by Karl H. Kazaks
HERMANN, MO — It’s one thing for a winery to win medals and awards at international competitions. It’s quite another for a winery to have a pedigree of international acclaim dating back 140 years. Yet that’s precisely the case at Stone Hill Winery, which prior to Prohibition was recognized for its wines at eight world’s fairs, including at Vienna in 1873 and at Philadelphia in 1876.
Established in 1847, Stone Hill was at one point the nation’s second largest winery. By 1900 it was making and selling over one million gallons of wine per year.
“There’s a reason Stone Hill was so successful in the 1800s,” said Thomas Held, who is part of the family which owns and operates Stone Hill today. “We’re working to make it just as successful now as it was then.”
By all accounts the Helds are well on their way to meeting that benchmark. Stone Hill is Missouri’s second largest winery, producing about 115,000 cases of wine a year. They have three locations in Missouri — the historic home winery in Hermann where most of their more than 20 wines are made, a location in New Florence where they make sparkling wine (a Blanc de Blancs and a Brut Rosé), and a winery in Branson where they make spumante.
Stone Hill has won seven Missouri Governor’s Cups since 1994 and regularly brings home awards from competitions around the world — just like it did during the Grant administration.
The task of restoring Stone Hill to its former glory has been long one. When Jim and Betty Held bought the property in 1965 its vineyards had long since been abandoned. The winery’s stunning underground cellars — mostly constructed pre-Civil War, and today still the nation’s largest series of arched underground cellars — were being used to grow mushrooms.
For a while, the winery was a small farm operation. The Helds lived in the historic winery building, sharing a phone number for business and personal use.
In 1979, the family opened a restaurant — Vintage, in a restored carriage house — which helped position Stone Hill as a destination as well as a winery.
Hermann is situated on the south bank of the Missouri River, about 20 minutes south of Interstate 70 (the main thoroughfare between St. Louis and Kansas City). By the early 1980s, the home winery was becoming established as a destination, but the Helds were looking to expand their reach in the Missouri market.
Their first expansion was, in part, driven by feedback they were getting from customers.
“We heard it all the time,” Thomas Held said. “Our customers who travelled I-70 would say, ‘We wanted to get down there but didn’t have the time.’” So the Helds decided to bring their wines to their customers, a marketing philosophy they continue to follow today.
In 1986 Stone Hill opened its third location, in Branson. That was before Branson became a tourist destination — replete with the countless shows and attractions as well as many dining and shopping opportunities that exist there today. The new location’s first decade coincided with Branson’s transformation into an internationally known entertainment spot.
“I watched it grow tremendously,” Held said. “We were increasing our production, but Branson was able to consume most or all of it. There were years we didn’t have a whole lot of distribution growth. I remodeled the place five times in the first 10 years,” Held recalled.
“I started squeezing tasting counters in whenever I could,” to the point where today the winery has six tasting counters.
The last renovation doubled the winery’s square footage to 12,000 square feet.
Though Stone Hill has been selling its wine through distributors for many decades, much of its growth in the past decade has been due to its increased partnership with wholesalers.
Ten years ago, the winery was selling about 60 percent of its wines from its wineries. Today, it sells about 60 percent of its wines through distributors.
“Once you expose people to your wine,” by showcasing it to them when they visit your winery, Held said, “then you need to get it to them” in the stores they regularly visit. That means using wholesalers to get Stone Hill wines into grocery stores that customers visit every week.
The Helds are active proponents of Missouri wines, serving on industry advisory boards and marketing committees.
Stone Hill keeps visitors coming to its Hermann winery with regular events. Nine times a year, the winery has a Grapes to Glass VIP tour (cost: $25) which takes visitors into parts of the winery operation that aren’t part of the normal winery tour, such as the press house, a vineyard, and the tank building. The special tour — which is limited to 40 people — covers the whole process of winemaking (hence the name Grapes to Glass) and includes barrel tasting.
In the warmer months, Stone Hill has music every Saturday at its Hermann location. “That brings out more people,” said Held.
Stone Hill also has an annual dinner at Vintage at which it pours back vintages of its highly acclaimed Norton wine.
In addition to Norton, Stone Hill makes Chambourcin, several red blends, and Concord, of which it produces more wine than any other. It uses Traminette, Vidal blanc, Chardonel, and Vignole for single-varietal wines and as components for several white blends. It also makes rosés, a port, sherry, and a late harvest Vignole (which was served one year at The White House Holiday Dinner). The winery also makes non-alcoholic still and sparkling grape juice.
Stone Hill has almost 200 acres under vine. Estate fruit supplies about two-thirds of their annual grape needs. The remainder they buy from other Missouri growers.
“The reason we make so many different wines is we try to appeal to everybody’s taste buds,” said Held. “Whether you like white wine or red wine, dry wine or sweet wine — port, sherry — we’ve got it all.”
Reminiscent of the earlier iteration of Stone Hill Winery, some twenty-six presidencies ago: producer of wines of a number styles, all at high quality — with awards and commercial success as proof.
A history of wine at Stone Hill Winery
When German immigrants moved to the Missouri River Valley in the mid-1800s, the terrain and climate reminded many of the Rhine Valley. So it was natural for them to plant vineyards.
The wine produced in the area then — evidenced by the many international awards won by Stone Hill Winery — was well-received. By the 1880s Missouri was the largest wine-producing state in the U.S.
Historic catalogs reveal that in its earlier incarnation, Stone Hill Winery made a variety of wines including Virginia Seedling (as Norton was once known), Ives’ Seedling, and Delaware. It also made wines called Ozark Queen, White Pearl, and Black Pearl.
“They sold wine by the case, by your own gallon, by the barrel, half-barrel, keg, and jug,” said Thomas Held.
Today the Helds use the name of one of the wines from the first Stone Hill Winery, Hermannsberger, for a dry, lighter-bodied red blend.
Stone Hill also used to make brandies and cognacs. In the early part of the twentieth century, Thomas Held reports, as California wines were displacing Missouri wines in the marketplace, Stone Hill expanded its distillery business.
They started making whiskey, including rye. “They even opened offices in St. Louis and Bardstown, KY,” said Held.
Since Stone Hill Winery reopened in 1965, a robust wine and tourism industry has developed around Hermann. Here, where the Missouri River skirts the northern fringe of the Ozark Mountains, vineyards are often sited on hilltops to provide protection from frost.
Today the region is home to several wineries and over 100 BnBs. The Katy Trail, a hiking and biking trail on a former railroad right-of-way, also bring visitors to the region.
Lately, the area has also become popular for weddings. Stone Hill, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a popular choice for nuptials.