Paul Tabor, Winemaker

Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery has a rich history intertwined with that of the Tabor family. Paul Tabor, winemaker and manager of the vineyard and winery, is the fifth generation of a long line of Tabors making their livelihood off of the farmstead.

“At least in Iowa, we are at a time when most are not living on farms but still have a first-hand connection or experience with farming in Iowa,” Tabor said. “To them it is compelling that we viewed our traditional farmstead as an opportunity for a new agricultural industry in Iowa and that we have diversified the farm to meet the needs of a new generation.”

His interest in winemaking was cultivated from an early age as he watched his father make wine out of everything from lilacs to elderberries to wild plums throughout his childhood and teenage years – an introduction familiar to many amateur winemakers throughout Iowa.

“My dad was a very good amateur winemaker, and as a teenager, it was a very interesting thing to join in with my dad as a father-son hobby,” Tabor said. “I am always amazed at the connections that develop when I tell the story of my dad’s serious interest in home wine making and how that had something to do with the development of my interest in wines. It seems that everyone had an aunt in their family that was the family’s winemaker!”

His father’s amateur interest blossomed into a small winery in the basement of their house, creating wines to enjoy at family meals, and these early experiences with winemaking remained with Tabor into his later years through college and graduate school, where he attained his PhD in microbiology (useful later on for understanding the science behind fermentation).

During his time as a professor at Indiana State University, Tabor took over the commercial vineyard of a friend who was having health issues, and in return received most of that year’s harvest. He brought the grapes back to Iowa and made wine with the Marechal Foch grapes that were being grown in Indiana.

“And everybody was just enthralled with that wine and the quality of the wine,” said Tabor. “It wasn’t like concord anymore or any of the other wines.”

Tabor’s interest was sparked and he used cuttings from the vineyard in Indiana to begin his own vineyard at the Tabor farmstead without much thought of those original cuttings blossoming into a commercial vineyard and winery. As the grapes grew, he began doing market research on what it would be like to have an estate winery raising its own grapes and producing most of its wine from those grapes in Iowa. As he researched, he talked with larger wine producers in other states in the Midwest who provided encouragement.

“They said, Iowans really do support good products that are produced in state,” said Tabor. “They were very enthusiastic about promoting me to get started.”

Between 1983 and 1989, they worked hard to evaluate many varieties of grapes and styles of winemaking to help determine what would produce distinctive distinguished wines for Iowa. This hard work and research helped to contribute to the eventual success of the Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery.

“As results of our work, we have made dozens of gold medal winning and Best-of-Class wines from our vineyards,” Tabor said. “It has been very gratifying to see our efforts in viticulture and winemaking be so successful and begin the re-birth of this wine industry in Iowa.”

In 1995, Tabor managed to obtain a forgivable loan sponsored by the state of Iowa for value-added producers not using commodities and retailing a processed product from a facility in Iowa. This helped get the vineyard and winery off the ground, and become an actual business.

“When we were bonded in 1996, this became my full time job and I haven’t really looked back since,” Tabor said.

A major difficulty Tabor found as he began his new venture was helping wine drinkers to move beyond traditional cabernets or chardonnays and try wines distinctively unique to the Iowa region.

“Having known or experienced very sweet fruit and grape wines from Iowa wineries for a very long time, wine drinkers were skeptical that quality fine wines could be produced in Iowa,” Tabor said. “It has been and continues as an educational effort to get wine drinkers turned around to a positive impression of quality Iowa wines.”

Something he found especially helpful as he started out in the wine business was attending conferences on grape-growing and wine making in the Midwest, traveling all over from Missouri to Minnesota.

“You don’t have to go to too many of those to realize you have to keep going because there’s an awful lot to learn in this business,” Tabor said.

Despite the immense amount of information to consume, Tabor said the vineyard and winery community is a very open one, with a desire to help their fellow grape-growers and winemakers.

“I think winemakers as a professional group are very interested in sharing information,” said Tabor. “You find when you’re talking to the winemakers that they’re very open and willing to discuss what they do, knowing that they’re going to get you’re feedback about what you do at your winery.”

Tabor said often it is not a large change or suggestion but rather a matter of tweaking an element or changing the timing of what you’re doing that elevate wine to another level. A level Tabor Home Vineyard and Winery strives for every day.

“All those things are very valuable,” Tabor said. “Those small little things you can learn about the winemaking take the wine from a good or better quality to the best quality.”

As they work every day to produce the best quality wine possible, Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery still looks forward to the future as both a leader in winemaking and grape growing and a source of income for future Tabors.

“I hope Tabor Home Winery is recognized and looked to as the innovator in developing wine styles for the upper Midwest region,” Tabor said. “It is our goal that Tabor Home Winery is successful in providing a good livelihood for another generation on our family farm and that the venture can be an opportunity for creativity.”

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.

Movers & Shakers: Iowa Wine Trail

The Iowa Wine Trail is one of five established trails in the state, but is the only one whose members reside within the only federally recognized viticultural area in Iowa, the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA.  Through the collaborative nature of the wine trail, visitors are encouraged to travel to each member through a number of incentives, including themed weekend events which create unique experiences for participants.  ‘Around the World with Iowa Wines’, which was held on November 2 & 3, is one such event.  Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Paul Tabor of Tabor Home Winery & Vineyard in Baldwin, Iowa Decanted was given the opportunity to attend and partake in the unique pairings of Iowa wine with international cuisine.


Ilene Lande, Brick Arch Winery

Soft golden light spills from the windows beneath the iconic brick arch of the Brick Arch Winery in West Branch, Iowa. It plays along the sidewalk and draws in the passerby, enchanted by the hospitality they catch a glimpse of through the glass.

“It’s cozy and elegant,” said owner and winemaker Ilene Land, of the atmosphere of Brick Arch. “Some people find it intimidating to look at, but it isn’t at all, it’s very comfortable, and the most common description is it’s warm, like being in somebody’s house.”

Contributing to the comfortable atmosphere and the way the business seamlessly fits in with the rest of the West Branch Main Street, are the historic roots of the winery building. The current building is a reconstruction of a 1907 post office, which was later turned into a gas station and retained that function until Lande and her husband bought the property. The building next door to the post office/gas station was a millinery shop and served as the inspiration for the design of the building that currently houses the event space.

Construction came with difficulties, however, and the building collapsed and slid into a hole which had been created for a new cellar, becoming entirely lost.

“It could’ve been worse,” said Lande. “The only casualty was the porta potty.”

Despite the damage, and the further challenges the setback created, the winery opened in March of 2011. Remaining as a reminder to Brick Arch Winery’s historic roots is the original Post Office sign, the keystone and brick from the original building, which help to form the backdrop of the stage in the winery’s event space.

Lande said the new building fits into the entirety of the historic street and also fits in with the legacy of the original building.

“A lot of people, if they don’t look at the new keystone, think it’s the original,” she said.

Brick Arch Winery provides a place for numerous community groups to meet throughout the year. They host many events, and have live music every Sunday. Due to customer demand, Brick Arch has also expanded their food offerings and have a full menu on Friday nights, some food options during the live music Sundays, and pizza on Wednesday nights.

“We try to be a gathering place, and we’re pleased to be part of the small town life,” said Lande. “I think it must be inherent in our nature that food and wine and people go together and always have.”

Lande said being a gathering place for the community is her goal for Brick Arch Winery.

“We’ve tried to make it so that it’s a comfortable place to be and talk to one another. As opposed to a bar where the music is too loud to talk, here the acoustics are designed so even when there is music, you can still talk to each other.”

This atmosphere has proven attractive for a whole new group of customers: single women.

“It’s a safe, comfortable environment,” Lande said. “Someone will always invite you to join them.”

Opportunities for community are everywhere you look in Brick Arch Winery.

“Strangers here are just friends you haven’t met yet,” said Lande.

Garretson Family, East Grove Farms

The green farmhouse at East Grove Farms stands tall and proud. Its yellow accents and cranberry trim lends its façade a regal aspect as it faces the seemingly endless swath of farmland before it. A gentle wind breathes through the fading canopies of nearby trees and rustles the fallen leaves strewn across the lawn. The country air is clean and crisp. Apart from the sounds of the occasional stray car wandering down the gravel road, the sounds of the farm are unassuming and serene.

This is the farm of the Garretson family, and has been since 1837. Already a rich legacy exists, enveloping the many acres in history and lore; but for the last three years a few of the family members have been adding their own signature to that legacy with a new venture. Joel Garretson and his two sons Justin and Kurt founded and operate East Grove Farms, practicing sustainable farming techniques and growing alternative crops, specializing in elderberries.

“A lot of what we do is take ground like you see north of us, old fields, and then revitalize them and get them to grow in a way that makes the ground healthier, so when we’re dead and gone those fields will be in better shape than we found them,” said Kurt. “You’re not losing nutrients, you’re gaining them over the long run.”

Now the three-year-old business is branching out into elderberry wine, which the Garretsons say is a good way to add value to the crop while also providing a way for others to experience the fruit.

“Wine is a good way to preserve the fruits of native Iowa, and bring those flavors to other Iowans,” said Justin.

In addition, they will also be making mead, which the family says is something not many people in Iowa are doing.

Elderberries, for which East Grove Farms is best known, are a fruit with a fairly low sugar content, but not too much acidity. They are not extremely tart or particularly sweet. And what does it taste like? Well, that is difficult to describe.

“It’s like asking somebody what a strawberry tastes like; well, it tastes like a strawberry,” said Kurt. “What’s an elderberry taste like? Well, it tastes like an elderberry. It’s its own distinct thing.”

The berry is also a good fit for the farm because it is a native plant used to Iowan weather.

“It grows all through North America, so it’s used to weird and wacky Iowa winters and summers; cold doesn’t really hurt it, and rain makes it grow better,” said Kurt. “It can survive drought—it doesn’t fruit well during drought, but it won’t kill it off.”

There are a vast array of challenges that come with running a farm and business, and although the Garretsons said applying for a winemaking license and everything that went with it was a difficult and lengthy process, what stands out to them as the most frustrating element of farming is the unpredictable weather of Iowa.

“Basically all of your stress comes from the weather,” said Justin.
Kurt seconded that opinion and added that the hardships of earlier this year are what contributed to their low yield.

“We went from the wettest spring in history to the driest summer in history,” said Kurt. “The water literally just turned off, and we weren’t ready for that. Had we been ready with irrigation, it would have been a lot different yield-wise.”

Despite the challenges that come with farming in Iowa, the Garretsons said those difficulties inspire (and force) them to come up with new ideas.

“We reconsidered how we were going to make elderberry wine and that was an awesome change, so thank you drought, and thank you low yields this year,” said Justin.

The Garretsons compare the deep, purple elderberry wine to a heavy bodied red wine in taste. But, they said, it can be difficult to achieve the perfect balance of flavor.

“You want to make sure you have the distinct flavor of elderberry, but you don’t want it to be overpowering,” said Kurt.

Balance is also key for the sweet meads.

“The key to that is having it be sweet but not syrupy, there are a lot of sweet wines that end up tasting like cough syrup,” said Kurt. “There’s just too much in them, so we try to get that sweetness, but with a lightness—that’s our goal.”

The Garretsons said they are excited for when their wines and meads will be available to the public and hope that they receive a positive reaction from customers.

“Well, the first reaction is, ‘what is that?’ I’ve never seen that on the shelf before,” said Justin. “I don’t believe any of the products we have or that we’re planning to have are being made by anybody commercially—we’re doing our own thing.”

Kurt quickly added, “The second reaction would be, ‘Damn, that’s good!’ That’s our hope.”

Not only does the family enjoy producing fruit, wine, and mead, another favorite aspect of the farm is seeing visitors experience the idyllic setting.

“We enjoy sharing the farm with others,” said Justin. “Getting people out of the city and showing them the country; you can have culture in the country, and be educated and be a farmer.”

The Garretsons feel the farm is exactly where they’re supposed to be.

“We have very deep roots here on this farm; it’s difficult to describe other than a real feeling of home,” said Justin.

That feeling is shared by both brothers.

“I’ve lived in a lot of different places, but they were never home,” said Kurt. “Iowa was always home.”

Movers & Shakers: Tasting Proficiency Class

The Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute out of Iowa State University is a program which those involved in the Iowa wine industry are quite familiar with. It leads the state in viticulture and enology related research, and provides a number of valuable services to wine-makers and viticulturalists around the state and the midwest. One of the programs it offers is a two day intensive wine tasting proficiency class, headed by institute director Dr. Murli Dharmadhikari.

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.

Movers & Shakers: Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon

Last month we featured Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon, owner of The Secret Cellar in Shueyville, in our Q&A.  We had such a good experience that we decided to feature her in our first ‘Movers and Shakers’ feature, where we follow a person of interest in the wine industry.  Watch the video and browse the slideshow of photos taken by staff writer Julia Jessen.

The Question of Terroir

In the study of wine, one often runs across the term terroir, particularly when the discussion revolves around wines from the Old World.  Wines from the famed region of Burgundy can rarely be brought up in conversation without mention of terroir (for an example, refer to the New York Times article from 2011 on Burgundy Terroir).  Terroir is a french term which refers to the unique characteristics of a certain place, the components of which are geography, geology and climate.  It is said that these unique elements can lend distinct characteristics to a wine (or any agricultural product, for that matter) which add a certain measure of quality to the product itself.  In the case of Old World products, terroir has become a well-touted selling point, but one that is surprisingly hard to define in specific, quantifiable terms.

Iowa has been among the agricultural leaders of the United States for years.  Clearly there is something special about this state. But does terroir have any place in the discussion about Iowa wine?  Does Iowa have a distinct terroir?

Iowa Decanted decided to take the question to the experts, and the answers we received were far different from the otherworldly and oft-times vague or confusing descriptions of terroir we see coming from overseas.  Instead what we got was good old fashioned Iowa straight-talk, clear cut answers from experienced agriculturalists and oenophiles whose confidence was born of many hours of labor in the vineyard and with the tasting glass.

Michael White, viticulture field specialist at Iowa State University’s viticulture extension program leaves the romanticized concept of terroir by the wayside.  “I really do not put much weight in the concept of  ‘Terroir’  and its effect on wine,” wrote White in an email exchange with Iowa Decanted.  “It is an inflated term that is overly flouted.”  Instead, he says, differences in wine can be attributed to the unique cultivars Iowans grow.  And there are plenty of those.  As of this writing there are over 70 varietals listed on ISU Extension’s cold climate cultivar list.

Seth Miller of Cedar Valley Winery in Batavia, Iowa is hesitant to attribute characteristics in his wine to his specific terroir, but out of a lack of something worthy of comparison.  “I really can’t tell you that our our location and our soil is giving a licorice hint with a metallic finish or something,” said Miller.  “We’re making a lot of wine that others in Iowa are not making.  There’s not very many comparables.  I really haven’t been able to line up twenty different varieties that are similar to what we make and make distinctions like that.”

Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards in Keota isn’t hesitant to use the term terroir, but in a strictly scientific sense, and in reference to the makeup of his particular plot of land.  But, like White and Miller, the conversation about terroir is a relatively minor point in a longer conversation about the grapes themselves.  “One must consider his own specific location and his terroir.  On our farm we have soil types that range from Mahaska with a 0% slope to Lindley which has a 10% slope.  Our vineyard is primarily [Ladoga] soil with a 2-4% slope,” wrote Vincent, in response to Iowa Decanted’s inquiry.  “The climate, weather and soil of SE Iowa – these are all critical factors in our varietal selection.”

In other words, the specific makeup of the land, or terroir, doesn’t influence the quality of the finished wine by infusing it with some unique characteristics, rather the terroir simply informs the grower about how and what he or she will grow.

ISU Extension offers potential growers many resources in an effort to help them understand the relationship between the specificities of the land and grape-growing.  Among these is a document which urges growers to ‘carefully and honestly analyse site liabilities and assets.’  This is reasonable advice since the makeup of Iowa is actually quite varied.  By inspecting a soil region map of Iowa (such as the NRCS soil regions map), one will notice 22 distinct regions spread across the state.  The DNR’s Bedrock Geologic Map is equally as diverse.  Soil surveys, like the ones published on the NRCS website, reveal at a closer level just how divergent Iowa’s land can be.

Traditionally, grapes headed towards the wine press had to be grown in an environment with a long but not overly hot growing season, a short winter, an adequate amount of rainfall during the spring and early summer, dry conditions during the late summer and early fall, no late-spring frosts, and no early-fall frosts.  That meant the best place to grow the wine grapes of the world were in Mediterranean or Marine West Coast climates (a resource for the understanding of how geography affects wine growing, see Brian J. Sommers’ The Geography of Wine).  But in recent years breeders have produced a wide variety of new wine grape cultivars which can survive, and even thrive, in the mid-west’s more intemperate climates.  With a little research growers can approach their vineyard plan in a strategic manner by finding and planting cultivars which are adapted to local growing conditions.

“In general terms being further south allows us to look at some varieties not grown in areas further north, like Noiret, which is believed to be cold tolerant to -15F compared to Marquette (which we also grow) that can be winter hardy down to -35F and is grown in both Iowa and Minnesota,” wrote Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards.

“On the climate map we have a little area in southeast iowa that juts up from Missouri and so we kind of have the climate down here that northern Missouri gets, the rest of Iowa does not get.  So that’s really benefited our winery in particular because we kind of push the limits on the varieties of grapes that we’re growing,” said Seth Miller of Cedar Valley Winery.  “It gets too cold for our grape vines to be grown in other areas of the state and they will either die out because of the low freezing temperatures during the year or the growing season is not long enough for the particular grapes that we grow to ripen out.  And one particular variety that we grow is Cynthiana.  It’s a native American grape that makes a really great full-bodied dry red wine.  They grow it a lot down in Missouri, over in Virginia, [and] some of the southern states.”

ISU’s Michael White acknowledges that certain elements of Iowa’s soil can influence its wines but, in contrast to the viticulturalists and winemakers of the Old World, does so without attributing its terroir or alluding to other unquantifiable forces.  “Our winemakers do tend to deal with higher levels of potassium and nitrogen due to our highly fertile soils,” wrote White.  “Nitrogen is good for the fermentation and the potassium tend to increase the tartrates in our wine and increases the pH higher than we, the winemaker, would like.”

Not very dreamy, but luckily the magic of terroir isn’t what makes wine great – hard work, experience, and know-how make that happen, and Iowans seem to have plenty of that.

Lucas McIntire, Winemaker

Steel tanks line one wall of the winery at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The light reflecting off their seashell patterned brush marks makes them seem like a large-scale art installation, but their glow is only the result of a long bank of fluorescent overheads. Labels on their faces indicate what they contain: 33.9 gallons of Edelweiss, 47 gallons of Frontenac Gris. On a nearby table, a carboy of Frontenac Blanc ferments; a bubbling, murky yellow mass in a large glass container. Tubes, buckets, cords, and bottles are scattered about like eclectic decorations.  A whiteboard with scrawled instructions and hurried illustrations sits alone in the center of the room.

Presiding over this workshop is Lucas McIntire. His long dark hair is pulled back and contained beneath a kerchief.  His skin is tanned, evidence of his long hours in the vineyard.  Despite having spent the day picking grapes, he seems full of energy and eager to talk.

“This is my 12th vintage, and I’ve made at least 100,000 gallons of wine, if not 120, so I’ve got plenty of experience to share with all my students,” says McIntire with evident pride.  A confident and disarming smile comes to his lips.

McIntire is the winemaker and vineyard manager at the Vineyard and Winery at Kirkwood. He is also an educator, leading courses for the Wine Making and Winery Facility Management Certificate at the college. The program, which began in 2010, encompasses everything from Wine Making 101 to Fermentation Management and Wine: Pre-bottle to Consumer.

“I want my students to plant their own vineyards and start their own wineries,” says McIntire. “I want you to walk out of my class, and, at least in theory, be able to take the next step and be able to open your own winery.”

So far, McIntire says, he’s had at least two students start their own wineries and has had multiple winemakers take his courses just to refresh their skills.

He stresses hands-on experience in his classroom, making sure students have the tools and the knowledge they need to be able to keep making wine even after the coursework ends. The most important advice he gives to students, he says, is to hold on to their passions and pursue them.

“Don’t give up. If your dream is to have a vineyard or a winery, then go for it, but don’t go in blind,” says McIntire. “I’m here to prevent mistakes. I don’t want to see somebody make a mistake like I did or I could have.”

Students in McIntire’s classes recognize the value in his hands-on approach and appreciate his dedication. Michael Kacher, a former student turned assistant-winemaker to McIntire, says the biggest lesson he learned from his teacher is that “good wine is worth working for.”

“He’s very passionate and always open for our questions,” says Kacher. “He’s always experimenting and doing what he can to make whatever he’s done in the past better, and it shows.”

Out of the 21 varieties of grapes Kirkwood grows, McIntire creates 13 different types of wine. When pressed to make a decision, he says his favorite is the Frontenac Gris, but this changes with his moods.

“It just depends on whether I want a red or a white,” says McIntire with a grin.

It’s easy to get a sense of McIntire’s passion for his work at Kirkwood. As he pops open a bottle of his latest creation (Champagne, or more accurately, Iowa sparkling wine), he exclaims, “Ahhh, magic!”  He seems absolutely giddy about the prospect of getting this new product out the door and in the consumer’s hands.

McIntire says what sets Kirkwood wine apart from other wines is the ideal site selection for the vineyard, as well as the attention to detail in both the winemaking and the vineyard.  It all adds up to what he considers to be a superb product.

“The whites are aromatic and crisp and clean, and the reds are thick and rich and luscious; they’re awesome,” says McIntire. “I think the quality of the wine speaks for itself.”

And quality is the first thing McIntire says he wants consumers of his wine to notice after they take the first sip of his wine.

“I hope it’s just a flavor extravaganza, just a sensory overload in their mouth,” says McIntire as he swirls an imaginary wine glass.  “What is this magical wine that I’m drinking? Oh, it’s Kirkwood, it must be Lucas’s wine, of course!”

People are taking notice of his work, even leaving him notes of gratitude at local restaurants where Kirkwood wine is served. And as McIntire continues to get more accounts, his bottles of wine are becoming easier to find. He says his personal goal is to have sales rise from 300 gallons a year to 500 gallons and eventually 750 gallons.

“I think this should just explode because I think of all the people that go to Kirkwood and then all of the people who are past alumni, if they knew that this wine was out there, it should be flying off the shelves,” says McIntire. “It’s not just local, it’s hyper-local.”

As McIntire makes his wine and further perfects his craft, he says he continues to learn, not just from his every day experiences and experiments, but also from the students he is teaching. It’s not unusual for teacher and students to socialize before class, comparing notes and observations over wine brought in by the students themselves.

“If it’s not me exposing them to some Kirkwood wine, they might be bringing in something from a local winery that I haven’t tried before, and that’s always a learning experience and that’s exposing me to more wines that I wouldn’t normally have bought myself,” says McIntire.

And as he and the program move forward, McIntire says he’s most excited about his latest foray into the world of champagne, as well as a new red grape in the vineyard called Petite Pearl, and the fermenting Frontenac Blanc.

With complete sincerity McIntire says he was born to make wine – and Iowa seems to be the perfect canvas for his many creations.

“Iowans have this creative ingenuity where they can make anything if they have the mindset,” he says, then grins, knowing full well that he is speaking of himself.