When I took the fly off of my North Face backpacking tent on that 20 degree morning last week, Doug pointed out the significant accumulation of ice crystals that rested on top of the tent: critters breathing all night in a warm tent, all under a Marmot 20 below sleeping bag and all the wool Pendleton blankets from the beds back home. We were on a mission last week as we set out to the Southeast Missouri Lowlands and into the Ozarks, into the Poplar Bluff Ranger District of the Mark Twain NF, to visit all these wineries that have blossomed in the area since I left the Bootheel in December 2007.
Back then, there was River Ridge Winery in Commerce. I went there every weekend: I picked grapes for their harvest, I manned the tasting bar (where I heard the most colorful tasting notes! My favorite was of the Traminette, Missouri's version of Gewurtztraminer: "it's sort of like bees gorging on a lilac bush...but they're not mad, just excited."), I washed dishes for the restaurant, I loved the vibe, the food, staff at River Ridge, which is located at the beginning of Crowley's Ridge and next to the only section of the Mississippi River without a levee for many miles. The charming town of Commerce floods every few years, so the homes are on stilts, built with breathable materials, or up on Crowley's Ridge, which is generally immuned from floodwaters. So the barre was set high moving northward in late 07. I thought every Missouri winery should be as distinctive, as interesting, as amiable, as fun and inviting with fantastic, collectible dry red wines as those found at River Ridge.
I've learned a lot since then, and I've seen the wine industry literally explode in Missouri since I first lived here part-time in 2003. Dozens of earnest winemakers are spread out across the Ozark Highlands making delightful, supple wines, wines to suit every palate, all the while creating an atmosphere that is enjoyable and appropriate to the landscape. Conversely, there are the wineries that buy juice from California and bottle it here in an effort to "grow a financial portfolio." Diversify! In the past two years, I've visited over 90 wineries in Missouri, and even the overtly commercial operations produce something palatable. However, I tend to spend time and money at wineries that Linus' Great Pumpkin would visit; I like to meet the winemaker, I like to talk about the harvest, I like to hear about challenges and successes, hopes for the future. And I love a good Norton. (Right now, the 08s are drinking very, very well.)
In the middle of Marquand, nestled in the midst of the Mark Twain around its borders in a refurbished general store downtown is any Norton-chasers dream winery, Durso Hills Winery and Bistro. That day, the restaurant had just opened for prime rib night (Fridays, 4-9pm)when we arrived, and the winemaker himself was manning the tasting bar. I said what I always say at a winery: "I'd like to try your dry reds, please." When he proffered a long list of dry reds, including three vintages of Norton, I knew we'd be there a while. Locals began trickling in asking for bottles of homemade sangria (made with Norton) and some of their sweeter wines, but at that time I could have crawled into my glass of 06 Norton and stayed there all night. Each vintage had its own character and distinct notes, a testament that Durso Hills knows how to grow grapes as well as make great wine. In fact, the winemaker here is so capable that he's making truly fantastic wines for one of those big multimillionaire commercial operations around Ste. Genevieve country, a winery outfitted with plush chairs the likes of which I couldn't afford with an entire year's salary. "Aha!" I shouted, telling him how much I enjoyed the wine at the posh Ste. Gen location, I especially loved the Norton, but could only afford a glass and no food. I hoped he was being paid well for making such stellar wines out of his beautiful grapes for them, and I think he is.
Moving towards Bollinger County, the last known location in Missouri of the orchid Isotria medeloides (documented from an unknown hill around Marble Hill), stop into Thousand Oaks Winery -closer to Patton than Marble Hill- for a brick oven-fired pizza and a wide array of interesting wines ranging from sweet (which I didn't taste) to a good, dry Norton. Another earnest endeavor with the winemaker behind the tasting bar that day, she was busy making gift baskets, tying up baskets of crackers and peanuts and little treats with a bottle of wine with raffia and glitter-coated ribbon. The winemaker can tell you the story behind each wine, and Thousand Oaks produces a significant amount of varietals. For a small winery, I was impressed with the amount of wine they're producing, and all of the dry reds are very palatable. I especially appreciated being waited upon by the winemaker who told us the story behind each blend, and the story of each photo on the different varietal labels. I left there with a bottle of their "Decompression Norton" and will stop in again soon. The brick oven is enviable.
A very new kid on the block, Eagle Pass Winery located ten miles north of Poplar Bluff, opened its doors a few months ago. I didn't even know about Eagle Pass until I called directory assistance asking about the now-defunct Bonanza Spring Winery (formerly located on Westwood in Poplar?). While the AT&T folks couldn't connect me to Bonanza Spring, they offered the number to Eagle Pass, "a similar business". At 9:30 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a cheery barista answered the phone and gave me terrific directions to their charming cabin on the hill. The drive to the winery is a first-gear sort of drive over a rutted road (in parts), but it's worth the slow drive to arrive at a beautiful pitched roof wooden building unlike anything in the surrounding area. The winemaker works closely with Mr. Durso Hills up in Marquand, and is making great dry wines as a result. Friendly atmosphere, with ample seating, I hope Eagle Pass becomes a destination like Commerce's River Ridge for the Poplar Bluff community. Located in a beautiful setting with truly genuine, friendly staff, with great wine on their side, Eagle Pass has the potential to succeed in the industry.
So many fantastic wineries in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks, I may have to return to my campsite under the spreading canopy of white oak- black oak and deep soils and vegetation unlike the Western Ozarks, unlike the St. Francois Mountains country, but distinct, and possibly harboring a dormant population of Isotria medeloides somewhere on a hillside in Marble Hill.