Saturday, February 13, 2010

Toasting Alyssa: from Hermann to Berger

In a wine-loving family such as mine, it's challenging when, upon hearing of a sister's good fortune, I am not allowed to quickly ship out a nice bottle of wine for congratulatory purposes. During my walk to the gym on Friday, Alyssa announced that she is officially with child, a clump of rapidly dividing cells that she says "looks like a shrimp" on the sonogram. Alyssa is positively ecstatic about this recent development, as is the rest of the family.

With this news from my sister, and the impending responsibility of being a normal, non-stress-inducing aunt (which precludes turning into someone with clunky wooden necklaces and long, flowing purple chenille skirts who sends used stuffed animals covered in cat hair, clocks powered by Russet potatoes, or the same weird religious coloring books year after year), I decided to toast her from Missouri. Since she can't drink wine for 9 months, Daddy and I will have to pick up her slack; so, to continue my exploratory mission of finding Missouri's best Norton wines, I went back to the German settlement located in the lovely Missouri River hills of Hermann.

I ruled out going back to Adam Puchta and Stone Hill Wineries because I've been there several times before. Today I decided to leave the pedestrian-friendly town of Hermann ipse and head towards Berger east on Highway 100 to visit Bias Vineyards and Winery and Oak Glenn Vineyards and Winery.

The narrow, winding, tree-lined road that leads to the low-lying wood-sided Bias Winery is reminiscent of Crowley's Ridge. Bias is a small, family-owned winery offering a wide variety of dry and sweet wines with limited production (and not available in Columbia). When we arrived around 11 am, the barista was still opening for the day, setting the mop aside in the large dining room to pour for me the only three wines I was interested in tasting: "dry reds only, please."

The first, DeChaunac, is an American wine, which means the grapes are not grown in Missouri. Nevertheless, the beautiful deep amber hues and big bouquet offer a savory overtone reminiscent of fresh figs. The Chambourcin, aged in steel, favored cranberries. The Norton was interesting, but didn't taste like the freshly sawed green white oak that I prefer.

While this may sound strange, I particularly appreciated the barista's knowledge of wine. Having been to other wineries in Missouri where the server may not actually drink wine (but prefers Stag, Hamm's or PBR) and therefore can't tell you anything about what you're drinking, I liked that she offered her opinions of the overtones, the finish, and the nose before she even poured the taste. To boot, she was clad in green, purple and gold Mardi Gras beads decked out with a plastic fleur de lis. I liked her instantly. Also at the tasting bar, find a wide variety of microbrewed beers the family produces.

Head back towards Hermann from Berger on Hwy. 100, turn right at the enormous Oak Glenn Winery sign to visit a small winery with ample outdoor seating and a killer view of the Missouri River. Located snugly in a nice little degraded woodland (just needs a little fire), Oak Glenn must pack in the crowds during the growing season. Tiers of picnic tables and chairs, a large wooden stage, an entire pavilion with "Beer" and "Food" painted on the eaves, and an upstairs room that seats about 100 people, this place must be a madhouse in the summer. Offering live music and beer (alongside their wines), Oak Glenn is set up for large crowds. The sign out front explained that no, you can't bring your own booze to Oak Glenn, and that you will not be served unless you're in shoes and a shirt. I really didn't think these were issues at wineries? But I guess they are. I think Bias had the same signs.

The small tasting room is located in a building reminiscent of a newer Willamette Valley winery--modern architecture, wide, dark wood siding, a few circular windows, a California inspiration. None of Oak Glenn's dry reds are aged in oak, except the port (which I don't drink). Their steel-aged 2004 Norton was remarkably smooth--if you normally don't like Nortons, try Oak Glenn's. Imagine a solid aged Walla Walla cabernet. Unlike other wineries in the area, Oak Glenn offers wine by the glass.

So the barista cracked open a new bottle of the 04 Norton for me, and we hiked upstairs for the commanding view of the Missouri River and the vineyards planted all the way downslope. An added bonus, lining the walls in the party room upstairs are old German farm tools and professionally produced interpretive panels about Georg Hussman, the original 19th century owner of the vines at Oak Glenn, about Hermann, and about German settlements in Missouri. I felt like I was in a state historic site. I learned that the grapes used for the port are harvested from the original 19th century vines that survived Prohibition. But that 04 Norton...though I've never gulped melted butter, I almost felt like I was with the big pour of the 04 Norton. It had none of the bite that many folks hate about Nortons; it was too easy to drink for me to have around the house.

After Oak Glenn, drive into Hermann on Hwy. 100 and park next to the little German Vernacular buildings on the right to visit Hermannhof Winery. Don't be alarmed by the peculiar new sign touting California wines; evidently, the owner of Hermannhof lives between St. Louis and California, so the old brick building behind Hermannhof Winery now offers tastings from three California wineries. I don't like the spirit of it, frankly, and my dislike of most California wines (because they lack character and interest and seem to be really simple and mass produced) doesn't help matters. I wouldn't like Willamette Valley vintners selling their wines in downtown Hermann, either, for what it's worth.

Walking into Hermannhof Winery, the nice old building that I've been to countless times, I was dismayed to see the large tasting room essentially split in half: on one side, visitors could try Hermannhof wines, and on the other side, visitors were offered California wines. I suspect a lot of people don't know the difference, or care (they just like wine), but it made me uncomfortable to see California wines being sold in one of the hometowns of Missouri wine.

I met knowledgeable barista #2 today, an elderly lady with a machine embroidered jacket with hearts all over it who has worked at Hermannhof for four years. I offered my initial "dry reds only" to her, and she grabbed a pink wine and started to pour. Before I could argue that I don't drink white or pink wine, she sort of shushed me, telling me that I would "be surprised" by the vin-gris--made with California grapes. It's nice, like a good pinot gris, very dry, but it's not a lip-staining red. So, I complimented the pink wine, asked for a Chambourcin or a Norton, and she poured me a dry white--a lovely, crisp Vidal Blanc, but I explained that I can't drink white wines...even if they don't have any sugar. She wasn't in autopilot pouring me white wine, just trying to prove that Hermannhof's dry whites aren't sweet. I conceded, and complimented the Vidal Blanc.

Hermannhof Winery ages their wines for at least four years before making them available to the public; this practice has resulted in consistently mellow, classy, and beautiful wine. The mildly oaked 2004 Chambourcin was typically bright, but the 2004 Norton blew me away. If you like the big spiciness of a good Norton, try this one. Like a good Oregon pinot noir, this one had layers, ending with a big finish. Also for sale at Hermannhof is the 2002 Norton, aged in French oak. Benchmark Norton, I found it at Hermannhof.

The final dry red the barista offered was a blend of Malbec and Syrah, a wine produced in California "for Hermannhof," which means it has a Hermannhof label, though it's neither made with Missouri grapes or in Missouri. It's fine, I guess, a decent California blend, a little like a Bogle Petite Syrah, which is fine, it's nice, I guess. But when you create a Norton as competent and brilliant as the one I just tasted, why waste my money on a California blend? Maybe Missouri wineries are losing money, maybe the Missouri grapes aren't selling as well as boring little California grapes sell. I left Hermannhof a little sad for the future of Missouri's wineries, knowing that some have closed in the past year for lack of revenue. Here's to hoping that Missouri's grapes will earn a larger fan base and that California doesn't move in altogether and homogenize viticulture in Missouri with their big buildings and grapes. I left Hermann with a brown paper bag full of the 04 Norton with the faint glimmer of expectation that I may save a bottle for Alyssa if I hide it well enough from myself.


rhodies said...

Truly enjoyed your Norton wine article because of your diverse review from our experiences. So far we've searched for exceptional Norton wines by visiting 67 Norton vineyards in eleven states. Your nicely written assessment just goes to show different tastes and attitudes towards this great American wine. I've had success in finding Norton wineries by using information found on both and Would like to read your reviews on these two sites of vineyards you have visited. Our Missouri Norton favorites wineries to visit continue to be Blumenhof, Chandler Hill, Robller, Montelle, Stone Hill (Cross J wine) & Heinrichshaus, but then we've also found delightfully different Norton examples in VA, AL, TN, & KY.

Allison Vaughn said...

Great, thank you for the tip. I'll check out the websites (exciting links!). I really like Heinrichshaus a lot--back in September I covered the St. James area and Heinrchshaus was the top choice. I wanted to go to Dustow for Blumenhof and then down towards Robller, but had to get back to Columbia early-ish yesterday for a concert. Thanks for the thoughtful list; I'll definitely check out the wineries you recommended (never heard of Chandler Hill, but will find it). I've never tried a Virginia Norton, but I like to read about Thos. Jefferson and his winemaking enterprise, so I need to find a Va. Norton. Will try an Alabama one next week since I'm headed there. By the way, next on my list are some of the wineries around Ste. Genevieve.

Travis Mohrman said...

Hank's Norton at Chaumette will change everything.....and Jack and Joal at Charleville are two of the best people walking around this rock right now.
what's up with the big "no dogs" sign at that one winery? those people must be jerks. a quality Prussian winery would recognize that dogs make everything more fun.

Allison Vaughn said...

I know...a "no dogs allowed" rule is just strange at a winery. So, I had planned on going to the Ste. Genevieve area this weekend, but Hawn is closed, so nowhere to camp. Too poor for a hotel. When the park reopens, Ste. Genevieve wineries will be a top priority.

Anonymous said...

I think I'll stick with my persimmon mead from E. Douglas County.

Allison Vaughn said...

Now, that sounds interesting!