Lou Ann Nolan vividly remembers the moment she and her late husband, Bob, knew they had found the right plot of land upon which to plant their winemaking dreams. The two had just returned from visiting their son in Portland, where Bob had become intrigued by the idea of starting his own vineyard. At first, he thought he’d do so in Oregon, but when he and Lou Ann arrived back in St. Louis, they realized they had all they needed to do so right in their own backyard.
“When we got home, he felt like, ‘God, that’s so far away. Why don’t we just go out to Augusta where the wineries are at?’” Nolan recalls. “So that’s what we did. We got a realtor, and she showed us three different properties. We came to this particular property, and we were standing on the hill trying to decide, and the church bells were ringing across the street. That was our decision.”
The Nolans did not fully grasp it at the time, but their decision to plant roots on that particular plot of land would cement their role as part of a community of makers, farmers and artisans that have collectively turned Augusta into a booming food, wine and recreation destination. Designated in 1980 as the first American Viticulture Area, or AVA, in the nation, Augusta is home to a significant winemaking history that stretches all the way back to the 1800s when German immigrants recognized how similar its rich soil, climate and topography were to the land they’d left behind. They planted grape vines – hearty stock that would go on to save the French wine industry from a catastrophic outbreak of phylloxera in the 1860s – and set in motion an industry that, over roughly the last decade, has finally begun to get the respect it’s so long deserved. Taken together with breweries, coffeeshops, exciting new restaurants and proximity to the Katy Trail, this area just 35 minutes outside of St. Louis is a stunning microcosm of the region’s bounty.
Like other important vineyards in the area such as Mount Pleasant or Montelle, the Nolans’ Noboleis Vineyards is a natural place for exploring all of this beauty. Founded in 2005, Noboleis has gone on to become one of the area’s most vital winemaking operations, providing grapes for both its own wines and several other vineyards in the Augusta AVA. Even though they were novices when they purchased the land that would become the vineyard, they recognized this potential and enlisted the help of longtime winemaker Fred Dressel to help them realize their vision.
“We did 5,000 plants – two red grapes and two white grapes – and we just watched them grow for five years,” Nolan recalls. “The first year we sold the grapes, and the second year, my husband decided he wanted to make his own wine. We were introduced to a winemaker, and there we are, all of a sudden, making wine and selling it and getting into various wine stores and restaurants. We’ve done very well.”
Now in its seventeenth year, Noboleis is a thriving wine operation, tasting room and events venue run by Nolan, her daughters Angela Geis and Christine Newbold, and Newbold’s daughter, Tricia, making it a wholly woman-owned business. The three younger women feel a sense of awe in seeing how the vineyard has grown over the years; all of them have memories of watching the outfit grow from a simple plot of land without even one grapevine to the respected entity it is today. That they have had front-row seats to its development makes them want to honor the Noboleis heritage, even as they shepherd the business into the future.
“This will always, first and foremost, be an exceptional wine-growing area,” Geis says. “But we were looking at it and thinking, ‘Okay, but how can we expand on that?’ We will always do that. That will always be the number one thing that we do – to honor that tradition and that history – but we’re in a different world now and we want to cast a wider net…So that is a big part of what we do here, the production and the creativity and pushing the envelope on what’s been done historically and honoring that and keeping that, but then also expanding on it.”
The Nolans’ work to expand upon the vineyard’s history comes as the Augusta region, as a whole, is building upon its heritage as well. Though the AVA has been overshadowed by big-name wine regions such as Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, the area has seen a boom in interest as people have begun to take notice of the wonderful wines being made right here in the heartland.
“Getting attention for Missouri wine is very important to us,” says Christine Newbold. “It’s been a little bit of a push to try and get people to accept that they’re not drinking California wines, but our wines are really good here – and the reason that they’re good is because the grapes that we grow here are supposed to be grown here. Really, our focus is to bring attention to this area. There are so many awesome wineries in the state of Missouri; we have around 160, so our goal is to move the business forward and bring attention to this absolutely great growing region.”
One of their partners in this effort is outside of the wine business, though his work dovetails with that of Augusta’s grape growers. Chef Phillip Day, who opened the fine-dining restaurant Root Food + Wine in April of 2021, sees it as his role to translate the hard work of Augusta’s various food and wine producers to the plate, telling the story of the land through a world-class culinary experience for diners.
“You get the best produce when your produce doesn’t have to cross from California,” Day says. “It’s picked ripe, and I have it maybe a day after it’s been picked out of the field. You can’t get any better than those ingredients, but then it’s supporting small businesses. I want people to support my small business, and why wouldn’t I support their small businesses as well? It builds a community, and I think that that’s really important in today’s world. For years we’ve been in this 24-hour Walmart type lifestyle, and I think people have forgotten what a small town business was and having a specialty person for everything: a butcher, somebody that makes your shoes, that type of thing. It’s no different with food. I think restaurants and local farms and that kind of thing are a perfect relationship for each other.”
Geis and Christine Newbold were excited when Day announced he was opening Root, seeing it as filling a void of fine-dining in a region hungry for it. They were even more thrilled when he approached them about carrying Noboleis wines on Root’s beverage menu and worked with him to choose the right selections to go with the restaurant’s food, such as the hearty dry red, Norton, which is considered Missouri’s premier grape, and Vidal Blanc, which drinks like an oaked chardonnay. For them, the relationship is not just one of vendor and client, but of partners in the effort to shine a light on the bounty of Missouri wine country.
“It’s really important to form those connections, because at the end of the day, they have the customer in front of them,” Christine says. “Being able to highlight local is so important, and it’s become more important over the last several years, so having local restaurants highlight local wine is really important. It’s one of the things that will help us move Missouri wine into the forefront of people’s minds.”
Day has seen, firsthand, the result of these efforts.
“Either we get people that are very versed in fine dining, and they’ve specifically come out here for this experience or we get people that are maybe staying in town and riding their bikes on the Katy Trail,” Day says. “They’re staying at a bed and breakfast, and we just happen to be the only open restaurant in town. They’ll come in and maybe have a different mind of what they’re going to be eating, then they have something and they’re blown away. They’re like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. We didn’t expect this in this little town that we were riding the bicycle through.’ I think that’s pretty neat – to see people not have any expectations and then it ends up being more than what they thought.”
Geis sees this change in perception taking place outside of Augusta, too. In addition to their relationships with Root and other vineyards in the area, she and her Noboleis family have established a presence in several St. Louis-area boutique markets, like Botanical Heights’ AO&Co, Webster Groves’ Civil Alchemy and Chesterfield’s The Smokehouse Market, with their innovative sangria-like carbonated wine and fruit beverage, Swirl, which can also be found on draft at Hi-Pointe Drive-In. Their willingness to help spread the story of Augusta has helped increase awareness of the quality products being produced in the region, which in turn draws people to Missouri wine country where they can experience all it has to offer for themselves. When they do, Tricia Newbold believes they will not only be impressed – they will be proud of such a rich heritage right in their own backyards.
“We’re just trying to do what we do best, and what we do best is make wine,” Tricia Newbold says. “We want people to know that you don’t have to go to Napa or Sonoma to get good wine. This region has come a long way and this area in particular is the first AVA in the country. There’s something really unique in that. I just think if more people would give it a shot, we could really grow this place to a different level. Just give it a try. Ask questions. We love hearing questions. We love hearing feedback. It’s how we grow.”