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"We would welcome several more," enthuses vintner Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Coffman. "We want to be the Napa of the Midwest."
The Hills are also rife with struggling family farmers in search of a profitable niche. There's Mike Kertz Jr., a Bloomsdale hog farmer who's taken to growing Brandywine heirloom tomatoes and French fingerling and blue potatoes to help pay the bills. Kenny Wilson, a Jefferson County bachelor who's sold dairy cows and heads of beef cattle, now wants to process his own specialty meats. For decades they have diversified again and again, unable to keep pace with corporate farms, yet unwilling to part with their land.
"Farming today, you got to give a lot of you to do it," says Wilson. "We're in break-even, even in a good year."
The farmers and vintners have spent hours strategizing over the past three years with Barham and associates from the University of Missouri Extension. They produced an agri-tourism map last year and, several months ago, launched a Web site that lets St. Louis chefs purchase fresh foods straight from Mississippi River Hills producers.
The hardest work, to be sure, is coming.
Barham has to write a proposed statute for an appellation system, then persuade a state legislator to sponsor it and a government agency to oversee the labeling. "Down the road, when the products start to be something sought-after and exported, they'll be more expensive and valuable, and somebody is going to copy the names," she says. "We have to get somebody in the government to commit to going after the bad actors. Otherwise the project won't work."
The eclectic bunch of vintners, meanwhile, have to agree on production standards for their wine a matter that already has a few people questioning the project's premise.
"Let's take France," says Johnson, owner of Chaumette. "Do you realize that in order to have an appellation on your label, the appellation board dictates to you how you will plant your grapes? With Chablis, they say you may only plant the grapes one meter apart, and the trellis height must be one meter high. They prohibit you from irrigating. They prohibit you from fertilizing. They tell you the day of the harvest, and how you must prune the grapes in the wintertime. They tell you how many buds you may leave. Then, when you go through all that stupidity, they subject you to a panel of cronies that decide notwhether or not your wine is good or bad, but whether it's characteristic of the area.
"I'm very much against that. I think that's a lot of B.S. It stifles the creativity and innovativeness of viticulturists and enologists."
River Ridge Winery's Smith agrees. "It took me 25 years to really zero in on how I wanted to make my Norton. I'm not changing it now."
"I've told them over and over, this is not about just slapping a label on a product so you can sell it for a higher price," responds Barham. "There have to be controls."
Otherwise, the Hills should just apply for status as an American Viticultural Area, a federally designated grape-growing region that can span anywhere from less than a square mile to across several states. Augusta, Missouri, was the first; Napa Valley is the most prestigious. Overall, qualities of wine within the AVAs vary greatly. "They're meaningless," says the professor.
Richard Mendelson, a winemaker and lawyer for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, doesn't argue with that. Still, he bets European-style labels would be a tough sell to California wine-makers. "There was an effort in Sonoma a long time ago to regulate vintners down to the level of growing practices, like what kind of trellis and root stock you could have, and it failed," Mendelson says. "We're a young country. I think there's some resistance to rigid controls."
"I think her idea sounds pretty damn cool," adds Marc Lazar, a St. Louis-based wine consultant with clients around the country. "But I don't think it will go anywhere. The American wine industry is predicated on the ability to do your own thing."
Barham is undeterred by naysayers. "On one hand, you could say this project is going to take forever. On the other hand, look at the Port situation they started long before 1753 and they're still going."
Barham has already gained world attention by taking the unpopular position of advocating for labels of origin, or Geographical Indications (GIs), in talks in Geneva at the World Trade Organization effectively siding with the European Union in its decades-long dispute against the U.S. over a global registry of GIs.
For years the EU has called for the registry to handle and resolve disputes over place-based labels. The U.S. has repeatedly rejected the demand. That's because American food manufacturers have spent billions of dollars appropriating European place-names Champagne, Feta, Madeira and Parmesan, for instance and trade-marking them here.
Three years ago, the EU drew the ire of the U.S. food lobby when it began asking foreign companies to "give back" these GIs. "It's not fair," contends Frank Muir of the Idaho Potato Commission, echoing the argument of U.S. commerce officials. "The Italians should have protected Parmesan from day one. Now that Kraft Foods has created value for it with 100 years of advertising, they say they want it back."