Missouri is not a name that trips off the tongue when asked about favorite wine regions. Back in 1873, it might well have been a different story. That’s when a bottle of Missouri Norton won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exhibition. Henry Vizetelly, a major wine guru of his day, proclaimed that these vineyards “promise to become not merely the most prolific of the [United] States, but also those yielding the best wines.” At that time, Missouri contributed a whopping 42 percent to domestic wine production, with California at 27 percent and New York State at 13. Yet, the story of Missouri viticulture pans out like a Hollywood tearjerker: success, disaster and resurrection.

In the 1830s, German immigrants flocked to the riverside setting of Missouri, drawing inspiration from a book by Gottfried Duden, who lived in and described the bucolic landscape of the verdant banks so similar to Germany’s Rhineland. Seeking religious freedom and a land on which to build their futures, the settlers founded the town of Hermann in 1837. Brick homes, and a main street larger than Market Street in Philadelphia, imprinted that these people were out to build a great metropolis of culture and commerce, overflowing with German pride. Vines were seen growing wild along the riverbanks, and by 1843, one Jacob Fueger planted the first of many a vineyard. Numerous scientists and horticulturists were part of the transplants into this new oasis. One Isidor Bush (no relation) wrote a definitive treatise on vine husbandry and explained how to plant and sustain each of the major grape varieties. Missouri readily became the center for a large intelligentsia that included and advanced grape cultivation.

Two grapes that seemed especially suited to the region were norton and catawba. Norton made a dark, rich wine that took a number of years of aging to develop its drinkability. Catawba had no such limitations. The sparkling version of catawba wines had already established itself along the Ohio River as the “people’s choice.” Everyone loved it, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose “Ode To Catawba” sung its praises toward enormous sales. It was decided that Hermann would concentrate on this quick, easy to market grape. However, catawba had its drawbacks. Mold, rot and mildew frequently attacked the grapes, and little was known at the time about how to control these problems. In just a few years Missouri found that yields were decreasing to the point of unprofitability.

Time for norton to regain the center stage. Its tough, thin-skinned grapes were resistant to disease and its vines were capable of surviving the brutal winters. Norton is neither the vitis Vinifera of European fame, nor is it the well-known American vitis Labrusca, the juicy, foxy stuff best left for jellies. It is vitis Aestivalis, or summer grape, with rich concentration and not a hint of the grapey, marmalade qualities that dominate most native American wines. Norton flourished, and for many years sustained and perpetuated Missouri’s fame. In the latter part of the 1800s, Italian immigrants, sensing a good thing, settled and began to make wine about 50 miles south of Hermann at St. James. (Where there are vineyards, can Italians be far behind?)

With this steady influx of foreigners, other local industries began luring away young winery workers by paying higher salaries. The cost of producing wines increased, so that by 1875 labor costs were double those found in unfocused, low-wage California. Prohibitionists and religious zealots began to take a toll in late 19th century Missouri, and consumption of wine and spirits began to dwindle. Taken all together, conditions proved disastrous, and by 1899, just 30 years after the boom, Missouri’s share of U.S. wine production had plummeted to just 3 percent. The intolerance movement bullied on into the 20th century, helping to pass the Volstead Act of 1917, and, eventually, the 18th amendment to the Constitution outlawing liquor sales. This, along with growing resentment towards the Kaiser and all things German during World War I, was the death knell. The beautiful underground vaults and cellars, once used to produce and store wine, became mushroom farms. For 13 long years the Missouri wine industry lay crippled and defeated.

It was the 1960s before people reconsidered investing in the storied history and partially-fulfilled promises of the old Missouri plantings. Today, 47 vineyards produce a variety of wines for the serious connoisseur and the casual tourist. In whites, the vignoles grape, a hybrid pinot noir cross, makes a remarkable wine. A 2002 vignoles from Stone Hill Winery recently won a gold medal and “Best of Show” at the New World International Wine Competition, sponsored by wine writer Jerry Mead. Other successful whites include seyval blanc and chardonel. Norton, or as some call it, cynthiana, remains the showplace red and Missouri’s state grape. Norton was discovered growing wild on Cedar Island, Va., in 1835. Cynthiana is said to have come from Arkansas, yet the first samples attained for Missouri propagation came from a nursery in Flushing, N.Y. (Well, it was the 1850s.) Regardless, most experts say that today’s norton and cynthiana are indistinguishable, but each winery favors its own moniker. The St. James 2000 Norton recently won a double gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair. Ultimately, Missouri’s best wines, when entered blindly in large, impartial competitions, do exceptionally well, often causing surprise and perplexity among the judges. This is a good and exciting thing.

Along with norton and vignoles, the wineries make a large array of blended wines more suited to the tourist trade, with whimsical names such as Germantown, Prairie Blanc, Velvet Red and my favorite–the White Lady of Starkenburg. Brochures and sales information about all of Missouri’s wineries can be obtained at www.missouriwine.org.

Here are the results of a tasting I recently completed:

2003 Dry Vignoles, Montelle Winery $11

Shimmering, lemon zest pungent, squeaky clean bouquet. Exceptionally vibrant and attractive. A simpler drink, fresh with straightforward fruitiness and lemon tart aftertaste. I’m impressed. A good bet for a fish chowder or couscous raisin salad.

2003 Vignoles, St. James Winery Vintage Select $12

A friendly, light and lean aroma with definite citrusy, honeyed pungency. Very smooth on the palate with pleasant sweetness and balanced fruit. Sip with ripe peaches or cantaloupe.

2003 Vignoles, Stone Hill Winery $13

Understated grassiness and hay, stone fruit and almond-like aromas. A light touch of lemon and a touch of “foxiness.” Drinks smoothly with sweet lingering flavors, but good acids prevent a cloying or sugary aftertaste. An ideal summer sipper.

2001 Norton, Stone Hill Winery, Estate Bottled Hermann $18

Deep, dark, minty and zinfandel-like. Brambly berry fruit on a bright, exuberant bouquet. Drinks smoothly with a peppery edge and even-tempered finish. Super red for your grilling needs.

2000 Norton, St. James Winery $14

“Beefy” and substantial nose. Soft with caramel, licorice and woodsy impressions. Somewhat akin to petite syrah or alicante. Has a delicious chocolatey flavor, soft tannins and texture with good oak underpinning. An interesting and satisfying “macho” red.

2001 Cynthiana, Augusta Winery $15

Rich, herbal, plummy and raspberry compote. Slightly vegetal like some Monterey reds. Dark, inky flavors with touches of iodine. A weighty wine, big boned, if a little clumsy and slightly bitter.

I don’t know if the wine stopped here–at Harry Truman’s Independence, Mo., homestead. I suppose “the boss,” his wife, may have had something to do with its consumption. But these “Show Me” state wines, like the president himself, certainly had (and have) plenty to offer.

Quick Picks
2003 Pinot Grigio, Maso Canali $18

Brilliant, lemony aromatics with zest plus depth. Ripe and richly textured flavors. A pinot grigio with body and staying power, yet remaining silvery and lively on the finish. Great with hard cheeses or herbed seafood. 87

2003 Vin Gris de Cigare, Bonny Doon $11

Like a walk in a berry patch with the aromas wafting in the breeze. You can smell the acidity, all green, prickly and inviting. It drinks with just enough body to caress the palate and leave a balanced, non-harsh freshness on your tongue. Best ever from picnic pleasin’ Randall Grahm. (No corkscrew necessary.) 88

2001 Salice Salentino, Feudi Monaci $10

Generous, warm, “smell of the land” red. Spicy, fruitful with cherry tomato all blended up. Flavors are generous, soft-textured and joyful, craving red sauce pasta or oven-baked pizza. A microcosm of southern Italian soul. Drink now-2006. 86

2001 Chianti Colli Senesi, San Quirico $13

Fabulous smoky, leathery bouquet with concentrated plummy fruit floating in the saddle. Round, unfruity, generously rich Brunello-like smells. Full, explosive but tightly wound flavors. Loamy, dark berries with mouth-coating richness. Serious. Soulful already, and will develop further for three to four years. Tastes like a $30 bottle. 90 CELLAR SELECTION

Graceland’s Best
Did it really have to happen? Coming to a package store near you, The King Cabernet Sauvignon, Jailhouse Red Merlot (redundancy be damned) and Blue Suede Chardonnay. Scott Cahill, CEO of Signature Wines, says, “Our wineries have worked hard to put the same care into our wines as Elvis put into his music.” (The wines retail for $12.) My biggest question: Which varietal will go best with a peanut butter and banana sandwich? Hurry–this is a limited-time offering. It’s now or never! EndBlock