Decanting Missouri’s Wine History

Possum Grapes (Image Source)

Growing up in the state of Missouri (post-prohibition) I have many fond childhood memories involving the indigenous wild grapes.

Often, during the fall of the year, my parents, sister, and I would collect several baskets of possum grapes from which my mama would make jelly and jam.  I also remember my daddy making homemade wine under the kitchen sink but, as memory serves, he didn’t use the possum grapes with which to do it.

Now, as a resident of Alabama and owner of this site, I find myself wanting to know more about the grapes back home.  In my research, I came across information which filled me with astonishment.

Missouri grape and wine history are world famous!  Who knew?  This was not taught in my public school, given the Puritan-nuanced, tee-totaling background of almost everyone there.

(Click on any of the items in the box below to go directly to that item.)


Missouri Statehood and German Immigrants

Gottfried Duden (Image Source)

Named for the Native American tribe who lived alongside the river of the same name, Missouri became a state August 10, 1821.  Three years following statehood a German immigrant, Gottfried Duden, and his friend, Louis Eversmann, along with Gottfried’s maid, sailed to the new world and traveled to Missouri.

Mr. Duden believed the many hardships endured by those in his homeland were due primarily to poverty and overpopulation.  So he set out to find a remedy for the situation.  His logic was that immigration to America might be the best solution to so many of the German problems.  If he could find land which closely resembled the agricultural conditions of his beloved Germany, he could encourage others to emigrate from Germany to America.

Nathan Boone portrait, from the 1908 book, A History of Missouri, Vol. III by Louis Houck (Image Source)

Shortly after the duo’s arrival to Missouri, they happen to meet up with Nathan Boone (yes, Daniel Boone’s son) who worked as a government land surveyor.  Mr. Boone agreed to lead them on a tour of the Missouri River Valley

After Nathan Boone had left them in the valley to explore on their own, the two German men prepared to return to the east.  Becoming lost, instead of traveling east, back to St. Louis, they went west.

After some time, they stumbled upon the dwelling of Jacob Haun.  Mr. Haun was of Pennsylvania German descent.


Making a Homestead

Following a day or two of conversation, Mr. Haun proposed the immigrants remain with him, purchasing the tracts of land which adjoined his own (very near modern-day Dutzow), with the offer to feed and shelter them until they were able to get their new farms established and prospering.

Duden agreed.  For the next three years, in a small cabin near Lake Creek, Gottfried lived and worked.  He spent a lot of his time making note of the growing conditions, the weather, and keeping a daily journal of his own work and progress on his farm.


The Report

In 1829, Mr. Duden returned to Germany where he had his writings published.  Almost immediately the book became a best-seller.

The following is an excerpt from Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America  (available on describing his early observations of Missouri:

He went on to describe such things as “acorns – as big as hen’s eggs” and “wild grapevines heavy with sweet fruit.”

Bur Oak Acorns (Image Source)

In the English translation of his book, the Editor’s Introduction dubbed it as:

Duden had managed to ennoble the dull routine of a Midwestern settler’s daily existence to a lofty estate while praising Missouri’s geography and temperate climate.  Oddly enough, the three years he spent in Missouri was during a period of unusually warm winters, so his information was a tad skewed.

To the starving and struggling in Germany, Duden’s words, and the words of others’ writings, awakened an irresistible yearning in the hearts of the Germans.  The appeal for freedom and the abundance their peers claimed the New Rhineland had to offer, compelled them to immigrate.

Map and city planning layout used to convince German settlers to settle in Herman, MO. (Image Source)

The New Rhineland in Missouri

By 1836, The German Settlement Society of Philadelphia was committed to the establishment of a new Fatherland in America’s mid-west.  The Society chose a school teacher, George Bayer, to serve as its agent.

Bayer traveled to Missouri where he promptly purchased 11,000 acres of land west of St. Louis, on the south side of the Missouri River.  The land was steep, rugged, and beautiful.  It was also very impractical for town-building.

Nevertheless, back in Philadelphia city planners were drawing up maps and plans for their new purchase.  Never mind they were completely ignorant of the actual topography.  On their papers, the land was completely flat, boasting of wide boulevards and grand open markets.  And thus, the town of Hermann, MO was established in 1837.

As the German immigrants boarded the first steamboat to reach the plots they’d purchased, their hopes were quite high.  Many of them still cradled the carefully-wrapped cuttings from their ancient vineyards, hoping to plant them in the New Rhineland.

Str. PEERLESS, built at Hermann, MO, 1893, owned by the Hermann Ferry & Packet Co., ran on the Missouri River until 1905. (Dorothy Heckmann Shrader Collection) (Image Source)


Hopes are Dashed

When the first German settlers caught a glimpse of their new home, their naive idealism was instantly crushed.  The river-bottom flat-lands they’d dreamed of vanished into the howling wilderness which faced them.  They were, understandably, furious.  The Hermann lots they had bought in Philadelphia were ‘vertical acreage’ and quite unsuitable for most farming.

The fact the town endured is a tribute to German determination, will, and industriousness.  Taking a hint from the wild grapevines entangled on the hillsides, the disappointed settlers began planting vineyards on the rock-filled slopes.

Stone Hill Winery c. 1800s (Image Source)


The First Harvest

The first grapes matured in 1845, and in 1846 the vineyards manufactured 1,000 gallons of wine.  Employing mostly wild grapes, in contaminated wooden barrels, stored in makeshift cellars, the first Hermann wines were of such poor quality they would not sell at any price.

Once the grafts with their ancient cuttings took off, however, and subsequent grafting and hybridizations were in full swing, the quality of their wine began to rival that of European varietals.


Stone Hill Winery

A decade later, the city was recognized as one of the major winemaking areas in the Midwest.  Having established some of the oldest wineries in America, Hermann thrived.  Upper-crust visitors from St. Louis attended Hermann’s very first Weinfest, astonished by the high quality of the sweet Catawba wine.

Stone Hill Winery Today (Image Source)

By 1893, Stone Hill Winery (which the German immigrant Michael Poeschel built in 1847) – which yet remains perched high on a hill south of town – was the third largest winery in the entire world.

During the middle of the 19th Century, Hermann’s vintners had experienced a huge success.  Stone Hill Winery was winning gold medals at World’s Fair competitions over and above the wine-soaked expertise of the French.

During the 1851 Vienna World’s Fair, Missouri wines took 8 of the 12 gold medals.  Stone Hill’s wines, such as Hermannsberger, Starkenberger, and Black Pearl, won eight gold medals at world fairs between 1873 and 1904.  And at the Philadelphia World’s Fair in 1876, Missouri wines won gold medals.

Unexpected Consequences in Competition

Then came the set of events which heavily impacted the wine industry in Europe and America in the late 19th Century.  It started after the Missouri wines defeated the European wines at international competitions.

To strengthen their chances at upcoming expositions, the French winemakers began importing Norton/Cynthiana root-stock from America.  These vines were the ones producing the most award winning wines.


Further Back in History

 Let me back up, historically, for a moment.

The earliest European settlers in the New World brought their vineyard cuttings with them, just as the Romans had done, centuries ago, when out conquering other lands.  They did this, not from sentimentality, but because wine was a necessity in the days before clean water, both for drinking as well as religious observances.  Some claim wine colonized the western world!

Vitis Vinifera (Image Source)

Vitis vinifera, the European species of grapevine which gives us Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s.  Its introduction into the present-day United States occurred in the 1600s.

These immigrant vines could not survive.  They succumbed to all local pests and disease-producing agents.  So the settlers began to experiment with the indigenous species (such as Vitis Riparia) which were completely unaffected by whatever it was which was destroying the European vines.  But the wines produced from their bitter fruits were nearly undrinkable.

To produce a suitable wine, early American settlers had to do something different.  They couldn’t rely on the rootstocks they’d used for centuries and they could not drink wine made from grapes given by the wild American vines.   So, they combined the two!  By grafting vinifera vines onto the rootstock of American vines, they learned they could grow and preserve the genetics of the vinifera grapes and ensure a wine of much higher quality.

This method of grafting also protected them from unknown disease agents in the soil because their roots were from the local rootstock.

Now, back to our story.


Advances in Technology

In the 19th Century, the wine industries of both North America and Europe flourished.  European vintners began importing American vine-stock into France.  Being the epicenter for viticulture, competition for raising the best new wine grapes grew exponentially in France after their defeats in a few world’s fairs.

Maiden voyage of the SS Great Western, the first purpose-built transatlantic steamship: 1838 (Image Source)

However, at around the time steam power was invented and incorporated into transportation, something terrible began happening to the vineyards of France.

The birth of faster transportation across the Atlantic Ocean significantly cut transport time across ‘The Pond’ in the 19th Century.  In turn, the rapid expansion of experimental vineyards full of both American and hybrid vines all across France exploded with promise.

At the time, nobody gave any thought to the prospect of plant diseases or blights being transmitted through this enterprise.

For what appeared to be “no reason at all,” the vines in several French vineyards began to die.


The Great French Wine Blight

 Around the time of the American Civil War, vintners in France began noticing some of their vines were suffering from an ‘unknown disease’ which would gradually kill the plants. Without visible explanation, a vine or two in the midst of a vineyard would turn yellow, wilt, and die.

The next year, the vines which had been adjacent to the dead vines would start to show symptoms of the same illness. Within twenty-four months, the diseased vines showed rotting from root to fruit.

Within just a few seasons, entire vineyards had collapsed, leaving a great many French families in dire financial straits.  The disease was beginning to have a devastating effect on the entire industry.  Fears of economic collapse were spreading more quickly than the new blight.


Scrambling for a Cure 

Jules Émile Planchon (Image Source)

In 1868, at the request of local government, a celebrated French botanist, Professor Jules-Émile Planchon, head of the department of botanical sciences at Montpellier University, joined a group of winegrowers and public officials to investigate the cause of this approaching national disaster. Planchon and many other commission members visited an ailing vineyard in southern France, near Montpellier.

The team pulled up a few dead and dying vines but, apart from their obvious disease, nothing else about them looked out of place. More vines were dug up and inspected and, by chance, a healthy vine was uprooted among them.  When the living vine was inspected, the revelation of what was found became a point of contention between the professor and many national public officials.  Planchon explained:


French Scientific Views Makes Things Worse

 The investigative team in France, uneducated in the fields of insect sciences, faced questions they could not answer.  Being unable to unequivocally address the problem before them, some of the vintners in northern France began to attack and mock the commission findings.

Wine Regions of France (Image Source)


Superciliousness from northern French viticulture came wearily into play as southern France already held a distinction for producing second-rate wines.  Therefore, their science also was deemed inferior.

Another roadblock to accessing the problem and working toward a winning solution was the use of the French Scientific Model.  At this time in history, many believed a physiological rather than an ontological theory of disease.  In other words, the top scientists in France were suggesting the lice were not causing the blight but were merely taking advantage of the plants weakened by some other cause.

Due to this belief, several alternative explanations for the blight began to surface.  Some said the blight was due to meteorological conditions.  Others claimed there was some genetic inferiority to the vines themselves.  Still, others claimed southern vineyards’ ‘general circumstances’ were to blame.  Even outrageous other-worldly superstitions were passed around. They were willing to believe anything, other than a mere bug, was the source of the blight.


Planchon Stands His Ground

Planchon refused to back down on his theories.  Instead, he published his notes and observations pertaining to the insects.  He suspected they were related to the American species called Phylloxera vastatrix.

Charles Valentine Riley in 1870 confirmed the theory proposed by Planchon. (Image Source)

In 1870, Charles Valentine Riley, a British-born American entomologist and artist, happened to read Planchon’s work.  Riley realized Planchon was, indeed, correct:  the insects were American phylloxera.

But the phylloxera Riley knew preferred the leaves of American vines not the roots.  Planchon’s bugs were only on European Vitis vinifera vines – and they were only on the roots and not the leaves.

A cartoon from Punch from 1890: “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.” (Image Source)

On August 29, 1873, Professor Jules-Émile Planchon arrived in New York City and met his American colleague, Charles Riley. Planchon’s journey to the United States had been set up so he could gain insight into native American grape varieties and decide which varieties had the most resistance to phylloxera.

The schedule for the trip was far-reaching. Planchon was to tour many winemaking locales before rejoining Riley in St. Louis. Many positive things came out of Planchon’s studies but perhaps the most notable were: Planchon observed the successful vinifera grafting onto American rootstock a procedure perfected in the Missouri wine region and beyond.  This, and having correspondence with George Hussman and Hermann Jaeger, would prove useful in finding a cure to the blight.

Upon his return to France, Planchon compared his observations with Riley’s when he discovered, in France, the phylloxera liked the leaves of imported American vines but the roots of the local vines.  Same insects, but with distinctly different tastes when it came to the different vines.  Evidence was increasing that phylloxera was the reason for the blight.


A Cure is Found!  But, Wait…

Eventually, two schools of thought dominated the discourse into dealing with the devastating scourge.

One solution focused on insecticides (chemicals) to kill the Phylloxera louse (or whatever else it may be which was causing the blight). The other philosophy focused on exclusively using Phylloxera resistant American varieties to produce wine.

The first group turned toward the use of chemicals primarily because it had worked in the 1850s against the oidium (powdery mildew) problem.  They did find a chemical mix which would kill the lice, unfortunately, however, it also killed the grapevines.  When the quantities of chemicals were scaled back enough to not kill the vines, it proved to merely retard the spread of the aphids, but it did not wipe them out.

The advocates of utilizing U.S. rootstock and growing vineyards using American plants thought the American grape varieties could be made to produce high-quality wines like the Vitis vinifera which were dying.  They, of course, were wrong about this.

Fox In Water (Image Source)

The native American vines presented a foxy characteristic to wine which was unappealing, to say the least.  No one wanted to drink a wine which carried the scent of a wet fox.

Another reason many French vintners refused to use the American vines: they concluded it was the fault of those very vines for the infestation they were suffering, to begin with.  They didn’t want to further contaminate the countryside.

As the dispute raged, Planchon, Riley, along with Hermann Jaeger and George Hussman and others in America were apparently in constant contact via snail mail.

Though this author was unable to obtain concrete evidence, it is speculated these scientifically minded men were the ones pushing for the grafting method.  As we know, their method saved the day (and French viticulture and winemaking)!


A Word Or Two About Herman Jaeger

As you learned at the beginning of this article, I grew up in the great state of Missouri (Greene County), not too far from where Mr. Jaeger once lived and worked.

Hermann Jaeger was a native of Switzerland, a celebrated oenologist, as well as a viticulturist.  He immigrated to America at the end of the Civil War, setting up his farm in the Missouri Ozarks just east of Neosho, MO, in Monark Springs (Newton County).

Mr. Jaeger had bred over 100 new varieties of grapes using the wild possum grape vines found in the Ozarks and surrounding states.  He is reported to have once proclaimed:

 “I, Jaeger, work with God making better grapes.”

When The Great French Wine Blight was ongoing, it was to Mr. Jaeger, and his expertise, the world’s experts turned for help.  In the end, Hermann Jaeger and other Missouri (and Texas) vintners sent 17 railroad boxcars full of rootstock to France.

In 1893, the French awarded Jaeger for both his work and his help in saving their vineyards.  He was made “Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.”  The highest civilian honor awarded by the French.

Today, there are two statues in Montpellier, France, honoring the deliverance of the French wine industry, by the Americans.  One is of a young woman holding an old woman in her arms, depicting the New World saving the Old World.

Statue to commemorate the American rootstock saving the French grape (Image Source)

The 1890s proved to be disastrous for the Jaeger family.  Many years before national prohibition, alcohol was banned in Newton County, Missouri.  Hermann tried to circumvent the law which resulted in his being indicted.

Jaeger sold his vineyard and moved away.  By 1895, Hermann Jaeger was dead.  His body was never found, but he sent a farewell letter to his wife and children from Kansas City, MO:

“When you read these lines, I will be alive no more.”  He signed the letter, ‘Your Unlucky Hermann.’


Hermann Jaeger Memorial Marker (Image Source)

While Hermann ended life devoid of luck, he graced the world with helping to save the French wine industry with the humble possum grape.  And for that, we are truly grateful.  Through the confluence of seeming happenstance and coincidence Americans, Germans, and the French worked together with God to save the “cleverness of God”:  the grape.

How humbling.

Missouri Wine:  Missouri Wine History (video)


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