HERMANN WINE TRAIL, MISSOURI
I always forget just how much I love Hermann. Just an hour’s pretty drive from St. Louis, it’s a little gem, with its great wines, lovely village, and welcoming atmosphere. Arrayed along the Missouri River, the Hermann Wine Trail is one of the best undiscovered secrets of the wine world—though as the wines continue racking up the prizes, it isn’t going to remain undiscovered for long.
The area has one of the longest histories of any wine region in the country. In the mid 1800s, Missouri was actually the largest wine-producing state in the U.S., until it was supplanted (by California) at the end of the century. Prohibition destroyed the industry, but it started its renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s. Most importantly, the wines are amazing. Vignole and Vidal predominate among the whites. Reds tend to Chambourcin and the astounding Norton, one of the only Native American grapes used in winemaking. It makes for a big, bold, flavorful red, and it’s always a special treat for me (as a Missouri native) to revisit and pick up a few bottles of this unique vintage.
Along the Hermann Wine Trail are seven wineries, though the state itself has over a hundred. As you drive into Hermann from St. Louis, the first one on the Trail is Röbller Vineyard, which is also one of my favorites. I love the family-run feel, the gorgeous views over rolling green hills, and their devotion to the earth: “We didn’t make this land,” notes proprietor Jerry Mueller, “we’re just tending to it.” With eighteen acres of vineyards, they’re producing everything from a light, flowery Traminette to a deep, full-bodied Norton. My favorite? A Chambourcin/Norton blend that’s robust, a little oaky, and smooth as silk. In August you can enjoy their Reggae Festival, but definitely come here to experience those wines!
From here, it’s just ten minutes into the town of Hermann, and it’s well worth spending a day or more exploring. Founded in the 1830s by the German Settlement Society, largely because of its similarity to the rolling Rhine River countryside, Hermann wears its German heritage on its sleeve (I’ll admit it now: there are times I think I’ll scream if I see another “Willkommen” sign!). It’s a tourist town done right, and you can’t do better than the Inn at Hermannhof, where the rooms are large and beautifully decorated, the location perfect, and the staff incredibly accommodating. While I love my room at the “main” Inn, the vintage cottages, across the street and scattered up a hillside, are great for those who like it ultra-private.
I stop at Espresso Laine for some great coffee while I admire their huge variety of scones from tomato/basil and bacon/cheddar to chocolate chip and maple pecan. It’s a coffeehouse as it should be: comfortable and friendly, drawing you in with a “linger a while” feeling. I wander down streets filled with antique shops, gift shops, and restaurants. I head to Market Street (aka Sweets Row). Here, Battocletti’s Bakery is well-known for its early morning donuts; Ricky’s Chocolate Box offers more varieties of chocolate pretzels than you can imagine, and some very appealing truffles; and Sugar Momma’s makes you feel like a kid in a candy shop because…well, because it is a candy shop. They also offer a fantastic selection of pies, from Bourbon/chocolate/pecan or Concord grape to apple/bacon, whose top crust is actually a lattice of bacon strips.
Enough of this shopping, though: I have more wine to drink. I stop in Hermannhoff Winery, with its intriguing age-old cellars (you can do a self-guided tour) and its pleasant courtyard that hosts live music in the summer. I love their surprisingly dry Vignole and the fruity but dry Chamourcin Vin Gris rosé. Quite the Hermann entrepreneurs, the Dierberg family owns not only the inn and winery, but Blackshire Distillery, Tin Mill Brewery, and the fascinating Hermann Farm, where tram tours bring the historical farming days alive. They also own Dierberg Star Lane tasting room, where you can sample wines from grapes they grow in California (in Santa Ynez Valley, coincidentally enough), producing winners like a rich, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lunch time already? Hermann has several great eateries, and while there’s a general German slant to many, you can also find some nicely contemporary cookery. At Hermann Wurst Haus, there’s an enviable selection of their eponymous product, and as you sample wurst from beer to blue cheese to habanero to garlic. You’ll soon discover why their proprietor won a 2016 award from the International German Butcher Association. I could make a meal just from the side dishes from German potato salad to red cabbage to amazing bread pudding!
I also love Fernweh, the restaurant inside a new craft distillery, where you’ll enjoy creative contemporary cuisine overlooking a great vista of the Missouri River. Another winner is Harvest Table, where the food is fresh and imaginative. For all the choices, I must admit their rich chicken velvet soup and soft, chewy bread served in a flowerpot are my idea of a perfect (and perfectly hearty) lunch.
Then it’s on to Adam Puchta Winery, just west of town that calls itself the oldest continuously-owned family winery in the country. With 86 acres of grapes, they’re producing a wide variety, from a clean, crisp, and citrus-y Vidal Blanc to the fruity, semi-dry Hunter’s Red, an unoaked blend of Chambourcin, Norton, and Noiret. Cold-pressed Chambourcin makes for a fullbodied, dry rosé: “my favorite,” cracks my wine guide Larry, “and the favorite of anyone with taste.” They also offer a smorgasbord of events from “Grill Your-Own Steak” night to Wine and Yoga.
From here, I head up the hill past perfect views of town to Stone Hill Winery, where I tour the vintage cellars as our guide regales us with Stone Hill history (in the late 1800s, for instance, it was America’s second-largest winery, and in 1873 won a gold medal at Vienna’s World’s Fair). More recently, it’s come a long way since its Prohibition days as a mushroom farm, now producing such winners as a nicely off-dry Traminette, peppery Chambourcin, and my favorite, a rich port made from Norton. If you love the views from up here, settle into a luxury suite at Hermann Hill Vineyard Inn up the road.
After a lovely breakfast at the Inn, I start back for St. Louis, and there are two more wineries on the way (since I’ve already been to Röbller). At Bias Winery, they’re not only growing grapes for wines from dry to very sweet, but are one of only two wineries in the country that also has a microbrewery.
At nearby, wonderful Oak Glenn Winery, I’m immediately taken with the sweeping vistas of the Missouri River. I suggest getting food here and enjoying it at one of the river view tables. They offer vintages not often available in Hermann due to their partnership with another family winery in Arkansas, so you can sample Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, though, my favorite remains Norton, which at Oak Glenn is all estate grown, their vines dating to 1853. “Such a rich, heavy duty, potent wine,” comments proprietor Carol Warnebold, and I agree: it’s bold but smooth, just like I like a red.
I could spend all day enjoying their Norton, chatting with Carol, and admiring the view, but it’s time to head back to St. Louis. As I do, I wonder which of the special events I should return to Hermann for. Maybe I’ll do the Say Cheese Wine Trail (December) or Chocolate Wine Trail (February) for two of my favorite pairings. Then again, April’s Farmers’ Table Wine Trail sounds appealing, and I do have a friend who’d love May’s Wild Bacon Wine Trail. One thing I vow: it won’t be long till I return to this very special corner of my home state. Perhaps the best thing about Hermman is the sense of pure enjoyment and discovery. It’s about the least snobbish wine region I’ve ever seen, and a lot of that is due to the (literally) downto-earth people. Perhaps it’s best summed up by something Jerry Mueller said to me at Röbller that could serve as my mantra for all the tastings I’ve been doing.
“Wine,” he proclaimed, “doesn’t have to be pretentious. It just has to be enjoyed.”