Show Me the Way: Missouri Wine Discussion with Jim Anderson of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board
Missouri is known as the Show Me State, and they are certainly showing the rest of the Midwest how to succeed in the wine industry and agritourism area. The secret of Missouri’s wine success in three rules:
1. Experimenting is fine, but it’s a long game. Grow now what you know works.
2. If you want your industry to succeed, give everyone a seat at the table. It builds trust and helps in the long run. (Want an example of what not to do? Check out our interview with Joseph Infante about the Mission Peninsula lawsuit).
3. It doesn’t hurt at all to have a great wine country which mostly sits in the middle of your prime tourist country.
Missouri is a state with a long and storied wine history. German immigrants brought their wine know-how to Missouri in the 1830s and soon developed such a reputation the area was called the “American Rhineland.” Italian immigrants followed a few decades later, mostly in the Ozarks, and Missouri was for a time the largest wine producer in the nation. At the turn of the 20th century, Stone Hill Winery, in Hermann, was the third largest winery in the world. We would be remiss if we didn’t direct your attention to Missouri’s role in solving the phylloxera problem in the 1860s. Like most states, Prohibition decimated the industry, but the revival began in the 1960s, earlier than most states east of the Rockies. Stone Hill reopened in 1965, a mere 30 years after the repeal of Prohibition.
Missouri now grows almost exclusively hybrid grapes, most notably that most curious of all hybrids, Norton (also called Cynthiana). By the way, there is a great book on the Norton grape here we highly recommend.
The Missouri wine industry is overseen by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. Funded by a twelve-cent tax on every gallon of wine sold in Missouri, the Board funds the research of the Grape and Wine Institute at the University of Missouri-Columbia and promotes the industry.
The relationship between the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, the legislative and executive branches, and other stakeholders provides a national model for cooperation. They work extremely well with the state tourism bureau, their university system, and the larger agriculture sector. This is one of most essential, but least understood, concepts in the American wine industry. The Wine & Grape Board, along with the universities, do a lot of the heavy lifting so the wineries don’t have to and can instead focus on making wine. Every state that gets rid of a board like this brings them back a few years later when they realize how essential they are.
We sat down for a chat with Jim Anderson, Executive Director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. Jim oversees the day-to-day operations of the Board, and is naturally bullish on the future of Missouri wine. As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell me how you got into wine and your journey to the Wine and Grape Board.
I have been the director for almost 25 years. Before that, I spent 9 years as the Horticulture Marketing Specialist for the Department of Agriculture, and my background is horticulture. This position, when my predecessor had it, was a contract position, and he was solo a lot, and I worked a lot with him helping him out. I really got the chance to see the wine and grape side of horticulture working with him. When he left, the Advisory Board approached me to take over, and it was a nice transition from general horticulture to a wine and grape specialty. It was soon made a permanent position, and we were able to get staff which really allowed us to take it to the next level. We have been lucky, and remain lucky, in that we have had several Governors and First Ladies who really wanted to see our industry grow.
What does the Wine and Grape Board do on a day-to-day basis?
We are a state board which is part of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Our board is Governor appointed; Senate confirmed. We were founded in the early 1980s as a trade group, but we needed more assistance to really promote the industry. The Department of Agriculture, the Missouri Farm Bureau and others really stepped up and got the present version of the board together. As our industry grew, we have grown with it. We work with our universities and state colleges, like the Wine and Grape Institute at the University of Missouri, as well as Missouri State University that do research for us. We are also close partners with the Department of Tourism and they help us promote the agritourism side. We have a very strong relationship with tourism, government, academia, and the other segments of agriculture.
How many American Viticulture Areas are in Missouri?
There are five. Augusta AVA, which was actually the first AVA in the United States, Hermann, Ozark Highlands, Ozark Mountains, and our newest one, Loess Hills. Loess Hills is quite large and goes into Iowa and Nebraska and the Dakotas.
How many wineries are in Missouri?
Right now, 125. Over the last year, it has been difficult, as COVID hit us like everywhere else. We have had a few closures, but we are hoping a few will open later this year.
We produce over a million gallons a year. Most is sold directly at the winery, but several of our bigger wineries are selling retail, including many across the Midwest.
What’s a misconception about Missouri wine?
For Missouri and most of the Eastern United States, there is the misconception we are just sweet wines. They tried our Concord or Catawba thirty years ago and think that is all we still produce. Missouri has a wide wine selection from dry to sweet, sparkling to fortified. When you ask customers why they don’t drink Missouri wines, that misconception is far and away the number one reason. So, educating the public becomes important, and when you get them to sit down and try our wines, they are really impressed.
That misconception can be frustrating, and getting our wines on the shelves in other markets is a challenge. Customers who visit us call back and tell us they can find our sweeter wines on the shelves, but not the dryer ones. We now have some of the specialty shops and grocery stores starting to offer our dryer wines, and that is helping.
It seems of all the Midwest or Midwest-adjacent states who had a thriving Pre-Prohibition wine industry, Missouri has sprung back the most. You just really seem to have a sense of identity other states around you don't.
The reason is we stick to our roots. A lot of wineries and a lot of my counterparts in other states, they tell us “you really seem to be sticking to the hybrid grapes.” And I wish we could grow more vinifera, and maybe some day we will with the changing climate and new varietals, but hybrids grow well here now. We also have a very large barrel industry. We make a lot of the oak barrels and staves for us and other states. So, the whole concept of buy local and slow food have really converged for us. We are able to say the grapes, the barrels, the wine, it is all is grown right here. Unlike a lot of other states, we aren’t really shipping a lot of juice from the coasts.
Don’t get me wrong, hybrids have their challenges. Our late winter we will have in a few days may show that, and there are disease pressures. But so many of them are so great, and they can be made in several different styles.
If wine lovers know of Missouri, it is sometimes only its association with Norton. It’s a good problem to be associated with a grape like that, but does it keep other grapes in your state from getting the notice they deserve?
It is interesting. I have been around a long time, so I have the advantage of perspective. It was really important for us to make Norton the state grape, and we did that in 2003. It gave us a lot of attention. A lot of people don’t realize Vignoles is right up there with Norton in terms of popularity, and is our most popular white wine. When I go somewhere, people tell me, “bring the Norton, bring the Vignoles.”
When you get known for something, it can become a positive gateway. Over the last 10-12 years, the notice Norton has received has really made it easier to push our Chambourcin, which has done tremendously well here. It is more medium-bodied than the fuller Norton. The success we have had in building each varietal up makes it easier to educate the consumer on the next one. If you like our Vignoles, try our Vidal Blanc, then try the Traminette, and so on.
Let’s keep talking about Norton. At least since the 1870s it was the dominant grape in the state. I can’t think of another example of a state being so associated for so long with a single grape, with the possible exception of North Carolina and Scuppernong. New York and Riesling, Oregon and Pinot Noir, those associations are fairly recent.
When we got back into business in the 1960s, we knew our history and knew Norton did really well here, so it was just natural to start making it again. It is a challenging grape to work with, but it is perfect for our climate and that history gave us a leg up. When you speak to people in Missouri, a lot of them just think of our industry as twenty to thirty years old, and are surprised our roots run so deep. Oftentimes, it seems our friends in Europe know more about the Missouri wine industry than the average person on the streets of Kansas City or Saint Louis.
Is vinifera gaining a foothold in Missouri?
It is starting to. With climate change and some of the weather conditions we are seeing, perhaps we will see more. In the south, around Lake of the Ozarks, you have some additional protection there that can aid in growing it, and there is also some around Kansas City. We also have some in our university test plots. But what makes it so challenging is it does fantastic for a few years and then you get one of these extreme temperature changes and it dies way back. You can try taking it off the wire, burying it over winter and putting it back up in the spring, but that is just so labor intensive. The costs to that approach puts it at an unrealistic price point compared to regions that can grow it without having to do all that.
In your job, you have to deal with a few big wineries and lot of small wineries, and they often want very different things. How do you balance everyone’s interests and needs?
It isn’t that hard, and here’s why. When we made our Wine and Grape a permanent board back in 2006, we made spots for the President of Vintner’s Association of Missouri, the Grape Growers Association, the Wine Marketing Council, the Director of Agriculture, and we make sure to diversify our board with wineries large and small. We started with balance and buy-in from everyone as far as size, geography, and needs.
Then, as far as our promotion, we have worked extremely hard. Pre-COVID, we were doing a lot of tastings and special events and we try to be around the whole state. We partner up with a lot of non-profits and their events to spread the word about Missouri wine. It really helps to be at these events to educate people about the wines that are available in their area.
What is really important as well is our social media presence. We are constantly publishing stories that allows the public to really get to know our winemakers and our wineries. We may be working on stories like the women making wine in Missouri, or which wineries are pet-friendly. Obviously, larger wineries are going to work with us more because they have the volume and manpower, but we make sure we provide plenty of opportunities for the small wineries to use us to get out there. We want to ensure that no matter how big you are, you will have the chance to work with us to promote your winery as much as you want.
I recently read that nearly one in ten bottles of wine sold in Missouri come from Missouri. That’s a stat almost any non-West Coast state would envy.
We aren’t done working on that. Part of it is our agritourism partnerships allows us to draw visitor traffic out to the wineries. We have an MVP program that rewards consumers that visit our wineries and they can cash those in for rewards. Programs that encourage people to explore and programs and great wine that keep them coming back, that is the key.
Most of our wine country is in our prime tourism country, and that makes our wine trails and the promotion of them so important. I can’t tell you how many people tell us they came to Missouri for biking or the river trails or other tourism activities and discovered our wine country and became lifelong fans and are now ordering our wine to be shipped to them.
Where do see Missouri wine in ten years?
That’s a great question, because it makes me look back ten years and think about where we were then. We have really taken off in the last decade. The pandemic slowed us down a bit, but we are really going to see growth. We have lots of wineries planting more grapes and expanding. A lot of our wineries are really starting to diversify and become event venues and destinations. Some are opening breweries and distilleries. We have some cideries and meaderies coming in and they are doing quite well. We have to do some education there, but there’s great potential. Canning of our wines is becoming more common, which is a big deal for us, since we have a large boating and water tourism industry here and you can’t bring glass out on the water.
People really need to come out and visit us if they haven’t already. You will be surprised at the breadth of our offerings.