Q&A: Kurt Garretson

The Iowa Wine Grower’s Association held its first ever amateur wine competition in 2013, awarding six Double Gold, nine Gold, twenty-six Silver, and nineteen Bronze medals to Iowan winemakers.  Amateur Wine of the Year was awarded to Joel Garretson of Salem for his Green Gage Plum Wine.  Iowa Decanted caught up with Joel, Kurt, and Justin Garretson of East Grove Farms to get their perspective on a few things.  The spokesman of this unique family farm, Kurt, was kind enough to answer our questions.

Iowa Decanted: What is the philosophy of East Grove Farms?

Kurt Garretson: As a family we have been living in Iowa for 176 years. That is seven generations of Garretson’s and we hope to create opportunities that keep another seven generations on the farm. We do that by implementing conservation practices that improve soil fertility, developing agritourism, and expanding into what we believe is an emerging market for wines or meads that represent the native fruits in Iowa. The name East Grove comes from the original community that settled in and around the farm. We like to continue that tradition of pioneers by honoring the past while planning for the future.

ID: How did you become interested in winemaking?

KG: My grandfather Joel Garretson Sr. used to make elderberry wine in his basement. And later my dad Joel Garretson Jr. started making elderberry wine in his basement, so it seemed appropriate that the next generation start making elderberry wine in the basement. Outside of our Grandfather’s shop there used to be an Elderberry bush that grew from the left over pressings from wine.  That bush is gone, but around the corner there is a field of fruit trees and Elderberries. Fermentation is a great way to preserve what we grow on the farm, and as a family we have been doing that for decades.

ID: What has been your most significant challenge in regards to winemaking?

KG: We want everything to be as local as possible. Most of the fruits will be grown on the farm or in the surrounding area. As with all farming operations, the weather is a constant challenge. We have the additional challenge of trying to make a high quality wine using fruits that don’t produce as much sugar as grapes while still holding true to our values. This is why we are looking to start with a selection of meads, or honey wines. The honey is locally produced and adds the sugar needed to produce a good wine. We are working on some Elderberry recipes that use grape juice as a base as well.  These are still experimental but I think there is a lot of promise for a blend of grape and elderberry.

ID: Much of the wine you produce has been made from fruit other than grapes.  Is there a particular reason you focus on non-grape wine?

KG: We started growing Elderberries because we believe there is an emerging market for them due to their health benefit. There is a lot of scientific research going on right now into Elderberries as the next super fruit. Our goal is to grow many of the native Iowa fruits like Elderberry, Aronia, Juneberry and Persimmon as well as other heirlooms such as the Green Gage Plum and White Peach. In my opinion a good wine is free of technical flaws and has a clean fermentation that brings out the flavor of the fruit. We want to fill a different niche by providing a taste of the native, locally grown fruits of Iowa.

ID: What do you think the biggest misconception is about Iowa wine?

KG: We are not sure if there are many people outside of Iowa that have any conception of Iowa wine, but those that do probably think of the sweeter table wines. Most Iowa wine is sold to Iowans and they generally buy sweet wines, so that is what people produce.  The grape wine market is very competitive, and until recently it was difficult to make good dry wines from Iowa grown grapes. The Midwest Grape & Wine Industry Institute and the Northern Grapes Project are doing a lot to raise the quality of wine made in the upper Midwest. New varieties of grapes are coming out that are capable of producing a world class wine.

ID: Where would you like the Iowa wine industry to be in ten years?

KG: In order for the Iowa wine industry to grow, there will need to be something that differentiates it to people outside of Iowa. East Grove Farms is doing something completely different, but it is also untested. We would like to see Iowans work more with fruits that naturally grow well here. At one time, Iowa was the leading producer of apples in the the U.S. and hard cider is making a comeback as a popular drink. For the grape wine industry we would like to see the new varietal wines like Marquette become respected household names like Cabernet.