Voice of the Land

A Missouri farm boy's quest to grow American Heritage grapes in Kansas City



JERRY EISTERHOLD, OWNER AND FOUNDER OF VOX VINEYARDS

   If you drive north from Kansas City about 30 minutes, into the rolling Missouri countryside, you might come across an exciting viticultural and vinous project with roots in American and French wine history dedicated to saving and promoting American Heritage vine species. Vox Vineyards is the brainchild of Jerry Eisterhold, a Missouri native with a background in museum design and agriculture.

   He’s also one of the most prominent wine lovers in Kansas City, with a deep cellar filled with verticals from top wine regions like Barbaresco, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Alsace and Napa Valley. His own vineyard project began as a mix of passion and curiosity, and then evolved into a commercial venture.

   First, a little history and biology lesson. Winemaking as we know it began when humans began to cultivate wild grape species. The European grape species Vitis vinifera contains almost all of the world’s significant wine grapes. When European settlers came to America, they discovered several different species of vines indigenous to the country, and for several centuries, they were the basis of American wine.

   The wine produced from American species were different from their European counterparts but competitive in quality. In 1873, a Norton made in Hermann, Missouri, beat out its French competitors from Bordeaux and Burgundy to take top prize. Soon, American vines were being transplanted to Europe for commercial and experimental purposes.

   Unfortunately, those vines nearly destroyed European wine as we know it. Living on the roots of those American vines was a little parasitic louse that came to be known as phylloxera. American vines were resistant to them, but European vines had no resistance, and as the little bug secretly spread across the continent, most of Europe’s top vineyard sites began to wither and die.

   Enter our first hero, Thomas Volney Munson, an American viticulturist of the late 19th century. Munson’s great project was assembling various American grape cultivars and trying to plant them in a vineyard. His first attempt, near Lincoln, Nebraska, failed due to climate and predators. A second attempt in Texas proved more fruitful in every sense. His legacy lives on at the Denison, Texas, vineyard he planted, maintained by Grayson County College. The vineyard was a prime source for Eisterhold’s own.

   Interestingly, Munson’s greatest legacy helped obscure his pet project. He was key in developing American rootstocks that, when grafted to European vines, proved resistant to phylloxera. The European wine trade was saved, and the French government awarded him the Chevalier du Merite Agricole of the French Legion of Honor. French species had not fared well in American soils and climates, but when settlers came to California, they discovered vineyards where grafted vinifera thrived.

   During the early part of the 20th century, Missouri and California vied for the role of largest wine producer — California using vinifera, Missouri using native species and hardy crossings of Europe and America. Then, Prohibition gutted the wine trade. California recovered, but Missouri was never the same. Missouri wines, once shipped around the world, were largely consumed locally.

   Munson’s last great project started in the 1880s, and was published in 1909, four years before Munson’s death. “Foundations of American Grape Culture” extensively cataloged American cultivars, and it was discovering this book in 1978 that led Eisterhold to his project.

   “I read a lot,” Eisterhold says. “It was just a book I picked up, and I became curious about the real-world implications of what the book was talking about.”

   Eisterhold acquired plantings from the old Munson vineyard. Unfortunately, his first two attempts to grow grapes in Missouri shared the same result as Munson’s first try in Nebraska.

   “Shade, squirrels and sparrow,” Eisterhold says.

   The third attempt, in Peculiar, Missouri, was ruined by a neighbor’s horses. Eisterhold’s wife, Kate, suggested in 1994 that they take a flight over the Missouri countryside to see if they could find a place suitable both for viticulture and the Kansas City commute. They discovered the current location, on Northwest Farley Hampton Road north of the Missouri River, purchased the land and began collecting more cuttings from multiple sources, including Lon Rombough, an American expert in viticulture who kept cuttings of many heritage varieties.

   Sixty different varieties were planted over more than 10 years. The first wine was made (a single bottle!) after the 2000 vintage.

 

   For the first decade of the century, the vineyard remained a labor of love more than anything else. Around 2010, the Eisterholds considered the possibility of turning it into a commercial venture. In 2013, they acquired their domestic winery license, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the first commercial vintage was released.

   Eisterhold brought in Clark Smith, a highly regarded and occasionally controversial winery consultant, from California to advise the project. Smith, who has great affection for the odd corners of the wine world, fell almost immediately in love and has remained involved since then.

   “Clark gives us ‘procedural vigor,’” Eisterhold says. “And an awareness of what is happening chemically during the wine process.”

   In July 2015, TerraVox released its first wines. A Norton took a Double Gold at the Appellation America tasting, and the Chateauneuf du Platte blend took a bronze at a Missouri Wine Competition. Eisterhold has plans for further expansion coming soon.

   “It will help us find a point of economic stability vis-a-vis production, expenses and a market,” he says.

   When asked about the legacy he wants to leave, Eisterhold turns thoughtful.

   “I’d like to see a growing number of people appreciate the quality and qualities of the stuff that comes out of this specific geographic place and its genetic heritage,” he says.

   Vox Vineyards maintains a small tasting room in Weston, Missouri, from Thursday to Sunday. Tours of the vineyard itself are available by appointment. (816) 354-4903. For more information, visit voxvineyards.com.


 A Few Tasting Notes

TerraVox 2014 Norton – Norton is the best-known grape grown in Missouri, and the Vox Vineyards rendition is a classic example. It has the rustic structure and grip of zinfandel, along with a rich, bright berry profile. There’s a nice streak of acidity to balance the structure.

TerraVox 2014 Traminette – Over the years I’ve learned this is one of my favorite American grape species, and this version is outstanding. Lavish tropical fruit flavors and a spicy nosel nose, with enough freshness to balance the dense, rich mid-palate. Great with Thai curry.

TerraVox 2014 Wetumka – This is a delightfully wild tasting wine that it is difficult to find a European species for a reference.  I find candied citrus fruit and ginger and a lighter texture than the Traminette.

TerraVox 2014 Chateauneuf du Platte – The name is a pun on one of Eisterhold’s favorite French wine regions, that, like this wine, tends to blend a multitude of grapes together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a fascinating mix of berry and spice flavors — completely unique, and quite compelling.