Locally grown wine, pecans and produce have found a new friend.

Made in Missouri 

Locally grown wine, pecans and produce have found a new friend.

Beth Barham is quite finicky when it comes to what she puts on her plate. During winter months, for instance, organic California spinach will suffice for a proper salad. But come spring, when it is harvested locally, that green veggie simply must come from a farm near her home in Columbia.

She won't touch processed foods. She shops at farmers' markets; organic and natural food stores; and a gem of a grocery called The Root Cellar, which only sells Missouri-made products. Little, besides paper goods or an imported cheese — a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano for pasta, say — will get Barham to a supermarket.

"Kraft has a Parmesan cheese," she points out, her small mouth drawn. "It tastes like shredded rubber. They call it Parmesan cheese and they have for a long time, and they think they should never be forced to give up the name just because Americans don't know where [Parma and Reggio Emilia, Italy] is. But Parmesan comes from Italy."

It's where food originates that obsesses Barham.

"I like to buy local food," she says in her singsong voice. "On the other hand, I recognize that a sheep's-milk cheese from Greece is a special treat, and I like to enjoy that in my life, too. I'm not looking for autarky. I'm looking for balance."

At 52, with an unassuming, earthy appearance of the kind you might expect of an avid Garrison Keillor fan, bird-watcher and scholar who specializes in rural sociology, Barham has taught at the University of Missouri-Columbia since 1999. Tablecloths are smoothed across the surfaces of her office, and a "hear no, see no, speak no" monkey lamp oversees a corner of her desk.

Disarming, soft-spoken and woefully modest — these are the adjectives that colleagues invariably equate with Professor Barham. "She's like this mild-mannered bulldog," says Hank Johnson, a vintner in Sainte Genevieve County. "When she gets her teeth on something, she holds on, and she's going to hold on until she gets the job done. But she's very calm, very low-key about it."

Fastened to a wall-length bulletin board is Barham's most telling decoration: a blue-and-gold metal insignia marked Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Poularde de Bresse. Leftover from the packaging on a unique French poultry that she feasted on earlier this year, it's the tiny emblem of a controversial idea that the professor is pushing in Missouri — the creation of a European-style system of food and wine labeling, in which the place where the product was made — not the brand name — takes precedence.

Barham envisions the day when Missouri's Norton wine, native pecans and cured pork will bear appellation labels just as prestigious as those of Poularde de Bresse in France. Her three-year effort, called the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project, prompted the French Ministry of Agriculture last year to knight her. Barham's project is the first and only U.S. endeavor of its kind.

Known as Geographical Indications, the labels of origin are reserved for products that result from local human know-how and terroir, a French term implying a particular combination of climate, terrain and soil conditions that makes a food or wine distinct.

"When you eat foods that you know where they came from, you can better understand what makes them taste a certain way," says Rebecca Miller, a natural foods chef and marketing director at Whole Foods Market in Overland Park.

Beurre d'Isigny, for instance, is a sumptuous, salty butter made on the Isigny shores of Normandy, where cattle graze on grass loaded with iodine. Prosciutto di Parma, cured in Parma, Italy, comes from pigs that feed on whey left over from Parmigiano Reggiano production. And perhaps the most famous appellation label belongs to the bubbly made in northeast France — the only sparking wine allowed to carry the name Champagne.

Obtaining an appellation is a highly controlled process, with the government regulating nearly everything in the production chain — from growing to slaughtering to aging practices. In the case of wine, the strict rules of appellation boards can take years to develop, stipulating which grapes can be used and when they can be pruned and harvested. In the end, the appellation — signified by the AOC stamp in France, or the DOC in Italy — is a badge of honor for the producer.

Barham says it's the mom-and-pop farms and vintners that profit most from appellations. Unlike trademarks, which can be sold, inherited and affixed to products manufactured anywhere in the world, appellations are a form of intellectual property belonging to a specific region of producers. It's the European governments that typically pursue violators.

In the United States, though, the cost of purchasing and renewing trademarks — not to mention prosecuting those who pilfer them — falls on individuals, Barham points out. "Our little producers, they can't even think of buying trademarks or going after thieves. They wouldn't even know where to go get that legal defense." This difference becomes crucial for smaller producers as their goods become more popular. As soon as they're exported, "somebody is going to copy the name," Barham says.

"Take Parma Ham," Barham explains, referring to a prosciutto cured in the Parma region of Italy. "The producers' consortium spends $1 million a year to protect their name in fights all over the world. There was a famous instance in Canada of a company that's done all kinds of things with its packaging, like putting the Italian flag on it, to make the consumer think its product is from Italy. They even put 'authentic' on the label, which is total BS. It's not Parma Ham. The company just knows you will pay the premium if you think that's what you're getting."

Barham maintains that place-based labels would sustain Missouri's vintners and farmers for centuries because they might allow food makers to charge more for their products. "People can be part of the global world without being annihilated by it," she says.

"It's going to be a challenge," observes Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission. "We've spent $100 million over the last 70 years working on [our brand]. I went to Korea and Japan recently, and as soon as I said, 'I'm from Idaho,' the next word that came out of their mouths was 'potato.' But when I say, 'Missouri,' what do you think of? Nothing jumps to mind."

If Barham has her way, Missouri will first reclaim its fame in the winemaking world. She has designated an eco-region stretching alongside the Mississippi River south of St. Louis as the first area for a Missouri wine appellation. Dubbed Mississippi River Hills, the region is rife with vegetable growers and pork and beef producers — not to mention purveyors of such culinary delights as liver dumplings.

A group of Missouri orchard owners and vintners in Lexington and Higginsville got wind of the project and have already asked Barham to help them establish appellations in an area east of Kansas City. Barham also sees putting origin labels on products coming from parts of the Missouri River Valley and the teardrop-shaped Meramec River Watershed. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, meanwhile, wants the project to take root in the Saint Francois Mountains and other parts of the Ozarks.

Barham says she'd like to extend the project to other U.S. wines and foodstuffs — Indian River grapefruits from Florida, perhaps, or Muscatine melons from Iowa.

"We're starting with Missouri," Barham says as she leaves a Columbia farmers' market laden with fresh fruits and vegetables on a recent Saturday. "But the real goal is to revolutionize the entire American food system."

When Barham closes her eyes and describes the perfect glass of Porto, you can almost see her mind drifting to the Douro River Valley of Portugal. "It tastes nutty, and it's warm and smooth, like the sun there," she says. Barham set down her luggage in Porto one hot July day in 2002, beheld the steep mountainsides of its backdrop and immediately understood how the nation's sweet wine acquired such renown. "It's written right on the land," she exclaims.

The valley is hot and humid, and its coarse, rocky mineral soil is ripe for grape growing. Without the 620,000 acres of hand-terraced vineyards, Barham says, "This place would be totally marginalized." Instead, it's world-famous.

As the legend goes, two English shipping merchants traveling upriver in 1678 were so impressed with their first taste of Porto that they brought back a barrel of the wine to England. Soon other European traders began making regular trips through the valley, looking to haul aboard a wooden cask of the liquid treasure.

"They bought it dirt-cheap, sailed back to their country and sold it many times over what they paid," Barham says. "It was literally the old expression: When your ship came in. All you needed was one cask."

That was until a shrewd Portuguese minister, the Marquês de Pombal, learned of the scheme through royal contacts in England. In 1753, Pombal made his way to the Douro River Valley to delineate the world's first wine district. Pombal established rigorous production standards that any vintner wanting to call his wine Porto had to observe, and he set up government-regulated warehouses at the river's edge. Every bottle sold carried a government-approved label and an individual number. Pombal even instituted annual sales quotas, realizing that certain vintages might acquire value with age.

"So you see, it benefited the crown of Portugal, of course, through taxes, but also retained much more of the profit in the hands of the people living in Portugal," Barham explains. "Port immediately became the number one product of value in Portugal."

Last year the country reportedly sold 24 million gallons of its prized beverage. The $508 million industry functions largely as it did 250 years ago, the neck of every bottle still carrying its own unique number. It's the paragon of a product made prestigious by its terroir.

"Taking a sip of Porto — it's touching history," Barham says.

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Barham recalls having no particular appreciation for artisan foodstuffs. "My mother had plastic fruit as decoration, which she rubbed and dusted. My dad, he loved to cook but he didn't garden. I'm a suburban girl, as average American as they get." Barham and her husband, a carpenter, were married eight years ago — in their kitchen — and own 200 cookbooks. Each evening the couple cooks from scratch inside a kitchen filled with Fiesta pitchers and lime-green Le Creuset cast-iron pots. Duck confit is a favorite. For dessert the professor loves nothing more than an odoriferous Roquefort, or maybe a glass of Porto.

Barham's foodie metamorphosis took hold in her junior year at Vanderbilt University while studying in Aix-en-Provence, France. "Going to the outdoor market every Saturday morning, seeing all the fresh fish, the olives, the cheeses, the spices — that was the '70s, you saw nothing like it in the U.S.," she remembers.

"It was transformative to see that there were people in the world living so differently in terms of food, and it was a way of life so obviously better and healthier than ours. It left me always feeling like I wanted to make America's food system better."

For her Ph.D. in rural sociology at Cornell University, Barham crisscrossed France in a flame-orange VW bus for an entire year, talking to farmers and vintners. Since taking up her Mizzou post, she has dissected Europe's intricate labeling system and mastered the histories of Châtaignes d'Ardèche (French chestnuts), Ribera del Duero (a Spanish wine) and Porto — growing ever more convinced that Geographical Indications (GIs) could be a magic bullet for rural America.

Barham discovered that after Portugal's success with Porto, France followed suit in the 1920s with its own labels-of-origin legislation. Various regional wines and cheeses, butters, poultry and pork, and even certain varieties of plums, honeys and chestnuts are protected today.

"You must note that it was the producers, not the politicians, who pushed for these laws," says Anne Richard, director of the Paris-based government office responsible for certifying France's 47 AOC cheeses. Without the appellation system, thousands of farmers would be unemployed and numerous breeds of cows would have gone extinct, Richard contends.

"A lot of these products are made in areas which are very difficult to farm or do anything else with," she says. "These communities would have disappeared without their cheeses. Instead, they specialize and perfect them, and they can sell them for 30 percent more than the average cheese. The money goes right back into the regions, the farmers make a good living and continue to make their product better. All in all, we call it a virtuous circle."

Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, president of Federdoc, an Italian consortium of winemakers, says vintners are constantly seeking new ways of marketing place-based labels in response to increasing competition from non-European wines.

Take the serial-number system that Federdoc is now piloting: It allows a consumer anywhere in the world to visit a Web site and find out exactly where and when the Chianti he or she just purchased was bottled. "We want to show there's a lot of work behind the name on the bottle," Curbastro notes, arguing that the same cannot be said for many American and Australian vintages — especially those enhanced by a myriad of technological innovations.

"You cannot take a juice, and split it into 20 different components with a Spinning Cone Column and rebuild it," Curbastro argues, referring to a technology marketed by Australia-based Flavourtech. "That's not wine. It's a juice. Call it juice with alcohol if you want."

Kansas Citians who travel south along U.S. Highway 71 toward Springfield every fall to pick pecans have known for decades what sets the nuts apart from the big, dry store-bought ones. They're smaller, with tougher shells, but packed with flavor and oils. Up until seven years ago, they were western Missouri's little secret.

Then a group of farmers in Nevada, Missouri, got together to form an association of farmers called the Missouri Northern Pecan Growers LLC. The growers pooled their money to create a marketing campaign to promote the uniqueness of Missouri's native pecan. "We looked at the success the Vidalia onion had," says Drew Kimmell, the association's managing partner and a pecan farmer for 32 years. "We started promoting a new tag line: 'Sweeter than nature.' And they are."

Native Americans used the Missouri pecan as currency, and early settlers prized the centuries-old trees. Then grocers started hawking the Georgia hybrid pecans, which are bigger and easier to peel. But Kimmell, who farms about 15 acres, says the hybrids are nearly flavorless compared with the Missouri nuts.

Georgia also gets too much rain for pecans, requiring growers to spray trees with fungicide. With less rain, many Missouri pecan farmers have certified their fields as organic, giving them a new market overseas where organic foods are more popular. "We just shipped four pallets of nuts to England. That's 7,000 pounds, by the way," Kimmell says. "We hope it's the start of a long friendship."

Fifty years ago, pecans were one of 40 different crops and livestock grown on Missouri farms, Barham points out. But postwar industrialization sparked economies of scale and put the kibosh on agricultural diversity. Today there are fewer than 20 products raised on most of the state's farms. Gone are ducks and potatoes, peaches and strawberries. Less than 1 percent of farmers tend these foods.

The first signs of rebellion against mass food production came in 1971, when a 27-year-old fledgling chef named Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Waters vowed to feature only seasonal ingredients on her menu — as much of it local as she could muster. Today Chez Panisse is highly regarded, and the "local foods" movement is finally gaining traction with home cooks as well.

Despite a burgeoning demand for local foods, Missouri farmers will tell you that it's tough being the little guy.

State health regulations, for one, favor large food purveyors, says Tricia Freund Wagner, a former Steelville farmer. Wagner built a canning kitchen to make jams and salsas but was thwarted by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "The regulations were set up for restaurants, which are cooking everything under the sun, including meat," Wagner recalls. "So the health department wanted me to put in a grease trap, which was totally ridiculous."

Farmers and chefs keep opposite schedules, making it tricky to find and keep regular customers. Restaurants that buy directly from farmers have to build a network of suppliers simply by word of mouth, says Jane Zieha-Bell, owner of Kansas City's Blue Bird Bistro. "We would just ask the farmers who deliver to us if they know of somebody selling such-and-such," she says. "If there was an easier way, I think every fine-dining restaurant would do this."

Blue Bird Bistro buys much of its ingredients from local organic farmers. A list of the suppliers and what they've grown is placed on every table along with menus. Zieha-Bell says there's a distinct difference in the flavors of foods grown by small farmers. "People come in here and have a steak and say that it takes them back to their grandfather's farm, and that's what we're aiming for."

Barham sees small local food producers selling their goods across Missouri — and as far as Madrid — if they band together regionally and pressure governments to create European-style labels of origin. And that's what she aims to do with the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project.

"The idea," Barham says, "is local foods — on steroids."

Tim Gasperino remembers clearly the day the French woman showed up at his small vineyard in Wellington. She asked to sample a few of his wines, and Gasperino took her back to the barnlike production building out past the small lake that separates his vineyards. He poured her samples from the steel tanks where he ages his wine in wood chips. "I poured her my best stuff. I had the '03 that I thought was looking pretty good. She didn't care for it," he recalls.

Then he poured her a glass from a tank that held the fermenting juice of Missouri's native grape, the Norton. "It was cloudy and unfiltered. It was really a mess," Gasperino recalls in his slow Missouri drawl. "I didn't think she'd even want to drink it. But she loved it. She said, 'This is going to turn into something special.'"

He later repeated the woman's name to a wine distributor. "Apparently, she's a big deal in France."

Gasperino began his vineyard as a hobby back in 1996, but now it has become his retirement project. He works in the maintenance department at General Motors' Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kansas, and when he retires in a couple of years, he'll begin expanding his winery onto nearby land now used for wheat and corn.

Already, Gasperino sells about 6,000 gallons of wine every year from the small tasting room he built near the entrance to his property. He manages it simply with a billboard off Interstate 70 and small road signs that direct tourists down winding country roads.

Gasperino's 11-acre vineyard is one of about a half-dozen in Lafayette County, just east of Kansas City. Soon, Lafayette County could become Missouri's next wine tourism area, similar to the wineries that dot the bluffs outside St. Louis, says Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. "In a few years, I think you're going to see wineries popping up, followed by bed and breakfasts and all sorts of supporting businesses."

Missouri once could boast of its winemaking prowess: From the mid-1800s to 1920, only New York bottled more. Today, however, the Show Me State ranks only in the top 15, and most Missouri wines are consumed within state borders. When Barham looked at those statistics four years ago, she decided the state could tap into GIS (Geographical Information System) data, determine different terroirs and recruit winemakers, "rather than just sitting around waiting for somebody with land who might want to make grapes to call up."

The idea is to see what vines flourish in a terroir — then perfect them, en masse.

As she puts it: "Let's map [the state], let's find out where there are certain slopes, and enough sun, and certain trees nearby to let air circulate. Then find out who the landowners are in those areas. Get them together. See if you can get them interested in putting some grapes there. Tell them the economics of it, how long it'll take to make money. Then teach them the horticulture.

"A lot of winemakers haven't selected the very best land to begin with," Barham says. "You'd be sure they wouldn't fail."

Barham imagines regional cuisines sprouting up in each terroir to pair with its wines. "Just like when you go to Burgundy, there's a whole cuisine, and certain cheeses that over the years they've found match perfectly." Before long — as in Porto and Chianti, and all over Provence — the tourism dollars come flooding in.

The Mississippi River Hills in eastern Missouri present the best incubator for the project, maintains Barham. Already at least six wineries make Norton and Chardonel, the two wines vying for the state's first appellation. Some have opened on-site restaurants featuring local foods to complement the winery experience. Still another vineyard plans to open this year.

"We would welcome several more," enthuses vintner Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Coffman. "We want to be the Napa of the Midwest."

The hills are also rife with struggling family farmers in search of a profitable niche. There's Mike Kertz Jr., a Bloomsdale hog farmer who's taken to growing Brandywine heirloom tomatoes, and French fingerling and blue potatoes to help pay the bills. And Kenny Wilson, a Jefferson County bachelor who's sold dairy cows and heads of beef cattle, and now wants to process his own specialty meats.

"Farming today, you got to give a lot of you to do it," Wilson says. "We're in break-even, even in a good year."

For decades they have diversified again and again, unable to keep pace with corporate farms. Far from squawkers, folks like Kertz and Wilson refuse to relinquish their land to home builders or developers. To them, the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project represents hope for a more prosperous future. "Tremendous," as Wilson describes it.

The farmers and vintners have spent hours strategizing over the last three years with Barham and associates from the University of Missouri Extension. They produced an agri-tourism map last year and several months ago launched a Web site that lets St. Louis chefs purchase fresh foods straight from Mississippi River Hills producers.

The hardest work, to be sure, is coming.

Barham has to write a proposed statute for an appellation system, persuade a state legislator to sponsor it and figure out which government agency will oversee the labeling. "Down the road, when the products start to be something sought-after and exported, they'll be more expensive and valuable, and somebody is going to copy the names," she says. "We have to get somebody in the government to commit to going after the bad actors. Otherwise the project won't work."

The eclectic bunch of vintners, meanwhile, has to agree on production standards for their wines — a matter that already has a few people questioning the project's premise.

"Let's take France," says Johnson, owner of Chaumette. "Do you realize that in order to have an appellation on your label, the appellation board dictates to you how you will plant your grapes? With Chablis, they say you may only plant the grapes 1 meter apart, and the trellis height must be 1 meter high. They prohibit you from irrigating. They prohibit you from fertilizing. They tell you the day of the harvest and how you must prune the grapes in the wintertime. They tell you how many buds you may leave. Then, when you go through all that stupidity, they subject you to a panel of cronies that decides not whether or not your wine is good or bad but whether it's characteristic of the area.

"I'm very much against that. I think that's a lot of BS. It stifles the creativity and innovativeness of viticulturists and enologists," Johnson says.

"I've told them over and over, this is not about just slapping a label on a product so you can sell it for a higher price," responds Barham. "There have to be controls."

Barham has already gained world attention by taking the unpopular position of advocating for labels of origin, or Geographical Indications, in talks in Geneva at the World Trade Organization — effectively siding with the European Union in its decades-long dispute with the United States over a global registry of GIs.

For years the EU has called for the registry to handle and resolve disputes over place-based labels. The United States has repeatedly rejected the demand. That's because American food manufacturers have spent billions of dollars appropriating European place names — Champagne, Feta, Madeira and Parmesan, for instance — and trademarking them here.

Three years ago, the EU drew the ire of the U.S. food lobby when it began asking foreign companies to "give back" these GIs. "It's not fair," contends Muir, with the Idaho Potato Commission, echoing the argument of U.S. commerce officials. "The Italians should have protected Parmesan from day one. Now that Kraft Foods has created value for it with 100 years of advertising, they say they want it back."

Fumes Barham, "The U.S. trade rep's office is basically saying to the EU: 'We should not have to respect your rules because Americans don't know their geography.' That's their argument. Well, American ignorance of geography should not be a global standard. It's a national disgrace."

This attitude hasn't exactly made the professor friends in Washington. "She's a bit controversial," notes Patrick Kole, the Idaho Potato Commission's vice president of legal and government affairs.

But Barham does have friends in politics, including U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican who represents southeast Missouri. Emerson recognizes that creating an appellation system will help small farms survive. "My first interest is my constituents and being able to keep the young ones in rural America, as opposed to having them move to St. Louis."

To her critics, Barham is quick to point out that Missouri wouldn't be the first North American community to bring about appellations. In 1994 farmers in Les Éboulements, Quebec, discovered that Montréal, Quebec City — even Paris — restaurants had listed their specialty lamb on menus without purchasing so little as an ounce.

The producers solicited help from the French government to establish GI legislation in Canada, which finally got passed in April. The label is now on its way, and the farmers of Les Éboulements couldn't be happier. "We'd like to start exporting, but we don't even have enough to fill our orders here," says Lucie Cadieux, who spearheaded the effort. "I just made deliveries last weekend to restaurants in Montréal. Those were orders that we took last fall!"

Says Anne Richard, who oversees France's AOC cheeses: "Elizabeth understands that GIs can work for Longjing tea from China, or basmati rice from Pakistan, and tons of other products from across the world. She gets it. We view her as a militant, in a good sense."

The French view Barham as one of their own. She's no citizen but last May claimed bragging rights — along with Louis Pasteur, Paul Prudhomme and Julia Child — as a Knight of the Order of Merit in Agriculture. Barham didn't believe the news. And when at last it sank in, she felt a stab of regret. "Julia Child had just died," she recalls. "I couldn't call her up and say, 'Hey, I got this thing, too. Could we get together sometime?'"

At last year's knighting ceremony, the Champagne producers' association honored Barham with four cases of its bubbly.

"I made sure we saved it until the end, for the toast," she says. "Because that's when you're supposed to have it, at the end."

Eric Barton contributed to this story.

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