Stone Hill blends history with state-of-the-art winemaking

andrea morrowMissouri is known for many things. But did you know that Missouri is second to only California in wine production? And when alcohol once again flowed freely in the Show-Me State following Prohibition, Stone Hill Winery in Hermann became the largest and most successful winery in the area, and it continues that tradition today.

Established in 1847, Stone Hill rapidly grew to be the second-largest winery in the United States. By the early 1900s, the winery was shipping 1.2 million gallons of wine per year.

Hermann is ideally placed to grow grapes, and it flourished with 30 to 40 wineries in the area. However, Prohibition brought wine production to a stop and caused many wineries to close. For the next four decades, the vaulted underground cellars of Stone Hill were used to grow mushrooms rather than store wine.

stonehill dave johnson

Dave Johnson, senior winemaker

In 1965, ownership of Stone Hill was transferred to Jim and Betty Held, who began to make wine on the grounds once again. Today their son Jon Held is the owner and president. The winery, which sits on a picturesque bluff overlooking the town, now has a decorative vineyard, underground cellars, a restaurant, a gift shop and state-of-the-art wine production equipment. It produces more than 250,000 gallons of wine per year and is the oldest and most famous winery in Missouri.

Stephanie Pehle, marketing director for Stone Hill, said the winery stays busy all year long with various private events, weddings and tastings.

“Our busiest time of year is definitely Oktoberfest, where we see thousands of visitors,” Pehle said. “We also host around 15 to 20 weddings a year, but our best event would be the Norton Dinner, which is a 10-year vertical wine tasting of the Norton wines.”

A vertical tasting is when participants sample different vintages, or years, of the same wine type. The Norton Dinner is held each year in the spring, and tickets, priced at $140, sell out every year.

“The Norton Dinner is my favorite event each year,” said Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill. “This is a quality education event with a multicourse dinner, and it’s just the best event we do.”

Johnson has been making wine at Stone Hill since the 1970s and is now the senior winemaker, overseeing all the wines produced at the winery. Years ago, when he was working in medical research to save money for medical school, he heard about an opportunity to be a research assistant in the wine program at Michigan State University.

“I took the opportunity for a change in direction and ended up in Hermann afterward,” Johnson said. “I was only supposed to stay a few years, and then I was going to go to California to make wine. I’m still here because I love it.”

According to Johnson, Stone Hill is unique among Midwestern wineries because of its dedication to Missouri wine and Missouri grapes. The winery also uses barrels made in Missouri by Independent Stave, a company in Lebanon that has been around for more than 100 years and uses oak grown in Missouri.

“Sure, it’s tempting to bring in grapes from California, but that doesn’t make it a unique Missouri wine anymore,” Johnson said.

Stone Hill focuses especially on Norton, which is the official state grape of Missouri. The winery also uses French-American hybrid grapes such as Vidal, Chardonel and Vignoles. The bulk of the grapes used in production are grown within 70 miles of Hermann on land owned by Stone Hill. The vineyard in front of the winery is purely ornamental as there isn’t enough space on that land to grow the quantity of grapes necessary.

When you ask Pehle and Johnson to pick their favorite wine produced by Stone Hill, they both compare it to being asked to name their favorite child.

“I can’t pick just one,” Johnson said. “I can’t name a favorite child. But the Norton is very good. It’s one of many favorites.”

Popular events hosted by Stone Hill

Oktoberfest: Held the first four weekends of October, this festival includes live music, wine and beer, German food, tours, and tastings.

Norton Dinner: This 10-year vertical Norton tasting includes a champagne cellar reception and a three-course dinner paired with wines from Stone Hill.

Kristkindl Markt: Held the first weekend of December, this is a traditional German market featuring crafts, Christmas items, carolers, hot soups and mulled wines.

stonehill sign

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