Saturday, September 19, 2009

Stage 1: St. James and Environs

(For the one or two people I don't know who may stumble across this page in search of, say, "Aster patens" or "U Road," a quick note about the role of the following post--unintended for my four or five loyal readers who already know me well: I'm really picky about wine. I'm really picky about everything I eat and drink, actually, and it's no fault of the wineries I visit that they produce sweet junk that I won't taste. I think merlot is gross and sticky sweet and I won't get near it. My grail wine is a solid Oregon pinot noir--big, complex, buttery, oaky, a wine as interesting as the Willamette Valley landscape itself. Nevertheless, my opinion of wine is just that, my opinion. But to each his or her own, drink what you want, that's cool, but I'm setting out this fall into the Ozarks to find truly great wine made with Norton grapes and aged in our fine, stately Quercus alba. I really dig hearty red wine and have been known to go into places in and around Eminence after a three day float and ask rather seriously if I could "perhaps see a wine list." Oh, I recognize it's a little silly, looking for great wine in tiny town restaurants in the Ozark Highlands, but we have some great wineries here--some well known, one great one hardly even signed off County Road 1000 (there really is one, a CR 1000). I've learned that Ozark wineries are responsible for some of the state's best wine, so my quest for a great Norton isn't so silly after all, and maybe one day soon I can go into River Rat's off the Current River and find a Westphalia Cabernet Franc on the menu to accompany my pizza.)

Not too long ago, I was slightly excoriated for ginning up a list of crayfish present in the ditches and sloughs at my former job site. A few years ago, I went out every day for a few days a week in the spring with turkey necks and Louisiana-made crayfish nets to sample crayfish. It was really as simple as that. I wasn't planning on publishing my crayfish survey, or even writing a full scale report. My boss just wanted a list of crayfish, so I surveyed the waterways, keyed out some crayfish, and sent my boss a list of what I found. He probably said, "huh, cool" upon receipt and shelved the list. Two years later, I was called out, asked over and over about my methodology, about the process, are there GPS points where I found each animal? What was I hoping to gain with my survey? Did I submit a full report to the state? Did I have vouchers? I explained -much to the dismay of my caller- that I went out, I don't know, in May? I had some turkey necks, some spare time, some crayfish nets...just to see what was out there. I interpreted the steely silence on the other end of my phone for what it was.

So, I'll try to outline a really simple "methodology" for my survey of super dry red wines produced in the Ozark Highlands American Viticulture Area: For starters, I don't like driving on weekends because I commute a long distance during the work week. While it's possible to set out on a Friday and visit each winery in the Ozarks that produces a capable Norton and Chambourcin in the course of three days, I really don't like driving and the stillness associated with it. Hence, I don't know much about the well-regarded and plentiful wineries around Ste. Genevieve (3 hours or more from Columbia) or even the new ones that slope westwards off the Ozark dome towards the Osage Plains that I'm curious about because I know the soils of that region pretty well (no direct route from Columbia; approx. 3.5 hours drive).

Rather than following highways or bedrock type, I've designated regions that will be explored every couple of weeks this fall based on my desire to drive and availability of Nortons. Like other wine-producing states, Missouri has designated "wine trails" that course through the state, small collections of wineries that can be explored in an afternoon, conveniently located near one another. I learned today that these wine trails are not determined by landform, growing conditions, or even the Missouri Grape and Wine Board.

We actually have four designated Missouri Wine Trails: The Missouri River region (a sort of okay region of not great-too sweet wine and few wineries); Hermann (exceptional); Route du Vin (around the lovely Ste. Genevieve area); and Ozark Mountain Region Trail (located over on the western edge in an area I wouldn't call mountainous, though great wineries). But these wine trails exist because the wineries in these regions worked together to come up with a name for their area (not based on land types like in Oregon), and because they plan similar events such as food pairing tastings or newly released wine tasting weekends. Ironically, one of Missouri's oldest wine-producing regions, an area with several nice wineries and the motherlode of grape vines, doesn't have it's own wine trail. Again, no fault of the state, but of the wineries who haven't really collaborated.

Having floated Ozark rivers for the past week and spent the night camping on the Gasconade last night, I decided that our first venture would be into the nearby St. James region, the land of grape stands (4M Vineyards), solid Nortons, and historic post oak savanna country. While most of this former open woodland-savanna landscape has been converted to the trashy but ubiquitous Eupatorium altissimum-fescue-cattle natural community type, that charming little city park with the sandstone glade that I want to burn exists here, too. Thousands of acres of restorable woodlands just waiting for a fire program can be found in this area. But winding through the acres and acres of grape vines and overstocked dense woodlands, one would be hard pressed to find an intact landscape or even one worth photographing for a sense of place, but for the beautiful low, undulating acres of grape vines.

Two of the region's most popular vineyards are located in St. James on I-44: St. James Winery boasts healthy sales of their sweet stuff statewide, but their Norton is outstanding (especially the 2005 vintage, which you can find discounted for some reason). I've stopped into their winery before, maybe five years ago, and fell for their Norton, though couldn't afford a bottle thanks to my 8$/hr. job. So I skipped St. James today, but drove a little further down the service road to Meramec Vineyards.

A charming little bistro, outdoor seating, a bocce court and a well-lit, tastefully appointed tasting room are housed in an older building surrounded by zinnias and trellised grape vines. It's all very bright and cheery inside Meramec Vineyards. Unlike St. James Winery who distributes their product all over the state, Meramec Vineyard wines can only be found at one grocery store in St. Louis, online, and at the I-44 winery.

My tasting consisted of the only three wines characterized as "dry reds"--two Nortons and a blend that the barrister called "like a merlot." And like a merlot, this one was way too sweet and boring for my taste (but people who like merlot would probably like it). The Nortons, on the other hand, aged in French oak barrels instead of Missouri white oak for some reason, were rather distinctive and unlike any other Norton I've met. Meramec Vineyards' Nortons were so vastly distinctive from other Nortons that I began drowning the poor, dear barrister in no fewer than 20 questions, with only one or two he could answer. Their 2004 Norton was reminiscent of a 2002 Taurino Salice Salentino--elegant, tasting like a Stargazer lily smells, not as brambly as the 2005. I don't know why they use French oak barrels, but their Nortons are really quite nice. I bought a bottle of the 2004, commented on the charming labels for all the sweet junk, and set out for winery #2.

Continue north on Hwy. B out of St. James, make a right on Co. Rd. 1000. Follow 1000 for several miles until U Road, where you'll make a left. Keep your eyes peeled for a very small vertical white board on a mailbox with tiny black letters written on it that say "Heinrichshaus." Make a right on the adjacent gravel road, pass through restorable woodlands with Aster patens, Aster turbinellus, and sprigs of big bluestem breaking through the leaf litter, and you'll end up at a tiny brown house with chairs scattered outside. Heinrichshaus Winery
has operated in the area for 30 years, specializing in very serious dry wines. Press the button on the walkie talkie provided on the door and wait a few minutes for a darling German man with brilliant eyes wearing an old straw hat, a stately German shepherd by his side, to invite you in.

I felt like I was back in Tivoli, maybe on the outskirts of Bologna, as I ducked into his dark and dank tasting room.

The walls of Heinrichshaus Winery are lined with dusty wine bottles housing elegant medals, early Missouri wine campaign posters, botanical drawings of grapes from the early 1900s--one frame housing two plates, one of the Norton grape, the other of the Cynthiana grape, thus negating all of the claims that "Norton and Cynthiana are the same grape." A proclamation created by one of Heinrichshaus Winery's long time customers rests on his shelves; years ago, Heinrich was crowned "King of Chambourcin," a fine, fine designation that encouraged me to stop looking around his little building and start tasting his wines. Walking back to the table, I noticed his lovely old, dark, scratched, worn hardwood floors bore signs of repeated foot traffic that stand testament to his 30 successful years in the wine making business.

As Heinrich situated himself behind the tasting table, he explained to me that he only makes dry wines because "that's how wine is supposed to be made." I walked behind the table and hugged his sturdy, yet trim, frame. So I didn't have to tell him "I'll only try your dry wines" because that's all he makes. He added that he only uses Missouri white oak barrels, and he'll use them over and over again. "Oaking is overrated," he told me. I countered with a line my colleague once told me over a hearty Norton, "green white oak never tasted so good."

Before stopping in the St. James Tourism Information Center for my map of the area's wineries, I had never heard of Heinrichshaus Winery. I've never seen his wines in stores, never seen a sign for the winery, never even heard it mentioned by fellow dry red wine lovers. As he poured the first taste of a 2006 Chambourcin, his charming labels tastefully drawn by his late wife, he explained that he subsists strictly on return visitors to his winery and online sales. I couldn't believe it. For 30 years, folks in and around St. James have patronized him so frequently that he's never had a problem selling his wine and staying in business (and I always thought folks in Missouri preferred all that sweet junk that everyone makes). Unlike other wineries, Heinrichshaus Winery doesn't charge as much for his dry wines--his 2005 Cynthiana and 2006 Chambourcin? Under 10$. His blend, named Prairie Rouge (possibly after the area's now defunct savanna landscape) costs a mere $12. He doesn't operate a fancy winery restaurant, he doesn't spend money on marketing, and his wines are among the nicest I've had in Missouri. Friends and family members will regularly receive Heinrichshaus wines for Christmas, and you, too, can buy his wine online here or at his little brown house.

The cloudy afternoon was young, despite the lengthy conversation at Heinrichshaus, and it dawned on me that I hadn't eaten anything all day but two s'mores over a stick fire for breakfast. Surely one of the other wineries around St. James sold food, so we set out south on Highway 8 towards Steelville in search of more dry reds and cheese.

For a couple of years now, I've seen Peaceful Bend Vineyard's wines on sale at the Osage Beach HyVee. Their blends are named after Ozark creeks and streams: Yadkin Creek, Huzzah Valley, Meramec, and so forth. The cheerful winery barn with brightly painted walls and pale hardwood flooring hosts a handful of tables, a cooler with cheese, sausage and crackers for sale, a little merchandise, and a long wooden tasting bar. Regulars traipsed through all day, camping outside with snacks and wine, spending the afternoon under the white oaks. There's a great vibe down there, situated as they are in hilly woodlands near the floating locus of the Ozarks.

I tasted their three dry reds, the Meramec, Norton, and Forche Renault. Still a little sweet for my taste, we settled on a bottle of the fun, lighter red, the Forche Renault. A blast of cherries and a smooth oaky finish traveled well with the round of Gouda and wheat crackers they sell inside. It's a charming place, but if you don't like cats, don't sit near the railing outside; the two winery cats really lived up to my overarching negative opinion of cats in general (an animal I rather despise for their impacts to wildlife): these two paw at you with their claws extended and mew for food. And if you ignore them to pet the wonderful three Labrador retrievers who sit quietly and kindly at your feet? The cats will hiss and scratch the dogs. I'd like to imagine I met the cats on a bad day, but these two really solidified my long held anti-cat bias.

And so, heading north into Rolla with six bottles of exquisite wine for my rack, we stopped into Panera for decaf coffee. There, I ran into a well-traveled engineer who works for the same outfit I work for. When he overheard me mention to the barista that I had visited the wineries in the area, he asked if I made it out to Sibyl's (St. James' fancy restaurant) and Heinrichshaus Winery. I explained that yes, I went to Sibyl's earlier this year and found the winery today. He threw up his hands, knocked back his head and said I was welcome to go back to Columbia now, because "you've seen everything there is to see here."


Anonymous said...

I must confess to having been a bit of a wine snob regarding Missouri wines - a few years out in California (only 90 minutes from Napa Valley), following by a period of frequent travel to Argentina (always choosing something from Mendosa, and once actually going there), and at last actually trying nothing but sweet stuff from Augusta, had convinced me there was nothing more to see here. Your post has me intrigued (and St. James is a much shorter drive for me).

Yes, wine is supposed to be dry (but I adore a good merlot).


Allison Vaughn said...

There's something to be said for the freshness of a good norton. I guess I'm really fascinated by the local culture accepting wine as a cultural tradition that keeps me really interested. If you're ever in Columbia, allow me to introduce you to an Oregon pinot grown on Missoula Flood loess. Thanks for keeping up with me....

whiteoak said...

I've just stumbled across your blog while researching wood-to-energy projects in the Ozarks, via a Feb '09 article about federal energy dep't grants to Arkansas posted on Freshare... anyway, I like dry reds, but also Merlot (wait, isn't that dry? oh, guess not. I'm just a hillbilly adrift in a sea of post oak.) The restorable woodland comments are what most intrigue me about this post. They are everywhere (well at least until the renewable energy boom begins to convert them to electricity) and I'm glad people outside the ecology profession know about them and notice these ecosystems-in-waiting. - Hank

Allison Vaughn said...

Hi, Hank. I think we've met. Not a lot of guys named Hank in the Missouri Ozark Highlands who use the word "ecosystem." On biofuels. It's really...a little scary. So here we are at the dawn of a new day with federal subsidies going to biomass projects, 2 million acres of the Mark Twain that need thinning, so you'd think it's a match in heaven? What frightens me about the stimulus money (to a degree where I'm at a point where I'm thinking of pulling us out of the picture) is that while we have so many acres dedicated to Management area 1.1 and 1.2, how accessible is all this small roundwood? And--more pressing to me, in the field of ecosystem restoration and not extraction--will the District Rangers follow up the thinning projects with fire? Can't have a woodland without fire. I imagine all of this extraction going on in Missouri with no one following up with fire and the whole landscape turning into nothing but oak sprouts as far as the eye can see. Note that I haven't mentioned the biofuels market on here. I'm pretty dubious about the whole win-win strategy that so many ecologists want to see. I don't see it happening until we get the dedication of district rangers to regular fire return intervals. You can't thin and not burn. If you do, that's the old chip mill issue, not ecosystem restoration. Thanks for stumbling across my post. I'm a softie for gnarly old post oaks. I burn the hell out of the historic post oak landscape. You can't have a native landscape without killing trees.

Clyde said...

Hi Allison,

It's so wonderful to see a review like this on a blog. I had to respond to your comment about our 'dry' red wines (Peaceful Bend) as being 'still too sweet'. As a winemaker, having my dry wines be dry is extremely important. But as a winemaker, what I call dry may be very different than what the rest of the world (read: consumer) may call dry. The term in winemaking refers to the lack of fermentable sugar. This not only is important in the organoleptic quality of the wine, but is a very important stability issue with dry wines. If there is fermentable sugar present, then there always exist the potential for the wine to resume fermenting, which is never a good thing. Anyway, in the lab the three dry reds you describe from our winery are considered absolutely dry at below 0.01 percent sugar.

Which leaves me wondering what you are perceiving as 'sweet'. Wines from other regions tend to have more tannins (with some exceptions, like Merlot) than our wines, so perhaps the lack of tannins is coming off as something tasting sweet. Note that I am not discounting that you perceive these wines as sweet, but simple wanting to make it clear that these wines are dry..... at least to a winemaker.... and void of sugar.


Clyde Gill

Allison Vaughn said...

That's very good to know! Thanks for reading and for running a charming winery in a beautiful part of the Ozarks. But now I'm wondering myself why I thought the Fourche Renault --which I very much enjoyed and took on a backpacking trip recently--was sweet. Could it be the tannins? Could it be an oak issue? I really don't know, but remain grateful that you're making dry wines in a landscape where many others make sweet wines. I like wines that taste like hickory smoke...what could that be? Keep up the great work, and keep stocking the Osage Beach HyVee!

Jose said...

So far we have visited 54 Norton vineyards. On a scale of 1-to-5 (poor-to-excellent) let me send you a partial list of wineries to consider visiting or making a Norton order from:

Blumenhof Winery 5 MO
Chandler Hill 5 MO
Adam Puchta Winery 4 MO
Cooper Vineyards 4 VA
Heinrichshaus Vineyard 4 MO
Montelle Winery 4 MO
Robller Vineyard 4 MO
Abingdon Vineyard 3 VA
Barrel Oak Winery 3 VA
Bommarito Estate Winery 3 MO
Crane Creek Vineyards 3 GA
Cave Vineyard 3 MO
Chrysalis Vineyards 3 VA
Crown Valley Winery 3 MO
Elk Creek Vineyards 3 KY
Lovers Leap Vineyard 3 Ky
Mount Pleasant Winery 3 MO
River Ridge Winery 3 MO
Rockbridge Vineyards 3 VA
St. James Winery 3 MO
Stone Hill Winery 3 MO
Stone Mt. Wine Cellars 3 PA
Three Sisters Vineyards 3 GA
White Oak Vineyards 3 AL