‘Governor of Grapes’ toasts work of MU Extension

FREDERICKSBURG, Mo. – When problems arise with the ex-governor’s vineyard, he calls University of Missouri Extension viticulturist Dean Volenberg.

Former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden grows Norton grapes at his weekend hideaway at Fredericksburg. Volenberg regularly visits with Holden as the ex-governor learns the nuances of growing grapes on rolling hills overlooking the Gasconade River.

Stone Hill Winery uses the grapes to make the Governor’s Reserve Holden Vineyard Norton. The wine represents Missouri agriculture in every way: Made with Missouri grapes at a Missouri winery, it ages 24 months in white oak barrels made by coopers in Higbee, Mo. Staves for the barrels come from the state’s white oak forests.

With the help of Stone Hill staff, the Holdens planted 192 vines of Norton in 2007. They and others handpick the harvest each year.

It takes five years for a vineyard to develop, Holden says. He harvested grapes for reserve wines during two of those years. Like many new vineyard owners, he faced challenges from drought, deer, birds, pests and disease. That’s where Volenberg and MU Extension come in.

“Dean has been very helpful. University of Missouri Extension is a lifeline for a lot of farmers in the state,” says Holden, who signed legislation in 2003 making Norton the official grape of Missouri. “MU Extension is a way to educate the entire state’s population on agriculture.”

Volenberg heads MU’s Grape and Wine Institute (GWI) and works directly with Missouri wineries and grape growers. His efforts with GWI include regular email alerts on diseases and pests, educational newsletters, an annual symposium and conference, and face-to-face visits.

Holden says the state’s investment in agriculture and education go hand in hand, meeting the needs of Missouri’s diverse agriculture communities. He likes growing grapes and promoting Missouri agriculture. He also credits the work of Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. Anderson coordinates wholesalers, restaurants, retailers and the general public to build consumer awareness and stimulate growth of the grape and wine industry in Missouri.

Holden says he and his wife, Lori, enjoy no more than one glass of wine daily. “It’s very good and healthy for you,” he says, “but like all things, it should be done in moderation.”

About grape-growing and wine in Missouri

More than a century ago, Missouri was the nation’s second-largest wine-producing state. Hermann remains the state’s wine capital. Its German founders used the rocky hills to produce more than 10,000 gallons of wine annually in the 1840s. By the 1880s, more than 2 million gallons of wine flowed from Hermann each year. In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants settled in the St. James Valley, which became another stronghold of the state’s wine industry.

In 1920, Prohibition delivered a near-fatal blow to the industry, which did not begin to rebound until the 1960s and ’70s. In 1980, a new tax funded the Missouri Wine and Grape program. The Wine and Grape Board, established in 2005, laid the foundation for renewed growth. By 2011, Missouri welcomed its 100th winery.

German immigrant George Husmann, who settled in Hermann in 1838, is considered the father of the Missouri grape industry. He was a celebrated educator, scientist and writer, and was MU’s first professor of pomology and superintendent of forestry. He established vineyards and orchards at MU.

Charles Valentine Riley became Missouri’s first state entomologist in 1868. The Governor’s Cup, the top honor in the state for wine, awards the C.V. Riley Award annually for the best Missouri Norton wine.

Husmann and Riley received the Chevalier Legion of Honor from the French government for their work to save the European grape industry when the phylloxera insect pest destroyed many of Europe’s vines.

Today, Missouri has more than 130 wineries on 12 wine trails. According to a 2015 economic impact report by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, the industry employs more than 14,000 people and its annual economic impact in the state exceeds $1.76 billion. (Read the report at bit.ly/2fNjXvZ.)

MU’s Grape and Wine Institute continues research on viticulture (grape production) and enology (wine production) as part of MU’s land-grant mission. For more information, go to gwi.missouri.edu.