"Another thing that's great is this tremendous up-and-down topography that we have here. One of the considerations when picking a site for a vineyard is to make sure that the air can run off the top of the hills. When winemakers talk about drainage we talk about two kinds: water and air. And so if you look out here," Johnson says with a gesture, "you can see that these vines are sitting on the crest of a hill. You want to stay away from valleys, to be on hilltops. This is where you get the perfect drainage for water and also the kind of air drainage you need."
Johnson goes on to describe the area's rich history, the work ethic of its residents and the strong sense of identity locals feel for the place, all qualities and characteristics he believes are reflected in the viticulture. And sure enough, even when obscured by the low clouds of a late-winter rainstorm, Southeast Missouri's landscape asserts a sense of its unique character, a working definition of what the Romantic poets used to call the "tranquil sublime."
Many of these hills are as old as any in North America, steep juttings of sedimentary rock formed by the retreat of Cambrian seas more than 500 million years ago. The Ste. Genevieve County wineries are surrounded by picturesque dairy and beef operations, their rock-studded grazing lands winding around thick stands of hardwood. Farther afield, to the east of i-55 and only a geological stone's-throw from the vast Mississippi River floodplain, rises another set of ancient knolls. Here the soils are better and, with pluck and perseverance, people can make a living raising cash crops on them.
At least that's the way Christina and Bryan Truemper see it. Their small farm, nine acres of undulating land that Bryan leases from his grandmother, is located near tiny Frohna, Mo., in Perry County, about 10 miles north of the county seat, Perryville. They've been growing organic produce and raising premium chickens and hogs for about five years.
The Truempers, engagingly articulate 31-year-olds, are true fresh food aficionados. Both worked in a variety of restaurants before taking up shovel and hoe; both believe strongly that, as the great New York Times writer Craig Clairborn once put it: "to cook well, one must love and respect food."
"Bryan and I wanted to eat the freshest, healthiest, best food possible. We couldn't afford to buy it, so we had to grow it," says Christina Truemper with a laugh. "On paper we're poverty stricken, but we eat like kings!"
The couple didn't end up in rural Perry County by accident. Bryan says his grandparents were originally from the area. They moved to St. Louis in the 1930s, he says, but returned in the 1960s to be close to their remaining relatives. Bryan spent summers helping out on the place until eventually moving away after he and Christina became a couple. "We were in Maine," Bryan continues, "I was cooking in a restaurant, and Christina had a job working with a little organic vegetable farm where we bought produce. We had this idea that maybe we could start our own place, grow our own food. I said, 'There's a farm in Missouri I'm sure we could rent...' " Christina continues the story from there: "He said, 'What would you think about being a farmer?' And I said, 'Absolutely not. No way!' But here we are."
Where they are at the moment is ankle-deep in a mess of brown mud, looking out at a rain-soaked livestock pen. The pen is home to a group of wet but contented Berkshire swine, an "heirloom" breed that commands a premium price from pork purists. The couple sell meat from the hogs -- along with eggs from a small flock of free-range hens and a vast assortment of organic produce -- at the Kirkwood Farmers' Market in St. Louis. They also sell to one of their former employers, Celebrations restaurant in Cape Girardeau.
Distinctive, locally produced foods are an important part of what Barham and the other Mississippi River Hills organizers say will help define the region. At an organizational meeting in 2004, project participant Elaine Hoffmeister Mooney of the Ste. Genevieve Winery explained what organizers were thinking: "If you took a trip to a small village in Germany, you would drink the local beer and wine and eat the locally grown meat and cheese in the restaurant. Then you might tour and visit with the local blacksmith or nutcracker maker. ... I think Elizabeth's idea is to expand what we know and love here, show it off more and, most importantly, market and advertise our region in this manner."
Published by the Office of Research.
©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.