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Love Letters: Missouri Wine Country

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Chef Gerard Craft may have grown up in D.C., but he now calls St. Louis home. The four-time James Beard Best Chef: Midwest finalist bought his flagship restaurant, Niche, off Craigslist without ever visiting St. Louis. But he really fell in love with Missouri when he went to Missouri Wine Country in Hermann. He now frequents the "most peaceful place on earth" with his wife and two small daughters.

Dear Missouri Wine Country:

It's thanks to you that I call Missouri home. After living all across the country, I found my sense of place and purpose in the serenity of your rolling hills, vivid green trees, magnificent and winding rivers all juxtaposition against the sound of your calming breeze and the laughter of my kids. I am a mutt. I have lived from coast to coast so I have a unique perspective of an outsider looking in. I see what you have to offer to rival some of the best destinations around the country. Many might not give you a chance over a trip to Napa or a house along the coast, but I see the power of your solitude. You are the place that I first truly fell in love with Missouri and knew it was the perfect place for me and my family.

Don't get me wrong, the city of St. Louis is amazing. It's where I've established my career as a chef. It's where I'm raising my kids. It's where I get the honor of working with amazing chefs who are driving the culinary scene to grow and evolve, who are challenging one another on a daily basis. It's also where I can hop in my car on a Sunday morning and drive just a few hours to you to feel at peace. As the highways turn into two-lane roads, excitement builds as we see signs for Hermann and Marthasville and know the day ahead only requires a lawn chair and a good bottle of Bethlehem Valley Chardonel. If we have the pleasure of staying overnight, The Inn At Hermannhof offer perfect respite.

As a chef, it's always interested me to take a step back and look at how our history shapes our future. It seems out here, along the Missouri River Valley, that time has stood still. By looking around at the bounty that surrounds us, I can feel that I'm doing my part by utilizing the amazing product that you put forth. You don't have it easy. From extreme climate changes in summer and winter, you still manage to manifest some of the best produce available, and wine that gets better and better every year and can rival bottles from some of the most established regions. I can look upon your hills and see cattle and pigs grazing in open fields and know there is a reason that chefs from around the country source their pork and beef from Missouri.

You allow me to step out of the kitchen. Whether it's a bike ride along the Katy Trail taking in the views of the Missouri River or exploring the 3,000 acres of forest at Busch Wildlife for fishing and hiking, I step out of my mind of menu planning and crunching numbers to finally just relax. Other must stops include a trip to Mount Pleasant Winery or Tin Mill Brewery.

It's thanks to you, Missouri Wine Country, that I feel at home in the Midwest and know that the level of hospitality that your people put forth is something truly special. When I leave you, I feel re-energized and committed to honoring you in the only way that I know possible - on the plate.