Seth Miller, Cedar Valley Winery

The noise of the nearby freeway, with its grumbling cars and roaring trucks, seems to evaporate on the grounds of the Cedar Valley Winery in Batavia, Iowa. It is replaced by the hum of insects, and the gentle sounds of wind blowing through the distant trees. The scene is composed of carefully manicured and well-kept rows of grapevines, expanses of green grass, and the rustic charms of a red barn.  A windmill sits above it all, its rotors spinning to the measure of the wind. It has the look of a traditional Iowan farm with the perfect pastoral touches that make it feel like home, but with the added touch of something reminiscent of a west coast vineyard – as though it had been transplanted from the idyllic set of a Hollywood film.

The atmosphere seems effortless, like it sprang into existence and immediately fit perfectly into the landscape, but this is not the case. Cedar Valley Vineyard and Winery came about after years of hard work and dedication from the owners, the Miller family.

“The two things that I enjoy most are the experience that our customers have whether it is just appreciating the wine itself or coming out to our facilities and having a really fun time getting away from life and being able to relax with friends,” said Seth Miller, winemaker of Cedar Valley Winery. “The other thing is the compliments that we get on the high quality of the wine that we produce.”

The vineyard began in 2002 with three grape varieties on 1.5 acres.

“In the first three or four years we would pick 30 to 40 pounds and take it up to the house and stomp it and get the juice out of them,” said Miller. “I have to admit the wine wasn’t that good. So I realized if we were going to do this on a commercial scale making thousands of gallons of wine, I was going to have to learn a lot more to get high quality wine and have that consistency.”

To begin his wine and grape education, Miller began attending the annual conferences held by the Iowa Wine Grower’s Association, hearing from professors and speakers from across the country, places like UC Davis, Cornell, University of Minnesota, and University of Missouri. According to their articles of incorporation, the Iowa Wine Growers Association was established to help people like Miller by improving “conditions of those engaged in viticulture” as well as “the quality and marketability of grapes produced in Iowa through the use of education and research.” IWGA conference attendees like Miller are given the chance to hear from experts experienced in making wine and spirits from places as far away as South Africa and Australia.

Conferences are split into a viticulture & vineyard track, and a winemaking track. When Miller started attending, he began with the vineyard classes.

“We would go to all of the vineyard stuff, and as we progressed into making wine, I started going to the wine-making classes, and they were very informative and very helpful,” said Miller.

Another resource he took advantage of as he worked to get the vineyard and winery off the ground was the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute out of Iowa State University, specifically the help and advice of Dr. Murli Dharmadikari.

“He started reaching out to all of the Iowa wine-makers and offering suggestions on how to improve the quality of the wine – from the grapes in the field all the way through the bottling process,” said Miller.

When contacted by Iowa Decanted, Dr. Dharmadikari said the questions he gets from vineyards and wineries have to do with everything from how to grow the best quality fruit, to how to be successful and profitable in the business. But the biggest piece of advice he gives is simple.

“Have a sound business plan before starting the venture. Spend time and money to make sure you have the passion, funds, and a sound plan to grow and profit from the business,” said Dharmadikari.

This advice seems to be working for the Millers and Cedar Valley Winery.

“They are a small but excellent family winery,” Dr. Dharmadikari said. “They produce quality wines from grapes adapted to their soil and climate.”

As Miller learned, the family vineyard was expanding to 5 acres with seven grape varieties by 2007. That same year the winery began making wine on a commercial scale, and by the next year they produced around 2,500 gallons of wine from the very grapes grown in their vineyard.

Miller said learning everything behind the production of wine, including the chemistry and science, has helped in his creation of the popular and well-respected wines that Cedar Valley Winery is known for.

“If you’re diligent in monitoring, and you know all the chemistry behind the wine, you can see where it’s going, and you can keep track of it to make a high quality wine,” said Miller.

After going through the process of starting a vineyard and winery and learning as much as he could about grapes and wine, Miller said the biggest piece of wisdom he can offer to others just starting their own vineyards and wineries is to start on a small scale and get in touch with all of the resources available to them (such as the Iowa Wine Growers Association and the Midwest Wine Institute) in order to learn how to make quality wine before going into a commercial scale.

“I think the biggest concern that most Iowa wine makers have is that somebody new wants to jump in immediately and then they come out with good quality wine, but they also might release wine that is not as good as it could be which then impacts every customer out there and gives them a negative inference on what Iowa wine quality is like,” said Miller. “So starting off small…before they start making wine on a commercial scale helps them make consistent good product to submit out to the market place.”

All of this hard work and dedication is paying off for Cedar Valley as they were named the Iowa Winery of the Year at the 2013 New York International Wine Competition out of 1,000 entries from the United States and over 30 countries from all over the world.

“We’ve submitted wines to numerous competitions over the past several years, and it’s always nice to have individual wines recognized for their quality,” said Miller. “But to actually be named the Iowa Winery of the Year in a national wine competition was very exciting.”

As the Millers keep learning and growing, it seems likely that many more awards will be in their future.