By Marcia Vanderlip

Westphalia couple tends grapevines, fattens calves and waits for sons

In 1973, Terry and Mary Neuner fell in love with 400 acres of rich land and forest in the Maries River valley near Westphalia. The land had been worked by German immigrants who had built their farmhouse sometime in the 1840s.

Neuner Farm

Terry Neuner watches his herd of Japanese wagyu cattle. The horned breed produces wagyu Kobe beef, named for the city where the wagyu cattle were first bred.

“We loved the natural beauty of this place,” Mary said. But it wasn’t for sale.

They moved on. Terry’s career with 3M Co. took the couple and their three children to other landscapes. They lived in Brussels, Singapore and Japan.

In 1991, while they were in Europe, Mary’s aunt called from Westphalia. That farm was for sale. Terry jetted back and bought the farm, and they have been restoring the land, buildings and mending lots of fences ever since. Both in their early 60s, they hold out hope that someday their two sons — who live in San Diego — will take over the farm, the winery/vineyard and the Japanese wagyu cattle business that began when Terry retired from 3M in 2003.

So far, retirement seems a euphemism for longer hours; the sons have not returned, except to visit and buy homes and land in the area. The Neuners see these gestures as promising.

In the meantime, Mary has spearheaded the restoration of their stone house and of an old hotel in town, which they transformed into a restaurant and a tasting room for their Westphalia Winery.

She runs the restaurant, which serves family-style pan-fried chicken and mashed potatoes, country ham and pot roast. In early June they served their first pot roast made with their wagyu beef. “We ran out,” Mary said. “People loved it.”

The Westphalia Inn’s recipe for German pot roast calls for cooking at 300 degrees for four hours. The wagyu took half the time to cook, Mary said.

The word “wagyu” refers to all Japanese cattle. “Wa” means Japanese, and “gyu” means cattle, according to the American Wagyu Association — www.wagyu.org. The horned breed produces wagyu Kobe beef, named for the city where the wagyu cattle were first bred.

The beef is more heavily marbled than Angus beef and tends to cook more quickly, but it also tastes better if it is on the rare side.

Terry first tasted true Kobe beef while he was working in Japan. Its flavor was rich and distinctive, the meat well-marbled and very tender. Wagyu beef also is high in monounsaturated fat and low in cholesterol. Because space is at a premium in Japan, Kobe cattle have been raised in confined areas; they also are massaged and fed beer, yielding meat that is both coveted and expensive. The meat is not inexpensive in America, either. A quality wagyu steak can run more than $100 from a good butcher shop.

The Neuners don’t feed beer to the cattle. Instead, their herd grazes on grassland and eats a steady diet of barley and distiller grains — no hormones, no antibiotics and no corn. Most of the herd roams free on a second farm in Argyle, and cattle are finished in the tall grasses at the Westphalia farm. “They are spoiled,” Terry said. The black cattle look a little like Angus with horns, but they are smaller and grow more slowly, he said. At market weight, they weigh 200 to 300 pounds less than Angus cattle.

Raising wagyu cattle has been a “seven-year learning curve,” Terry said. After years of breeding wagyu bulls with Angus cows, the herd of 65 calves are now three-fourths to seven-eights wagyu — which means they are ready to market.

Throughout those years of breeding to reach the more pure wagyu that would “pass” the Neuners’ “taste tests,” the two “have tried every cut, and it was all superior.”

This month they plan to sell it exclusively at Freddie’s Market, an independent grocery in Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb. Terry said he plans to sell the meat to the market for 20 to 30 percent above the price of Angus beef.

The market also stocks the Neuners’ Westphalia wines. Freddie’s owner, Larry Bononi, raves about the Norton and likes that the wines are made without added sulfites, rare and labor-intensive in the winemaking process.

The vine-tending and winemaking started a year after the cattle-raising, beginning with a small vineyard on the slope below the old stone house. Longtime family friend Tim Pingelton helped plant those first vines and now serves as the winery production manager, tending to vines and barrels. The wine cellar was constructed on the site of the antique barn, with beams from the original structure incorporated into the design.

“We have lots of good help,” Terry said. “It seemed like whenever we needed something, people would show up.” For example, every year when it is time to pick the grapes, the local Boy Scouts come prepared.

Terry was a novice winemaker when he started this project, but he had some ideas about how to proceed. He held a master’s degree in biochemistry and learned about fermentation chemistry in the early ’70s — the days of the oil embargo — when he worked on a research grant to create an ethanol blend.

He takes an Old World approach to wine-making, using aged white-oak barrels from a Missouri cooperage to ferment all of the red wines. “We like to keep things pure, simple and natural,” he said. That means, in part, no added sulfites. Most winemakers use sulfites, which protect the wine from bacteria and help keep it from oxidizing.

To mitigate bacteria risk, the cellar and the barrels are all kept “hospital” clean, Terry said. Pingelton uses iodine and water to clean the barrels, rather than sulfites. In addition, they keep the ph level low — 3.4 percent — cull any old or bad grapes and increase the alcohol level slightly to about 13 percent. As for oxidation, Pingelton said, “We have 2005 vintages of wine that is still good” because of “good closure” during bottling.

Pingelton contends that “by not adding sulfites, there is a greater expression of the wine’s character. … The wine is not masked,” he said. Or, as Mary puts it, “It has a fresh quality.”

Last year, Westphalia Winery produced 4,000 gallons of red and white wines, including a Norton, a Cabernet Franc — both of which have won awards — and two Rieslings, a dry and a sweet. The winery will make approximately 6,000 gallons this year.

Most celebrated so far is Westphalia’s 2007 Cabernet Franc. It won a silver medal in the 2008 San Francisco International Competition. It also scored an 87 in Wine Enthusiast magazine. The wine was called “elegant” with “refreshing character that offers complexity as well as approachability. The nose is a combination of red berry, spice and pepper, and on the palate, spicy, savory flavors give the wine a meaty complexity. Overall, though, it offers good balance and minerality and a long, appealing finish.”

Westphalia’s wines are available at Gerbes, Schnucks and Hy-Vee grocery stores. Among the wines is a blend of Norton and Cabernet Franc called “The Prodigal Son.” These wines are ready to come home.

A TASTE OF WESTPHALIA

In the 1830s, German-Catholic farmers and artisans settled next to the Maries River and in the lush rolling hills in and around Westphalia. The town was built around its stately limestone St. Joseph Catholic Church. This year the parish is celebrating the church’s 175 years with a community cookbook.

Patsy Luebbert, the cook at the Westphalia Inn, contributed this recipe for German pot roast. Last week, the Westphalia Inn began serving the pot roast with Japanese wagyu beef raised by winery owners Terry and Mary Neuner. To visit the restaurant and Westphalia Winery’s tasting room, head down Highway 63 about 25 miles south of Jefferson City. The inn is at 106 Main St. It is open only on weekends: 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For information about the Westphalia Inn, call (573) 455-2000.

GERMAN POT ROAST

  • 25 pounds beef, any cut
  • 1 tablespoon lard per cast-iron skillet
  • 1 medium or large onion, diced
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons pepper
  • Water

Trim beef of excess fat. Cut beef into 1-inch chunks. Put a tablespoon of lard in each cast-iron skillet used to brown the beef until it is dark brown, with no red showing. Put all the beef into a large roaster. Add onion, and sprinkle the beef with the salt and pepper. Do not season the beef until it is in the roaster. Rinse each skillet that was used to brown the beef with water, and add that water to the roaster. Add enough extra water so the beef is not quite covered. Tightly cover the roaster with foil. Bake in a 300-degree oven for a minimum of four hours, stirring once every hour. Add more water as needed to keep the meat from getting dry. If the beef is not tender after four hours, continue baking for a while.

Note: This freezes well and can be reheated as needed.

— Patsy Luebbert, cook at the Wesphalia Inn