COLUMBIA — The largest wine region in the country geographically isn’t Napa Valley— it’s the Midwest. In fact, the first recognized American Viticulture Area was Augusta in 1980.
Before Prohibition, Missouri was a major wine-producing state. The banning of alcohol ruined the state’s wine business, and it wasn't until the mid-20th century that local winemakers started to rebuild it. The hiatus left room for California to become the new king of wine in the U.S.
- Augusta is just 35 miles outside of St. Louis. Exporting to Germany since the turn of the 21st century, the region has produced wines that have garnered international acclaim. In 2001, Augusta Winery’s Chardonnel was labeled the “Best U.S. Wine” by Selection, a German wine magazine.
- Hermann, an hour outside Columbia, was founded by German settlers in 1836. The town is home to one of the state’s largest wineries, Stone Hill Winery. In 2008, Oak Glen’s white port, a barrel-aged white with orange liqueur, was awarded a silver medal from the Taster’s Guild.
- The Ozark Highlands are primarily located southwest of St. Louis in the town of St. James. Italian immigrants were the first to plant grapevines in this region. In 2011, the St. James Vignoles, a semi-sweet white wine, was awarded a gold medal by the San Francisco Chronicle.
- The Ozark Mountains reach across parts of three states, including southern Missouri, northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. Covering over 352,000 acres, this wine region is the sixth largest viticulture area in the U.S. Home to the award winning Branson Ridge Winery, this region specializes in a variety of blended wines.
The good, the bad and the sweet
The public perception of Missouri wines is quite varied. Even though they have been consistently recognized in national competitions, there is a real lack of awareness or knowledge of the state’s wine industry.
Probably the most widely known grape in the state is Norton. Considered the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry, the Norton grape is the official state grape. A rich, full-bodied red wine, the Norton is Zinfandel-like with mixed-berry flavors.
First cultivated in Virginia, the grape became commercially available in 1830. Missouri Norton wines have been consistently honored since 1873, when a Norton wine won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exposition.
In 2009, Riedel Stemware unveiled its Norton wine glass at Les Bourgeois Winery near Columbia. Today, Norton is the most widely planted grape in the state.
Let's Get Social
Embracing the World Wide Web, Midwestern wineries are conducting virtual tastings through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. They’ve proved to be successful attention-getters, garnering coverage in The Washington Post, among other publications.
Paul Vernon, owner of Top Ten Wines in Columbia, is optimistic about the expansion of the Missouri wine industry. "With so many people experimenting with new wine regions, like Greece, more people are going to try Missouri wine," he said. "The future is bright."
He's not the first person to make that prediction. After all, in the 1800s, Henry Vizetelly, a noted wine critic of the day, said that the wines from Missouri would one day rival the great wines of Europe in quality and quantity.