Cole County History: Historic vineyards and wineries in Jefferson City

Many families in Cole County and Jefferson City, especially those with German heritage, once had grape arbors for a supply of grapes to make a gallon of sweet wine for special events, like Christmas and hosting guests. However, almost forgotten from Jefferson City's past are its commercial vineyards and wineries, the largest of which were along the Missouri River bluffs on the west and east sides of town.

Commercial grape growing developed rapidly after the Civil War chiefly among German immigrants. The value of harvested grapes in Jefferson City in 1870 was $30,000 ($620,000 in today's dollars), exceeding the value of beer brewed at the local brewery. In 1874, one vintner shipped 1,400 gallons of his wine to St. Louis. In 1870, a newspaper account listed 43 commercial vineyards in and near Jefferson City, their owners, vineyard acreage (most were 2-5 acres) and grape varieties grown. Most popular varieties were Concord as a table wine and the Virginia Seedling (now known as the Norton), which was "especially recommended for sick persons and for children as a medicine because it is both inexpensive and pleasant to take as anything."

Judge Arnold Krekel's vineyard is clearly depicted on an 1869 sketch view of Jefferson City. It stretches from his newly built home (1866) on Cliff Drive just east of the present Missouri River bridges southward to West Main Street. (There was no Cliff Drive at that time.) He must have laid out the vineyard and planted the vines at the time he was building his manor, now a treasured local landmark. (Krekel is best remembered in Jefferson City for his help in establishing Lincoln Institute.)

Hardware merchant Andreas Gundelfinger's vineyard was on that same bluff as Krekel's, a couple blocks to the west, near the present Water Tower. Many parties were held there, like the festival in May 1876, described in detail in the local German-language Missouri Volksfreund. It was hosted by E.A. Zuendt, German teacher in the public school, for his students, families and "anyone else" to celebrate the end of the school year. "Langerhans let his store of wine bubble forth happily, and everyone relished the taste of good, inspiring red wine." In the evening, there was music for "dancing like a spirited colt, and the dancing pairs flew around in the gleaming moonlight on the magical night."

Dr. Henry DeWyl's 6-acre Riverside Vineyard was on the bluff top where Riverside Drive and Ellis-Porter Riverside Park are today. Could today's "Riverside" name be a holdover from the vineyard name? DeWyl raised 12 grape varieties, which allowed him to harvest from July 15 to Nov. 1. He excavated a cellar capable of holding 5,000 gallons. DeWyl sold his wine at his pharmacy in the 200 block of East High Street (just west of the Monroe House), which he called the Wine Depot. Close friend and Civil War co-veteran Fred Buehrle had an "oyster bar and sandwich shop" inside the pharmacy/wine depot. Customers enjoyed oysters, anchovies and sardines with their red wine.

J. L. Smith and Judge H. Clay Ewing had a vineyard at their dual "suburban estates" on Schoenberg (Woodcrest) Hill, where Capital Region Medical Center is today. Wilhelm Langerhans had a vineyard in Muenchberg (Old Munichburg, the Southside) where the Missouri Volksfreund records a Thanksgiving shooting match (Schutzenfest) at which another vintner, Henry Andrae, won first prize, a 225-pound live deer. Other vintners included brewer George Wagner, Peter Diercks, Horace Swift and John Bucher, whose large vineyard was next to DeWyl's on Riverside Drive.

Where did grape growers get their root stock? In 1873, Matthias Nagel sold rootstock at his nursery on the corner of Dunklin and Madison in Muenchberg (now Busch's Florist). Nagel also pruned and cared for vineyards. DeWyl also sold rootstock at his Riverside Vineyard. Grape growers could order rootstock from the large Hermann vineyards.

In addition to social drinking, wine was marketed for sacramental (communion) purposes and medicinal purposes. Special ads were directed to members of the Missouri General Assembly. Some wine was further processed into wine bitters, that strong, botanical-infused preparation Germans quickly shot over their tongues and swallowed without tasting. Bitters aided digestion after a big meal.

Why didn't these local vineyards and wineries last into the 20th century? The most likely cause, as it was with beer, was the inability to compete with cheaper and better wine from Hermann, St. Louis and imported sources. Also, homemade wine, like home-brewed beer, was not as good in quality as that produced commercially. Today's new artisan (craft) wineries near Jefferson City add a welcome chapter to the history of local wine making. But do they serve oysters with wine?

Walter Schroeder grew up in Jefferson City's historic German Southside, now known as Old Munichburg. A retired professor of geography, he is devoted to preserving cultural history and is the author of three books on the history of the Old Munichburg neighborhood.