The winding curves and rolling hills of Highway 94 in St. Charles County make travelers work to reach Augusta, in the heart of Missouri’s wine country. The town, little more than a pit-stop for cyclists on the popular Katy Trail, is a pocket of crumbling Americana, with nearly as many shuttered storefronts as American flags.
But Augusta is on the edge of transformation.
A Florida investor has spent the past six months buying land here. He’s snapped up a historic cottage, a bed-and-breakfast, an emporium, a convenience store and four of Augusta’s five wineries, including at least 750 acres of vineyards. His vision: A five-star hotel. A bespoke golf course. A quaint downtown. A network of interconnected wineries. And, in the end, a national destination that he thinks could match California’s Napa Valley — all for about $100 million.
“This is all going to get done, and it’s going to get done fast, and it’s going to get done beautifully,” said David Hoffmann, CEO of Hoffmann Family of Cos., which is funding the plan. “It’s going to be a national destination people are going to be proud of.”
Most area residents agree that the sleepy Missouri River town needs a jolt of reinvestment. But Hoffmann’s fast approach has unsettled some who worry that Augusta, population 290, could lose its small-town charm. At the heart of it, they fret that his vision is much grander and more commercial than how he’s portraying it.
Already, Augusta shows signs of change. Hoffmann’s crews have dressed up old buildings with fresh paint, fastened plaques with the Hoffmann name on storefronts, and parked 1940s-era Chevrolet pickup trucks at several Hoffmann-owned properties.
The town’s early vintners, German immigrants who arrived in the 19th century, helped Augusta become the first American Viticultural Area, a federal designation that gives global recognition, plus the opportunity for wineries to add a few dollars to the price of their bottle.
Hoffmann began making deals in Augusta in late 2020 after taking a Sunday drive along 94 from his new home in St. Albans.
“Driving through it, it reminded me a little bit of Napa Valley,” said Hoffmann. “Then I started exploring more and said, ‘This has a real upside.’”
Hoffmann has acquired four wineries — Balducci Vineyards, Mount Pleasant Estates, Augusta Winery and Montelle Winery. (The owners of the fifth winery, Noboleis Vineyards, said they weren’t ready to sell.) That’s in addition to 13 commercial properties his company bought in downtown Augusta that are being renovated into a general store, filling station, flower shop and more.
Hoffmann said famed golf course designer Rhys Jones will design a 12-hole course in the area. Clayco will build Hoffmann’s 100-room hotel, which does not have a hotel brand attached yet, he said. An amphitheater is slated for Balducci winery. Trolley and carriage rides and tours on John Deere Gator utility vehicles will take visitors around town and among the wineries. All of which, Hoffmann hopes, will attract more visitors and improve Augusta’s wedding industry, which hosts some 700 events every year, he said.
Still to come are dinner boat cruises that can seat 200 people. Hoffmann hopes to work with St. Charles County on this plan and to dock at Klondike Park, east of Augusta along the Katy Trail. Hoffmann has also signed a letter of intent to acquire the 50-acre Emmaus Homes Campus in Marthasville, northwest of Augusta, where he will build free housing for up to 200 employees.
“We can build all this stuff and make it look pretty, but we need employees to help us fulfill the vision,” Hoffmann said.
The latest deal brings his Augusta-area holdings to nearly 900 acres, he said.
He is financing his vision with a combination of cash and loans, he said. State legal notices show some from Bank of Washington and Central Bank of St. Louis.
Hoffmann Family, a Naples, Florida-based conglomerate, includes his global executive search firm DHR International that he founded in 1989 in Chicago, plus Hoffmann Commercial Real Estate and private equity firm Osprey Capital. In total, Hoffmann and his family own over 100 businesses and properties across the country.
Locally, he owns three prominent buildings in Clayton: the Moneta Building at 100 South Brentwood Blvd., the Hoffmann Building at 8000 Maryland Ave. and the Wydown Building at 522 South Hanley Road.
Hoffmann and his wife, Jerri, are Washington, Missouri, natives. The couple bought a bluff-top home in neighboring St. Albans, overlooking Augusta and Defiance. They also own a home in Naples, where they moved in 2015 after decades in Illinois.
But the family’s passion: Citymaking.
‘Everything and then some’
Over the past 10 years, the Hoffmanns have renovated three other towns, Winnetka, Illinois; Avon, Colorado; and downtown Naples, Florida. The Hoffmanns’ goal is the same: Revamp the towns into premier destinations, whether for shopping, skiing or boating. They acquire hospitality businesses, like luxury yacht tours and restaurants. Hoffmann boasts that he served as grand marshal of a parade in Naples after investing more than a half-billion dollars there.
“It was kind of a big deal in that community,” Hoffmann said of his investment. “In Augusta, it’s going to be no different. It’s going to be spectacular.”
At Mount Pleasant Estates, Augusta’s oldest winery established in 1859, crews were on site on a recent Friday to repave parking lots, take down dying or obtrusive trees and repaint the buildings their original colors of pink and burgundy — rosé and merlot, as the winery’s president, Chuck Dressel, described it.
“It’s the greatest thing that I think could ever happen to Augusta,” said Dressel, whose family had owned the winery since the 1960s. “David and Jerri are committed to bringing Augusta to the world and showing off the crown jewel of Missouri.”
All of the wineries will receive equipment upgrades that will improve the quality of wine and increase production, Hoffmann said. Dressel expects Mount Pleasant to grow production from 25,000 cases a year up to 60,000 or more with the new equipment.
Sue Lauber, general manager of Montelle Winery, said she hopes the Hoffmann investment will entice people to come year-round. The winery, which overlooks the valley now lush with blooming mustard plants, is only closed four days a year. She believes Augusta’s wine heritage will give it an edge over Napa Valley.
“We will have everything and then some,” Lauber said.
It’s not just local winemakers who are eager.
Chuck and Esther Nobe have owned Augusta’s Red Brick Inn for six years. They’ve welcomed guests from as far as Norway, who are attracted to their bed-and-breakfast by its proximity to the nearly 240-mile long Katy Trail that stretches across the state. The couple have been booked solid since they reopened their B&B in June.
The Hoffmann deal will provide more options for their guests, some of whom have already caught rides to and from the wineries with the new Hoffmann trolleys, they said. The Nobes hope the investment spurs more businesses to open to generate the activity that the couple experienced when they first arrived.
“The town felt like it was thriving a little bit more then,” Esther Nobe said.
Philip Day opened his Root Food + Wine restaurant in Augusta on April 1. It’s one of the town’s few restaurants, and he hopes it becomes a place for residents to unwind after work and visitors to enjoy between wineries.
“Anything to draw in new business is good,” Day said of the Hoffmann plan.
Ann-Renee Gargrave lives on the same street where she works as manager of her parents’ Gallery Augusta, a home goods and design shop. She hopes the Hoffmann plan will draw in a coffee shop, something that’s sorely missing since Kate’s Coffee House closed earlier this year.
“I’m excited as a resident and business owner to see the town be loved and used again,” Gargrave said.
That’s also what resident Jeff Shelby is looking forward to. He and his family have lived here since 2000 and have seen the town decline.
Like Gargrave and others, Shelby has no fear that Augusta’s small-town charm will be lost. He’s looked into what Hoffmann has done in other towns and thinks he’ll do Augusta right.
Others, faced with the breadth of Hoffmann’s buying spree, are uneasy with the lack of a public plan.
Writer Judy Hennessey said she and her husband, Tim, from Defiance, wanted to downsize and build a smaller home on farmland they own in Augusta. They love the countryside, the wineries and the quiet. But the couple nixed the plan once the Hoffmanns came to town. The Hennesseys don’t want to deal with additional crowds and traffic on 94 they expect the development will generate.
“Everyone wants businesses to do well, but you have to balance it with what’s good for the community as well,” Judy Hennessey said. “God love him, I guess he has enough money, he can buy and do whatever. But it’s not going to be the same. The community will never be the same.”
Longtime St. Charles County Councilman Joe Brazil, whose district includes Augusta, sees the pros and cons of the Hoffmann plan. Brazil owns an RV park and a company that hosts excursions on the Missouri River. He knows how dead Augusta has been in the 25 years he’s lived in neighboring Defiance.
But Brazil doesn’t know the full scope of the plan, has no concrete answers to offer his constituents, and is frustrated over the lack of communication from Hoffmann.
His frustration also is growing with what he sees as a lack of respect for the landscape, especially when workers tore down century-old trees on Hoffmann’s property. “He’s destroying the very asset that brings people here,” Brazil said.
But Hoffmann said he’s still creating his plans, and will seek county approval when he’s ready. “We just had this vision,” he said. “To say, ‘This is exactly what we’re doing, how we’re going to do it’ — that’s impossible.”
Hoffmann is also insistent that his development will not create a traffic problem on Highway 94. That’s why he bought Washington, Missouri-based transportation firm Mid-American Coaches that will help transport visitors. He expects concerns about sewer and water infrastructure will be settled when he meets with St. Charles County.
County Executive Steve Ehlmann has met Hoffmann once, at a Zoom meeting hosted by civic group Progress 64 West several months ago. He said he urged Hoffmann to bring the county, which handles Augusta’s building permits, a specific proposal sooner rather than later to head off any controversy that could delay the plan.
“I think it could be a tremendous thing not just for my constituents but for the whole region,” Ehlmann said. “But the charm is what it is now. You have to be real careful to keep the charm.”
Developer has big plans for Augusta, Mo. wineries