine shortage could be good for business.

“Any wine industry would see that as an opportunity,” Miller said. “Missouri wine has gotten better and better and better over the years, and some well-deserved attention would be great.”

But how does it taste?

When it comes to the quality of Missouri wine, it’s hit and miss, said Amer Hawatmeh, manager of Copia Restaurant & Wine Garden in St. Louis. Hawatmeh said Copia carries the state’s largest wine list and only sells white wine from Missouri.

“Outside of white wines, Missouri does not produce a lot of quality red grapes because the ground is too wet,” Hawatmeh said.

Red wine aside, Missouri has a lot of potential, he said. Especially when it comes to sweet wines.

“If you’re talking about the white wines, they’re equal to any of the good German stuff,” Hawatmeh said. “The sweet white wines are phenomenal. The grapes in Missouri … because of the amount of water, they’re almost the size of your fist sometimes.”

This story has been updated to correct the reference to the mid-19th century.

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