Grand heading isn’t it? I can imagine a wine lover from outside the state of Missouri, unfamiliar with the wines here, finding such a dramatic title quite amusing. Missouri? Who ever thought they made wines at all let alone had enough to warrant even a small selection of them! Well, actually, with over 100 wineries in the state now there are plenty of vinos to choose from, but (as far as I know) there’s only one place where you can drink a very wide range of them.
Seven years ago Daphne and Jim Bowman opened an antiques store in Excelsior Springs, but rather than prosper, business was so bad they were going hungry to stay open. Needing a radical shift of gear, four years ago they decided to refashion their shop around what they really liked. “So the store became a culmination of everything that we know and love. We love people, to entertain, we love wine and coffee and food.”
But above all, Missouri wine. I stumbled on Willow Spring Mercantile (the name of their establishment) by accident and I couldn’t believe my luck. As you enter their rustic café-bar-shop on East Broadway, you’re struck by a wall of dozens of bottles of local wines that you can taste for free and buy by the glass or bottle. “We love wines from all over the world but because we have friends that own wineries we thought this would be a little more unique,” explains Daphne.
When they started converting into a wine focused store everyone said they’d never make it as a business selling Missouri wines. They were wrong. “It quickly turned into a very successful business. We now have the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines.” They stock over 160 different wines from twenty-five wineries. Taking into account the well over 100 wineries in the state – the number has gone up dramatically in the last decade – they’ve only just scratched the surface of Missouri wine possibilities. Down the road Daphne and Jim would like to stock Kansas wines too, but the liquor laws make that complicated because for their shop to buy them, a Kansas winery needs to have a Missouri distributer and Daphne only knows of a couple that do. At the moment the couple venture over the border to buy Kansas wines and legally can only enjoy them at home. That’s a pity.
“We have a lot of fun converting people to the Missouri wine industry who used to say I would never drink a Missouri wine.”
Daphne says the consumer wine market in Missouri is a little confusing and isn’t sure if they’ve created a market for their wine bar and bottleshop or if it was there already and no-one had tapped into it. “I give a lot of credit to the Missouri Wine & Grape Board for their success getting the information out to the consumer” she says and adds that every day Willow Spring Mercantile receives visitors taking Missouri Wine’s winery tour route. “We’ve become a destination where you can sit, relax, listen to live music, have an hors d’oeuvre or lunch, sample wines and learn about the wine industry.”
Daphne insists that the key to their success is a combination of loving what they do, which rubs off on customers, and also making sure they take care of their customers, who then spread the word about their shop. “I spend more money taking care of customers than I ever do on any kind of advertising campaign because they are a better source of advertising for me than any advertisement I could run in a newspaper.”
Rather than stock bottles from Missouri wineries that have already found their way onto supermarket shelves they tend to select wines from the smaller wineries that don’t have wide distribution. To buy their stock they drive to the wineries and usually choose the best-selling wine together with a couple of their favorites. The biggest selling wines in the Midwest are the sweeter varieties so they’re well stocked with those, but you can find a full range of flavors, including the dries (which Daphne prefers). “We have a lot of fun converting people to the Missouri wine industry who used to say I would never drink a Missouri wine.”
During our conversation Daphne gave an informative summary explanation of Missouri as a wine region. “If you do a little bit of researching about Missouri history you’ll find that the grapes that are grown in certain regions of the state are very similar to the settlers who settled those areas.” She says the sweet wines in the Midwest are very comparable to German Rieslings and Traminers because of the large numbers of German immigrants settling around Hermann. But if you travel to Saint Genevieve south of St Louis, that area was mostly settled by the French, so there are a lot of French style hybrid grapes in the wines. By contrast, around St James, Italians were the main settlers so the wines often reflect Italian styles.
…not only the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines, but unfortunately one of the only places where you can drink and buy any selection of Missouri wines at all.
I also asked Daphne about the Missouri grape, the Norton. “You’ll find that a lot of people disagree about whether it is the best grape in Missouri, but it’s one of my favorites” she says. “It’s so rich it reminds me of a red Zinfandel with even more berry components and a little more earthiness. It’s got a lot of spice, hints of tobacco and hints of cranberry in it,” she added. “A lot of people say the Chambourcin is the best grape, it’s in the Pinot Noir family, a French grape and more comparable to California dry wines. It’s easier to sell, lighter and more of a balanced wine.”
While Daphne can discuss local wine history and styles with ease, she’s far from a wine snob – quite the opposite – and understands that the industry is still young in Missouri. (see the Todd Kliman video for more about the history of Missouri wine and its great days in the mid 19th century). When her store first became a wine focused shop she says it was difficult just getting people to try the wines because of the lack of familiarity with wine culture in the state. “We’re a relatively a new industry trying to come back so we have a lot of young wine drinkers, and I don’t mean young by age, I mean young as in new, it’s a new experience for a lot of people.” Over the years, Daphne and Jim have watched wine tastes change. “In our Wino Club it’s really fun to watch because the wine part of our business has been going for about four years now and we keep notes on the back of every person’s wine card,” says Daphne. “We’re watching our customers’ palates change right before our eyes and some of our customers have gone from very, very sweet to very, very dry in the last four years and some of them are moving a little more slowly.” Daphne says the rate of change often depends on how much wine is consumed on a regular basis and what it’s paired it with.
On the somewhat prickly topic of the general absence of Missouri wines from the majority of wine lists at top restaurants in Kansas City and the midwest, Daphne says part of the problem is that small wineries are so busy they don’t have enough time to market their wines properly. She says getting Missouri wines into restaurants is an important next step for the whole industry. “The key to getting more people who have educated wine palates to understand how good our wines are is getting them in the restaurants and not just in the liquor store or the wine shop” she says. “It’s going to take the customer base who are visiting restaurants saying, ‘We want to see a Missouri wine on here!’ or, ‘ This is my favorite winery, I would love you to have those wines on the list!’ A customer inspired revolution in wine thinking plus wine distributors taking on some of the smaller wineries are the way things will change, says Daphne.
Which means at the moment Willow Spring Mercantile wine shop is not only the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines, but unfortunately one of the only places where you can drink and buy any selection of Missouri wines at all. That’s a shame.