A drive through the Missouri countryside typically offers views of rolling fields of corn and soybeans, or pastures dotted with cattle. But there are some areas of the state where those standard scenes are replaced by steep hillsides covered with row after row of trellised grapevines. While not one of the state’s top agricultural products, the wine industry has a substantial impact on Missouri’s economy. With more than 120 wineries in Missouri, there are also more than 14,000 Missouri jobs tied to the industry. In 2013, Missouri’s wine, grape and related industries had a total economic value to the state of $1.76 billion.
“Missouri has a strong history in wine,” said Nina Furstenau, food writing professor with the MU Science and Agricultural Journalism Program.
In the late 18th century French settlers in the St. Louis area started growing grapes. It wasn’t until the 1880s that Missouri became a top producer of grapes and wine. However, when the 18th Amendment was passed (prohibition) in 1920, the grape industry took a hit. Thirteen years later the amendment was repealed, and in the 1960s, Missouri wineries opened and started working to recover from the prohibition era. Some of the hurdles that had to be overcome were the high liquor taxes and license fees.
Eventually, Missouri’s wine industry flourished again. By 2013, Missouri was ranked 9th in grape production. In 2013, wine production in Missouri reached 1.25 million gallons. More than 75 percent of all the wine produced in Missouri is made with Missouri grapes. Wineries depend, then, on grape growers finding methods to overcome the challenges presented by typical Missouri weather.
“The biggest hurdles are having really cold winter temperatures that cause damage to the grape vine,” said Misha Kwasniewski, assistant research professor and enology program leader at the University of Missouri.
Early spring frosts present yet another hurdle for grape producers. When the buds begin to form on the grape vine in the early spring, they are delicate. Those early spring frosts can kill the buds and ruin the grape vine. As with any crop, an excess of rain can also cause problems to the grape’s growth bringing disease pressure. Other problems include hail storms, vine damage due to insects and dangerous herbicide drift from close fields.
“What makes good grapes is the absence of those problems,” Kwasniewski said.
Wine makers are able to adapt to change just like any farmer. They are prepared to handle the weather conditions and manipulate the environment as needed to create a desired crop.
“Given the absence of those terrible things (weather conditions), the best growers will always make a great crop,” Kwasniewski said.
Climate is not the only environmental factor that plays a key role in grape production; soil and location are also vital to making high quality grapes. The best locations to grow grapes are near rivers, on rocky terrain and steep slopes. It is also ideal that the grapes are grown in deep soil, because the roots can grow up to 40 feet and endure more rain.
“We have great sites,” Kwasniewski said. “That is why we don’t have grapes competing with corn or soy, because they want a very different type of soil.”
There are many processes that go on behind the scenes of the wine making process. Grapes can be either hand harvested or mechanical harvested , and there are pros and cons for each option. Hand harvesting tends to be intensely laborious, but it does keep the fruit intact better than in mechanical harvesting. Mechanical harvesting is faster, but the grape tends to get damaged in the process.
According to Kwasniewski, the next phase involves preparing the grapes for fermentation. Once the grapes are harvested, the fruit goes into a machine called the “crusher.” As the name implies, it simply crushes the grapes so the juice is exposed and the stems are removed. Next, the juice is put into tanks and injected with yeast, along with other nutrients. Within a week, the sugar is converted to alcohol. From then on, once or twice a day, the mixture has to go through “punch downs.” The skins of the grapes rise to the top of the alcohol and need to be “pushed down,” so that they stay soaked in the alcohol. After fermentation, the wine making process is complete and the wine is ready to be sold.
Contrary to popular belief, after fermentation the wine doesn’t need to sit in a cellar for years or even months. According to Kwasniewski, “young wine” tends to be more “fruit forward.” The longer the wine is stored, the longer it is off the shelves for retail. One could argue that the goal of wineries is to produce high quality wine at a fast rate to get the wine on the shelves to be sold.
Unlike the typical commodity crops in Missouri, producing grapes and wines lends itself to direct to consumer marketing and tourism.
“Tourism is greatly affected by wineries throughout the state,” said Danene Beedle, marketing director for Missouri Wine.
The majority of the industry’s growth has a positive correlation with tourism, meaning that one grows because the other grows. According to Missouri Wine, wine related tourism expenditures were estimated at $220 million.
“Anytime you have an agricultural sector that makes a finished product, like wine from grapes, and with the beautiful settings we have in Missouri, people like to go out and visit those places and have a glass of wine,” Furstenau said. “So, the tourism industry really benefits from the wine industry.”
Tourism isn’t the only market that flourishes because of the wine market. Because Missouri wine is sold in restaurants, it has an impact on that industry, as well as the entertainment industry.
“A lot of folks have live entertainment at the wineries,” Beedle said. “A lot of people view going to the winery as entertainment.”
Wine is all about the experience. Whether it is from the perspective of the producer or the consumer, there is no doubt that the wine industry makes an impact.
“I think the wine industry in the wineries provide an opportunity for people to come together and really enjoy life, like having a wine with dinner or having wine out on the patio,” Beedle said. “They enjoy the time they spend with others sharing food and wine.”