Doug Bakker, Madison County Winery

A stone-lined terrace cuts into the hillside beneath a slope covered with meticulously tended vines.  It hugs the edge of a large patio which overlooks even more vines and a wide swath of farmland below which is accented by a tree-lined ridge rising in the distance.  A gentle wind trickles down the hill, carrying away with its whispers the sound from the roadway below, leaving the grounds of Madison County Winery in blissful silence.

Madison County Winery is located in St. Charles, Iowa.

Madison County Winery is located in St. Charles, Iowa, in the history Madison County.

Given the beauty of the imagery, it’s not difficult to believe that Doug Bakker, owner-winemaker of Madison County Winery, has a background in art – and it’s even easier to see the evidence of this once inside the creatively designed and artfully decorated facility where form and function work hand-in-hand to provide a flexible space for any number of uses.  During regular hours of operation, a rounded and spacious bar greets visitors as they enter the tasting room, but when large parties are expected the bar is split and swung aside.  A pair of large doors will then be opened to reveal a dual-purpose storage facility and event space.  Works of art by Bakker’s own hand line the walls of the tasting room.

“Really it all started when we were still living in Chicago,” said Bakker.  “We were looking to get back to Iowa and we would take our kids out to some of the orchards out around the outer suburbs area and thought that it would be neat to have a leisure destination type place around the Des Moines metro.”

Bakker purchased the land in 2000 and planted all 5 acres of the existing grapes in 2001.  Commercial sales of wine began in 2005 and the tasting room opened in May of 2011, along with Twisted Vine Brewery, a ‘nano’-brewery under the management of separate owners.

Half-growlers of Twisted Vine Brewery's beer can be purchased onsite, or in select locations.

Half-growlers of Twisted Vine Brewery’s beer can be purchased onsite, or in select locations.

“Now that there’s a lot more varietals of grape vines that can grow in this area, that’s what led us to do it as a winery rather than an orchard,” said Bakker.

He began learning the trade through the use of Iowa State University’s Extension program and by taking classes at the University of Minnesota.  He also participated in mini-apprenticeships in California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois wineries where he would work for free for four or five days as a cellar rat.

“You have to learn hands on, especially if you’re going to do it on a commercial level,” said Bakker.  “You can do the home winemaking and make some great wines, but if you want to do it commercially you do need that experience.”

The vineyard at Madison County Winery hosts three grape varieties, including Vignoles, Marechal Foch, and Stueben.  But while they enjoyed a fair amount of rain during the spring Bakker estimates that he’ll be ‘lucky’ to harvest 20% of the expected crop this year.

“The years have been kind of tough,” said Bakker.  “We’ve had rough years there with no moisture and coming off winter with damage.  This year we have a very small crop because of the winter damage last year.”

Another vineyard provides La Crescent to the winery, and despite his interest in the Marquette varietal Bakker is holding off on acquiring that particular variety until he is prepared for additional growth.

“The goal is to [eventually] see an expansion up the hill and to maybe add another production facility,” said Bakker.  “Hopefully I’ll find more growers and just continue to expand here.”

He also entertains the idea of producing sparkling wine on a commercial level as well.

“That’s one of the areas that we’ve already started branching into,” said Bakker.  “We’ve been doing some testing.  I’d really like to do that more.”

Madison County Winery hopes to expand its operation in the future to include sparkling wines.

Madison County Winery hopes to expand its operation in the future to include sparkling wines.

Bakker has enjoyed the incredible growth the native wine industry of Iowa has exhibited over the past decade, but he recognizes that growth in itself isn’t necessarily sustainable.

“Iowa is a small state with a small population,” said Bakker.  “We’re probably up to saturation point now and what we really need is those top wineries to really put the effort into the best quality wine, to keep stepping up and working with the Wine Institute at Iowa State and really start developing the industry.  There’s always going to be those who come in and fall off because they really haven’t done their research and their homework to know what it really takes.”

“It sounds like a good idea until you start doing all the work,” he adds.  “And I always tell everybody, seriously, go work and work for free for a while to really figure out if that’s really what you want to do.”

Bakker has high hopes for the development of the wine industry and in ten years he hopes to see Iowa recognized for its quality wines.

One of many creatively-labeled wines available at Madison County Winery.

One of many creatively-labeled wines available at Madison County Winery.

“I’d like to see those top-tier wineries really standing out and pushing to move the industry in this state forward,” said Bakker.  “Because that is what it’s going to take.”

“In my mind the most important thing is developing the Wine Institute,” he adds.  “And that is trying to get that winery built – a working winery for education, research, and actual service to the industry at Iowa State. Or if we can’t get it there, somewhere in the state.”

But while Bakker is highly supportive of the native wine industry, he expresses a desire to branch out beyond the borders of the state to break existing negative perceptions of Iowa wine.

“I’m probably different from some people in the industry who want Iowa-wine-only tastings,” said Bakker.  “I want to it to sit right between a French wine and a California wine because I want [tasters] to say ‘Oh, wow’!  I want them to compare and I don’t want them to be stuck with only Iowa wine.  I want to be put with the others.”

“People come out and they have no idea what we have here,” he adds.  “All the wines are good.  And that’s what we want, everybody saying ‘it may not fit my style, but it is a good wine’.  We really want people to be surprised when they come out here.”


For additional photos and to plan your visit, make your way to Madison County Winery’s website.


A Letter from the Editor

As Editor-in-chief of Iowa Decanted, it is my personal responsibility to lead the charge in creating quality content for publication.  While this might seem relatively simple at face value, I can assure you it’s not quite as easy as it sounds and it takes quite a bit of time and effort to pull it off.  Over the past year, I think we’ve managed well as a monthly publication, and while we may have been hard-pressed for time and resources I’m still very proud of the quality work we’ve been able to publish under such circumstances.  But as Editor-in-chief it’s also my responsibility to recognize the weaknesses of the organization and to address them in order to continue publishing quality material.  Unfortunately, at this moment, there is one glaring weakness with Iowa Decanted that needs to be addressed – and that is the ever-increasing constraints on my personal schedule.

As a creative individual, I have always had irons in a number of fires.  Some of you may be surprised to know that my experience ranges from video and film production to graphic design, illustration and creative writing – and more often than not I’ve been engaged in more than one of these endeavors simultaneously.  At the present, however, my willingness to multitask has led me to spread myself too thin.  At the risk of falling behind or, even worse, producing an inferior product, I have come to the conclusion that it is time to reprioritize.

Unfortunately, this issue of Iowa Decanted will be the last – at least until I am able to find the time and resources to continue its operation.  However, I would like to think of this as more of a sabbatical than a shutdown.  I still hope for a day when I can reopen the doors to the operation and continue on our mission of outreach, education, and brand development.

I can honestly say that I had an enormous amount of fun producing Iowa Decanted, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity afforded me to meet industry members and travel around the state.  I hope that you, my readers, have had just as much fun reading and viewing the content we produced.  I genuinely appreciate all the constructive support we’ve received over the past year, both from industry members and readers – we’ve become a better publication because of it.

The native wine industry of Iowa is something that I will always be passionate about, and I hope the opportunity to assist in its development will present itself to me again in the future.  While I am disappointed that I could not have continued Iowa Decanted as I had wished, I take great solace in the knowledge that there are many driven and talented individuals working hard to build the wine industry into the institution it deserves to be.

Thank you.

Nick Thornburg

Tasting Notes: Spritzers and Sangrias

Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon of The Secret Cellar and Nick Thornburg of Iowa Decanted discuss festive alternatives for summer party drinks.

Tasting Notes: Summer Party Wines

Every wonder how to choose a wine for your summer backyard cookout?  Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon of The Secret Cellar and Nick Thornburg of Iowa Decanted discuss a few good options which won’t break the bank.

Wooden Wheel Vineyards

The hatchwork of wooden beams which stretch across the expansive ceiling of the event center is illuminated by the ethereal glow from a dozen hanging chandeliers.  Ranks of aged columns rise from the polished floor to support the mass.  They are strung with countless sparkling Christmas lights which seem to instill the room with an air of enchantment and wonder.  But while this image might bring to mind the luxurious great hall of some medieval lord, this room resides in the Midwest.  In fact, it resides in Iowa and was painstakingly crafted around the structure of an 1860s barn.  Located adjacent to the tasting room of Wooden Wheel Vineyards, it serves as a gathering place for innumerable people around the region.

The event center located at Wooden Wheel Vineyards was built around the structure of an 1860s barn.

The event center located at Wooden Wheel Vineyards was built around the structure of an 1860s barn.

“It’s fun to be a part of people’s lives when they come out here,” says Michael Vincent, winemaker and co-owner of Wooden Wheel Vineyards.  “We want them not to think of this as a Marriott, we want them to think of this as just a very relaxing place where they can be just as relaxed as they are at home.”

“That’s been fun, too, the social aspect of it,” he adds.  “We think we provide a valuable community service.”

Wooden Wheel Vineyards was originally the farmstead of the Vincent family whose ancestors fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 before settling in Iowa.  Pictures and original documents detailing the family history decorate the walls of the farm-turned-winery.

“I’ve always considered myself a displaced farmer,” says Vincent.  “I was part of the fifth generation here on the farm, and so we always had it in the back of our minds to come back.”

Unlike the winemakers whose involvement in the industry stem from a passion for wine and winemaking, Vincent contributes the origins of Wooden Wheel Vineyards to market research and business savvy.

Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards.

Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards.

“I’m a business guy, and to me that’s an art,” says Vincent.  “My experience has been in managing my own business or managing one for somebody else.”

Prior to Wooden Wheel, Michael Vincent and his wife owned and operated an insurance agency, which they started from scratch in 1993.  It grew to include 9 offices and 18 agents in the region.  When they were approached with an offer for buyout, the Vincents faced an impending decision as to what to do next.  While they desired to return to the family farmstead, the realities of modern farming were readily apparent to them.

“The first thing was, we have 125 acres, obviously that’s not a farm anymore,” says Vincent.  “To be a farmer anywhere it takes at least a thousand acres and really around here I’m guessing the average farm size is around three thousand acres.”

Instead, inspired by an experience they had insuring a winery, the Vincents began doing research on the possibility of starting a vineyard as an alternative for their family farm.

“We looked at the soil suitability rating from Iowa State, looked at the topography of our farm, and decided this was something we could do,” says Vincent.  “You don’t need a lot of acres, especially if you’re thinking of this as something to do while you retire.”

The Vincents also decided to make their own wine, instead of limiting themselves to the sale of grapes.

“Then it becomes a value added product,” says Vincent.  “We can control what we sell based on what we manufacture because we’ll produce the raw product, the grapes, and not worry about selling them or not having a market for them.  Rather, we’ll be creating the market ourselves through the wine.  It was a business decision.”

This family document, which hangs on the wall of the tasting room, shows the signature of Ulysses S. Grant.

This family document, which hangs on the wall of the tasting room, shows the signature of Ulysses S. Grant.

After taking classes at Des Moines Area Community College under the tutelage of Randall Vos and Paul Gospodarczyk the Vincents began their own operation in 2010.

“We learned a lot that first year,” says Vincent.  “Establishing the winery and going through all the hoops that takes was a lot more difficult than I anticipated.”

Zoning requirements and DNR concerns about runoff created initial hurdles to Wooden Wheel Vineyards, but eventually the doors of the winery were opened – one year later than the Vincents had planned.

Currently the estate hosts a number of varietals, including Marquette, Petite Pearl, Briana, and LaCrescent.  This list is rounded out with a number of other varietals purchased from other growers.

The open sky above Wooden Wheel Vineyards' event center.

The open sky above Wooden Wheel Vineyards’ event center.

“I’ve approached this business like I’ve approached any business and that’s from the standpoint that I don’t know everything,” says Vincent.  “And I figure if I can always maintain that attitude, and I’m always asking questions, always trying to learn… then I’m still on the right direction.”

“The fun part has been learning how to make wine,” he adds.  “Coming from insurance where we make paper products, [it’s fun] to actually have a tangible product which we can create and be artistic.”

That same sense of creativity is evident in the unique titles given to Wooden Wheel wines.  Each is named after an ancestor.  ‘Private G.W.’ refers to Michael Vincent’s great-great-grandfather George Washington Husted, who experienced the battlefield of Shiloh and the deadly Andersonville Prison during the Civil War.

'The Judge' is named in honor of a Vincent ancestor.

‘The Judge’ is named in honor of a Vincent ancestor.

While their names may exhibit a sense of playfulness, Wooden Wheel wines are serious business.  After experiencing some initial challenges with the Marquette grape, Vincent employed similar processes used to produce the varietal’s ancestor, Pinot Noir, resulting in a wine which displays very similar characteristics to the classic grape and a refinement not often found in Midwestern reds.

“We don’t have any super, super sweet wines,” says Vincent.  “What we try to do is accent the flavor in all those categories: the semi-sweet, the sweet and the dry.”

“Our goal has never been to win awards.  Our goal has always been to make wine that people like,” he adds.  “What I really enjoy is when people come in and sit down and say ‘gee, I really like all of your wines’.  Then, to me, it’s been a success.”

Daly Creek Winery – ‘Virgo Moon’ Dry Red Wine

This bottle, dated 2009, contains a blend of red grapes, including St. Croix, Frontenac, and Marechal Foch.  It exhibits bright fruit notes despite the strong smoky character.  The acidity, while high, is befitting a well made pairing wine.  The wine’s coloring is beginning to show sign of age with the deep red beginning to brown, but the taste profile exhibits only the briefest hint of degeneration.

Overall, a well constructed wine which can be consumed on its own or paired with a hardy meal.


East Grove Farms Grand Opening

On June 21st, East Grove Farms held a grand opening event featuring live music, farm tours, and wine tastings.

The entrance to East Grove Farms, ancestral home to the Garretson family.

The entrance to East Grove Farms, ancestral home to the Garretson family.










The winery is located within the old family home, built in 1899.

The winery is located within the old family home, built in 1899.










On display at East Grove Farms are collections from the family history, including these original letters dated 1849.

On display at East Grove Farms are collections from the family history, including these original letters dated 1849.










East Grove Farms offers a number of unique wines, including those made of elderberries and peppers.

East Grove Farms offers a number of unique wines, including those made of elderberries and peppers.











Live music accompanied East Grove Farms' grand opening festivities.

Live music accompanied East Grove Farms’ grand opening festivities.










Iowa Decanted first featured the Garretson family of East Grove Farms in November of 2013.


For more information on East Grove Farms, make your way to their website and plan a winery visit to taste some of their unique wines.


Tasting Notes: Wine Storage


In the 7th episode of Tasting Notes, Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon of The Secret Cellar and Nick Thornburg of Iowa Decanted discuss the proper methods for storing wine.

Sensory Training

An intensive wine tasting proficiency training course will be held on July 14-15 at the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, located in the Food Sciences Building on the campus of Iowa State University.

This workshop will benefit both beginners and established professionals who wish to produce, sell, serve, purchase, or simply enjoy quality wine.  The course can be used to certify those who wish to volunteer for the Iowa Quality Wine Consortium (IQWC) sensory panel.

Participants will learn a variety of skills in wine evaluation to become proficient in tasting wines critically, beginning with the major components in wine including sugars, acids, alcohols and tannins. Exercises will be completed in white and red wine aroma identification, varietal identification, wine flaws and faults, and consistency in scoring among others.

This is a 2-day intensive workshop which will meet from 9 am – 4:30 pm each day (with a 90 minute break for participants to leave for lunch).

Participants who attend this workshop may test their proficiency if they wish (separate testing date TBD). Those who pass the proficiency test have the option to volunteer on the IQWC sensory certification panel.

The course cost is $50 per person.

Space is limited, so in order to reserve a seat contact Tammi Martin of the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, at phone number 515-294-3308, or email her at

(Participants must be at least 21 years of age).

For IQWC membership information contact Joan O’Brien of the Iowa Wine Growers Association,  515-262-8323,

Grape Disease Management

Northern Grapes Project Header

Anthracnose on berries







Anthracnose on grape berries. (Photo: Patty McManus)

Every experienced grape grower knows that good disease management program is a crucial component of growing high-quality grapes.  Early season control is especially important, as flowers and small berries are quite susceptible to powdery mildew, downy mildew, and black rot.

Because cold-hardy grape cultivars are still relatively new, we’re still learning about the different cultivars’ resistance and susceptibility to the range of grape pathogens.  Therefore, one of the objectives of the Northern Grapes Project is to evaluate disease resistance and the cultivars’ susceptibility to copper- and sulfur-based fungicides.

Below is a list of resources that will help you build an effective disease management program.

Grape Disease Management Basics (and All About Anthracnose) by Wayne Wilcox, Cornell University and Patty McManus, the University of Wisconsin.  April 10, 2012 Northern Grapes Project webinar.

The Disease Management Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together by Dean Volenberg, University of Wisconsin Extension – Door County.  June  4, 2013 Northern Grapes News (Vol. 2, Issue 2).

Grape Disease Control, 2013 by Wayne Wilcox, Cornell University.  A rather lengthy document that contains an update and review of how to control grape fungal diseases in the east.  (Will updated this link with the 2014 version once it’s released.)

The 2014 Midwest Small Fruit and Grape Spray Guide.  Contains general guidelines to use as you develop your grape spray program.  Also has information about fruit grower newsletters, pesticide drift, plant diagnostic lab listings, and much more.


Article and resources courtesy of the Northern Grapes Project.