It's a great story, the one about that time Missouri saved the French wine industry.
And it's not even a folkloric attempt at painting more sophisticated the state known widely and almost exclusively for its native Budweiser. But it's true: in addition to light beers and clydesdales, Missouri also grows some of the best grapes in the nation.
It was my soon-to-be father-in-law who first informed me of the heroism of Missouri's humble vines. I know, "American Wine Country" is rarely synonymous with Missouri. But a visit to any of the wineries surrounding St. Louis is likely to incite suspicions of something grander having taken root in the state's terroir. The vast and breathtaking views take me by surprise each time I see them. They are the perfect reward for a longish drive from the city that's marked by winding stretches of road, hairpin turns, and the occasional steep climb. My remark is often something like: this doesn't feel anything like Missouri. But then I remember: this place is pretty great.
If you squint a bit, you might even transport yourself momentarily to the Bordeaux region of France. But like smelling salts to a fainty Southern belle, the spicy nose and dry but fruity Nortons poured in the company of these gorgeous hills will place you right back in Missouri.
A Norton wine, which takes its name from Missouri's official state grape, is just one of a few I've imbibed in recent summer afternoons. Chandler Hill Vineyards, Stone Hill Winery and Montelle Winery all have excellent Nortons. Don't worry, I've spread my sampling of them across several occasions. I'm telling you, those roads are winding.
Luckily for weary travelers, each of these places offers generous tasting pours. Without that option, I may have never reached for a Chambourcin - a wine that's somewhat fruitier and less dry than a Norton if it wants to be - which seems to consistently appear on lists around here. In fact, it is this variety that is perhaps most suited to represent Missouri wine industry given the grape's French-American hybridity.
There was a time, in the mid-19th century, when the French wine industry almost...wasn't. Plagued by a pest it couldn't shake, much of France's grape crop faced certain demise. Missouri's state entomologist at the time (a fancy term for a "bug guy"), Charles Valentine Riley, discovered that American rootstocks - that part of the vine shaft that remains underground - were fit to resist what the French roots could not. The French were able to graft their grapes to these rootstocks thereby saving not just a fruit crop but the yields of a vital cultural and economic harvest.
Missouri is relatively quiet about this victory for its grapes and terroir. Maybe because it happened so long ago. Perhaps it's because France has exceeded Missouri's reputation for enviable vines. Or maybe what Missouri's grapes need is a steed of a spokesperson, to remind the wine-drinking public that this rootstock's for you?
Missouri might be synonymous with Budweiser, but look closer and you'll see a richer and more complex history of booze. After all, how else could this little rectangle in the middle of flyover country be deemed the best state for drinking?