Sunday, June 14, 2009

Riding the Katy Trail Through Missouri Wine Country

June 12-13

At 225 miles, the Katy Trail is the longest developed rail-trail in the country.
It runs along the former rail bed of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Following the Missouri River, it passes through tiny towns that grew up around the river and the railroad in the 1800s then shrunk as the river and railroad lost their importance for transportation and commerce in the 1900s.

We began our adventure in Augusta (pop. 218), where we ended up in desperation at 8 pm, having seen no sign of a motel for over an hour along the rural road we chose to travel. The streets were empty, none of the little shops or restaurants were open, but we sat in front of a bed and breakfast inn, called the number on its sign, and got a live person who had a very luxurious room for us at a very luxurious price, which we were in no position to bargain over. Most importantly, our stay included a gourmet three course breakfast the next morning—which made up for our peanut butter and cheese and crackers dinner in the room, and fueled us up for our morning ride.

Augusta is one of the 26 trailheads on the Katy Trail, so that's where we began our ride. The path passed through woods, beside cornfields, and along the river. Prairie and woodland wildflowers were abloom, and indigo buntings—little sapphire jewels-- frequently flew across the path. Along the way, there were historic markers in spots where Lewis and Clark stopped during their 1804 exploratory expedition along the Missouri River. One marked the spot where Lewis, climbing high on a bluff across the river, fell off a 200 foot precipice and caught himself with his knife after tumbling twenty feet down.

Further along the trail we reached the spot where Daniel Boone held court under his "Judgement Tree," and we learned about how he moved here at the age of 65, because Spain offered him a generous land grant in the hope that once he moved here other adventurous souls would follow.

After about 18 miles on our fat tire bikes on the packed gravel trail, we decided two things: (1) 18 miles on gravel on these bikes = about 36 paved road miles on our road bikes, and (2) it was time for lunch at a vineyard.

We headed to the historic German village of Hermann, and wound our way up and up a hill at the edge of town to reach the Stone Hill Winery, the oldest (established 1847) and largest winery in the region. We admired the Old World view of the roofs and church spires of the town below, had a German-inspired lunch in a café in a converted horse stable, and then joined a tour of the winery, where we learned about the history of the region and of the winery.

Back in the 1800s German immigrants flocked to the hills around the Missouri River, because the area reminded them of the Rhine region, and the conditions here were similar for grape growing. By the turn of the 20th century, Missouri was the second largest wine producing region in the United States, and Stone Hill Winery produced more than half of all Missouri's wine, over 1.2 million gallons annually— making it the third largest winery in the world.
The winery had then, and still has, the largest complex of arched cellars in the country. In 1920, Prohibition halted wine production. All wine barrels and wine making and bottling equipment in the country were destroyed, and vinyards were either uprooted or left untended. The ingenious owners of Stone Hill filled their cellars with sterilized manure and turned them into a mushroom farm. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the Missouri wine industry didn't really perk up again until the 1960s (when it took the new owners of Stone Hill three years to finally fully eradicate the mushrooms). Today, although Stone Hill is again the leading producer of Missouri wine, it is only bottling about 1/5 of the wine it produced in its heyday.

The tour was followed by a stop in the tasting room, where our jovial pourer gave us and education about the grapes used for each wine, and urged us to try all 11 of the wines she poured. We bought a couple bottles of our favorite wine from the tasting (which we wished we had last night to go with our cheese and crackers), then we headed down the hill and over to Rhineland (pop. 173) for an afternoon trail ride.

On our second day we rode the section of the trail which every rider we talked to listed as their favorite.
We started in the charming little town of Rocheport (pop. 201), 112 miles west of Augusta on the trail, in an area more French-influenced than German. The trail ran along a narrow strip of flat land, with the river on one side and tall rocky bluffs looming over the trail on the other side. The scenery was spectacular, with lots of wildflowers, including red-flowered trumpet vines climbing the rocky cliffs, the barely discernible remains of red painted petroglyphs observed by Lewis and Clark's party high overhead in one spot, caves, a tow boat pushing a barge upriver, and the only tunnel along the entire Katy trail.

After our ride, we lunched in a café in Rocheport with great food and great reading material. Dick browsed a book about Missouri's wine country, which inspired us to visit Rocheport's winery, Le Bourgeousie. Le Bourgeousie has a wine garden, a restaurant and a winery building. We wound our way to the wine garden first, and were treated to a spectacular sight. We stood on the deck of a chalet that sold wine on the top of a hill, overlooking a series of stone terraces filled with people at tables enjoying wine and all sorts of picnics and snacks, all with a view of the river far below. Old wine barrels recycled as planters held colorful flowers. The mood was festive and French, and we were enchanted.

We then made our way to the winery, established in 1983 by a doctor with a wine making hobby whose friends told him his wine was so good he should sell it. The winery is crammed into a building that used to be a restaurant. It has none of the charm of the historic Stone Hill winery—the cellar here just looks like a very clean basement. But, the Le Bourgeousie tour was very interesting, and we learned much more about wine making and bottling processes. (We are always intrigued by machinery, and wine bottle sanitizing, filling, corking and labeling is more complicated than we had imagined.)

The tour ended with an opportunity to taste some of the wines (of course). We tasted the Le Bourgeousie versions of a few of our favorites wines from Stone Hill, and ended up leaving without purchasing any more wine. (The stuff in our car seems to be expanding to fill the space. We simply can't run out of room our second week on the road!)


  1. Didn't know that Missouri was wine country!

  2. My wife, daughter and I completed the trail on June 12th, ourselves. It was a true adventure! If you care, you can read my blog about it at By the way...Missouri was the premiere grape growing region before prohibition and is know for it's Norton's.