Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Wineries of the Gasconade River Hills

In the land of Century Farms and large, contiguous forested blocks of dissected terrain in the beautiful Gasconade River Valley rest three charming wineries, all located a short stone's throw off Hwy. 50 in the German Catholic region of Osage County. Since moving to Missouri, I've been utterly fascinated with and charmed by the state's local wineries, especially the earnest endeavors that have been in place for many years now, plugging away making Missouri wine in their county road and gravel road locations, year after year after year. With so many smaller wineries tucked in the nooks and crannies of Ozark roads, I hope that the Missouri Wine and Grape Board's passport program has driven eager customers their way, offering a new winery experience to visitors and hopefully some cash flow to the wineries. (For what it's worth, when I visit a Missouri winery, I always buy at least one bottle of something, most often a Norton or a Chambourcin, but sometimes a Traminette or a blend. Heck, at Odessa [Lafayette Co. country, north Missouri], a fruit wine winery, I bought a super dry Granny Smith apple wine made with jalapenos, aptly called Tornado Spotter. Will go great with burritoes one night in the summer. I like the cartoon tornado on the label...)

Hwy A in Osage County reminds me of Hwy 19 around the Current River but without the fast timber trucks speeding their red oak-black oak logs around the hairpin turns. I've never driven A before, a spur off of Hwy 28 just before the Gasconade, but it was such a pleasant, little trafficked, wooded, winding road that I won't mind at all traveling that way again to visit Wenwood Farm Winery. Traffic was so light (so unlike Hwys 63 and 50) that I could even slow to a crawl to wait for the squirrels and turtles to amble -ever slowly- across the road. Well signed, Wenwood Farm Winery is located on Brick Church Road (County Road 406 in my old Gazetteer), a small gravel road off A.

Corky, the border collie mix, met me in the parking lot as I opened my car door. He led the way from the parking lot to the cute old white clapboard 1800s farm house that now serves as the tasting room and restaurant. Considering that I always return to any winery with a good dog, especially if that dog is a friendly border or an Australian shepherd, I was pleased to find a nice Norton blend to enjoy there. Beautifully appointed tasting room with a friendly barista at the tasting bar. Wenwood doesn't keep a lot of older vintages around, and while they serve a suite of sweeter wines, their Norton blend (called Heritage) is amply oaked with nice vanilla in the finish. Wenwood is a charming little place with food and music on weekends, and open daily, even in winter! (A bottle of their Heritage is in my wine rack and won't be opened for several years.)

Head back to A road towards Hwy 50, the gut of Osage County (though pleasantly vacant on my day in the area), and make a right towards Owensville to visit two more small Ozark wineries: Phoenix Winery and White Mule Winery and Bed and Breakfast.

When Becky at Wenwood told me that Phoenix is a one man show, a winery operated by an older gentleman from Frankfurt, she could have told me it was reminiscent of Heinrichhaus Winery outside of St. James. The tasting room was wide open as I pulled into the driveway, passing several acres of beautifully maintained grape trellises on the way. Two signs in the window: "Out for ten minutes." "Honk your horn for service." I honked my horn as soon as I read the sign, not waiting for ten minutes. Out of the house came a gentleman with a porkpie hat and a cigarette dangling from his lips, hunched over and telling me in a very strong German accent that his back is giving him a lot of trouble lately. Oh, he's seeing a chiropractor, a neighbor who retired from the business, but "it takes time" with those lower vertebrae.

Guenther Heeb makes wine in the Burgundian tradition, elegant, light bodied reds and crisp dry whites. His tasting room is decorated with wonderful maps of the Rhine River valley and older bottles that were likely served when he operated the Edelweiss Dining Club, a German food dining club that I regret not witnessing. Herr Heeb once sold homemade sausage from his winery, but the sausage was so popular he didn't have time to do anything else but make and sell sausage. He continues to serve sausage on the weekends with piped in German music in the courtyard. He's been in Osage County selling wine for years now (and how did I not know about it until the passport program?), and would like to retire soon, please. Phoenix Winery is the only producer of the Valiant grape, a varietal most known in America from the Northeast but finicky in Missouri. Guenther likes it so much that he takes great care of his vines to produce a full bodied wine from them. His whites are particularly reminiscent of German wines. If you can't make it to the winery, Phoenix offers a pickup delivery service along certain routes.

Back on Hwy 50 towards Rosebud located on the left is a big barn, an old farmhouse (bed and breakfast now), farm implements, and a spacious tasting room, a woodsy, rustic log cabin sort of place, you've reached White Mule Winery, owned by the Schlottach's. Ample seating, a light menu, a rural setting of an old working farmstead and a quaint little bed and breakfast makes this winery most inviting. The story of this old farmstead goes back to the 1800s when the homes and barns sat behind the old Charlotte store and post office. The Schlottach's great grandfather was a blacksmith in Charlotte. The Schlottach's acquired the neighboring Roethemeyer's farm in 2004 and planted their first vineyard. They restored the house and named it the White Mule after the white mules that the Roethemeyer family continued to use to plow the fields well into the 1980s. White Mule offers traditional Missouri wines including Norton, Vidal Blanc, and Vignoles. They make very nice dry wines, and of course a sweet wine that sells very well.

I ended my tour of Gasconade country with three new bottles for the rack, and knowledge of three new destinations not too far from home. The earnest winemakers, the stunning river hills scenery, the variability of the wine from Osage County terroir added up to a few hours very well spent.

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