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In the Rush to Build the Next Napa Valley, What Happens to Augusta? 

Augusta is a destination in Missouri wine country, but it's about to get a lot busier.

PHUONG BUI

Augusta is a destination in Missouri wine country, but it's about to get a lot busier.

On a hot September Sunday in Missouri wine country, patrons lounge on a sun-drenched patio at Balducci's Vineyards in greater Augusta. Forests sweep up the surrounding hillsides, and though the tree leaves haven't yet started to turn, elsewhere you can just see the hints of the seismic change coming to this small town of a few hundred people alongside the Missouri River. It's in the new color scheme at the twenty-year-old winery — emphasis on orange — and in the eight-foot bronze bust of a Tocobaga Indian princess that now faces the vineyard. Most of all, it's in the name stamped on the monument's pedestal: Hoffmann Family of Companies.

In town, these plaques are affixed everywhere, the namesake of husband-wife duo David and Jerri Hoffmann, whose conglomerate has bought and revamped large chunks of three other towns and now promises to plow upwards of $125 million into the Augusta area. Hoffmann at the gas station. Hoffmann at the general store and at the bike shop. Hoffmann on the new fences lining the road into town. Hoffmann on the bronze cowgirl in Augusta proper that prompted one resident to grumble, "I'm sorry, this isn't the Wild West — we have never, ever, had cowboys." Hoffmann on the bronze Sioux Indians that another resident pointed out aren't the right Indians for the area, which was once Osage country. Some locals have started joking that Augusta, a rural town where some families have lived for generations, is morphing before their eyes into Hoffmannville.

What exactly that means is still in flux. It's been barely eleven months since the Hoffmann Family of Companies announced it had been buying up properties in and around Augusta, aiming to consolidate wineries over an area of 700 acres into a mega-venture that a press release vowed would be the largest winery and vineyards in the Midwest. In January the Napa-Valley-in-Missouri branding took root and wound through news stories detailing the company's plans to install a national tourist destination in the quiet hills, off a winding two-lane highway about an hour west of St. Louis. By summer, the company had purchased four local wineries, six vineyards and more than a dozen buildings, and was floating plans to build more attractions: a 60-room luxury hotel, a golf course, an amphitheater. Trolley-shaped Hoffmann-branded buses were ferrying people between wineries; Missouri River boat tours were scheduled to start in late fall. In news reports, the Hoffmanns, who met in high school in nearby Washington, Missouri, seemed psyched to be back near home and bringing the promise of jobs, tourism and revitalization to a struggling town that had been on an economic losing streak for decades. Several local business owners enthused to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about how great the place looked.

A bronze bust of a Tocobaga Indian princess greets visitors to Balducci's Vineyard. - PHUONG BUI
  • PHUONG BUI
  • A bronze bust of a Tocobaga Indian princess greets visitors to Balducci's Vineyard.

Yet for other residents, this was all a bit much. The "next Napa" notion in particular spooked people; that famed wine region of California, after all, had hundreds of wineries and welcomed millions of tourists per year. Sure, nearly everyone agreed the downtown could use some investment and new businesses, and the Missouri wineries that rivaled Napa's in their nineteenth-century heyday had been decimated by Prohibition and underrated ever since. But the Hoffmann plans seemed to keep getting bigger: The proposed golf course had grown from nine holes to twelve; the envisioned river paddleboats were out, at least temporarily, and a 96-foot luxury yacht called the Miss Augusta was in. At a Zoom meeting with residents early in 2021, David and Jerri Hoffmann had left the impression with some that they hoped to preserve the town's quaintness. Now Augusta townsfolk were learning of possible hot-air balloon tours and a zipline from a hilltop winery, none of which sounded very quaint to them.

"I'm not against the hotel. I'm not against any of the changes he's making in town," says JoAnn Struckhoff, who lives on an Augusta-area farm that's been in her husband's family for generations. "I just think it's gotten a bit out of control." She worries that the project is dividing a close-knit community. Some residents see big potential benefits, in rising property values, new patronage for business, new sales tax revenues so they can finally repave some roads. The Hoffmann Family of Companies is already the town's largest employer and vows to create hundreds more jobs. But others feel rapid change is being forced on them without enough consideration for the town's culture, its quiet, the safety and capacity of the thin, curvy highway they all rely on. High property values are great if you plan to move — otherwise they just mean higher taxes. Many people agreed that Augusta needed revitalization, but did it have to be this much, and move this fast?

At the heart of the disagreement is the proper line between progress and preservation, commerce and community, in a place where everybody knows everybody and change has always come slowly, if at all. Most of all, the drama is about who gets to control the fate of a small town facing an influx of big money.

Wineries in about 700 acres are part of a plan for major redevelopment. - PHUONG BUI
  • PHUONG BUI
  • Wineries in about 700 acres are part of a plan for major redevelopment.

Before there was Napa wine, there was Augusta wine. At least officially. When the federal government started designating American Viticultural Areas in the 1980s — a way to mark geographic authenticity and quality — Augusta was the first recognized; Napa, as Missouri wine enthusiasts like to point out, only got its designation eight months later. By then, both regions had been producing wines for more than a century, and back in the mid-1800s it would've made more sense to wonder if Napa could be the next Augusta than the other way around. German settlers to the Missouri River region had brought with them their grapevine clippings and nostalgia for the Old World, ultimately creating a kind of new Rhineland in a string of towns on the shores of the Missouri. By the late 1870s, they were producing roughly 2 million gallons of wine annually, and in their spare time also saved the French wine industry — sending over millions of hardy Missouri rootstocks to fortify French vineyards then being destroyed by parasites.

Over the next four decades, California wines overtook Missouri's in popularity, but Missouri remained the country's second-most important wine region until 1920. At which point, the wine industry that had saved France's was itself destroyed, not by parasites but by Prohibition. Vineyards burned; wine cellars ditched their bottles and stored mushrooms instead. America's alcohol ban lasted only thirteen years, until 1933, but rebuilding Missouri's wine industry took decades, and it never recovered its former status. If not for the 18th Amendment, Augusta and its neighboring river towns might have long since ceased to be quaint.

As it stands, though, quaintness abounds. "It's kind of a Norman Rockwell throwback," says JoAnn Milster, who heads up the local chamber of commerce. During the annual Christmas walk, carolers sing in Ebenezer Church; locals and tourists stroll the streets to admire the lights, check out the glass blower's shop and the Christmas market, maybe munch on some chestnuts; this year, Glenda Drier, a self-described fifth-generation farm gal from Augusta who now breeds Labradors, plans to dye her goat Gertie green to play the Grinch at the event. If a storm comes through, people will show up "looky-looing" at the damage and then walk back to their trucks to get chainsaws and gloves to help clean up debris, and before long someone will show up with a Crock-Pot of chili. "This is a community where, if you get into trouble, everyone's going to show up on your doorstep," Milster says. "And it doesn't matter who you are."

As for the wine, Missouri has rebuilt about half its nineteenth-century winemaking capacity and now sells roughly a million gallons of wine a year; California produces about 685 times that much. Missouri has fewer than 200 wineries, and California has well over 4,000. Missouri's wine tourism is modest, its grapes obscure. Among wine consumers, Napa's Chardonnays and Merlots are standard fare. But who outside Missouri is tippling a Chardonel or a Norton? "I've tasted some really first-rate wines here," says Doug Frost, a writer and wine consultant based in Kansas City, who is both a master sommelier and a master of wine. It frustrates him that many people don't take Missouri wine seriously, if they know there's such a thing at all.

Then there is the land itself, "God's country" to many locals. "This place is 200 years of history, of cellars being dug and wineries being built and vineyards being planted and railroads built and converted to trails," says Dan Burkhardt, the founder of Magnificent Missouri, which works to conserve and enhance the natural landscape of the Missouri River Valley. "Most of America does not have those characteristics."

So the Hoffmanns had grounds to see potential in the region when David Hoffmann, as he told the Post-Dispatch, was driving through in late 2020 and noticed a resemblance to Napa. And Augusta itself, where businesses had been gradually shutting down and moving out to the point that the town lacked its own gas station or grocery store, was a prime target for what the paper called the Hoffmanns' passion for "citymaking." The Hoffmann family, having initially struck it rich through outsourcing and executive recruiting, had already made big investments in three other towns — Naples, Florida; Avon, Colorado, near Vail; and Winnetka, Illinois, near Chicago. The formula was to buy lots of commercial real estate in a given community, then update, renovate and welcome new businesses.

Yet the Hoffmanns had never attempted anything quite like Augusta. Prior Hoffmann projects had centered on towns orders of magnitude more populated, closer to existing tourist destinations or, as in the Naples case, already destinations in their own right. There were many reasons folks liked living in small-town rural Missouri, including family roots, natural beauty and solitude. The stars on a clear night and the changing leaves in the fall. They knew some change was inevitable. But they couldn't help loving the place just the way it was.

Locals worry a rush of development and crowds will overwhelm their small town and way of life. - PHUONG BUI
  • PHUONG BUI
  • Locals worry a rush of development and crowds will overwhelm their small town and way of life.

Around the time the Augusta-area public first heard of the Hoffmanns' plans for their region, David Hoffmann explained in a company press release that his company wanted "to provide not only great wine from the beautiful countryside of Missouri, but to create a national destination similar to Napa Valley." And while the comparison proved irresistible to urban headline writers and newscasters, among several people in wine country it conjured more dread than excitement. If the greater Augusta area, with its five wineries, was to rival the tourism industry in Napa Valley, with close to 500, that would truly require a transformation. "That's scary to me, Napa Valley, when he says that," says JoAnn Struckhoff.

"Lemme give you a news flash," says Joe Brazil, the St. Charles County councilman whose district includes the Augusta area. "We don't want Napa out here. Come on."

Chris Armstrong, the director of marketing for the Hoffmann Family of Companies, says the comparison has created the wrong impression of what the Hoffmanns actually want to achieve. "We're not going to be bringing millions of people through here," he tells the RFT. "It's just logistically impossible." Even adding up all the Hoffmanns' winery purchases and plans for new lodging, "we're talking about four wineries and a maximum of 100 rooms." The point of evoking Napa, from the start, he says, has been about the quality of the wine and experience, not the quantity of tourists.

But by the time both Hoffmanns logged onto a Zoom meeting in January to greet their new neighbors and explain their hopes, local suspicion had been seeded, and they have never been able to fully uproot it. Meanwhile, the physical changes to Augusta started happening quickly, and no one, not even the Hoffmanns, knew the exact end state. Fences went up. Sculptures appeared. Buildings got new coats of paint, sometimes very bright ones, oranges and yellows and greens and reds. David Hoffmann at one point allowed that "there might be some discussion about the paint colors" and that he'd heard a single negative comment from a skeptic, who later changed their mind. (Most of the half-dozen or so residents who offered their perspectives for this story complained about the paint.)

The bigger outcry concerned the fate of the trees at Montelle, the picturesque hilltop winery the Hoffmanns had acquired. Armstrong says some trees had to come out, because the roots were imperiling the winery's deck, and that the unobstructed view down the hill is gorgeous. (The Hoffmanns had also initially planned to put their hotel there, before learning from Councilman Brazil that the location could not handle so much sewage.) But for Glenda Drier, the farm gal, the trees were the view. "That was the beauty of it, all those trees," she says. "Now it's just barren dirt." The fact that the tree clearance lacked the proper permits when it started — St. Charles County briefly made the company stop work on that and one other removal operation while the paperwork got sorted, according to a county spokesperson — and that old oaks were sacrificed in part for a hotel project that never materialized, contributed to Drier's sense that the Hoffmanns were steamrolling ahead way too fast.

Missouri's wine industry is relatively small now, compared to its heyday in the 1800s. - PHUONG BUI
  • PHUONG BUI
  • Missouri's wine industry is relatively small now, compared to its heyday in the 1800s.

Tensions went on building from there. Armstrong, hearing from residents that they wanted more communication about the Hoffmanns' plans, joined the town's private Facebook group in March and offered to answer questions. He hoped to reassure residents that the Hoffmanns wanted to be good neighbors — they were restoring buildings, not tearing them down; they were invested in the community and planning to stick around; they weren't just buying properties to flip and abandon; in fact they'd almost never sold a property once they'd bought it. Armstrong was in the Facebook group about a week before, he says, nasty messages to him and even his family members drove him to leave — the online forum and even Augusta itself for two months. In a farewell message, he said residents should go to their town council meetings to make their opinions heard and join a text-messaging hotline he'd set up if they wanted updates. (The number, which he asked me to publicize, is 636-249-2023.) "I got messages from complete strangers in town just mortified by what had happened," he says.

A few months later, another simmering online showdown boiled over into real life when townsfolk learned that the Hoffmanns hoped, as part of their hotel development, to create a spot for helicopter parking. Loud paint was one thing, but the idea of loud rotors disrupting the peace, distracting the elementary school students and freaking out the livestock was another. Even the Buddhists got upset. A member of the Mid-America Buddhist Association, a space for retreats and quiet contemplation on a hill in greater Augusta, circulated a petition opposing the helipad and got more than 400 signatures. At an August meeting of the St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission, several residents and fans of Augusta took the mic to denounce the plan, its "abhorrent" proposed location near a cemetery where the town's forefathers lie and the possibility of hot-air balloon tours. Drier read a letter from a 94-year-old couple living directly in the proposed flight path who begged right on the envelope, "Please no helicopter." Onto the hypothetical helipad, it seemed, focused months of built-up angst. "People come to Augusta because they want the peace and the serenity that came with it," said Kim Siem, who owns a farm across from the Hoffmann-owned Balducci winery. "I don't understand how someone can say they came to Augusta, and they liked it — and then they want to change everything about it. That, to me, doesn't make sense. At all."

Kim and Bruce Siem live on a farm across from one of the Hoffmann-owned wineries. - PHUONG BUI
  • PHUONG BUI
  • Kim and Bruce Siem live on a farm across from one of the Hoffmann-owned wineries.

The commission voted down the helipad unanimously, to cheers and a partial standing ovation; a gray-haired guy in plaid chit-chatted with two bald Buddhists in matching gray robes and masks as the meeting broke up. By then, the Hoffmanns were already planning to back off, according to Armstrong. In a letter David Hoffmann sent to every home in Augusta, he apologized. "I want you to know that you have been heard," he wrote.

Siem hopes this is sincere. "I'm cautiously optimistic, is all I can really say about it. I'm not putting bets on anything." She noted that the letter did not rule out helicopter tours flying over the town from the nearby Washington airport. In any case, her biggest worry remains traffic and safety on Highway 94, the two winding lanes of which already get clogged up, even without a lot of new tourism coming in.

Armstrong says the plans are still under discussion, but that elected officials and oversight bodies regulate what the Hoffmanns' company can do beyond their own private property. "It's not just a do-whatever-the-heck-you-want-type situation," he says. At some point, he adds, residents need to trust, or push, their elected officials to help shape the project — their representatives have the power of the permit process, and as the helipad episode showed, they could be persuaded to use it.

But Brazil, the county councilman, says that the Hoffmanns have never sat down with him to go over any kind of master plan for the project, and that he is more likely to read in the newspaper what they are planning. "Not that I'm the king out here, but I do represent the people out here," Brazil says. And the Hoffmanns were prone to announcing things publicly, like, say, plans for a golf course, before even securing the proper zoning — though on the other hand, not announcing things publicly could just as easily lead to accusations that the Hoffmanns weren't being transparent. Brazil describes himself as a pro-business, conservative Republican who believes in capitalism: He thinks it's great the Hoffmanns want to buy local businesses. Like many people RFT spoke to, Brazil says Augusta needed investments, and he cheered some of the Hoffmanns' initiatives. The wineries in particular, he says, were seeing new customers. But "at what point do the scales start tipping to a monopoly where one guy has control over everything?"

The defeat of the helipad has meanwhile left undisturbed a variety of other questions and fears, ranging from the aesthetic (those paint colors!), to the logistical (where does all the traffic go?), to the amorphous (where does all this end?).

Milster, of the chamber of commerce, isn't worried, and she's happy with the communication and support she says local businesses have gotten from the Hoffmanns. "I don't have anything negative to say," she says. "We're always in favor of more business, and improving business, and improving the area. ... I think there's a lot of opportunity here." Especially if the Hoffmanns' investments can bring in new people to patronize local businesses, "I think that's great."

John Alsop, too, a town resident who runs a construction company, says he's glad to see tourists coming back. "It's good for my town," he says. "It was dead and now it's coming back to life. Yes, there is turmoil in Augusta, but I'm certain you'll find that in every town in America. I see what's going on on both sides. And I'm actually pro both sides. I would like to see resolution; I would like to see healing." He says he doesn't know what that would look like, however. "I mean, how do you heal America?"

Even with the differences of opinion, Augusta's community spirit is intact when it counts. Armstrong tells me how, when storms hit the area this spring, "the town came together and reached out to us to see if they could help, to make sure that we had generators" so the wine wouldn't go bad. The Hoffmanns' wineries reached out to competitors to see if they needed any assistance. "We're all part of the same family here."

And back at Balducci's, with its bright-orange silo visible from Kim Siem's driveway ("It looks like the top of a carrot," she says), the big bronze Indian princess —Ulele, who according to legend lived in what is now Tampa — stares out at a strange new landscape. She's not native to Missouri, but some things are universal. Her sculptor once had this to say about the expression on the woman's face: "This work of art honors those lost to us. She is strong yet apprehensively looking towards the future."

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