Ardon Creek Winery

159 years ago, an Irish family made its way to Southeast Iowa and settled between the rivers Cedar and Mississippi. The descendants of that family reside there still, and display their ancestral pride through a symbolic three-leaf clover, artfully worked into the logo of the family’s current venture: a vineyard and winery named Ardon Creek.

“I was raised here, and all the Furlongs in our lineage are from here,” said Mike Furlong. Along with his wife, Diane, he manages the day-to-day operations of the vineyard and winery.

“My father raised tomatoes for Heinz when Muscatine had a plant,” said Mike. “During those years, the place would be full of people working, harvesting, and so I got exposed to that and some of the pitfalls – the good, bad, and different. I think that has helped us because it’s a little like the wine business.”

In addition to Mike’s experience on the family farm, the Furlongs’ work experience in the business world has proved valuable as well. “The marketing stuff, the sales stuff,” said Diane. “I sometimes think that it can be lacking [in other wineries].”

Transitioning the family farm into a vineyard hadn’t been at the top of the Furlongs’ list from the start. Instead, driven by a desire to rejuvenate the ancestral farmstead, they entertained a variety of options. It was a grape growing seminar which finally convinced them it was the right course of action.

“[Mike] came back from that seminar, that very first one he went to, and said, ‘I think I found it, I think we’re going to raise grapes and make wine’,” said Diane. “At that point we were so captivated by the whole romance idea of wine.”

“We started to go to classes that Iowa State put on in 2000, planted our first grape vines in 2004, and then opened the winery in 2009,” said Mike. “So we’re starting our fifth year as a winery, and eleventh as far as the vineyard.”

Ardon Creek produces about 3,000 gallons of wine annually from the grapes they grow on site including Concord, Noiret, Chancellor, Edelweiss and LaCrosse. Additional juice is brought in from New York which they use to fulfill their total production of 6,000 gallons or more, a process made easier with help from loyal community members.

“It’s just amazing to me. We bottle probably about once a month, twice a month, seventeen times in a year, or something like that – the bottling team are the same volunteers every single time,” said Diane.

“We kind of take to the Hillary Clinton quote of, ‘it takes a village’, and to run a winery that seems to be our perspective,” said Mike. “It doesn’t hurt that Diane is one of these bon appetit kind of cooks, so she really puts on a nice spread. We think of stories about threshers and getting together to do the threshing of the wheat and oats or whatever – there’s some of that going on. I think the uniqueness of the endeavor intrigues people, so people are interested in being involved.”

“Everybody likes wine,” said Diane.

At the present, the winery operations are contained within a single building which is separated into a tasting room and a large space for winemaking and storage. The winemaking room is lined on one side by a row of tall, stainless steel tanks. On the opposite wall, a long table covered with laboratory equipment. A mountainous stack of boxes sweep down the center: bottles waiting to be filled or sold, oak infusions ready to be immersed in aging wine, labels waiting to be adhered – provisions for a busy winery. A cement crush pad hugs one of the outer walls of the building.

“As time goes on and as the business grows we can see ourselves using real oak barrels to age some of our wines, and adding some reserve releases. We might also put up another facility so we can host weddings more practically rather than worrying about the weather conditions,” said Mike.

Among the challenges the Furlongs have faced has been product recognition and capturing a strong market share.

“It’s a whole learning curve for the audience as much as it’s been [for us],” said Diane. “These grapes have been largely unknown. Everybody recognizes Concord, but that’s about the only one.“

“The market share portion is challenging because to gain market share you have to spend money – any kind of growth you have to spend money, it seems like in this industry,” said Mike.

Despite these challenges the Furlongs remain positive about the endeavor.

“I think that people will begin to recognize more of the cold climate grapes as time goes on,” said Diane.

“I’m a big believer in Chancellor and Noiret,” said Mike. “First of all, I like dry reds. It’s winter hardy to about 15 degrees with 50 percent bud kill. It comes very close to the vinifera world, maybe a light Corot Noir or a Cab, if you want to call it that. When we [the Furlongs] drink wine, we drink that, or I do anyway.  The Noiret grape was developed by Cornell in New York; we have an acre of that and we make that in a dry red style and it has hints of black and green pepper and it makes for a very complex, interesting wine. Does it taste like Cabernet Sauvignon? No, but does it taste like interesting dry red? Yeah.”

In their eyes, the future of the Iowa wine industry also remains positive.

“I would say there would be fewer wineries and they might be larger, and I think those that remain will be better winemakers and will also have different winter hardy hybrids that might make some of the dry people happy,” said Mike. “It took Napa three decades to really get themselves [to where they are now] – and I’m not comparing Iowa to Napa, but it’s a long process.”

In the meantime, however, the Furlongs focus their efforts on rejuvenating the family estate.

“Since it has been in our family 159 years some of it is a legacy thing for the next generation,” said Mike. “This is a community making a unique product and it’s a pretty good product.”


This article first appeared in Midwest Wine Press in April 2014.

Tasting Notes: Wine Labels

Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon of The Secret Cellar and Nick Thornburg of Iowa Decanted discuss wine labels, what they mean, and how to read them with confidence.

The Power of Friendship in the World of Wine

wine geek blog-01Yes, this is a wine blog.  That said, we’re going to spend some time talking about friendship.  Why?  I’m glad you asked.  Because it may shed some light into how wineries can keep visitors coming back for more.  Intrigued?

We all have friends (I hope) who’ve made a significant impact on our lives by lifting our spirits when we’re down, giving us encouragement, and leading us through the vast wilderness of interpersonal relationships (let’s be honest, it can be a jungle).  There’s nothing quite like having a BFF.

Now let’s take a moment and think about what makes up a healthy friendship between two people.

Trim away the superfluous and what you’re left with is the impression of mutual benefit between both parties (ex. Billy and Karen are friends.  Billy enjoys spending time with Karen because she is quite humorous.  Karen enjoys Billy’s company because he’s such a good sport and provides moral support when she’s in the dumps. They both benefit from a continued relationship).  We can even loosely determine the strength of the friendship by evaluating the value each party places on the benefit they derive from their association.  The higher the value, the stronger the bond.  When there is a strong bond, we can be sure that both parties will instigate unsolicited actions to the benefit of the other.  Each interaction builds trust and heightens the perceived value of the opposite party, increasing the likelihood that beneficial actions will continue to be performed.  It’s a bit of a cyclical process, really.

Now researchers are applying that same line of thinking to the analysis of the relationship between tourists and organizations which provide destination experiences… like wineries.

The International Journal of Strategic Communication published a study in 2012 entitled ‘Destination Loyalty and Communication – A Relationship-based Tourist Behavioral Model’ which states that relationship building between destinations and visitors leads to active supporting behavior on the part of the visitor towards the destination.

Of course, when I first read this I wasn’t at all surprised – isn’t this exactly what marketers and savvy business-people have been trying for since… well, since forever?  But then again, we live in an age where everything must be quantitatively proven in order for it to be believed, so the need for this study is understandable.

In this study, relationship building is approached much the same way as our earlier ideas on friendship.  In the healthy relationship visitors wish to continue their association with the destination because more benefits are expected the longer they continue the relationship.  The same goes for the destination.  Both parties expect to benefit in different ways (ex. the destination hopes to make sales) but they both value the benefits of the relationship enough to keep it up.  And the stronger the bond, the more likely visitors will be to engage in active support such as sharing the experience with friends or acquaintances.

If we think about what this means for wineries, we begin to understand the importance of relationship-building as a part of the destination experience.

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been to a few tasting rooms where I’ve felt ignored or treated in a manner I can only express as being cold.  The wine may not have been bad, but given the lack of effort on the part of the staff to engage in interpersonal dialogue I felt no desire to return or even purchase their wine.  The quality of product wasn’t enough to get my business.  On the other hand, I’ve been to a couple of places where the wine wasn’t quite up to par but the staff treated me so well I bought the wine nonetheless – and in some cases even returned for another visit!  In the case of the former, I was unable to recognize the benefit of a continued relationship with the destination (despite having a decent product) specifically because they put no effort into relationship-building.  But in the case of the latter, I made an effort to support the destination because the interpersonal skills of the staff were of such great value to me that I felt obligated to help them out!  Maybe you’ve had a similar experiences.

The study from the International Journal of Strategic Communication provides evidence that efforts made in relationship building during the destination experience result in destination loyalty and favorable voluntary behavior taken by visitors.  Encouraging for wineries?  Yes.  Commonplace among wineries?  Maybe not so much.

I’d like to share the following suggestions to wineries in light of this:

1.  Put your best face forward.

The tasting room is where you make or break the relationship with your visitors.  Do you really want the growly minimum-wage local as your front man (or woman)?  I don’t think so.  When visitors walk in your door they should be greeted by the friendliest and most personable individual on your staff.  This person should be bursting with a passion for customer service – and it wouldn’t hurt if they knew the ins-and-outs of your operation and all about your wine (If they don’t know the answer to something, fine, but the first thing they should say is ‘I don’t know, but let me find out for you!’)  This person should understand the fine art of conversation (you don’t want a chatterbox hogging the limelight and you don’t want a timid mouse shrinking into the shadows) and they shouldn’t be as concerned with the sale as much as they are about building a healthy relationship with the visitor.  The ideal person will make it easy for the visitor to relax and trust that they are in good hands.  The ideal person will make visitors feel like they’ve made a new friend.  The ideal person may take some time to find.  This is a hard job.  It takes effort and a ton of energy.  Don’t believe that just anybody can do it.

2.  Distribute content designed to build relationships with visitors.

Social media, web content, mailings, and commercials are all potential carriers of the destination experience.  Think about ways you can make it easy for potential visitors to see the value and benefit of coming to visit you – and by value I’m not referring to monetary value.  Although this can be a good incentive to bring people in the door, it’s probably not going to be the best way to create destination loyalty.

Remember: friendship.

How do you normally make friends?  Do you offer them discounts to incentivize them to go out on the town with you?  Do you hound them with one-line announcements about special events at your house and fill their inbox with pleas to come visit?  Probably not.

Friendships begin with a dialogue.  Listen.  Respond.  Make an effort to understand the other party.  Don’t hog the conversation – It isn’t one-sided, it is a mutual experience.

Social media is, of course, a perfect platform for engaging in this type of relationship building (more traditional types of media can be creatively employed in a similar fashion with a bit of thought, however).  While it’s easy to fall into the trap of a one-sided conversation, posts and tweets and whatever else should really be designed to encourage a dialogue.  Campaigns should be responsive and agile, ready to truly engage with potential visitors.  Content such as this will encourage destination loyalty and voluntary favorable actions – and this is what wineries want, right?

Food for thought.

Until next time.  Cheers!

Ardon Creek ‘Chancellor’ – Dry Red Wine

Deep ruby red coloring with vibrant edges.  This wine exhibits subtle earthy tones, black pepper, and dark cherry with hints of toasted oak and smoke.  In the mouth this seems a bit tart, with bright fruit flavors and subtle oak and tannins.  The wine is medium to light bodied, and would do well paired with aged cheeses and chocolate.


IWGA Conference Report

On March 7 and 8 I had the great pleasure of attending the Iowa Wine Growers Association’s annual conference which was held at the West Des Moines Marriott Hotel.  It was my first conference and my expectations were high, fueled by a desire to learn and to connect with other folks who are passionate about the Iowa wine industry.  In both regards I walked away satisfied, comforted not only by the fact that there are numerous people dedicated to the growth and development of this industry, but also that there exists a strong (and growing) institutional foundation upon which industry members can lean for support.

I refer not only to the IWGA itself, but also to the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute which operates out of Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota, and the Alcohol Beverages Division.  These organizations are among the handful which strive to cooperatively build a sustainable and profitable industry within the state, and I am glad each made an appearance.

From a personal perspective, I found the most enjoyment in meeting old friends and new.  I was especially happy to meet face-to-face those people I had only ever touched base with in phone conversations or email.  It was an invigorating experience, one which stimulated a renewal of my dedication and excitement for the future of the industry.

From this experience, I am reminded of that well known idiom ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

I’ll be among the first to admit how easy it is to let slip from my mind the efforts, the passion, and the investment others have made to any cause when I have little or no contact with them over a period of time.  Events like the IWGA conference are valuable, not only for the information shared through seminars and vendor pitches, but because they bring like-minded individuals together, creating a veritable mashup of passion and determination.  And while I may have a vested interest in cooperating with another from a distance (and, to be sure, this can be a valuable thing) it all becomes more tangible in close proximity, and easier for my mind to assess the gravitas of that relationship.

What it comes down to is that I wish we could do this more often!

By participating in events like these – where we can learn, discuss, debate, and sample together; where we stand face-to-face and engage in intelligent and honest dialogue – we can only develop that much quicker as an industry.  It’s no great stretch of the mind to realize that people will work harder for the friend standing at their side than for the person disembodied by distance with only an ethernet cable as a tether.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to the IWGA for allowing Iowa Decanted access to the event.  It was a worthwhile experience and one I hope we’ll be able to revisit in the future.  Enjoy the slideshow of photos from the conference below, and don’t forget to watch the video feature.



Nick Thornburg

Founder, Editor-in-chief

Economic Impact 2012

wine geek blog-01I’m a Wine Geek, I’ll admit it.  But I’m not alone, so I’ve decided to take this opportunity to write blog posts specifically for geeks like me.  Keep your eyes open and keep coming back to Iowa Decanted – unlike our regular content which is updated at the beginning of the month, this blog will be a continual work in progress and you’ll be able to find new content more often.  I’ll be talking about pretty much anything that comes to mind in regards to the wine industry of Iowa, so I hope you’ll join me in this new adventure.  First up?  An interesting study brought to my attention by Mike Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards.

This study, commissioned by Iowa State University, was released in March of 2014 – and it’s a report that every true wine geek should know about (false wine geeks need not continue!) and one about which every locavore should be proud.  This report, which sports the titillating title ‘The Economic Impact of Iowa Wine and Wine Grapes – 2012’, states that the full economic impact of Iowa wine and grapes during the year 2012 was $420 Million.

Wow, huh?

We are, of course, currently living in the year 2014, so if you’re like me you’ll be wondering what this report from 2012 means for 2013 and today.

According to the report, this total economic impact increased 79% from the year 2008, which to this wine geek seems an incredible and wonderful leap in the right direction.  Winery visit estimates were up as well at a whopping 51% from the year 2008.  The total number of wineries in the state rose from 74 in 2008 to 99 in 2012.

What can we infer from this information – can we assume that this explosive growth will continue into the future?

Well, no.  I think not.

Don’t get me wrong, this is great news, but given the realities of the industry I don’t believe (and this opinion is shared among many players) that this trend in growth can or will continue.  Iowa is a difficult place to grow grapes – talk to any vineyard manager and she will confirm this.  Agriculture is a time consuming and risky venture, in general, and it’s safe to say that despite the growing popularity of native wine, vineyard managers will be hesitant to pursue rapid expansion without certain assurances.  According to this report 90% of the wineries in Iowa could be considered small producers, with only 5 wineries producing more than 5000 gallons of wine in 2012.  Small producers generally experience (and pursue) tactful expansion given their lack of access to equity.  They grow as they see fit and only as much as they feel comfortable with.

Winemakers experienced this firsthand in 2012.  According to the economic impact report planted acreage experienced only moderate growth which led wineries to look elsewhere to find grapes/juice to fulfill their demands.  These imported grapes are, of course, more costly and if this trend continues the increased cost of wine production is likely to hamper future growth and expansion.

Taking into consideration the market as a whole, we can safely say there is plenty of opportunity to grow and expand operations and capture market share.  While Iowa was listed as the 25th largest wine producer in the United States for the year 2012, California topped the list boasting 88.58% of total wine production.  Iowa produced only 0.03%.

As we can see – plenty of opportunity for the future.

So what can we expect for the future of Iowa wine?

While I don’t believe we can expect the same level of growth, I think we can safely assume we can see a steady, gentle increase in economic impact as time goes on.  Industry members are beginning to find their rhythm and consumers are beginning to pay attention, so rather than focusing on quantity I speculate we’ll see a higher concentration on the quality of Iowa wine.  Consumers are slowly learning the nuances of the wines which can be produced in this region and as their knowledge-base and palates develop they’ll begin demanding a more elevated product.  In other words, I think the future of wine in our state will increasingly depend on its acceptance by a quality-centric consumer.

We have a lot to look forward to.

Until next time, I raise my glass to all my fellow Wine Geeks.  Cheers!

PS – you can find the economic report from 2012 here.

10 Books You Need on Your Shelf

Every wine enthusiast, no matter the experience, should have a healthy selection of reading material to reference when the occasion arises.  Who knows, maybe you’ll need an idea when selecting a wine for your next dinner party?  Maybe you’re trying to ferment your very own vintage and you need a bit of help?  There are countless books on wine, viticulture, and enology floating around out there, but Iowa Decanted has pared down the selection to the 10 essential books for everyone’s shelf.


Park Farm Winery – ‘Vintner’s Reserve Marquette’ 2012

Opaque and purplish red nearing black.  When swirled in the glass this wine leaves strong legs and exhibits strong aromas of toast and stewed fruit, with undertones of berry, black pepper and plum.  On the palate this wine is soft with subtle tannins and acidity, but would still serve well as a pairing for strong dishes like beef.


Iowa Quality Wine Consortium

The Iowa Quality Wine Consortium is a partnership between the IWGA and ISU’s Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute.  It was established to help enhance the reputation of Iowa wine and ensure the quality of Iowa wine overall.  Members of the IWGA can submit their wines for evaluation, and should it pass a sensory analysis test from a panel of chosen evaluators, they will receive a mark of excellence which can be affixed to the wine bottle.  Iowa Decanted visited ISU on the day of an evaluation to get a few behind-the-scenes shots and speak with those involved.

6 Iowa Wines to Try

The following wines were compiled from a list of Iowa Decanted’s top-reviewed wines.  To get our take on other wines we’ve tasted, check out our wine reviews!

1.  Odessa Vineyards – ‘Autumn Mist’ – Dry White Table Wine

This wine, made from the Briana grape, is bursting with tropical fruit notes, including pineapple, peach, citrus, and grape.  Although this is a dry wine, it gives the impression of sweetness simply from its fruit forward nature.  If enthusiasts are interested in tasting a wine which exhibits the true characteristics of the varietal – this would be a perfect example.

2.  The Winery at Kirkwood – ‘La Crescent Sparkling Wine’

This wine, made in the traditional French Methode Champenoise and fermented in the bottle, is something to make every Iowan proud.  Subtle and complex, with excellent mouthfeel, this is a wine which can easily be enjoyed by itself or paired with a meal.

Unfortunately this wine is in short supply (a 40 gallon batch), so there isn’t much to pass around.  Get a bottle as soon as possible.

3.  Brick Arch Winery – ‘Chambourcin’ American Red Wine

This wine is nearly opaque, and a deep rich, red color with vibrant highlights.  It displays strong legs when swirled in the glass.  Smoke and toasted oak are evident on the nose, along with an earthiness and some spice.  Dark cherry and licorice can also be noted.  In the mouth this is well balanced and displays a harmony of flavors.  It could be served by itself or alongside a hardy meal.

4.  Snus Hill Winery – American Catnip, White Table Wine

Pale straw coloring.  Strong tropical fruit on the nose, including pineapple, apricot and peach.  There is a hint of minerality to this wine, adding a bit of complexity to the mouthfeel.  The fruit notes are consistent in the mouth, making it a delicious standalone wine, with perfect balance and sweetness.

5.  Cedar Valley Winery – Vignoles, Iowa White Table Wine

The abundance of fruit on the nose makes this a fascinating wine.  Peach, apricot, green apricot predominate.  This is a semi-sweet wine which sits a bit heavier on the tongue than similar whites.  Perfectly balanced and best served slightly chilled.

6.  The Winery at Kirkwood – Frontenac Gris

In the glass this wine appears to glow.  The nose is an explosion of fruit, including notes of apricot, peach, and pineapple.  It is intensely flavorful, with the same tropical fruits as the nose, supported in part by hints of green apple.  Well-balanced and structured, this is a complex wine that could make any Iowan proud.  Best served with light dishes or even by itself, slightly chilled.