On the campus of a small agricultural college in Montpellier, France, stands a statue of a young woman comforting an elderly woman. The young woman represents the youthful United States assisting its motherland, Europe. The statue depicts one of the most unusual events in the history of winemaking, and it serves as a reminder that for much of the 19th century and until the Prohibition era of the 1920s, Missouri was the dominant wine-producing area of North America.
The heart of Missouri winemaking is called the Rhineland, a touch of the Old World strung out along the last 100 miles of the Missouri River before it joins the Mississippi near St. Louis. Oak and walnut timber covers the low hills, and row crops join with grapes to march across the rich bottomlands toward the river. Sturdy towns made of limestone and brick perch on the high bluffs along the southern bank of the river, most with the church steeple jutting above the treetops. Some of the oldest wineries in North America were established here. Since most were built of the inevitable stone or brick, they still stand.
Hermann is the capital of the Rhineland with Augusta, downriver a few miles, almost an equal partner. Other German-settled towns stand farther west, such as Starkenburg and Westphalia, but Hermann represents the most ambitious attempt to retain 19th-century German culture. Lately it has been the most active in promoting the preservation of Missouri’s German heritage: More than 100 of its buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, which is most of the buildings in the small town of less than 3,000.
Little Germany in the West
Hermann was founded in 1837 by members of the Philadelphia Settlement Society, an organization of German immigrants who went into the wilderness to establish a colony in the remote West that would carry out the ideals of German nationalism. The society bought 11,000 acres in Missouri and sold off lots to its members. These newcomers were so well educated that locals nicknamed them the “Lateinische Bauern”: the Latin Peasants.”
This learning is reflected in names they gave the town and its streets. The town was named in honor of Hermann (Arminius in Latin), the German warrior whose armies defeated Caesar Augustus’ forces in the Battle of Teutoburg in 9 A.D. and forced them back from the Elbe River to the Rhine. Streets were named Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Gutenberg, and Schiller. When the founders laid out the town, they made sure that their Market Street was 10 feet wider than the street in Philadelphia with the same name.
Grapes were one of the first crops they planted because they found that the soil and climate were similar to the Rhine valley back in their homeland. The first grapes matured in 1845, and in 1846 the vineyards produced about 1,000 gallons of wine. Soon wine was the major product in the area, and by 1893 Hermann’s Stone Hill Winery was the second largest winery in the New World. (The largest was the Lonz Winery in Ohio, which closed in 2000 after a patio collapsed, killing one person and injuring several others.) Stone Hill still stands regally on the highest hill south of town, overlooking the Missouri River and surrounding valley.
During Hermann’s heyday Stone Hill was only one of more than 60 wineries in the area, and together they produced more than 3 million gallons of wine each year. Most of it was poured into oak casks and taken by boat downriver to St. Louis to be bottled and sold.
In the midst of this American success story came the chain of events that changed the wine industry in Europe and established a connection between the Old World and the New World.
American wines shine
It started when wines from Missouri began overshadowing European wines at international competitions. Partly from curiosity and partly to fight fire with fire, French vintners began importing rootstock from America to experiment with the grapes themselves.
Nobody knew until it was too late that the American vines carried a member of the aphid family called Phylloxera vastatrix. The tiny louse, native to the United States, is not much larger than a grass seed. It attacks the roots of grape vines, but the American vines had built up a resistance to the insect. Nobody was even aware of its existence until the pioneer entomologist Asa Fitch studied and named it after observing the damage it caused on European vines cultivated in America. It also attacked American grape roots native to America, but the roots healed quickly and no aftereffects were noted. The foreign vines brought over from Europe did not have this immunity. These vines inevitably died.
Once the tiny monster arrived in France it began systematically destroying the vineyards. The plague rapidly spread across France, and by the 1860s the majority of French vineyards were destroyed or severely damaged. The plague also crossed into Spain and showed up in Great Britain. Nobody knew the cause and it wasn’t until decades later that they found the pest is transported easily from area to area, sometimes clinging to the sole of shoes or boots or caught in the cuffs of pant legs.
The pest brought the French wine industry to its knees. Only small isolated parts of France escaped, but the wine industry was changed forever. Many vintners had to give up and begin growing row crops, assuming winemaking was dead forever. This was the period when Scotch whiskey came into its own; it was often used as a substitute for French brandy.
Word of disaster spreads
Eventually the cause was detected and a solution discovered. All the men involved in finding that solution were recent immigrants to America.
The first inkling of a solution came from two entomologists in St. Louis. Charles V. Riley was born in England and immigrated to the United States in the early 1860s, settling in Illinois and working as a farm hand. But he was fascinated with insects and soon was recognized as an expert.
When word of the Phylloxera disaster came to Missouri, Riley and George Englemann, a German-born colleague, quickly determined that it was not possible to eradicate the insect once it was established. Instead, they had to learn how to live with it, and the only way was to graft French vines onto the immune American rootstocks.
Two more men entered the story at this time to test the grafting on several varieties of grape. One was Hermann Jaeger, a winemaker from Neosho, Mo. Born in Switzerland in 1844, he learned the wine business while working for a wine house at Lake Geneva. He immigrated to the United States in 1864 and settled in Neosho. He bought 40 acres, a brother bought an adjoining 40 acres, and they began growing grapes and experimenting by grafting Concord and Virginia vines onto the wild grapevines. It is said Jaeger originated more than 100 varieties of grapes.
The fourth person was George Husmann, who was born in Germany and came to the United States with his parents in 1836. Soon he was growing grapes and eventually helped found the 1700-acre Bluffton Winery in Bluffton, Mo. He become a professor of pomology, forestry, and viticulture at the University of Missouri, and wrote the classic book American Grape Growing and Wine Making.
Husmann and Jaeger worked together on the problem and found the answer in Riley and Englemann’s recommendations. Grafting the more sensitive vines onto hardy American rootstocks created immunity to the louse. An estimated 10 million rootstocks, mostly Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris grown in nurseries in Neosho and Sedalia, Mo., were shipped to France.
While these Missourians literally saved the French wine industry, the episode also radically changed the way the French produced wine thereafter. After the vineyards were destroyed, many farmers began growing other crops that required less of an investment of money and time. (Wheat and corn are easier to grow than wine grapes.) Most large vineyards were consigned to history, and the smaller ones—sometimes called boutique wineries—became much more specialized. Quality and individuality became more important than quantity. Consequently, French wines became better than ever before.
A grateful France responds
The French were grateful for the Missouri rootstocks and unashamed to admit it. On Jan. 1, 1889, the French government bestowed the Cross of the Legion of Honor on Hermann Jaeger because of his dominant role in the successful experiment. A statue was erected on the campus of the Ecole Nationale Superieure Agronomique in Montpellier with a plaque thanking the Missouri wine industry for saving the French vineyards.
Today Missouri winemakers are especially fond of telling a possibly apocryphal story about what happened when California vintners needed a supply of rootstock after their vineyards began dying of the root louse: Rather than going to Missouri for their supply of vines, they imported the Missouri-born rootstocks from France. For their part, Missourians like to say the Californians couldn’t bear the thought of getting their replacement vines from Missouri.
Archie Satterfield writes on history and travel from his home in France.
What Became of the American Heroes?
Of the acclaimed and decorated wine industry heroes, three of the four led long and productive lives. After an illustrious career as a professor and winemaker in Missouri, George Husmann accepted an offer from the Talcoa Winery in California’s Napa Valley, where he worked several years performing his magic on vines. Later he bought the Oak Glen Winery in the Chiles Valley and operated it until his death in 1902. Husmann’s books remained in print for many years and one of his quotes about wine is still widely reprinted today. Speaking of Zinfandel, he wrote: “I have yet to see the red wine of any varietal, which I would prefer to Zinfandel produced in California. Unfortunately, the best samples are like angels’ visits, few and far between.”
Charles V. Riley went on from success to success. Although he did not have a university education, he was made a professor and eventually was given an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He later became chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Entomology and next was curator of the U.S. National Collection of Insects at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Little is known about George Englemann other than that he continued his work in entomology. Unlike the others, he disappeared from the research scene.
Hermann Jaeger, the most honored of the group, did not have a happy life. He returned from France to his home in southwest Missouri and continued his work. A reclusive man, he had few local friends but did maintain a correspondence with other horticulturalists, and he published articles in journals all over the world. But he suffered from migraines and apparently had emotional problems as well.
In 1895, six years after receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honor, Jaeger told his wife he was going to Joplin. Sometime later his family received an undated letter postmarked in Kansas City saying he “wanted to make an end to it before I get crazy” and asked them not to look for him. No trace of him was ever found.
Like wineries, distilleries, and breweries everywhere in America, those in Missouri suffered a severe blow when Prohibition put an end to commercial winemaking in the 1930s. Wineries all across American had to close. Stone Hill, with its cavernous cellars for storing wine, was converted to mushroom growing and continued doing so until 1965, when a local couple, Jim and Betty Held, bought the whole operation, got rid of the mushrooms, and began making wine again. Other wineries reopened and now the area supports two viticultural areas, Hermann and Augusta. In fact, the Augusta area was the first viticultural area in America to be so designated after the U.S. Treasury Department established the designation system in 1978.—A.S.
Rhineland of the West
The best thing about Missouri’s Rhineland is that the area has a lived-in look: It isn’t a series of villages with a theme painted on them to attract visitors. What you see is what has been there from the beginning, sometimes with a few frills added. You will share the narrow highways with tractors pulling manure spreaders, and a few farmers still use horses for some fieldwork. When you go into a hardware store, you can find nuts and bolts, barbed wire, ten-penny nails, horseshoe nails, and house paint. You may not find postcards and t-shirts, though. Over at the post office you will find groups of men wearing overalls and gumboots standing around, talking about Catawba grapes and Chenin Blanc as though wine is just another local crop. Which, of course, it is.
Several large historic homes in Hermann have been turned into B&Bs. One of the largest is the three-story Victorian brick mansion called Birk’s Goethe Street Gasthaus that was built by the original owner of Stone Hill Winery. The late Elmer Birk and his wife, Gloria, worked several years restoring and furnishing the home, and made a specialty of mystery weekends, which still run. Reservations made well in advance are essential. Contact Birk’s Goethe Street Gasthaus, 700 Goethe St., Hermann, MO 65041; (573) 486-2911 or (888) 701-2495.
At least two dozen restaurants in Hermann serve everything from Cajun to Tex-Mex to French and German dishes. One of the most popular is the Vintage Restaurant in the old carriage house at Stone Hill Winery, 1110 Stone Hill Highway, Hermann, MO 65041; (573) 486-3479. Open daily. Lunch from 11 a.m.; dinner from 5 p.m.
Hermann has several celebrations throughout the year and is well-equipped for large crowds; its Beer Hall is one of the largest in the world. The major festivals are the Wurstfest on the fourth weekend of March, the Maifest on the third weekend of May, the annual antique market on the third weekend of June, the Volksmarch on the third weekend of September, the artists of the Wine Country exhibition the third weekend of October, the Octoberfest every weekend in October, and the old-fashioned Christmas during the month of December.
For more information, get a copy of “Come Taste Missouri Wine Country”: Missouri Grape and Wine Program, P.O. Box 630, Jefferson City, MO 65102; (800) 392-WINE. Or contact the Hermann Area Chamber of Commerce at (800) 932-8687; www.hermannmo.com.
Hermann is located 75 miles west of St. Louis on highways 19 and 100.—A.S.