Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date 9/24/2021
Gentle readers, one summer evening in the early 80s, I was sitting on Carolyn and Bob Kemner’s front porch, when she told me that years earlier, she had me pegged as one of those ship-ins who wouldn’t last a year in Augusta. And here I am all these years later. It’s easy enough to explain why I’m still here; this town has been good to me! But how did I ever land here in the first place?
After bouncing around the country for several years, I penultimately found myself living in St. Louis. Periodically, I would drive to Jefferson City to visit my parents, but I would often look for new routes even if they took me miles out of the way. Hence, one beautiful Saturday morning in the early to mid-70s, I came to a halt in the middle of High Street in Augusta, staring at a beautiful brick winery/cellar building. I was in love. I suppose George Muench, Jr., who founded Mt. Pleasant in 1859, was more responsible than Lucian Dressel for my awestruck state, but still, I was impressed that someone was operating this winery in beautiful Augusta.
In spring of 1976 I saw a want ad in the Post-Dispatch, and I knew where I was heading next. Clayton Byers was seeking help for the other winery in the Augusta area, Montelle, on the Augusta Bottom Road. Clayton and Nissel Byers planted their first grapes in 1970, but Lucian had already begun in 1966. As a matter of fact, Lucian was the youngest man in the nation, age 26, to get a winery license. The guy was a go-getter, and he likely served as a catalyst for Clayton. What I’m saying is, I think Lucian was more than a little bit responsible for my landing in Augusta.
Obviously, Lucian Dressel went on to play a huge part in shaping the history of Augusta. He also influenced the Missouri, and even today, the national wine industry, but let’s let him speak for himself.
Paul: I read on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucian_W._Dressel that you were born in 1940 in St. Louis, but I believe you grew up in Illinois.
Lucian: My parents were living in Granite City, but it was fashionable in those days to get over to St. Louis to get the children born. I was born in St. Luke’s Hospital, which is now City Hospital #3 up in north St. Louis.
P: (Chuckle.) What do you mean by fashionable? They trusted those hospitals more?
L: Yeah, there was only one hospital in Granite City, and it was a pretty dreary old place.
P: Your parents were Lucian and Muriel. How about siblings?
L: I have a brother, Jon, who lives in STL, who’s kind of a semi-famous, local poet. And I have a brother, Phil. (Jon is the oldest, then Phil, then Lucian.)
P: I recall the Dressel name associated with Llywelyn’s Pub in the central west end.
L: Jon founded Llywelyn’s, and then he sold it and went to live in Wales for a long time. He then came back and founded his own pub, which was Dressel’s. He finally sold that to his son, but Covid came along and put an end to the business.
P: Tell me about your school days.
L: I went to grade school through high school in Granite City. Then I was accepted to Harvard College. I went there for two years, got tired of going to school, and quit. And then I worked on a night shift at the family dairy and played piano in St. Louis. I got a job playing in a bar on the riverfront; I wasn’t 21, but I lied. In those days there wasn’t much in STL. It was a very, very dull place. It was the only bar downtown, I think. I played there, and at midnight I’d go to the Aro-Dressel Dairy and toss milk cans around. After doing that for a year I said, hell’s bells, I gotta go back to school. So, I went back and got a BA in business.
P: At the bar, were you playing the old trad jazz, New Orleans sort of music?
L: In those days everybody wanted you to play Misty.
P: You played the standards?
L: Yeah, I just kinda rumbled around. And I knew Clair de Lune…I didn’t know how to play anything but the classics. The barkeep was a woman, and she kind of liked that sort of thing.
P: Did you pick up music from your family?
L: Yes, my dad was the first violinist at the Jerseyville Symphony Orchestra when he was in high school about 1920. My mom’s dad was a Welsh tenor who had an extremely good voice, but unfortunately, he died when she was only 16. But he left a pile of old records…these old 78 records…they were big, much larger than the standard 78, and they were only printed on one side. We had a Victrola record player, and I would listen to those from the time I was a little kid, the first records I ever listened to. They were all classical records. The Victrola was a wind-up, and it had wooden needles, which were much better in those days than the steel needle which tended to ruin your records.
P: So, you went back to Harvard to finish your BA, and then you received an MBA at Columbia University. I guess your business education came in handy the rest of your life.
L: Well, I really wanted to go to law school and be a lawyer, but my family wasn’t big on that, and I wasn’t paying for it, so I ended up in business school. I took a vocational test once; in those days it was fashionable. This test showed that I didn’t have any of the interests in life that businesspeople have. It said the only thing I would be good at were farming, and oddly enough for those days, computer programming. That test really did nail my interests which were farming and wine making, and later on, when I had to, I became a computer programmer, and I was good at it.
P: You also taught at SIU. Were you teaching business?
L: Yeah, I had a job at the family dairy business, and we had an accountant…he just happened to be teaching at SIU, and he said they really needed instructors there. He asked me how I would like a job teaching full time. I asked him what I had to do to get that. He said, “what are you doing next Tuesday? Come meet the dean over at the Holiday Inn in Edwardsville, and he’ll have a contract in his pocket, and he’ll sign you up.” So, I met the guy for lunch, did the interview and signed the contract. (Laugh.) You know how hard it is to get a job at a university today?!!
P: At some point you became the first St. Louis Symphony Director of Development?
L: I worked at SIU for a year and the dean asked me if I wanted to become the assistant dean. I said sure. But if you don’t have a doctorate in academia, you’re not going anywhere, so eventually I went over and applied for a job with the symphony as an accountant. The guy said they didn’t need one then, but they needed a development director. I said, ‘fine, I’ll take it.’ I really had to work hard to get that job. (Chuckle.)
P: A lot of serendipity there! Now at some point you married Eva. Was she from STL?
L: No, she was from Granite City. We knew each other in high school. I can’t say we were high school sweethearts, but we dated some. And the year I dropped out of school, I reconnected with her. After I graduated from Harvard we got married. And we had two boys, Fred and Joe.
P: I know Fred still has his company, Evergreen, which manages vineyards. And I ran into Joe one time after Hoffmann arrived. He was some sort of point man for Hoffmann in Augusta. But then he shortly disappeared, and that seemed curious to me.
L: Yeah, he worked for Hoffmann for a while, and then I think that…people at some point mutually agree not to work together anymore. Joe has always worked as my partner in the business we have here. So, we resumed that after Hoffmann decided to go his own way.
P: We’ll talk some more about your current business in a minute, but let’s go back to 1966.
L: Yes, you know wineries weren’t that popular then, and when I bought the winery, people thought, what are you doing buying a defunct old winery, that’s been out of business for some 40 years? The winery had been for sale for 3 years then. He wanted $27,000 for it, and I thought that was way too much. I think I offered him $23,000 at one point. He didn’t take it, so we waited another year, and he finally called, and he said he’d hold the paper on it if I paid 27, so I had to scrounge up $6000 as a down payment…which I had a lot of trouble doing…I finally got my mother to lend me the money.
P: Who owned it before you?
L: Bill Baggerman. https://loc.gov/item/mo0853/ He had bought it from the family of the original owners. After the prohibition, the daughter of Muench, the wine maker, married a man named Schaaf. They ran a restaurant during prohibition, and it was a pretty successful restaurant. In fact, it was well known. Before I bought the winery, I talked to people in STL who had gone out there to eat, and many people knew about it. But during WWII, when the TNT plant operated, they closed the highway, and that put an end to the restaurant. Then I think the property was pretty much vacant for a long while.
P: It didn’t occur to me that that the munitions plant shut the highway down.
L: But the train was still running during the war. Carolyn Kemner, who worked for me… one of the first friends I had out there…got a job at the telephone company in STL after she got out of high school. She would take the train in every Monday morning and come on back Friday night on the train. She commuted on the Katy Flyer. That train still exists. It’s in Kirkwood at the transportation museum. They called it the Katy Slower because it made every stop. It’s funny, when we were in the dairy business, that train would stop at every little town and pick up cream cans and take them into STL and put them in a box at Union Station. Then we’d go in everyday and get the cream. There were a lot of farmers out around Augusta. They all had cows and a cream separator, and they would make money on the side selling their cream. The Aro Creamery, which merged with the Dressel Dairy…that was one of their big businesses…they got that very inexpensive cream. One of the first jobs I got when I went back to the dairy, was to issue cream drafts. They were actually post cards that we’d send to all these farmers, and they would take them down to the Bank of Dutzow. These farmers would all save them up until Christmas time and cash these postcards in for money.
P: How did Augusta strike you when you first came here?
L: I didn’t even know Augusta existed. I was in grad school, and I came home, and I got hold of a Phillips 66 roadmap. I was looking at it, trying to find a good place to grow grapes in Missouri. I knew about Hermann, but then I happened to see this little dip in the cliff there by the river, and it had this little town of Augusta, which I had never heard of. I said OMG, we got to drive out there. I think that would be a good place to grow grapes and make wine. I got my father-in-law, my mother-in-law and Eva in the car and we drove…just by dead reckoning we got right to the corner where Augusta Winery is now. We were one block from seeing Mt. Pleasant Winery. We continued to look around and decided this would be a good place.
Anyway, a couple weeks later I was at the Gaslight Bar in Gaslight Square talking to Dick Mutrux. He owned the bar, and he owned 1500 acres out in Augusta, all up and down the highway. Dick knew everyone in town, and he said there’s a winery for sale there. He told me where it was, and I said you’re kidding, I was just one block from it. So, a week later I drove out there, and stopped at the feed store and talked to Betty Bade, the first person I ever met in Augusta. And I asked her where the winery was exactly. I drove there and saw the building and I said OMG. It had a for sale sign. It was kind of run down and didn’t look very good, but oh man, it was a winery.
It had a phone number, and I called Bill Baggerman, and got a tour. I remember going down the stairs…he had a curtain over that cellar…he pulled that curtain aside…it was like some great theatrical thing. He had the lights turned on…and I said, “Oh, I don’t believe it!!”
And now gentle readers, I’m dropping the curtain on this story whilst I search for photos associated with the Dressels and Mt. Pleasant. However, for now, I am including one photo of Lucian which I guess is 25 years old. AND, Fred Dressel sent me a photo of their vineyard telephone, well, sorta. I am passing it on to you with a few words from Fred:
“The box for Vnyd phone looked like this and was only 5ft off the ground but was black … when phone rang… the bell was placed 20ft in the air so when it rang you could hear the bell anywhere in the 25 acre vineyard. You didn’t have to get to the phone right away… the office at the winery (Janet leavitt, Ruth Flynn or my dad) would be the only phones that called. So you just go down to the phone in the next 5 min and call the office. (It was a party line so you may have to wait for others to clear the line). We didn’t have to worry about telemarketers. The phone number wasn’t unlisted because Contel charged more for that so the number was listed in the phone book as Vineyard Phone…. After all that you think I’d remember the number… 228-4xxx but I don’t ….. (wamp, wamp, womp ).”
To be continued. Stay curious.