A Brief Treatise on Iowa Wine, Part 1: History

Recently, I got the opportunity to participate in a wine conference in Iowa. While the conference spanned roughly two full days, I planned an extra day to explore the wine country nestled in the sprawling agrarian region around Cedar Rapids. Roughly a dozen wineries are within 30 minutes of the city, and I had the good fortune to visit half of them. By far the most productive visit I had, though, was to a winery and event center named Collectively Iowa.

Collectively Iowa, winery, tasting bar and event center in the Amana Colonies

While I had the opportunity to try some of the best fruit wines I’ve ever had during my many stops, remnants of the influence of German winemaking in the area, the real surprise to me was the level of sophistication in winemaking in the area. Royce Bennett, the winemaker for Vines and Wine and proprietor of Collectively Iowa, gave me the full scope of the incredible growth of the wine industry in the state.

A mere eight years ago, there were 2 grape wineries and 40 acres of grapevines in Iowa. Today, there are 87 wineries and almost 1500 acres of land under vine, an astonishing growth rate of 3750% in less than a decade. At the Iowa Wine Growers Association Conference, I must have met at least another 10 to 15 viticulturists who were either laying bricks on new wineries or beginning fermentation on their first vintage. This state is taking off.

Elmer Swenson

Elmer Swenson

Royce also gave me a run-down of popular varieties in the area, what grows where, and where they came from. Iowa owes most of its viable vines to Elmer Swenson, a self-educated grape grower from Wisconsin. From age 8, Swenson had been cross-breeding French hybrids with American native vines, and he dedicated over 60 years of his life to creating cold-climate varieties. With the dozens of grape varieties he bred, he only patented five, and he sent clippings to just about anyone who wanted them in order to help develop the Midwestern wine industry. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 91, and the University of Minnesota, an early partner in his efforts, continues to develop varieties according to his work.

Over 50% of the vines currently planted in Iowa can be traced directly to vines cultivated by Elmer Swenson.

Other grapes popular in Iowa are French hybrids, though viable only in Southern Iowa. The New-York-centric varieties developed by Cornell are also grown in southern Iowa, where the temperature rarely drops below -25ºF. Only the cold-climate grapes developed by Minnesota and Swenson are viable in central and northern Iowa.

The Iowa wine industry as it stands today owes most of its success to Iowa State University and especially Dr. Murli Dhrmadhikari, a viticulturist who joined the university’s staff in 2005. Iowa State, through its Enology and Viticulture outreach program, has assisted burgeoning wineries and vineyards with clearing hurdles to early industry development, from protecting grapevines from deadly corn pesticides to winemaking basics and essentials.

Royce Bennett, behind his wine bar at Collectively Iowa

For an exhaustive list of Iowa-viable grapes researched by Iowa State University, Royce pointed me to their Review of Cold-Climate Cultivars, and believe me, you could spend hours perusing it. In my next post, I’ll highlight the most popular varieties with a summary and tasting notes from varietal wines I tried during my tour.

I especially want to thank Royce for all of his help on this trip. Even before he’d met me in person, he spent over a half hour on the phone describing the history and popular varieties in the state to me, and he spent almost 2 hours of his time conducting an extensive tasting for my benefit. I’ll highlight more on the Amana Colonies in the future, and I absolutely recommend a vacation there to anyone near Iowa. It’s a gorgeous, tight-knit community with 3 wineries, 2 smokehouses, and a brewery within 3 blocks. Hallelujah.

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3 Responses to “A Brief Treatise on Iowa Wine, Part 1: History”

  1. Santa Barbara Wine Tours Says:

    Very interesting. I have to admit, until reading this post, I didn’t know that there was an Iowa wine country.
    I do know something about the Santa Barbara wine country, and actually we’ve seen a similar explosion of wine making in our region. In the early ’80s there were only 13 wineries in Santa Barbara county, but now there are well over 100, and most of that increase has been in the last 15 years or so.

    Lots of regions of the use have experienced a similar growth in their wine industry–Oregon and Washington for example–which is all to the good. We already can compete on an equal footing with European wines in terms of quality, and I’m sure that will also start approaching them in terms of quantity as well.

  2. N Says:

    Thanks for this excellent summary, it’s a great intro to Iowa’s wine industry. I’ll be sure to share this link with all my wine buddies.

    I was happy to see your mention of both Elmer Swenson and Dr. Murli Dhrmadhikari. These two are something like rockstars in the wine and grape-growing community and deserve so much credit for what they’ve done. I’m personally indebted to them both – my family vineyard wouldn’t be what it is today if not for them. Thanks again!

  3. enobytes Says:

    I am not familiar with the history of Iowa wine, so thanks for the great writeup! Its always fun to learn about new regions and wines.

    ~Pamela

    http://enobytes.com


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