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How Missouri Grapes Saved the French Wine Industry

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Put yourself into the shoes of a German immigrant coming to America in the 1800s. You are miles away from home; you have made an incredible journey, but what do you do now? German immigrants were looking for a new home, but they found that Missouri's landscape looked just like their homeland of Germany. West of St. Louis and just East of Jefferson City lies The Missouri Rhineland, named for its similarities to the wine-growing areas of central Europe, along the Rhine River. The Missouri Rhineland is a beautiful attraction for many wine lovers, peppered with wineries, especially along the Missouri Weinstrasse (Missouri wine route, highway 94 from Defiance to Marthasville), but did you know that grapes that are grown in these areas helped to save the French wine industry?

The town of Hermann and a vineyard around Hermann in the 1800's

(Photos provided by: Gasconade County Historical Society)

In the late 19th century, European vineyards, especially in France, were being destroyed by an insect called Phylloxera. These microscopic pests feed on the roots and leaves of grapevines, causing the roots to cut off the flow of nutrients and water to the grapes. With no way to rid of these insects, they destroyed about two-thirds of European vineyards.

At this same time, Missouri wine country was flourishing. Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri, was the largest winery West of the Mississippi and the third-largest in the world. They even won 8 gold medals at the Worlds Fair in Vienna, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis.

Top Left: Stone Hill Photo that features Edward Wandersee, Alfred Henry Drusch, Otto Drusch

Top Right: Old advertisement for Stone Hill Wine Co. Bottom: Pen and ink of Stone Hill

(Photos provided by: Gasconade County Historical Society)

A man named Charles Riley was Missouri's first Entomologist or bug guy. Charles was a genius, and he was one of the first people to connect that Vitis labrusca, a native grapevine to North America, was resistant to this type of insect. Phylloxera is also originally native to North America, so the Vitis labrusca vine species had evolved to defend itself against the insect. European grapes of the Vitis vinifera, on the other hand, were highly susceptible.

Left: Drawing of C.V. Riley Middle: Sketch of C.V. Riley working with his french colleagues from American Entomologist Right: Cover of American Entomologist.

(Photos provided by: Gasconade County Historical Society)

So Charles, with help from J.E. Planchon and T.V. Munson, discovered that the only way to save these grapes was if they grafted American rootstock to the European grapes. American rootstock, most notably from Missouri, was sent to France to graft to their crops. Because of this, vineyards were again able to flourish in Europe, and this is still the proper practice in treating grapevines infected with Phylloxera.

So the next time you catch yourself driving down the Missouri Weinstrasse, remember that the grapes grown on these hillsides saved the industry and treasure Missouri's part in the history of global winemaking.

Photos provided by: Gasconade County Historical Society

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