Midwest Wine Comeback

Guest writer, Mallory Hughes, submitted the following piece for Iowa Decanted‘s first issue of 2014.


At the top of the hill a building sits and a red pick-up arrives, its bed filled with oak barrels. A rocking chair on the front porch sways slightly in the wind. On every side of the structure but one, grapevines are lined neatly in rows, the fruit picked for the season and the leaves now dried, have fallen to the ground. The rows of vines rise and fall with the rolling hills, stopping only once the vines reach the sunburnt forest in the distance. This is not Napa Valley, nor Sonoma Valley, nor anywhere in the state of California. This is Swisher, Iowa, at Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery.

Before Prohibition, Iowa was the sixth largest grape producing state in the nation. But as Prohibition expanded the market for corn and soybeans, wine production fell because decreased demand for wine grapes resulted in destruction of vineyards. There was damage to grapevines from chemical drift from herbicides, as well as a severe blizzard in 1940 that killed a lot of the wine grape crops.

“Jumping to about 2000, the grape and wine industry is trying to restart all over the country,” Craig Tordsen of the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University said.

Over the past 20 years, advancements in botanical research and breeding at Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota, and Cornell University have made growing wine grapes in Iowa and other Midwest climates possible.

In the 1980’s, the University of Minnesota began a program to produce hybrid wine grapes able to sustain temperatures in the Midwest. However, it was not until 2000 that a research winery and enology lab were established to study all aspects of wine and winemaking.

The grapes created were cold hardy varietals called French-American hybrids. These grapes produce a full crop of fruit which can withstand the cold winter temperatures of the Midwest, sometimes -30 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.

In September 2006, the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at Iowa State University was established. As a result of Iowa’s rising grape and wine industry, the Institute conducts research on cold hardy grapes, enology research, and developed a quality award program along with an outreach program for growers everywhere.

Perhaps another reason for the increase in vineyards and wineries in the state of Iowa beyond the French-American hybrid grapes and the extension and outreach program is the Iowa Alcohol Beverage Division. Due to the size of Iowa’s wine industry, obtaining permits for vineyards and wineries is still affordable. In states like California, permits can cost well over $500.

In the state of Iowa, there are different permits one may receive to produce and sell wine. A class “A” permit, which is the official state license that is required to own and operate a native Iowa winery, may be purchased for only $25 per year through the IBD.

The other two permits, however, are for established wineries that are looking to do more with their product than sell it at the winery itself. A class “B” Iowa permit allows wineries to sell their product at off-premise locations like farmers markets and special events. The class “C” Iowa wine permit allows wineries to sell by the glass at wine festivals.

The dedication of researchers at both universities made vineyards and wine production in the state of Iowa possible. Without them, Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery or Fireside Winery might not exist.

In 2000, Cedar Ridge owners Jeff and Laurie Quint bought a plot of land in the countryside in Swisher, Iowa, and planted ten varieties of French American cold hardy grapes. Three years later, fruit was on the vines and wine was ready to be made.

Jamie Siefken, Jeff Quint’s media spokesperson, explained that Quint works as a CFO in Marion. During the dot com burst he was afraid he would never retire, but decided with his wife that a winery would be his first choice if and when he did.

Just 26 miles west of Cedar Ridge sits Fireside Winery on land adjacent to a family farm. In 2005, after researching the Iowa wine industry at Iowa State’s Extension Program, Bill and Rona Wyant planted wine grapes. By 2007, fruit was produced and the doors were open.

“We’re currently corn and soybean farmers. So, we were looking to diversify and had the interest in the wine,” Rona Wyant said. “We decided that we were going to go ahead and jump in and give it a five-year try.”

Harvest season can be anywhere from mid-August to mid-September depending on the year’s weather as it arrives. But before any harvesting can be done, some precautions are taken to ensure the grapes stay on the vine.

For pre-harvest, Cedar Ridge lays nets over the vines to stop birds from eating all of the fruit before it is picked. At Fireside, a canon bursts air at intervals to scare away the birds, and an electrified fence prevents hungry deer from entering the grounds.

For local vineyards, harvesting the grapes is extremely labor intensive. Both Cedar Ridge and Fireside Wineries put out a call for labor.

Cedar Ridge advertises on Craigslist and social media, but sends an e-mail newsletter that goes out to about 9,000 people as well. They pay each picker per pound of grapes picked.

“We were done in three weeks this past year,” Siefken said. “They’ll come out early Saturday morning and start picking. Usually they’ll be done around noon. And then the guys [staff] will process the grapes all afternoon. It’s definitely a long month or two months for the production staff to work.”

Every year, Fireside Winery hosts an annual “iPick iStomp iDrink” event. They put out a notice in the beginning of August to all of the fan club members and anyone who is on the newsletter list asking them to sign up for one of the three or four weekends to help pick the grapes.

“They come out to the main vineyard at 7 a.m. Then, they go through and pick grapes, talk to Zach and the guys when they’re out in the vineyard with them. They’ll talk about what grape they’re picking, what kind of wine that’s going to make, and then we’ll bring them back,” Wyant explains.

After their return to the Fireside tasting room, they receive a t-shirt, bottle of wine, and lunch, all before doing the grape stomp. Typically the 400 spots fill within two days.

While the harvest process is the same for both red and white wine grape varieties, it is the processing that differentiates the end product.

For white wines, the grapes are picked, de-stemmed, and crushed. They are then chilled and pressed, disposing of the excess seeds and skins before using the juice. Juice treatment occurs, testing the acidity or pH, and adding enzymes and sugars, depending on what types of wine are being made. Then the fermentation process begins, adding yeast and fermenting, stopping earlier for sweet wine, but keeping it in the barrel longer for dry wine.

The red wine process is similar but what gives red wine the color and tannins that white wine lacks is the skin. While red wine grapes are also de-stemmed, the skins are left on during the cool fermentation process that allows the juice to absorb the color and tannins from the skins. During that process the sugars or acids are added to create a dry or sweet wine. Once absorbed, the yeast is added and the juice is pressed to remove the skins before aging and fermenting. Due to differences in styles of winemaking, aging in oak barrels is an option, but not a requirement.

Wine grape growing is all about trial and error. One grape variety may be abundant and produce delicious wines, while another seems to fall short. At Cedar Ridge, St. Croix is one of those that just do not seem right.

“It tastes like a vegetable,” said an employee, enjoying a salad in the tasting room on his lunch break.

“Yeah, we’ve started to not do St. Croix,” Siefken said. “It’s also a mess to pick, too.”

The most successful wine grapes at Cedar Ridge, said Siefken, are La Crescent, Marquette, La Crosse, and Frontenac. Three of these are the University of Minnesota’s most outstanding grape varieties that produce award-winning wines.

At Fireside, similar varieties have been successful. Wyant said the Marquette, Brianna, La Crosse, St. Croix, and Frontenac have been the best producers.

Cedar Ridge is the very first winery/distillery combination in the state of Iowa since the Prohibition. When a wine grape fails to meet expectations, they can usually use the fruit to produce spirits instead.  “We’re also a distillery, so we can make brandies, port or fortified wine, and grappas, and other products like that where we can use a less superior variety for other facets of our business,” Siefken said.

Fireside likewise has alternatives for less successful grape varieties. Zach Bott, son-in-law of the Wyant’s and winemaker at Fireside, may create red wine blends using multiple grape varieties.

While the blends are often made with Iowa-grown grapes, imported California grapes allow them to produce dry reds that are more difficult to make with Iowa grape varieties. By importing the whole fruit, the de-stemming and fermentation processes can be completed locally.

Cedar Ridge occasionally imports whole grapes from Lodi, California, located in San Joaquin County. A few days after it has been picked, the fresh fruit shows up on top of the hill in a produce truck that has been pumped full of nitrogen gas to keep the fruit from oxidizing and spoiling on the way.

By importing the whole grape as opposed to juice or concentrate, they feel that they can get a better quality product, Siefken said. But, to further differentiate the winery, Cedar Ridge buys grapes from other Iowa wineries as well.

“We might get more of a yield from year to year, but as we grow as a business, I mean, there’s only one way to do more wine, and that’s to bring in grapes from outside. So there’s a couple Iowa wineries that in the past two years have grown their entire crop for us,” Siefken said.

Doing it all, growing the grape and seeing it out to the end product is something special to all vineyards and wineries in Iowa.

“Something about in the industry, when you tell people that [the grapes] are grown here, it excites people more,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition in Iowa and it separates yourself from others. To be surrounded by 10 acres of grapes there’s just an ambiance for people to be out here.”

Nationally, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau established American Viticulture Areas, or AVAs to allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality and reputation with a certain geographic location. In order to qualify for an AVA designation, at least 85% of the grapes used in the wine must have been grown in that region.

The United States has 206 AVAs total, with California carrying 100 of them. Eastern Iowa is included in the Upper Mississippi River Valley (UMRV) AVA that was created in June 2009 and is the largest AVA in the United States at 29,900 square miles. It covers regions in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. The UMRV AVA represents 32 wineries and 445 vineyard acres.

The US wine industry is commonly associated with California, which has actually taken quite a different form than the industry in Iowa.

One major difference, Wyant says, is that the wine consumption in California is simply much higher than in Iowa, and people there have been consuming dry wines for a long time. She explains that if you give a new wine drinker a dry red wine from a classic French grape variety like a Cabernet Sauvignon, he or she probably will not like it.

“If you do a tasting in California, in the Napa or Sonoma area, you’re going to find it very hard to find a sweet wine. Here, you’re going to find that our wine palettes are a lot sweeter,” Wyant said. “We’re just learning to drink wine, well, not me! But, as a whole, we’re learning to drink wine, so we start off a little bit on a sweeter side.”

Siefken said comparing cooler climate regions to a place like California is like comparing apples to oranges. The grapes themselves are so different that the product will be very different as well.

Regarding varieties of product, he said, “It really all comes down to climate. Iowa wines, we have a short growing season here and we have a cooler climate.”

“Grapevines themselves start off with high acidity and low sugar and during the growing season it develops more sugar, and then the acidity goes down. That determines the style of wines that you can make, based off of the fruit that you have,” he added.

“I think that’s the farmer in us,” Wyant said. “We’re very proud of having grapes that are grown in Iowa that we feel can stand up next to a lot of the other wineries.”

In the last few years, 15 new wineries have opened in the state of Iowa alone. And as of 2012, there are 98 Iowa wineries. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University these wineries produce more than 240,000 gallons of wine annually.

“The easy sales have been found,” Tordsen said. “Iowa Native wineries need to develop a stronger marketing approach and improved quality if they hope to grow in the future.”

To view the accompanying slideshow, visit Iowa Decanted‘s Facebook page.

Mallory Hughes is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and English with a particular interest in writing/editing for magazines.  She is available for freelance writing assignments and open to job offers starting in May 2014.