Following the Hermann Wine Trail
© Pat Middleton and Great River Publishing
Perfecting the “ladies getaway” is a passion for many of us. A few challenges tossed into the mix… physical and spiritual… are as important as the luxury suite, good wine, and decadent meals. This past October we found our way to Hermann, Missouri, the HISTORIC wine capital of the United States.
“WE” were three women, all independent sorts, with strong ties to our families at home. Plain and simple, we intended to “CELEBRATE” the milestones of our lives and our families.
As we planned our excursion to HERMANN, (about an hour and a half west of St. Louis via the I-70) a number of “pluses” jumped to the fore…
· Luxury B&B’s
· A rich German Culture in a town still celebrating its 19th century heyday
· Geo-caching opportunities
· Proximity to the Missouri River
· And distance from home… far enough to make us feel like adventurers!
Our route on the I-70 quickly delivered us from the urban St. Louis environs and, with exit 175 onto Hwy 19, we entered into the most bucolic rural setting. Our meandering highway climbed over, or skirted around, the rounded Missouri River bluffs. Hickory and oak blossomed in yellows and rusts on either side of us. At one of the entrances to the Katy Trail, a flat flood plain stretch straight to the Missouri River.
And then, there was the Missouri River and the red brick town rising up the hillsides around it.
Settling into HERMANN, Missouri
B&Bs are abundant in Gasconade County, with 70 in Hermann itself. But don’t count on “dumb luck” if visiting in September and October… make reservations in advance if you hope to be located within an hour of Hermann. Oktoberfest reigns along the Missouri wine trails of nearby Augusta and Hermann from September through October. If you are thinking of the Chocolate Trail in February, check into tickets in December!
Market Street in Hermann was designed specifically by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia to be larger than Philadelphia’s main street. Like Galena, Nauvoo, and Elsa, Illinois, Hermann seems to be a town that time forgot. It is replete with historic brick homes and commercial buildings. Here is a town that prospered in the mid-19th century and then experienced an exodus after prohibition came early to the village. As steamboat travel on the Missouri River declined and continuing acrimony lingered after the Civil War, the population never had a good reason to replace the sturdy German brick.
While the new Missouri settlement never grew to rival Philadelphia, Market Street is now at the heart of Hermann’s National Historic District and strolling the district with its wineries, , eateries, and boutiques is half the fun! But only half! J
Our first order of business was checking into our rooms at the WINE VALLEY INN at 403 Market St. One suite with kitchenette would have accommodated four of us quite comfortably. To our delight, the Inn provided a free sample of Stone Hill Wine for each room.
Breakfasts at the WINE VALLEY INN were excellent, featuring grapes, eggs, biscuits and gravy, juice, coffee. Breakfast was served at 9 a.m. which gave us time in the a.m. to wake up slowly and plan for the morning. Wine Valley Inn offers 12 suites, each uniquely designed and exquisitely furnished. Expect to pay from $135 to $200 for a suite at the Wine Valley Inn, but we found accommodations to be available at all price ranges in the vicinity.
The Wine Valley Inn is located right in the downtown National Historic District. With Trappers Grill across the street, the Showboat Community Theater next door, the German School Museum, A Time For Pie and coffee just around the corner, we felt that we were right in the center of the action.
FIRST, THE WINE TASTING!
The first call of Hermann is to experience a wine tasting. Seven wineries are currently represented in downtown Hermann… as well as one Brewery!
“Is this what people do in Hermann?”
I was astonished to be standing in our first winery, Hermannhof, receiving a complimentary lesson in tasting local wines that included the driest and sweetest wines in a most historic setting. We would become familiar with the local red Nortons, the fruity red Chambourcin, the Vidal, the Chardonel (dry and similar to the Chardonnay), the sweeter whites… Vignoles and Cayuga, and finally the pink Catawba.
This is good wine, really good wine! And visitors can easily make wine tasting the focus of a fun trip to Hermann. The Vignoles were our personal favorites. Some wines seemed very similar to the rich, fruity flavors of German Riesling wines of the Mosel and Rhine rivers in Germany. We soon learn that tasting was not the ONLY thing to do in Hermann, but it surely was a satisfying introduction!
Great wines beg for excellent foods, and we found the food to be delicious at both Trappers Grill and the Vintage Restaurant at Stone Hill. Trappers Grill was on Market St. just opposite the Wine Valley Inn. Our salmon and steaks were tasty… the blue cheese topping for the steak was exquisite!
EXPLORING THE HERMANN WINE TRAIL along State Highway 100
Our 2nd day in Hermann included a beautiful drive on meandering rural roads through the Missouri River bluffland along state highway 100 as far east as Washington.
We enjoyed experiencing each of the winery settings… OakGlenn and Balducci in particular offered grand vistas. At the Montelle Winery, we settled in contentedly to listen to live music and visit with other guests. We found that more often than not they were local to St. Charles and Gasconade counties… locales just out on weekend drive along the wine trails.
Stone Hill Winery, in particular, offered a memorable tour through the onsite caverns and storage areas, some of which dated back to the turn of the 20th century when Hermann was the #1 wine producing area in the entire United States. Stone Hill Winery was then the second-largest winery in the entire United States.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HERMANN WINERIES
Settled in the 1830s, by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, Hermann was unique in that it was settled not by brand new immigrants but by Germans who already had lived in the New World.
The first settlers to arrive were completely disgruntled with the limestone hills, bluffs and valleys purchased by their scout, George Bayer, for a little more than $1/acre. Steep limestone hills were really nasty for growing wheat, corn, or cattle… but PERFECT for grapes.
In 1859, an internationally known horticulturist, George Husmann, established a vineyard and winery in Hermann.
The wild native grapevines that clogged the slopping fields and meadows were soon matched with quality European stock to produce the signature wine of Missouri… the NORTON GRAPE.
When the vineyards of southern France were destroyed by phylloxera, Husmann and other Missouri growers saved that nations winery by shipping 17 carloads of phylloxera-resistant root stock to France. Husmann was honored by the French government and eventually moved on to become a primary influence in establishing the wine making industry throughout America, including the NAPA VALLEY wine district in California.
In 1919, the passage of the Volstead Act brought federal agents and temperance activists sweeping through Hermann to destroy any aspect of the winery industry… wine presses were burned, wineries emptied. Casks destroyed, vineyards uprooted. Perhaps one reason the temperance movement finally triumphed was simmering rancor from the Civil War and the first World War… the wine-producing Germans in Hermann were easy targets on every side.
According to Paul Nagel in Missouri: A History, both German immigrants and Yankees from the east brought anti-slavery viewpoints that generated great resentment among the Missouri natives with southern leanings. By the 1850s, locals complained loudly that Missouri was becoming a home for ‘anarchists and socialists.’ When anti-saloon marches began among the Baptists and Methodists, the German beer gardens were a prime target.
It would be 1965 before Stone Hill Winery was revived, 30 years after the repeal of Prohibition. Today there are some 50 wineries in Missouri. The eleven wineries currently located along the “Weinstrasse” in St. Charles and Gasconade counties, account for a third of the production in Missouri.
Hermann remains as the only German Settlement program in America that prospered through to the present time. Today, the Hermann area produces 1/3 of Missouri’s grape harvest.
EXPLORING HISTORIC HERMANN
History for the settlement at Hermann began in the mid-1830s. Many of the brick homes and commercial buildings date from the era between 1840 and 1860. We greatly appreciated the care the community has taken to either preserve existing buildings or to build new structures in a complimentary architecture. So don't miss exploring the various museums and historic tours offered in Hermann.
1868 White House Hotel Lantern Tours (Right across from the Missouri River and the AMTRAK Depot on Wharf Street.) This was our favorite historical collection. Privately owned by AJ and Vickie Plummer, The White House Hotel was built between 1864 and 1868, and considered to be one of the ultimate hotels of its time.
The Hotel Registers dating back to 1870 show that William Jennings Bryan, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, and the Prince of India were among innumerable dignitaries and celebrities to cross its threshold.
I asked AJ if we might see the register where Shoeless Joe Jackson signed in, and he grinned.
“Oh, I only have facsimiles here. The registers are in a vault. The signatures are probably worth more than this building!”
The Hotel offered 36 rooms, a large lounge, kitchen and saloon. The Plummers have passionately furnished many of them with historically artifacts and decorations.
“We had to refurbish so many light fixtures that we qualified as distributors!”
The real magic for us came while viewing items that the Plummers have salvaged from walls, floors joists, the basement, and from trunks left 100 years ago in the attic as “unclaimed luggage.” One trunk contained an entire wedding trousseau labeled as “unclaimed.”
Entry to a basement “speakeasy” was disguised as a closet. The “speakeasy,” limestone wine cellar and indoor cistern were all part of our tour. The Plummers have displayed many of the hundreds of bottles stashed between beams, floorboards, or buried nearby.
Deutshheim State Historic Site 107-109 West 2nd Street. 573-486-2200
Several historic homes comprise the historic site. The Pommer-Gentner House built in 1840 will soon open for tours. The Strehly House, (shown left) built from 1842 to 1869, included a winery added on to the house in 1857. There we saw a carved wine cask, wine press, wooden shoes, flax crusher, flax wheel, original grape vines, and other unusual memorabilia.
The German Public School Museum began in 1849 as a bilingual school. The current building was constructed with private funds in 1871 and used until 1955. The German Public School Museum does have an excellent steamboat memorabilia display in its RIVER ROOM. While Hermann is located on the Missouri River, and some 30 steamboats once shipped lumber, iron ore, wines and other freight from the harbor, there seemed to be very little notice of the Missouri in Hermann. The Clock Tower Gift Shop offers a number of interesting German books and gifts related to regional history.
OUTDOORS in Gasconade County
While Hermann is fun and interesting, don’t miss the opportunity to take in the beautiful hills, forests, parkways, ponds of the Missouri River and Gasconade River confluence. Who would have guessed that over in Swiss, Missouri, there would be a “destination” butcher shop? Swiss Meats, offers custom butchering and over 50 flavors of brats!
We learned first hand that many of the “backwoods” roadways required fording shallow streams. Check them out for depth before crossing! We became quite cocky about these crossings... until we came upon a pickup truck that had floated off the road base!!
Katy Trail State Park… While most of the visitors at the area wineries appeared to be from the triangle of St. Louis, Springfield, and Kansas City, the “out of state” visitors were bicycling the Katy Trail. We had hoped to hike or bike a portion of the trail, but time was short!
Bikers told us that B&Bs dot the trans-Missouri trail and that in the event of bad weather, B&B operators were extremely helpful about providing shuttle services and other help to bikers.
GEO-CACHING at Reifsnider State Forest …
Geo-caching was something we had never done before, but we had our Garmin and it turned out to be one of our “most fun” activities!! It gave us a reason to explore county and state parks that we might not have ventured into otherwise.
We searched the computer for any geo-caches in the area of Hermann and printed the clues out for ourselves before we left Wisconsin.
The clue for the cache in the park in Warrington was fun… Another way of saying "don’t be so slow" is "don’t be so ___________.” Indeed, finding the cache required diligently “poking” around the exposed hollow base of a tree.
Our excursion at Reifsnider State Forest involved hiking along a creek for about 1.5 hours each direction. What fun!!
We concluded that Hermann certainly merited a four-day visit. We had activities from our “hope to do” list that we just couldn’t fit in (like biking or hiking on the Katy Trail, or BIRDING in the parks)... even during our four days. For a “getaway” Hermann ranked an A+ on our scale!!
Throw in a visit the Illinois French Historic District just opposite St. Louis the multi-million dollar interpretive center at CAHOKIA MOUNDS Historic Site, MASTODON STATE PARK and historic St. Louis itself with the GATEWAY ARCH. Take a tour of the Anheuser Busch Brewing Company, and a riverboat cruise and the area within an hour and a half of St. Louis could easily fill a week’s vacation. Add a few days geo-caching or biking on the KATY TRAIL, and suddenly a visit to the Hermann Wine Trail begins to look like a true Midwestern recreational vacation bonanza!
Volume 3 of DISCOVER! AMERICA’s GREAT RIVER ROAD offers an excellent background history of the Germans who settled on the Mississippi and Missouri River. I would strongly recommend purchasing a copy if you plan to visit!! If you would like to visit UP-RIVER from St. Louis, choose VOLUME 2 as well.
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