The hard reality of Missouri’s headlong rush into the wine business is that any sustainable business model has to be built around native American and hybrid grapes. The state’s climate is simply too harsh for vinifera to thrive. As one winemaker put it:
Plant vinifera and get a few good years. Then an Alberta Clipper comes in and the temperature drops 40 degrees in two hours and you’re out of business.
An Alberta Clipper is a hard-blowing storm from the north that, one speaker noted, can drop the temperature from 30 degrees to 20 below during a dinner party. That kind of fast freeze is deadly to vinifera, but it barely fazes vines that evolved in North America, which are armed with back-up buds and stalks that are hardy as oak trees.
Which leads to a lot of if-life-hands-you-lemons-make-lemonade philosophizing — some of which has been translated into a marketing strategy that makes an awfully lot of sense. Glenn Bardgett, wine director at locavore feedbag Annie Gunn’s and a long-time proponent of Missouri wines, confronting head-on the question of why Missouri persists in trying to make decent wine from the wrong kind of grapes, put it like this:
Why do you want to grow vinifera in Missouri when you can’t compete with vinifera from California? Do something different. Make local wine.
And that, in a nutshell, is Missouri’s strategy: they’re going to make Missouri wine rather than pale imitations of California’s. They propose their wines not as a substitute, but as something unique that broadens the spectrum of wine as a whole. Without mentioning the word, they’re making what is essentially a terroir argument.
Anyone who knows the history of California’s long-ridiculed wine business will recognize the characters present in Missouri today. There are immigrants with a dream; entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in less glamorous industries, pouring capital into new wineries; second-generation, formally educated winemakers who want to make better wines than their parents ever dreamed of; and quality-minded kids working obsessively in garages and storage spaces.
After a couple of days of close contact with people who have bet their lives and family fortunes on Missouri’s potential to make quality wine, it’s impossible not to admire the industriousness of Missouri’s wine industry. They’re working really, really hard to make better wine, using problematic grapes that lack a 3,000 year body of knowledge to draw on. There are a thousand moving parts in the making of wine, and it takes a full vintage to see the result of any change. These guys are methodically testing and sharing ideas and insights. If you’re nostalgic for the good old days when everyone in Napa worked together to convince the world California should be taken seriously, understand: that spirit is alive and well in Missouri.
A few years ago, a handful of forward-thinking young winemakers formed The Missouri Wine Technical Group. Its stated purpose is to bring winemakers together to share knowledge. Winemakers gather and blind-taste each other’s wines. Submitted with each is an eight page questionnaire covering every detail of the wine’s production, from placement and pruning of the vines to slapping-on the label.
Andrew Meggitt, winemaker at St. James Winery, brought the idea for the Technical Group with him from New Zealand. He says it took a few years to get the group active, and once it was it wasn’t initially accepted by Missouri’s homegrown vintners.
“We were the Evil Empire,” he says. “And now we’re not. People now ask for help.”
The winemakers go over every detail of the making of the wine they’ve just tasted, and the criticism can be brutal.
Cory Bomgaars, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Winery, likes to tell the story of the winemaker so battered by the group’s criticism and analysis that no one thought he’d ever come back. But he did, a couple of years later, with two bottles: one the wine the group had previously critiqued, and the other the very next vintage. The difference between the two was stunning.
“It was amazing what he had done,” say Bomgaars. “He’d listened and learned, and his wine had really jumped up.”
So it is across the wine business in Missouri: winemakers, marketers, managers, tasting room hosts…every single person trying mightily to be better at what they do. Will it work? Time will tell. Nothing goes fast in the wine business. The French have had 2,000 years to get it right.
“That’s how my family looks at it,” says Peter Hofherr, CEO of St. James Winery. “This is a multi-generational project.”
Next: Missouri wines to look for.