People eager to learn often want to know which grapes we are growing at Dale Hollow, what kind of wine we will be making, and what grapes are used in wines all over the Midwest. For these answers, we must explore a wonderful word: context. It is an amazing weapon to be equipped by the mind when pondering any topic, whether past or present. Without context, drawing conclusions on an idea is haphazard and altogether dangerous. With the help of this delightful concept we will answer these questions. A small 900-year old green thing (not Kermit) likes to remind us, “do or do not, there is no try”.
Take history, for example. If you aren’t fully aware of the events or the people involved in a situation that lead to things such as war, depressions, fame, or power; it’s easy to sway with the wind and believe any little thing you hear or to take it at surface level. Why is the history of Roman politics and imperialism important to the New Testament? How could the “Roaring 20s” boom period have actually helped bring on the Great Depression? Why is Tom so mad at Jerry all the time? Without context, it is too easy to take something at face value and not look at it objectively. As old Ben once put it, “You will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
When discussing present times, it takes framing your mind to a certain context to be able to sit back and try to figure out exactly how we got to this place in history. You must logically think about the transitional periods, the geopolitical climate, the relationships and prevailing opinions dominating the culture and whatnot. Utilizing such an open mind can force you to question things and come to realizations, without the aid of a jabbering head on a screen reading a script with all kinds of intentions and biases. I think Admiral Ackbar would tell you it’s a trap, every time.
Generally speaking, all we ever hear about this concept is when a quote of a celebrity or politician is taken out of context. This person said this and that, it came across as meaning this, but he or she really meant that. It’s a sad state for a word that should be on such a high pedestal and used on a daily basis when you engage in some good ol’ fashioned reasoning. That is all well and good, but these are writings on growing grapes and drinking wine, what does context have to do with it? In a word, everything.
If someone new to the world of drinking wine were to just jump in without asking questions or getting a little background information, they would be lost; staring at the racks of colorful labels with a confused look on their face. Why are there so many different names on the label? Why are the same grapes grown in different continents? What are all these strange wines at my local Missouri winery? Hello, context.
In the long and storied tradition of wine making in Europe (a millennium or so) they have discovered exactly which grapes to be grown in which region to make a specific wine. Continued research and drinking has provided centuries of evolving and perfecting. The industries boomed, people became experts, and a demand was created for standards to ensure high quality wines on a consistent basis. This led to the development of wine regions and laws that dictate how the wine from a specific region, with a specific grape, has to be made using precise processes. This not only protects the quality and regional identity, but is a guarantee to the enjoyer that they should know what to expect.
Enjoyer: I prefer this word to the one that is typically used to describe a product purchaser: a consumer. Is that all we are? Just a hoard of people stampeding around from store to store, day to day, consuming our way through life? I like to think not, especially with wine. We don’t simply consume it- we enjoy it.
Because of these developments, most wine labels from Europe display the wine region first. French and Italians can look at the label and know what to expect in terms of taste and aroma because the knowledge of which grapes are used from the region is second nature. In America, our wine history is a mere 200 years old at best and has been tumultuous. Certain regions, especially the Midwest, are still tinkering and trying to figure out exactly which grapes grow best and can make consistent, high-quality wine. We have American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) but there are no strict regulations and they are yet to offer any kind of guarantee on quality or industry practices. As a result, most American wine labels tell you exactly which grape varietals were used in its creation; because unfortunately, simply putting Stover on a wine label doesn’t tell much of a story…Except that it was grown in a wonderful area. Context.
The next bit of confusion comes from the sheer number of grapes used for wine. California has nearly mastered the art of growing Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot (all vitis vinifera). Oregon is taking the helm as the lead American producer of Pinot Noir (also vinifera). But we know from our learning that these grapes were already grown and mastered in Europe. What gives? When the original settlers came across the pond a few hundred years ago, they first attempted to use Native American grapes (mainly, vitis labrusca) to make wine. It didn’t work. The grapes were incredibly winter hardy and disease resistant, unlike anything ever witnessed in Europe, but the wine from it tasted more like creek water. Fleeting, wild, funky, and “foxy” were all words used to describe the wine. Many pressed on, undeterred during the 1800s and early 1900s slowly finding some success and I suspect they told the doubters that they found their lack of faith disturbing.
However, during the same time period, French and Italian settlers in California realized how different from the East Coast and Midwest the soil and climate in their West Coast state was (and how similar it was to their homeland). They decided to start stuffing their suitcases, trousers, pack mules, and old, old wooden ships with vines from back home. This is why we have an American region growing predominantly European vines. Grape growing and wine making with vitis vinifera is well documented and extremely successful, and it is almost perfectly suited for California and Washington. It doesn’t work in the Midwest, so we have to experiment with American grapes and French hybrids. Some brainy scientist figured out you could graft an American and French vine to get the winter and disease hardiness of our grapes and the flavor and aging profiles of the European counterparts. Now we have the opportunity to make drinkable wine where it was impossible before. Thank goodness. Context.
Missouri made great strides in the mid to late 1800s right up to 1920ish. In fact, Missouri (specifically Hermann) had around 100 wineries that produced even more wine than we do today. We were second only to California in production and had even garnered worldwide attention. This was utterly decimated by the 18th Amendment (you know, the crazy one that made alcohol illegal). Following the amendment, Missouri literally dried up, vines were pulled, and the industry was forgotten. In fact, even after prohibition our great state retained restrictive laws on production of wine on farmland up until 1966…Yes, 1966, not even 50 years ago! It’s no wonder we are so far behind when it comes to mastering the craft and making wine on the same level as Europeans. Luckily, the state has pulled a 180 and now encourages wine production (not for noble reasons, but because tax revenues are downright lucrative) and MU and Missouri State have extensive coursework and provide outreach to the industry through research, seminars, and on-site visits. If only they would have done this sooner (impossible to see, the future is). Now, the number of wineries is FINALLY getting back to where it was a century ago and every year our wines are improving as vintners gain knowledge and experience. So, try and avoid disregarding Missouri wine as undrinkable, because the second birth of the industry is very young compared to our counterparts. It’s an uphill battle competing with established regions and varietals, but the Missouri industry is not backing down- against all odds. Like Han flying through an asteroid field, we say “never tell me the odds”. Wines from all over our region are improving dramatically and most importantly, the people are embracing a regional wine identity and taste profile for the grapes that can grow within miles of their home. Context.
Bringing this all full circle (thanks for sticking around), is the topic of which varietals we chose for Dale Hollow, and getting you in the right frame of mind was a necessity. This post has sparked a light bulb over my head- that the grape varietals grown in our region deserve a story. The goal is to tell a tale of grapes and wine that will be chalk full of true information, and alongside some facts, use some creative liberties to explain it in a fun and memorable manner; similar to the likes of Gladiator and The Matrix. This calls for a new series: “Missouri Wine Adventures” that will chronicle the names, history, conspiracies, relationships, wine taste profiles, and whatever else is necessary to fully frame your mind to our region’s grapes…
To further enhance your understanding of the history of Missouri wines, we recommend this article:
And this book, which was given to us by a dear friend. I never knew it existed and I’m thankful they gave it to us because it is tells the story of the rebirth of an industry, one winery at a time:
Drink Missouri wine, you should.