Voices of the Earth: TerraVox Wine and Green Dirt Farm Cheese

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Photo by Anna Petrow

Cheese and wine are a luxe and classic pairing. Their fermented goodness has been around since ancient times. As a duo or on their own, they’re products and expressions of local and regional environs and terroir. Starting as curds and juice, the end products are the extraordinary and beautiful results of fermentation, and the patient and watchful care of experienced cheesemakers and winemakers.

In the picturesque, hilly landscape around Weston, Missouri, you can find both Green Dirt Farm, owned by Sarah Hoffman, and TerraVox winery, founded by Jerry Eisterhold. At the Green Dirt Creamery, a joint venture located in Weston, you can taste the stunning sheep’s milk cheeses made by Hoffman and her staff, or spend time in the adjoining tasting room sampling the reds, whites, and rosés that owe their deep and subtle flavors to the work of viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson.

When weather permits, the two businesses collaborate and host a series of events, including, not surprisingly, cheese and wine pairings. A beautifully converted barn on Green Dirt Farm provides a charming setting, but the real magic happens when you taste the cheese and wine together.

Hoffman’s connection to the land goes back to her childhood. “My father was in the military, so we moved around a lot when I was a kid,” Hoffman says. “But Dad didn’t want us to grow up on base, so we lived mainly on farms. We always grew our own vegetables and fruits, and had livestock. That’s an experience I wanted to pass on to my own children.”

Green Dirt is now a 150-acre farm with 150 sheep, 80 of which are milking females. Hoffman employs a staff of 12, and her daughter, Eliza Spertus, has become farm manager and oversees most of the day-to-day operations. According to Hoffman, she sees herself as the farm’s main problem-solver, public relations representative, and accountant.

Good Grass, Good Cheese

Green Dirt Farm has been recognized by the Good Food Foundation, an organization in San Francisco that celebrates small-production businesses that adhere to humane animal husbandry and solid environmental stewardship. You can taste this care in Green Dirt Farm’s cheeses, which have won blue ribbons at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Wisconsin, and multiple awards from the American Cheese Society.

Photo by Sara Farrar

Part of the farm’s land stewardship shows in the diverse diet of native plants Sarah Hoffman makes available to her sheep, a diet that not only keeps them healthy, but also enriches the flavor of their milk and the resulting cheeses. “The diversity of our sheep’s diets does show through in the volatile organic compounds in their milk, which contributes significantly to the fullness of flavor in all of our cheeses,” Hoffman says.

 From the time she started her farm in 2008, Hoffman has grown native plants, grasses, and legumes, such as switchgrass (Panicum amarum), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), prairie asters (Symphyotrichum falcatum), partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), and tick trefoil (Desmodium spp.).

Voice of the Land

The folks at TerraVox winery also have a deep commitment to and respect for the land. In fact, the name “TerraVox” translates to “voice of the land.” Jerry Eisterhold, the vineyard’s founder and chief winemaker, is a fan of 19th-century viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, who made it his life’s work to collect and classify native North American grape cultivars. During his career, Munson recorded around 300 cultivars, specifically in an area stretching from Missouri to Nebraska and Arkansas to Texas. He eventually settled in Denison, Texas, where he spent his time growing grapes until his death in 1913. Unfortunately, following his death, many of Munson’s vines fell into obscurity.

Photo by Shutterstock/mythja

Eisterhold, who grew up in Hermann, Missouri, became particularly interested in Munson’s work as it related to his own interest in winemaking and soil conservation, and set out to revive some of the grapes featured in Munson’s book Foundations of American Grape Culture, first published in 1909. Those grapes now grow on the grounds of Vox Vineyard, transfusing the unique, rich flavors of the American Midwest into the TerraVox wines. And those wines, grown from American Heritage grapes, are making a name for themselves: TerraVox’s 2018 Wetumka RePort was a winner at the 2019 Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition, and 2018 Traminette was a gold medalist at the 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, a competition with thousands of entries, while the Norton took Best of Class and the Saignée won a bronze. The Saignée also got a nice mention from Lettie Teague in the wine column of The Wall Street Journal this past November.

American Heritage Grapes

‘Wetumka’: TVM 1893. (‘Elvira’ x ‘Herbemont’ x ‘Gold Coin.’) Growth medium, healthy; withstands mildew and rot well. Clusters medium to large, ovate, sometimes shouldered; peduncle medium; berries large, globular, persistent, yellowish-green; skin never cracks; pulp juicy; tender, freeing seeds easily; quality better than ‘Niagara.’ Ripens late, after ‘Concord’ is off. Bears heavily on short arms. A profitable market and table grape, and will make an excellent white wine. Eight feet. Adapted for the South, and same range as ‘Gold Coin’: Texas to Missouri. Labrusca-vinifera-bourquiniana-aestivalis hybrid.

Photo by Jerry Eisterhold

‘Albania’: TVM 1896. (‘Ten Dollar Prize’ x ‘Norton’ x ‘Herbemont.’) Vine very vigorous, but subject to anthracnose in cold, wet springs, and the fruit, when young, to black rot; foliage prolific and larger than ‘Herbemont,’ of a little less lively green. Cluster large to very large, shouldered; berry medium, translucent white; skin thin and tough; pulp very tender and juicy, sprightly, with ‘Herbemont’ character, but sweeter; a good late-market table and white wine. Ripens late; with ‘Fern,’ will remain on until frost; the latest white grape in cultivation. Ten feet, long pruning. Adapted to West Texas. Lincecumii-aestivalis-bourquiniana hybrid.


Photo by Jerry Eisterhold

‘Lomanto’: TVM 1902. (‘Salado’ x ‘Pense.’) Vine vigorous, prolific, healthy, no rot or mildew; leaf medium, having little pubescence; cluster above medium, conical, properly compact; berry very persistent, medium to large, spherical, black; skin thin, tough; pulp melting, excellent quality; juice claret red; 66 grams sugar per 100 grams juice and 7 parts acid per thousand in very wet season; seeds small, few. Valuable for limey soils and hot climate. Champini-labrusca-vinifera-bourquiniana hybrid.

Photo by Jerry Eisterhold

Prairie Terroir: Unique Pairings

In September 2019, I attended the Stinky Cheese and Dessert Wine Tasting hosted by Green Dirt Farm and TerraVox winery. Some highlights included Green Dirt’s Ruby cheese, a blend of sheep’s and cow’s milk that exhibits grassy notes and a wonderful tang, with a texture similar to soft bread dough. This cheese was paired with a delightful, slightly effervescent Bisol prosecco.

Another crowd-pleaser was Green Dirt’s Tuffet cheese, with its Geotrichum (fungal) rind, tasting of bread dough with a yeasty aroma. It had a delicate honey and nectar flavor that paired beautifully with TerraVox’s award-winning 2018 Wetumka.

The third Green Dirt cheese featured was the appropriately named Bossa, with a complex flavor profile that featured meaty and grassy qualities, buttery and nutty notes, a pungent aroma, and a well-balanced, bitter finish. It paired amazingly with the 2017 Marenco “Strev” Moscato.

Photo by Shutterstock/Maria Medvedeva

The remaining cheeses for the event featured craft dairies, similar to Green Dirt Farm, from the Point Reyes Station area of California. Red Hawk, from Cowgirl Creamery, is a triple-cream cheese made from organic cow’s milk, aged 4 weeks and washed with a brine solution that tints the rind a sunset red-orange. The full-flavored cheese, with its hint of oceanic salinity, balanced perfectly with the 2016 Cocchi Brachetto d’Acqui. The final pairing was a classic example of an after-dinner cheese course, featuring Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company’s Bay Blue, savored with a sip of Quinta do Noval Tawny Port.

Next time you swing through the Midwest, hit Weston, Missouri, for a visit to an old, abandoned river town complete with picturesque apple orchards, vineyards, and Green Dirt Creamery. Order a cheese plate and enjoy some TerraVox wine, and let yourself be amazed by what can happen when farmers and artisans use native resources.

Quinna Lehr is a Level 1 sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers) and works in the wine department for a beverage retailer in Kansas. She shares her midcentury modern home with four beloved dogs and three regal cats. Aside from pairing people with great wine, she enjoys trips to the local dog park with her pack.

The Wee Beasties

Following the invention of the Wardian case, a glass container that protected plant specimens from the sea, and the advent of steamships, which provided a faster voyage, European collectors began importing vast quantities of living plants from the U.S. during the 1800s. During that wave of imports, American grapevines were shipped in considerable numbers to Germany, France, Ireland, Portugal, and England from 1857 to 1862. Hidden on the roots of those vines, however, was the phylloxera aphid (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae). No more than a millimeter long, the yellow, unassuming pest made its way to Europe from its native home in the eastern United States, where it had co-existed with indigenous American vines for years.

At first, the aphid was slow to make itself known in its new European home, as its effects on vineyards were not immediate, requiring several years to spread widely enough to have a dramatic impact. The first sighting of phylloxera occurred in a greenhouse in Hammersmith, a London suburb, in 1863. Meanwhile, two vineyards in southern Rhône were overcome with a mysterious sickness that no one in France had seen before. By July 1866, a considerable number of vines in the Saint-Martin-de-Crau vineyards had turned dark red, and by spring of the following year, they’d withered away.

Up to that point, the affected vineyards were only those producing grapes for the table, but in 1869, the mysterious sickness made its way to Médoc, near the beloved and economically vital wine-production area of Bordeaux.  Devastation ensued, and by 1889, French wine production was reduced to one-quarter of what it had once been, with only 23.4 million hectoliters of wine produced that year, compared with the 84.5 million hectoliters produced in 1875.  

To combat this growing devastation, a commission of winegrowers was assembled in early July 1868. Upon examining a grapevine, they discovered thousands of yellow phylloxera, visible under magnifying glass. They named the insect phylloxera vastatrix (“vastatrix” meaning “the devastator”), seeing similarities to the phylloxera quercus, which fed on the foliage of white oak trees.

In 1873, the French government posted a bounty of 300,000 francs for the person who found the solution to this mysterious blight. After some trial and error, it was suggested that grafting European vines onto the phylloxera-resistant rootstock of American vines could be the solution — a position further strengthened by Missouri state entomologist Charles Valentine Riley’s discovery that the phylloxera terrorizing France were the same insects found in the U.S.

Despite fears that the American rootstock would imbue the wine with an unpleasant taste, French wine growers began importing and grafting rootstock from the northeastern United States. When the high levels of calcium carbonate in the French soil proved the undoing of these grafts, French viticulturist Pierre Viala journeyed to Denison, Texas, to meet with well-known viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, who had worked with American grapevines for years and could provide hybridized rootstock that was resistant to phylloxera aphid infestations and well-adapted to the limestone soil of Texas. The practice of using phylloxera-resistant rootstock eventually became the standard for French vineyards, and Munson is largely credited with saving the European wine industry. For his efforts, Munson was named a Chevalier du Mérite Agricole in the French Legion of Honor.

—Ingrid Butler

Inspiration for edible alchemy.