Bounty by the County

The stateís winemakers and food producers arenít exactly key playersin the global economy. A Mizzou professor aims to change all that.

"Take Parma Ham," she explains, using the English trademark for Prosciutto di Parma. "The producers' consortium spends $1 million a year to protect their name in fights all over the world. There was a famous instance in Canada of a company that's done all kinds of things with its packaging, like putting the Italian flag on it, to make the consumer think its product is from Italy. They even put 'authentic' on the label, which is total B.S. It's not Parma Ham. The company just knows you will pay the premium if you think that's what you're getting."

Barham maintains that place-based labels would sustain Missouri's vintners and farmers for centuries, because it might allow food-makers to charge more for their products. "People can be part of the global world without being annihilated by it," she says.

"It's going to be a challenge," observes Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission. "We've spent $100 million over the last 70 years working on [our brand]. I went to Korea and Japan recently, and as soon as I said, 'I'm from Idaho,' the next word that came out of their mouths was 'potato.' But when I say 'Missouri,' what do you think of? Nothing jumps to mind."

"We want to be the Napa of the Midwest,"  says Hank 
Johnson, owner of  Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in 
Jennifer Silverberg
"We want to be the Napa of the Midwest," says Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Coffman.
The heads and roots of hydroponic (greenhouse) lettuces 
grown by Octavia Scharenborg in Jackson.
Jennifer Silverberg
The heads and roots of hydroponic (greenhouse) lettuces grown by Octavia Scharenborg in Jackson.

If Barham has her way, Missouri will reclaim its fame in the wine-making world. She has designated an eco-region stretching alongside the Mississippi River, across six counties south of St. Louis, as the first area for a Missouri wine appellation. Dubbed Mississippi River Hills, the region is rife with vegetable growers and pork and beef producers — not to mention purveyors of such culinary delights as liver dumplings.

A group of Missouri orchard owners and vintners in Lexington and Higginsville got wind of the project and has already asked Barham to help it establish appellations in an area east of Kansas City. Barham also sees putting origin labels on products coming from parts of the Missouri River Valley and the teardrop-shape Meramec River Watershed. United States Representative Jo Ann Emerson, meanwhile, wants the project to take root in the Saint Francois Mountains and other parts of the Ozarks.

Barham says she'd like to extend the project to other U.S. wines and foodstuffs — Indian River grapefruits from Florida, perhaps, or Muscatine melons from Iowa. "We're starting with Missouri," she says as she leaves a Columbia farmers' market, her arms full of fresh fruits and vegetables. "But the real goal is to revolutionize the entire American food system."

When Beth Barham closes her eyes and describes the perfect glass of Porto, you can almost see her mind drifting to the Douro River Valley of Portugal. "It tastes nutty, and it's warm and smooth, like the sun there," she says. Barham set down her luggage in Porto one hot July day in 2002, beheld the rugged mountainsides of its backdrop and immediately understood how the nation's sweet wine acquired such renown. "It's written right on the land," she exclaims.

The Valley is hot and humid, and its coarse, rocky mineral soil is ripe for grape growing. Without the 620,000 acres of hand-terraced vineyards, says Barham, "this place would be totally marginalized." Instead, it's world-famous.

As the legend goes, two English shipping merchants traveling upriver in 1678 were so impressed with their first taste of Porto that they brought back a barrel of the wine to England. Soon other European traders began making regular trips through the valley, looking to haul aboard a wooden cask of the liquid treasure. "They bought it dirt cheap, sailed back to their country and sold it [for] many times over what they paid," Barham says. "It was literally the old expression: When your ship came in. All you needed was one cask."

That was, until a Portuguese minister named Marquês de Pombal learned of the scheme through royal contacts in England and, in 1753, made his way to the Douro River Valley to delineate the world's first wine district. Pombal established rigorous production standards for Porto and set up government-regulated warehouses at the river's edge. Every bottle sold carried a government-approved label and an individual number. Pombal even instituted annual sales quotas, realizing that certain vintages might acquire value with age.

"So you see, it benefited the crown of Portugal, of course, through taxes, but also retained much more of the profit in the hands of the people living in Portugal," Barham explains. "Port immediately became the number-one product of value in Portugal and remained that way until very recently when tourism — linked to the wine — surpassed it."

Porto is the paragon of a product made prestigious by its terroir. Amazingly, its appellation system still functions largely as it did 250 years ago, with the neck of every bottle still carrying its own unique number. Says Barham: "To give up the system would be like saying to St. Louisans: 'It's inconvenient now for you to have the St. Louis Cardinals.' Well, no! That's not going to happen."

In the 1920s France and Italy followed Portugal's lead and instituted their own labels-of-origin legislation. Various regional wines and cheeses, butters, poultry and pork — even certain varieties of plums, honeys and chestnuts — are protected today.

« Previous Page
Next Page »