The old and the new blend nicely in Hermann, Missouri, and a weekend spent among spring flowers and old friends, with the added benefit of good wine and food, always lifts the spirits. The last weekend of April has become a regular trip to celebrate the release of a new vintage of Norton, Stone Hill Winery's prime red wine, and to re-taste some of my favorite older ones.
Stone Hill, which Jim and Betty Held have led and operated for a half-century, was among the first topics a rookie wine writer discussed. The year was 1973, and I did my first tour of the state's wineries as I added wine to my writing portfolio.
For the last 22 years, Stone Hill has been host to a 10-year vertical tasting of its Norton, from a native American grape discovered on the East Coast by early settlers. The formal name of the grape is vitis aestivalis, as compared with European classics like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay which are vitis vinifera, or America vines like Concord and Catawba, which are vitis lambrusca. The vertical tasting, which involves the same wine for a number of years, included 2009, the most recent vintage, which still is in process, and 2008, still in the barrel. The 2007 was released the day of the tasting, and we sampled each vintage back to 2000. A horizontal tasting, by the way, involves many wines from the same year.
Most of the wines I tasted are very good, a few were superb, the younger ones show signs they will mature into excellence. And once again, as it has been for the last five or six years, my favorite was the 2002. It's an amazing wine, full-bodied, rich and bold. The hard tannins have vanished, to be replaced by a dark cherry aroma and blackberries, leather and cedar on the palate. There's spice and great length in the finish. It's one of the best wines that Dave Johnson, the long-time Stone Hill winemaker, ever has made. My second choice was the 2005, a rich, plummy version whose tannins are fading and is a superior accompaniment to steak or fat, juicy hamburgers right off the grill. The '03 is another potential winner, as is the barrel sample, from 2008, which shows signs of great maturity ahead.
All the wines, even the 10-year-old 2000 vintage, still were tasty and drinkable, but if I had any 2000's in my basement (a more accurate word than "cellar," for the place where I store my wines), I'd work to finish them within a year or so, before they start over the hill.
The Held family brought out another new release, a 2009 dry Vignoles, and it was brilliant. At 14 percent alcohol, it's a little higher than most white wines, but the crispness and acidity give it fine balance. It shows some mineral texture, sharp citrus notes in the fruit and a smooth finish that makes it shine with spicy food, like Asian curries, or with a roast chicken well rubbed with garlic to heighten its flavor. The wine also works by itself, well-chilled, as a superior summer aperitif.
From the Stone Hill lawn, high above the town, the view includes just about all of Hermann, right to the Missouri River that flows past it. Sometime in the 1830s, it was settled by German immigrants who had been told they would think they were right at home alongside the Rhine. Wine was an integral part of their lifestyle, and they brought the love and the skill to make their own. With the exception of a 25-year interruption for Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II, they've been doing it since.
Downtown Hermann, across First Street from the river, is home to Hermannhof Winery, rescued from oblivion by Jim and Mary Dierberg, who are rehabbing, rebuilding and upgrading much of the riverfront. In addition to the winery, the Dierbergs remodeled the old Festhalle into an elegant hotel, conference and party space, moved several old homes--stone by stone--and turned them into bed-and-breakfast accomodations near the winery, made an old grain elevator and warehouse into the Tin Mill Brewery, run by their daughter, Ellen, and created a park for sitting and picknicking. Hermannhof makes lots of wine across the spectrum, from dry to sweet.
Dierberg's wine interests go beyond Hermann, and Hermannhof visitors can sample excellent wines from his property in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. Classic vinifera grapes grow there, and the wines are delightful. Winemaker Nick de Luca uses three labels, Star Lane, Dierberg and Three Saints. The featured wine is the Star Lane Astral, a Cabernet Sauvignon whose grapes come from three specific blocks growing at the highest point of the vineyards. The 2005 vintage shows the balance and style that age will contribute. It's a rich and wondrous wine.
Star Lane also makes Cabernet Sauvignon from other areas of the valley, and Syrah and Merlot as well. The Syrah, tasted against an Australian Shiraz, showed a little more body and depth of flavor, though the fruit-forward style of the Aussies was very good.
And if you're in Hermann, and anxious to stock up on meats for home consumption, put your cooler in the car and visit Swiss Meat and Sausage, 12 miles south of Hermann on Highway 19. Swiss used to be a town of its own, but Hermann annexed it some years ago. Mike Sloan and his family make terrific bacon, hams and sausages of all types. The Sloans have dozens of different sausages and bratwurst, from buffalo, pork, elk and other animals, plus salamis and bolognas that seem to go on forever. Samples abound, and a lunch counter offers a variety of sandwiches and snacks. It's a small detour for a very large treat.