Vox Vineyards’ Jerry Eisterhold Cultivates the Voice of the Land

Terra Vox wines specialize in American heritage grapes.

Vox Vineyards founder Jerry Eisterhold stands between rows of grapevines planted along rolling hills covered in deposits of loess, or windblown sediment. When ancient glacial ice caps retreated from the border of the Missouri River, exposed windblown silt particles accumulated over time along the river and formed these deposits on land now carved into farm fields and residences in unincorporated Platte County. Eisterhold, a former agronomist that worked as a University of Missouri student in a soil survey laboratory, realized that these rich, deep deposits would be fertile ground for growing grapes.

However, the story of how Eisterhold built Vox Vineyards and launched his wine label Terra Vox began with a quest earlier in life. He has long nurtured a desire to establish a vineyard and open a winery.

“I’ve been producing wine since I was a kid,” he says.

He grew up in Rich Fountain, Osage County, Missouri, a town with a population of 72 people after he left. Located southeast of Jefferson City and near the Gasconade River, Osage County is home to several wineries. As an adult living in greater Kansas City, Eisterhold brought his interest in wine with him. He has spent 20 years tracking and obtaining native American grape varieties from across the United States.

“I have sourced grapes from collections and nurseries in Mt. Pleasant, Oregon, Texas, California and upstate New York,” Eisterhold says.

He began planting grapevines in 1996, starting first in the backyard of his former home in Kansas City. Then he tried planting grapes in Peculiar, Missouri, and other rural areas to no avail. Eisterhold and his wife Kate finally sought an answer from above, so to speak.

“It was Kate’s idea to rent a plane and survey land around Kansas City,” Eisterhold says.

The couple spotted and eventually acquired 86 acres, where they built a home and the headquarters of Eisterhold Associates, Inc, a firm that designs interpretive museum exhibits. The land is near the Missouri and Platte Rivers as a water source, where the water table is available to the deep-rooted grapes. The relatively warm climate and mineral-rich soil is conducive to growing grapes without too much vegetal vigor. The trick is in finding out what grape varieties will grow best. The hills on Eisterhold’s property, just east of 45 Highway, are now filled with rows of approximately 4,306 grapevines.

Eisterhold’s interest in heritage North American grapes was formed in part after reading Thomas Volney Munson’s book “Foundations of American Grape Culture,” originally published in 1909. Eisterhold was intrigued by Volney’s work in Texas and the Midwest, where the viticulturist collected and documented native American grape species and bred new varieties from them.

Of the 31 genus vitis (grapevine species) grown around the world, 27 of them can be found in various growing regions of the United States. Thousands of European-based grape varieties, such as well-known Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, fall under the classification of vitis vinifera, a species of common grape vines. A few of these varieties account for the majority of world wine production. Eisterhold chose to look closer to home for grapes that would embody the spirit and qualities of Terra Vox wines.

Eisterhold decided to explore some 60 domestic heritage grape varieties such as Cloeta, Lenoir, Albania and Wetumka. Today, Vox Vineyards has some 40 varieties of grapevines planted with the goal of narrowing the field to 24 varieties for optimal growth that will yield premium-quality wine.

These obscure grape varieties do not have much established history in terms of how they should grow and taste, especially in northern Missouri’s terroir and climate. As a result, Vox Vineyards has operated as a real-time laboratory to determine what will grow well and produce the best wine. Whittling down the number of varieties through attrition and testing has been a slow, detailed process.

“We want to have fewer varieties and develop more protocols on how to monitor the plants so it’s less experimental,” Eisterhold says. “You have to kiss a few frogs to find a few princes.”

Eisterhold hired Moss Bittner, who has winemaking and vineyard management experience in California, New York, France, Germany and India, to serve as a hands-on winemaker during the harvest season. Bittner moved from California to Kansas City to better facilitate firsthand observation.

“There are different approaches to making wine from different grapes,” says Bittner. “It’s hard to provide advice from a distance. Here, I can observe vine characteristics.”

“It is an experiment to see what the grapes have to say,” Eisterhold says, alluding to the brand name Terra Vox, which means “voice of the land.” He suggests, “The grapes have a conversation to share. No one really knows what they are supposed to taste like grown here.” Bittner’s role is to help determine which varieties will work best for winemaking and ascertain the “voice of the grapes.”

“We want to draw out the individuality of each grape,” Eisterhold says. Most of the Terra Vox wines will be produced from single grape varieties. “We will have one blend each of red and white, but up to two dozen types of wine eventually.”

As the process unfolds, wine production for each grape will be small in response to what the vines will yield. Eisterhold positions Terra Vox as wine for people interested in exploring and discovering small-batch wines.

Current varieties (while supplies last) include 2012 Cloeta, a jet black grape that produces a wine with rich body, soft tannins and a likeable aroma of plums, chocolate, and coffee. Eisterhold explains, “It comes from Munson Vineyard in Texas and is like Merlot.”

The 2012 and 2013 Lenoir, a full-bodied red grape variety sourced from a Texas nursery and acreage in Sonoma, California, used to be planted in France. Eisterhold says that Lenoir produces Terra Vox’s most powerful wine. “It has characteristics that seasoned oenologists haven’t been able to put into words.” The 2013 Wetumka, a white wine with the aroma of elderberry flowers, is slightly acidic with a touch of candied-fruit sweetness to balance the sugars.

Last year, Terra Vox produced 885 cases of wine. Eisterhold hopes to boost production to 1,200 cases this year.

As Vox Vineyards continues to refine its growing methods and winemaking production, Eisterhold wants the story of heritage grapes to be heard.

“It’s part of the theme of Terra Vox to rediscover and uncover the deep significant history of Missouri,” he says. “The wine has a missionary role to bring out the heritage of the area as the ‘voice of the land.’”

Eisterhold stands in the vineyard and reveals more details of experimental grape varieties like the noble-sounding Wine King. Each American heritage grape variety has a backstory that hints at past intrigue being brought to the present. Afternoon sunlight plays off green-gold grape leaves and clusters of black, purple, and green grapes. Time and testing will tell Eisterhold and Bittner whether grapes such as Wine King will ascend and join the choir of a dozen Terra Vox wines now available at the winery’s tasting room and sold direct from the Vox Vineyard website.