Friday, January 27, 2012

Westphalia's Gem: The Norton Room at Westphalia Inn

Driving off the Central Plateau into the Gasconade River Hills, gentle undulations in the landscape make way to dangerous curves in the road. Traffic signs warn drivers speeding out of Rolla or Jefferson City: 45 mph ahead. 35 mph ahead. The German Catholic towns of Vienna, Freeburg, and Westphalia represent the breadbasket of this part of the Ozarks with deep soils, gently rolling terrain, widely spaced oaks and meandering streams and rivers -many filled with cattle- coursing through the landscape. Coming to Osage County from the peaks and vales of Missouri River country, Cole County, Westphalia is reminiscent of Hermann, a nice quiet town far away from the capitol. Turn onto Hwy 133 off Hwy 63 and you're on the main drag through town, passing by charming 19th century homes, the local watering hole, the beautiful St. Joseph's Catholic church with that tall steeple that can be seen for miles, and an old hotel, the Westphalia Inn, home to Westphalia Vineyards and the restaurant that serves traditional Osage County fare (ham and beans, pot roast, fried chicken).

I'm grateful, in a way, that the Norton Room isn't open during the work week, or I'd likely be there several evenings of the work week. Walk up the stairs of the historic hotel-gift store (across the street from the church, park on the road, look closely for the small winery sign or the big HOTEL at the top of the two story brick building)and you'll find a well-appointed dining room with gentle lighting, high ceilings, a warm and inviting environment with ample seating. If you're lucky, you'll be there when Westphalia Vineyard's owner, Terry Neuner, is behind the bar.

What a delight to finally meet the man behind one of my favorite Nortons. I think it may have been the first thing I asked him, if he had any of his 06 Norton left. A few years ago, the 06 vintage was available in stores, but no more, only the 08 and 09 vintages. "Only here" can one find the 06 vintage, at the Westphalia Inn. Lucky day, this supple, sulfite free, unfiltered Norton pours out of the glass onto the palate with body unmatched by so many other 06s, many of which have fallen flat despite the Norton grape's propensity to age so well. Terry explained that he pulled the 06s from the shelves because of the sediment it left behind. I appreciate the sediment, reminiscent as it is of my days in Greece when we'd throw the sediment against the wall of the local tavern, a tradition as old as the 5th c. (with stains in archaeological sites to prove it). The Westphalia 06 unfiltered Norton is as close as one can get to tasting the soil, to understanding the delicate balance involved in growing grapes in the Gasconade River Hills--the cool spring nights, the cold winters, the droughty summers...the 06 Norton breathes it all. Knowing this vintage is still available at the winery will bring me back to Hwy 133 time and again.

When I spoke to Terry about my love of Norton, how I chase and collect Norton, he mentioned his friendship with one of Virginia's premier Norton producers, the woman behind the esteemed Locksley Reserve Norton, Jenny, a main character in Todd Kliman's book about the history and culture of Norton, The Wild Vine. The famed Jenny, passionate about Norton, an incredible vintner, grew up in Westphalia. When Terry mentioned that she came to town and spent time with him and his vines, I could have only wished to have been in the company among two great Norton wine producers, one based in Missouri, one based in Virginia. Oh, they swapped bottles, of course, and had a fine time together.

Missouri's wine heritage is steeped in German Catholic culture, and Westphalia is at the heart of it. The whitewashing of the story of Prohibition, that it was promulgated by the Temperance League is only part of the story behind the end of Missouri's reign as a great wine producer in the 1900s. The jingoistic culture that came hand in hand with World War I and the hatred of all things German had a lot to do with it, too. Today, Terry continues the fine tradition of handcrafting great wines, and mentions that he exports most of it to California. Missouri Norton in Cabernet country. Rumblings abound that California winemakers are trying their hand at growing Norton, but Missourians, especially those of German heritage, have been doing it quite well for over 100 years.


Paul Nelson said...

Hats off to Allison for waxing eloquent about a winery found in my home county of Osage. I occassion Westphalia Inn also enjoying the Norton's that Terry produces. I can only hope that Terry and other Osagean's will find a way to access your fine post as palatable as the 06 wine you experienced

Allison Vaughn said...

What a fantastic place, and such a charming town that you'd never know was there while speeding down Hwy 63. I like the assortment of items for sale in the gift shop downstairs, a totally classy building, and serves those who just want a Budweiser as much as I want a Norton.

James C. Trager said...

I've been curiouser and curiouser about Nortons after reading your praises of them, Allison -- even tried a few, and was pleased.

I will say the Westphalia Inn could use a little enhancement of its beer offerings. :)

Allison Vaughn said...

I think the beer list and menu makes the place so great--the owners know that locals want fall supper like meals, nothing fancy, and that the guy down past town on 50 likes Coors Light while that other guy from Bonnots Mill likes Busch. I really appreciate the authenticity of so many local establishments in the Ozarks. In this homogenized world, it's good to go into that bar in Salem and drink rot gut gin because that's all there is (unless they've added local Norton to the menu, which I doubt...). Conversely, after too long in the field, going to River's Edge in Eminence is just to much to handle--fried food, canned beans, typical beer. It's nice to have a cabin with a kitchenette to heat up instant curries from India Kitchen while drinking a St. James Norton out of a coffee mug.