Iowa Wine Industry

Wine bottles
Did you enjoy your Iowa wine this holiday?

We did at our house and are trying to more and more. We’re not alone. More and more Iowans are sampling Iowa wine if the numbers are correct about Iowa’s wine industry.

According to Barb Rasko at Make Mine Wine magazine, Iowa now has 74 wineries and 392 vineyards. That’s a lot of wine and wine capability. She says the hope is to see 100 wineries by 2011. Just 13 years ago that number was around 6 wineries. That’s a lot of growth.

Tabor Home vineyards
That fact got us going on this story for The Iowa Journal. Right now our production and air date is December 17th at 8p. I am still working on a guest list for our discussion.

We want to talk about how Iowa’s wine industry is growing. We also are looking to find out why and how the state is doing it. How much help is the state of Iowa in getting the industry to grow its reputation?
What is holding up Iowa’s wine industry from growing into a much bigger deal?
How do Iowa wines compare nationally and internationally?

The majority of this story was shot this summer on location in a eastern Iowa. I visited Brush Creek Winery near Bellevue. They are a small operation. But not new to wine making.

Tabor Home Vineyard and Winery
A look from the back porch of Tabor Home.

We also will feature Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery near Baldwin, Iowa. Baldwin is between Dubuque and Davenport in beautiful Jackson County. Paul Tabor is an Iowa legend when it comes to wine. He’s been around since the early 90s growing and producing Iowa wine. Tabor is a strong believer in Iowa-grown wine. Just prior to my visit to his winery, he told me about a new designation called the Upper MIssissippi River Valley viticulture area. This may not roll off the tongue like Napa, but its the same thing, a specific region with certain characteristics about the soil and the grapes grown there. Geographically, this is the largest viticulture region in the country.

Fireside Winery
The front entrance to Fireside Winery

We also visited Fireside Winery near Marengo and Williamsburg. On this trip, I had Dan Kaercher and Rick Fuller with me. We will use part of this interview for the new program called Simple Pleasures that will air on Iowa Public Television. Fireside will also make our Iowa Journal story.

We’ll also include some video from Tassel Ridge near Oskaloosa and Pella. The story there, they use a harvester to bring in some of their grapes.

What do you like about Iowa’s wine industry?
Who do you consider experts in Iowa wine?
What else do we need to talk about on our program?

One comment

  1. Hi Paul! I’ve taken some time to consider your questions. Here goes!

    1. Did you enjoy your Iowa wine this holiday? The weekend before Thanksgiving our amateur winemaking group (Eastern Iowa Wine Club: visited Park Farm Winery (Bankston, IA: for the release of their 2009 Nouveaux made from Marechal Foch of Oxford wine growers Tom and Vicki Capper (Old Man’s Creek Vineyard). Their Nouveaux was fresh, fruity, and gently sweetened for their Saturday afternoon music and snack crowd – very easy to drink.

    2. We want to talk about how Iowa’s wine industry is growing. We also are looking to find out why and how the state is doing it. How much help is the state of Iowa in getting the industry to grow its reputation? The Iowa Wine Industry receives support, not so much via tax breaks or incentives, but in how they are allowed to operate. Many states require a grape growing industry to evolve before the wine industry can grow. In other words, some neighboring states say you cannot bring in out-of-state fruit or juice to craft “native” wines; whereas, in Iowa we can. This seemingly simple aspect is allowing the Iowa Wine Industry to thrive. Of course, one must ask at some point, when does Iowa Wine truly reflect Iowa? At present most wineries (with some exceptions) rely heavily upon fresh grapes from California (varietals that could never be sustainable in Iowa because of growing conditions) or grape juice from New York state. The most successful (and largest) depend on using California grapes to make California varietals (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) and to blend with the higher acid cold-hardy grapes we grow in Iowa. For me the real testament to great winemaking and creating a Midwest wine culture is to begin to transition away from out-of-state grapes, such as California or NY, and begin to advance Iowa wine growing varietals.

    Right now, there isn’t enough grapes grown in Iowa to support many of the larger wineries. And in all honesty, it is frequently cheaper to buy fresh juice from New York than to pay $1,000-1,200/ton for high-acidic Midwestern grapes of questionable quality.

    3. What is holding up Iowa’s wine industry from growing into a much bigger deal? The Iowa Wine Industry is growing very fast. The bigger deal will occur over time when enough wine drinkers begin to taste and appreciate what is available locally. At some point local wine drinkers will decide that if they want Cabernet Sauvignon they probably ought to buy their wine from local California producers; however, as consumers tastes begin to appreciate locally grown and made grapes (they do taste different from vitis vinifera = traditional European grapes) then the Iowa Wine Industry will shift focus toward cold-hardy varietals, such as Marechal Foch, Frontenac, Marquette (reds) and La Crosse, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris (whites).

    Inexperienced winemakers may be another inhibiting factor in the growth of Iowa Wines. Frequently, when people think of Iowa Wines they think of heavily sweetened fruit-style wines and poorly crafted grape wines. The Iowa State Universities “Vintners Quality Alliance – VQA” is an attempt to help improve winemaker skill and is a great next step.

    4. How do Iowa wines compare nationally and internationally? Very good wines are being made in Iowa; however, as a competitive force in the market, Iowa wines have a long way to go. What is probably more important than how competitive we are nationally or internationally (which I don’t even suspect we are even trying to at this point) is that we become competitive within our state and then regionally. New York state wines are a good example of this model.

    5. What do you like about Iowa’s wine industry? It reflects the greatness of Iowa and its people. When you visit a winery, like we did this past weekend, you are more than a customer and more of partner in a new industry. It is important to remember that in 1919 Iowa was the #6 producer of grapes in the United States, producing more than 12million pounds! During our visit, we were given personal tours by winery owners of large wineries, such as Somerset Winery (Indianola) and smaller wineries such as Grape Escape. We expect the personal touch and we get it. Rarely will such attention to customers occur in places like Napa Valley.

    6. Who do you consider experts in Iowa wine? There are the obvious early leaders: Paul Tabor and Ron Marks, but there are also people behind the scenes helping make Iowa wine great. At DMACC is enology instructor Paul Gospodarscyk and at Iowa State University Dr. Murli Dharmadhikari, a renowned professor of enology; and Michael White, a viticulture expert at ISU Extension, is a grape growing go-to guy. These three people will be the reason Iowa wines will become great!

    7. What else do we need to talk about on our program? Several other important aspects include the role of Wine Grape Growers. Who are the growers behind the winemakers? – frequently, the grapes are not grown by the wineries. Highlight a grower. Is state funding going to continue for wine programs like ISU? Who are the upcoming winemakers in Iowa? Where do they train? Where do they learn their skills? Highlight the peripheral aspects of the Iowa Wine Industry, such as a focus on groups like the Eastern Iowa Wine Club who support wine growers by purchasing small lots of grapes from small-scale wine growers and share knowledge of winemaking and grape growing. What are areas of opportunity for wineries? Is the Iowa model (e.g., wine and event centers) the best way to move the industry forward? Should the industry begin to focus on making high quality Midwestern wines – focus on specific varietals much like California does?

    That’s enough for now. Let me know if I can help more with the story.
    Best Regards,
    Brad Johnson

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