Lost Creek Vineyard sits about 10 miles outside of Hermann, perched atop a hill at the end of a gravel road. When it first opened in 1999, Lost Creek sold grapes to other wineries. But within the last decade, operations manager Larry Frichtel said, Lost Creek has started making its own wines as well, producing about 2,000 gallons a year.
In 2019, the winery felt the effects of flooding from the Missouri River, which put portions of the Katy Trail — a cross-state hiking and biking trail that passes by Lost Creek — underwater.
“We didn’t realize how much money that actually generated for us until we went through the whole year with the Katy Trail pretty much shut down,” Frichtel said. “And we were, like, ‘Holy cow, that was a pretty big hit for us.’”
A year later, Lost Creek and the area’s other wineries are taking a hit from another shutdown, this time due to the coronavirus. The wine industry and the tourism it attracts have helped drive the economy of Hermann for decades. But now, in this Missouri River town of about 2,300 people, the pandemic is posing a new threat to a vital sector.
Gasconade County, where Hermann is located, implemented a stay-at-home order on March 31, a week before Missouri’s statewide order. Hermann has been gradually reopening since May 4, when the statewide order was lifted.
Hermann Mayor Robert Koerber said that under the stay-at-home order, almost 90% of Hermann was shut down.
“Our tourism and opportunities for tourism, wine industry, wineries, restaurants and so forth have been severely restricted,” Koerber said. “We haven’t had very much activity at all.”
Before the pandemic hit, 25% of Hermann’s sales tax came from tourism, Koerber said. That has dropped to 2% during the pandemic. Although other businesses such as grocers have helped make up for the drop in sales tax, tourism has still suffered.
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Tammy Bruckerhoff, director of tourism and economic development for Hermann, said tourism is important to Hermann’s economy and the wine industry is a large portion of that.
“The tourism industry in Herman started because of our grape and wine industry,” Bruckerhoff said. “We know that if we lose our tourism industry, which the basis of that is our wine industry, that it would be devastating to our town.”
With tasting rooms required to stay closed during the stay-at-home order, some wineries closed completely while others adapted to online sales and curbside pick-up.
The wine industry as a whole has been growing in the last decade. In Missouri, its economic impact nearly doubled in recent years, to about $3.2 billion in 2017 from approximately $1.8 billion in 2013, according to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.
Cory Bomgaars, president of the Missouri Vintners Association, said that the number of wineries in Missouri has reached 130 over the past five years.
“(For) gallons sold, we’ve been hovering right about a million for the last five years,” Bomgaars said. “But 15 years ago, we were about half that size on both quantity of wine sold and quantity of actual wineries.”
A lot of the sales growth can be attributed to people purchasing wine locally from tasting rooms.
“So, really, the idea of people doing more stuff local, traveling local, building on their local experiences was a huge part of the growth of our industry,” Bomgaars said.
In Hermann, as the number of wineries in the area has grown, so has tourism.
Tourism through teamwork
In 2017, the wine industry brought more than 180,000 tourists to Missouri, generating more than 600,000 winery visits, according to the National Association of American Wineries.
Frichtel said that Lost Creek has a shuttle that takes tourists from Hermann to his vineyard and that all of the wineries in the area build on each other.
“I’d say it’s like a family,” Frichtel said. “Everybody works towards a common goal.”
Seven area wineries make up the Hermann Wine Trail, a group that promotes local wineries and hosts events.
“It’s a win-win for everyone, because we’ve created this destination to come to Hermann, because there’s so much to do and so much to choose from,” said Patty Held, president of the Hermann Wine Trail.
According to Held, the group sells approximately 1,600 tickets a year at $30 a ticket.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the wine trail has postponed two of its events. The Farmer’s Table Wine Trail, at which each winery uses a different commodity as the main ingredient in the dishes they prepare, was scheduled for April 4. The Wild Bacon Wine Trail, at which wineries use bacon as the main ingredient in their food, was scheduled for the first weekend of May.
“We’ve never had a situation like this before, and we normally don’t refund tickets,” Held said. “But in situations like this, I’m telling people, ‘If you can’t come to the new date, then, yes, we will refund you.’”
Different approaches moving forward
The stay-at-home order in Missouri has ended, but the process of opening Hermann up will not happen all at once. According to Koerber, Hermann the town will continue following guidelines from the state and county.
“The guidelines basically are the six-foot rule,” Koerber said. “We can open up our wine tasting rooms and our wineries again, but even in tours around the winery, you need to maintain six-foot distance.”
On May 4, at least six wineries in the area adjusted their policies to allow a limited number of patrons back into sales rooms, according to a document provided by Visit Hermann. But some did not reopen tasting rooms. Others allowed only outdoor seating.
Bruckerhoff said that wineries will have to make some important decisions, like ensuring their seating adheres to social distancing guidelines and figuring out if they will hire bands.
“It’s going to be very different for each individual business,” Bruckerhoff said.
However, Koerber said the success of reopening the city doesn’t only fall on the businesses. Residents of Hermann are encouraged to take initiative regarding their own health and avoid going places where they feel unsafe.
“The responsibility has now shifted from the governor and the health departments, to a large extent, to us,” Koerber said, “and it’s on us to keep ourselves safe.”