By Thomas Hellauer
STE GENEVIEVE, Mo. — The first sign is a sharp drop in temperature, cooling the crisp air as it flows through budding trees. Then, following a steep asphalt path, Saltpeter Cave becomes visible, stretching over an impressive cliffside, its mouth agape. It drains light out of the landscape, and simultaneously invites closer inspection, particularly when lawn furniture and a speaker system come into view.
The cave is used to hold gatherings at Cave Vineyard and Winery now, but French explorers experienced the same marvelous plunges of temperature and light in the 18th century.
The longest-running residents of the cave remain: bats. Bat guano, when mixed with sulfur and charcoal, was prized by early explorers in this part of the forested Missouri countryside to make gunpowder, ever important in the New World. A fraction of the bat population in remain in the depths of the natural wonder, sometimes surprising guests.
“The first time we rented the cave out at night, we had a bunch of screamers,” said Marty Strussion, the owner of Cave Vineyard and Winery. Strussion purchased the property in 2000, after 35 years of working in hospital administration. Only after he retired, did he begin his journey into winemaking, which he calls, “a hobby that has gotten out of hand.” The venture has become a family affair.
It was Strussion’s grandfather who first exposed him to wine.
“He had six barrels, it just makes me cringe. He didn’t clean them the way we do now, but those old Italian guys loved it,” Strussion said.
Strussion and his oldest daughter handle the responsibilities of winemaking. His wife bakes fresh biscotti to pair with his various wines. His son-in-laws brew three types of beer.
Like Strussion’s long circle back to winemaking, he believes another return is coming.
During Prohibition, many of the immigrants who had settled in Missouri to make wine simply gave it up, Strussion said. They turned to row crops, while producers in other states survived on growing table grapes or communion wines, allowing for easier resumption of winemaking for general sale after Prohibition. The industry in Missouri, however, was gone and with it, recognition.
Yet, things are changing. While Missouri wines rarely receive a rating in popular wine magazines, since the grape varieties grown in the state are not vitis vinifera, but French American hybrids, the number of wineries has more than tripled in the last 15 years.
“I think [Missouri] Norton will be competing in 50 years. The snobs are all fixed on California, but it will happen,” Strussion said.
The winery is open at Cave Vineyard from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and features 13 wines.