America’s Wine Heartland: Hermann, Missouri
Originally published in WineTouristMagazine.com
Few places in America combine wine and history like Hermann, Missouri. Relatively few wine drinkers know that Missouri has a thriving wine industry of about 130 wineries and during the 19th century was one of the leading producers of wine in the country. Hermann, an unassuming but charming town of 2,500 residents on the Missouri River, has always been at the heart of the state’s winemaking. When you visit, you’ll find unique, quality wines crafted from hybrid grapes not seen outside the Midwest. You’ll also learn about the town’s role as a destination for one of the nation’s biggest immigrant populations of Germans.
Even though Missouri’s wine industry is flourishing again, according to some estimates, it’s nowhere near the production levels before Prohibition. Today, Missouri’s wineries together produce a worthy 1.25 million gallons of wine per year. Compare that to a century ago: some accounts say the volume was about 3 million gallons!
Norton: The Famous Unknown Grape
Hermann’s modern wine industry is concentrated along the Hermann Wine Trail. This scenic 20-mile stretch following the Missouri River includes 7 family-owned wineries. In the late 1830s, the first German immigrants thought the terrain here was similar to the Rhine Valley in Germany and many planted grapes. The difficulty was finding grape varieties that could survive the summer humidity and the winter cold. Grape breeders tried new varieties by interbreeding European grapes with local wild vines better adapted to the conditions. An early success was Norton, famed for its disease resistance and winter hardiness. Norton’s genetics are predominantly American, making it the only variety in commercial production that is mainly US native. The only ‘real’ American grape!
So if you like a dry red and enjoy the cultural and historical connections of wine, you’re going to love Norton. Surprising as it sounds, in the late 19th century, Norton wines made in Hermann were winning medals in international competitions, including at Vienna’s World’s Fair in 1873. At about the same time, the vineyards around Hermann were among those that shipped American vine roots, or rootstock, to France — including from Norton — helping the French overcome the devastating Phylloxera virus that nearly destroyed their wine industry. Yes, Norton helped save the French wine industry!
It’s fair to say that Norton is the most famous grape you’ve probably never heard of. An unsung hero, a Rocky Balboa! Missouri grows more Norton than any other state — roughly 350 acres – and some of the best quality Norton wines in the country can be tasted in and around Hermann.
Local Grapes Buzzing With Fruit Flavors
Nortons can be relatively high in acid, low in tannins but full-bodied and buzzing with fruit flavors like pomegranates and plums. Another red common around here is Chambourcin which generally makes a softer, lighter, dry red wine with herbaceous characteristics. There are also sweet reds made with Concord and whites made from Chardonel (a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval that can make a dry wine not unlike Pinot Grigio). Vignoles, a versatile, fruity white grape comes dry, sweet or in-between. Rosés are also becoming more popular. Rather than bone dry like traditional rosés from Provence, they tend to be off-dry or sweeter with plenty of fruit. In fact, many of the wines in this part of the Midwest are fruit forward and the best examples, both sweet and dry, can display luscious flavors.
Some of the Oldest Wineries in America
The two historic wineries in town – both on the National Register of Historic Places – could easily keep you busy for a day, especially if you take a long lunch feasting on the German style cuisine they both offer.
Hermannhoff Vineyards was built in the 1840s, originally as a brewery and today produces wine sourced from its vineyards in Hermann and California. The attractive buildings and stone cellars are open daily for tours.
However, if you only have time to visit one winery in the Hermann area, Stone Hill Winery, located on a hill towards the edge of town, is the must-see. The winery has a prestigious history and is one of the state’s most awarded. Founded in 1847, by the end of the 19th century Stone Hill estimates it was the second biggest winery in the United States, shipping more than a million gallons of wine per year — about the same as Missouri’s total wine production today! In the mid-1960s the current owners, the Held family, began the slow process of reviving its fortunes after years of neglect following Prohibition. The winery’s network of arched underground cellars is thought to be the largest in North America. There you can stand where aging the wine was in the hands of ‘The 12 Apostles”. ‘The Apostles” were 12 large wine barrels each with a life-size carving of one of Jesus’ disciples. Unfortunately these huge barrels were dismantled and disappeared at the beginning of Prohibition.
For a more informal wine tasting atmosphere, it’s definitely worth taking the trouble to venture out of town. The wineries are set in beautiful countryside, the sort that inspired the early German settlers’ Rhine Valley comparison. The tasting facilities are smaller and the tastings are often free. You’ll probably find it’s the winemaker who pours your samples.
15 minutes out of town by car, you’ll find Bommarito Estate Almond Tree Winery and 10 minutes further on, Robller Vineyard & Winery. Both have a range of wines. Robller make some nice whites, both dry and sweet. Bommarito’s adept winemaker, Cathy Bommarito-Manley, offers some delicate, tasty dry reds, including Norton.
There’s Beer Too!
Wine tourists usually come to Hermann to sample the vino, but there are also local breweries and distillers. The Pickney Bend Distillery makes handcrafted gins, whiskeys and vodkas and the Tin Mill Brewing Company has a range of beers including German-style Pilsner. In fact, one of the biggest annual attractions is the town’s Oktoberfest, which runs for four weekends in October. The town celebrates its German heritage with live music, food, beer and of course, wine.
A Focus of America’s German Heritage
Hermann oozes Old World charm. The small downtown district is dominated by elegant 19th century brick homes built by the town’s immigrant population of Germans. More than 100 of these buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of them are now museums, book shops, artisans’ workshops and cafes.
The area is easy to explore on foot. For a dose of America’s German heritage you could start at the Deutschheim (meaning German home) State Historic Site on West Second Street. You can tour two historic buildings dating to the 1840s, the Carl Strehly House and the Pommer-Gentner House. The latter is regarded as a very fine example of high-style German neoclassicism. The site has displays of home interiors, tools, implements and period gardens.
A few short blocks away, on Schiller Street, the German School Building houses the Hermann Museum. The collection includes intriguing relics like antique toys, a weaving loom and decades old steamboat models made by Hermann’s river boat captains. Wandering through the former school rooms filled with old crafts transmits a real sense of what daily life was like for past generations of residents.
Today’s Hermanites are still very serious about their German ancestry. Two recently erected statues honor this connection. In the courtyard of the local Historical Society Archives, also on Schiller Street, you can stand toe to toe with the town’s founder, George Bayer. In 1837, Bayer traveled to Missouri from Philadelphia on behalf of the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia to purchase the 11,000 acres that became the town of Hermann.
In Hermann Park, at the entrance to the town on an island between the lanes of traffic, a statue of an ancient warrior greets you and commemorates the town’s namesake. He’s Hermann der Cherusker, better known as Arminius, the German tribal leader who destroyed three Roman legions in the Teutoburg forest in 9 A.D. In this reincarnation he’s less the brave warrior and more a god of grapes. Where he might once have wielded a sword, his outstretched hand holds a goblet of wine!
Bicycles, Food and Rest
If you’re in a more athletic frame of mind, the nation’s longest bike trail using old rail lines – the 240-mile Katy Trail State Park, is easily accessible and just across the river.
If you plan to expend all that energy, or even if you don’t, look out for one of Hermann’s many dining options to recharge. The town has several restaurants that specialize in German cuisine (one of them in Stone Hill Winery), but there’s also seafood and more American style dining possibilities. The Black Walnut Bistro is one of the more trendy options.
As one of Missouri’s major tourist destinations, there are also numerous places to rest your head. Unless you plan to visit Hermann during Oktoberfest, you should have no trouble booking a room in one of the town’s many bed and breakfasts. These B&Bs are often lovingly restored with beautiful wooden floors, four-post beds and antique clawfoot bathtubs — we had a family bath in one! There are also motel and inn options that are more budget conscious.
Hermann is about 90 minutes by car from St Louis and just over 4 hours by car from Kansas City, roughly 15 miles off Highway 70. Trains operate from both cities to Hermann — a savvy idea if you plan to do some serious drinking, or if you just like trains, because you can coordinate your arrival with a pick-up at Amtrak station by the local Hermann Trolley. For $15 the trolley will take you to the local wineries.
Self-guided tours of Hermann’s riverfront and architectural highlights are available online at visithermann.com or by dropping in to the Hermann Welcome Center at 312 Market Street.
There are several good cafés in Hermann. One notable for its coffee is Espresso Laine, located just beyond Hermanhoff Winery at 407 East First Street.
Historic Wineries to Visit in the Town
Stone Hill Winery, 1110 Stone Hill Highway Hermann, MO 65041, (573) 486-2221
Hermannhof Vineyards, 330 East First Street – Hermann, MO 65041, 1-800-393-0100
Other Nearby Wineries of Note
Adam Puchta Winery, 1947 Frene Creek Rd, Hermann, MO 65041, (573) 486-5596
Bommarito Estate Almond Tree Winery, 3718 Grant School Rd, New Haven, MO 63068, 314-249-5287
Robller Vineyard & Winery, 275 Robller Vineyard Rd., New Haven, MO 6306, 573-237-3986
Places to Eat
Alpenhorn Gasthaus — 4 course dinners using natural, local and seasonal ingredients
Black Walnut Bistro — new American cuisine
Hermann Wurst Haus – authentic German Sausage
Simon’s on the Waterfront — specializing in seafood
Vintage Restaurant at Stone Hill Winery — German cuisine
Places to Stay
Captain Wohlt Inn
Harbor Haus Inn & Suites
Hermann Hill Vineyard Inn & Spa
The Old School on the Hill
Wine Valley Inn
Wohlt House B&B