Hermann is the heart and soul of Missouri Wine Country. The wineries in and around the historic German community sell nearly 200,000 gallons of wine a year, about a third of the statewide total. But today’s success story is a mere shadow of the town’s incredible winemaking past.
For Hermann’s founders making wine was a matter of economic survival. When the first German settlers arrived at the site of their new town on the Missouri River in 1837, they discovered the land their agent had purchased was not the land of milk and honey they had been promised, but a rugged wilderness, unfit for farming.
Taking their cue from the tangles of wild grapevines that covered the craggy hillsides, the settlers began planting grapes and making wine. Working mostly with wild grapes, contaminated barrels and makeshift cellars, the first Hermann wines were of such poor quality they would not sell at any price.Things began looking up in 1843 with the introduction of the first cultivated grape varieties—Isabella, Virginia Seedling, Catawba and Delaware.
Town fathers nurtured the infant wine industry by selling “grape lots,” vacant city lots a settler could buy or $50, interest free, over a five-year period. The only condition was that the lot had to be planted in grapes. A total of 600 grape lots eventually were sold. The entire town, it seemed, was growing grapes, building wine cellars and making wine. Home wine cellars wee common, and wine halls were a favorite Sunday gathering place where families socialized after church.
Hermann held its first Weinfest in the fall of 1848, a tradition that continues in today’s Octoberfest celebrations. One early historian recorded his pilgrimage to Hermann:
“…As we arrived there towards evening a six-pounder thundered its greeting and welcome over the hills and valleys. The reports of this success had penetrated into all parts of Missouri where German was spoken at that time, and evenvisitors from St. Louis, ladies and gentlemen, had come on steamboats.”The next mor
ning an entire cavalcade made its way to the vineyard of Mr. Michael Poeschel [founder of Stone Hill Winery], and as a matter of fact, I didn’t regret having traveled the long distance of 20 miles when I beheld the splendid grapes there with my own eyes. His bearing vineyard covered hardly the area of a single acre, but the rows of posts seemed to consist of nothing but a wall of grapes and among them not a single rotten erry was to be found.”The product of the vintage of this small vineyard was a very expensive but good Catawba, which when it is treated right resembles Rhinewine very closely…”
The quality of Hermann wines improved dramatically in the mid-1800s, thank in large part to the work of George Husmann, whose father had purchased a Hermann lot while the family was still living in Germany. A self-taught scientist, Husmann studied soil types and crossed wild and cultivated grapes to create hybrids that could stand up to Missouri’s hot, humid summers and freezing winters.
Husmann’s research proved invaluable in the 1860s when the vineyards of southern France were devastated by phylloxera, a bug blight spread by aphids. Missouri grape growers shipped 17 carloads of phylloxera-resistant root stock to France. In commemoration of the event, two statutes were erected in Monpellier, France. One depicts a young woman cradling an old woman in her arms-the New World saving the Old World.
Husmann, who was recognized by te French government, later moved from Hermann to California, where he became a founding father of the Napa Valley wine industry.
By the turn of the century, Hermann was one of the largest wine producing regions in the world. One-twelfth of all U.S. wines laced on the market in 1904-nearly three million gallons-was from Missouri, and practically all of that was from Hermann. Some 11,000 acres of terraced vineyards covered the hillsides in and around Hermann.
Stone Hill Winery, where it all began, won the first of eight World’s Fair gold medals in Vienna in 1873. By the turn of the century, Stone Hill was the second largest winery in the country. The winery’s vast network of underground cellars is still among the largest in the world. The famous apostle cellar held 12 enormous casks, each carved with the likeness of one of the disciples.
Eight underground cellars at Stone Hill Winery stored a total of 1.25 million gallons of wine.
This golden era came to an abrupt and bitter end in 1919 with passage of the Volstead Act. Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster for Hermann, which like the rest of Missuri felt the full fury of the temperance movement. Hatchet-wielding Carry Nation was from neighboring Kansas, where Civil War animosity still ran high.
Local lore has it that the streets ran red as wine barrels were emptied and then destroyed. Even the vineyards were uprooted. Stone Hill’s apostle casks were shipped to Germany for safekeeping, never to be seen again. Twelve empty arches bear silent witness to the loss.
Prohibition and anti-German sentiment from World War I sent Hermann reeling into the Great Depression years before the rest of the country. For decades the only evidence of the town’s once-glorious wine making past was in churches, which were still permitted to make sacramental wine, or hidden away in barns. Stone Hill’s huge vaulted cellars were converted to commercial mushroom growing.
A renaissance began in 1965 when Jim and Betty Held began making wine at Stone Hill Winery, 30 years after the repeal of Prohibition. Today, Missouri has nearly 90 wineries and a state-funded Grape and Wine program. At the state Fruit Experiment Station at Missouri State University, researchers carry on the work began by George Husmann more than a century ago.
Venerable native grape varieties-Norton, Catawba, Niagara, and Concord-have been joined by exciting new French-American hybrids, such as Vidal, Seyval, Vignoles and, most recently, Chardonel.
Missouri wine is back, and this time it’s here to stay.