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.


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.”

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.

Odessa Vineyards

Nestled in the Louisa county countryside is a winding road that leads to an acreage and an unassuming, small brown building. Contained inside that building is a blue walled tasting room filled with the aroma of oaky reds, floral whites, sweets, semi-sweets and more. This is Odessa Vineyards.

“We want to make this a destination, not just a stopping point along the way,” said Corey Nichols, co-owner of the vineyard. “We want them to say, ‘Ah, let’s go over there again that was a really wonderful experience and a good wine.”

Corey owns and operates the vineyard with his wife Tami. The couple began the venture in 2006 after careful consideration of what they could do with their land; starting a Christmas tree farm was a possibility, but they enjoyed the idea of a vineyard and winery more and decided to take classes at Des Moines area Community College to grow their knowledge base. The endeavor started with the planting of five varietals of grapes. Currently that number has risen to seven, comprised of both American and French-American hybrids. These grapes are then made into small batches of wine which are carefully quality controlled by the husband and wife team.

The Nichols said they have a humble goal for the growth of the vineyard and winery.

“We just want to have it be self-supporting by the time we both retire, so we can supplement our retirement income off of it and really enjoy what we’re doing with retirement,” said Corey. “We don’t want it to get huge; we don’t want it to get that big really, just something the two of us can manage.”

The couple doesn’t have employees. They do everything themselves from harvesting to bottling to working in the tasting room. Tami said in addition to the production of uniquely Iowan wines, their customers value that personal, hands-on approach.

“They don’t like to have the person behind the bar not know the wine, not know the vineyard, not know what’s going on in this winery,” she said. “We have the Iowa grapes and we make Iowa wines and that’s what they like to see too. They don’t like to see the cabernets and the merlots because that’s not from Iowa- that’s shipped in juice.”

Also adding to the appeal of the Odessa Vineyards is the relaxing atmosphere the couple worked to cultivate.

“We always try to talk to them and make them feel at home and have them ask questions,” Tami said. “You know the ones who felt really comfortable compared to the ones who, for some reason, didn’t enjoy the experience and there’s very few of those.”

Tami and Corey said they encourage new wine drinkers by not berating them with rules or making them feel bad about their taste preferences. Often they see customers, whose palettes change over time, moving from sweets to drier wines. However, they said it’s not a problem if that never happens.

“You don’t have to drink specific wine with specific food, and you don’t have to feel ashamed that you don’t know what’s going on,” said Corey. “Arrogance is unnecessary. You just want people to feel comfortable.”

Corey said his personal favorite wines they make at the vineyard are the dry, oaked reds, but the most popular is the sweet Randa’s Blush. For him, the most important element in the production of a good quality wine is a simple one.

“As long as you start with good quality grapes, the best thing you can do is maintain that quality product,” he said. “You’re not going to improve upon the grape at that point, but you just need to work at it so you don’t ruin the wine as you go along.”

The quality of other growers’ grapes has been a source of frustration for the couple when they need to buy grapes from elsewhere and find that the care they take with their own grapes is not mirrored in some other vineyards.

“We’re just the two of us so we’ve got a lot to do, and it’s hard for the winemaker or buyers to monitor what they’re doing and it’s unfortunate that a lot of them who have gotten into it haven’t done it correctly,” said Corey.

Despite this frustration, the Nichols said one of the most enjoyable parts of owning and operating a vineyard and winery is getting to meet other Midwestern wine professionals and swapping ideas. They said they look forward to the industry growing even more in Iowa and for the Iowa product to become better defined.

“We have so many different hybrids out here, so I think once we’ve matured enough that we get down to a handful of grapes that really everybody’s going to grow and make a good wine, I think we’ll grow even more at that point,” said Corey. “Up until now, we’re still sort of feeling our way around.”

Odessa Vineyards joined the Scenic River Wine tour in the past year, and they plan on expanding their marketing as they move forward.

“We both work full time elsewhere, so as we get to that point when we’re retiring then we’ll get out and do a whole lot more and maybe get involved in more of the wine industry,” said Corey.

In the meantime, the Nichols will continue to enjoy the experience of wine and sharing that experience with others.

“Wine really kind of brings people together,” said Corey. “There’s something exciting about opening a new bottle of wine with friends- you never know when you open the next bottle what it’s going to be like.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.