Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2007 | Features

Grape Expectations

By Kathryn Howe
An unlikely crop has become the toast of Iowa.

Group Bees scavenge what's left after the grape harvest at Wallace Winery, operated by Ed and Melody Wallace and Iowa alumni Ilene Lande and John McNutt.

The cork leaves the bottle with a satisfying pop and the red liquid inside takes a few moments to breathe. Then, the familiar glug glug glug as the wine pours into the bowl of a long-stemmed glass.

Light reflects off the crystal, casting brilliant purple hues across the table. As the taster gives the glass a swirl, an intoxicating aroma rises from its center. Anticipation grows for that first sip, which warms the tongue and throat before exploding with flavor at a nibble of cheese.

The pop, the glug, the swirl, the sip — they all take place on a tasting room patio with an unexpected view over terrain far removed from the rolling hills of sunny California wine country. Instead, an expanse of Iowa cornfields envelops the grounds of Wallace Winery near West Branch, where Ed and Melody Wallace have painstakingly cultivated their 2.5-acre vineyard into award-winning wines for the past two years.

Grapes may seem an unlikely crop in a state revered for its tall green stalks and soybeans, but, in recent years, Iowans have shown a growing fondness for the ancient art of winemaking. Only 13 wineries operated in Iowa seven years ago. Open since November 2005, Wallace Winery is now one of 67 scattered about the state, with another 20 or so in the early planning and construction stages. Last year, these Iowa wineries produced more than 246,000 gallons of wine with a market value in excess of $12 million.

"Grape growing and winemaking have a certain ambiance and romanticism that's attracted an awful lot of people, more than any other alternative agriculture in our state," explains Mike Bevins, state horticulturist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. "And, as much as this is about winemaking, it's also about agritourism. The same magic that's captured the attention of winemakers has also lured the public. People want to take long weekends to visit wineries, pursue wine trails, and drink local wines."

Indeed, the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board listed 150 wine events on its calendar in July. Public interest, the determination of three tenacious trailblazers, and ten years of grape science have combined to deliver a promising new Iowa industry that's just begun to plumb its potential.

The winemaking process dates back 6,000 years. History records the ancient Egyptians as the first to note the harvest of grapes on stone tablets and on the walls of their tombs. Some pharaohs thought so much of wine that they were buried with bottles to enjoy on their otherworld journeys. Even today, for many people, wine possesses characteristics that elevate it beyond mere drink to an experience that engages the senses. It means a fine meal, a reason to celebrate, communion with friends. As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, "wine is bottled poetry."

Today, you don't have to be a pharaoh — or even a yuppie — to appreciate a great glass of wine. In a 2006 article about the Iowa viticulture phenomenon, the New York Times reported that Americans spent $26 billion on wine in the preceding year — a five percent growth in sales. As Iowa's winery boom proves, wine isn't just a perk for high rollers in big-city penthouses. Wine is at home everywhere, even in rural Midwestern barns.

Ed Wallace always had a passion for wine. A winemaker for 27 years, he originally concocted vintages as gifts. Then the Wallaces moved to Johnson County in 1992 and Ed planted grapes, testing different varieties to see what would grow and make superior wine. Soon, the Wallaces met John McNutt, 91MBA, and Ilene Lande, 73BS, 78PhD. Ed offered his new friends a bottle — which they promptly set aside. Like many people, they had reservations about wine from America's heartland, but they gave it a try. And then they asked Ed why he didn't make wine for a living.

That question set plans in motion, and the friends combined their skills to launch Wallace Winery, which benefits from McNutt's background in business consulting and Lande's career as a microbiologist. Today, the partners produce 25,000 bottles per year, selling more than they ever anticipated at this point. "People come here because they want luxury," says Melody, who manages the tasting room and creates bottle labels for their 13 wines. "They want to enjoy the countryside. They want to indulge."

Mike White, a viticulture specialist at Iowa State University, points less to romance and more to research as the driving force behind the hot wine trend. While traditional European grape varieties — such as Cabernet and Chardonnay — cannot survive an Iowa winter, University of Minnesota and Cornell University researchers have produced 15 to 20 French-American hybrids that not only exhibit cold hardiness and disease resistance, but actually make good vino.

Taste test Ed Wallace tests a glass of week-old wine.

White used to be the corn and soybean expert for ISU. Then, he met the Godfathers of Iowa Wine: Paul Tabor, Ron Mark, and Bill Brown. Back in 2000, Tabor and Mark owned the only two native wineries (Tabor Home and Summerset Winery) operating outside the Amana Colonies, a tourist attraction known for its wine-tasting opportunities. Brown owned the Timberhill Vineyard and Winery in Leon. The trio shared a common goal: to move the wine industry forward in Iowa.

Although Tabor and his colleagues knew the market and opportunity existed, even they couldn't have predicted what happened when they held the first of three educational seminars to attract more Iowa grape growers. Despite a nine-inch blizzard the night before, 125 people showed up at the Odd Fellows Hall in Indianola. Participants came from every county in the state, and the average value of a car in the parking lot was more than $30,000 — in fact, even now, wine-making remains an undertaking reserved for those with serious cash or some wealthy backers.

"I decided I'd better work with these people," recalls White.

Visitors listen to music and sit on the Wallace Winery veranda outside a tasting room constructed to resemble a barn. White lights wrapped around the trunk of a giant maple tree soften the mood. Inside, an expansive window gives tasters a view of vines that have begun to sag with the growing weight of fruit and the humid August air.

Harvest is just a couple weeks away.

The rhythm of tending the wine and picking the grapes isn't foreign to Iowa farmers, who once grew hundreds of acres of high-quality grapes, coming sixth in the nation in grape production in 1919. By 1929, yields peaked at 15.8 million pounds. Production faltered in the 1930s and 1940s, though, thanks to Prohibition, toxic chemical drift from corn herbicides, and the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 that killed most orchards and vineyards in the state.

"What we have here is a rebirth of the grape and wine culture in Iowa — and also an opportunity to diversify our agricultural base," horticulturist Bevins says.

The hybrid grapes that fare best in Iowa include Marechal Foch, Frontenac, and Saint Croix (the reds) and Edelweiss, La Crosse, and Chardonel (the whites). Still, though they might be tougher than their European cousins, getting them to thrive isn't easy. Iowa's dark soil is too rich and fertile for grapes, which need to struggle a bit to achieve their best fruit quality. They're also sensitive to herbicides and other field fertilizers, so grape growers must be very aware of their neighbors' farming practices.

Unlike crops produced en masse, grapes require an incredibly labor-intensive process to flourish. Growers can't just throw down seeds and walk away. They must methodically tend to their vines by hand. They constantly prune, weed, and ward off hungry pests.

Paul Tabor planted his first cuttings in 1989, following in the footsteps of his father who was a fine amateur winemaker. After many years of market research, Tabor Home Winery opened in 1997 featuring six wines.

"Iowans have a very high level of pride and they are very willing to try homegrown products," says Tabor, the fifth generation to make a living off his family's farmstead, located among the Jackson County hills that inspired Grant Wood. "I knew if the wines were good, they'd buy them."

Tabor's wine production increases 40 percent each year and he now creates 19 varieties, focusing on premium table wines from his own vineyards. Nine of these wines — the ones that win awards — are comprised entirely from Tabor's own grapes.

To meet their overall production needs, Iowa winemakers presently supplement their harvests with grapes and juice from outside the state. While they strive to preserve a regional identity in their products, the demand for wine simply exceeds the Iowa grapes available. Most winemakers blend their fruit with other varieties from Illinois, Missouri, California, New York, and Washington.

But if Iowa wants to sustain its wine industry, Tabor insists local viticulturists must develop distinctive styles of wine made exclusively from homegrown grapes. "People are searching outside California for different wine regions that distinguish themselves," he says. "We want them to recognize an Iowa wine."

To ensure that Iowa continues to reap the agricultural and economic benefits of wineries, wine supporters have persuaded the Legislature to adopt several key initiatives. Among them are scholarships for winemakers who want to pursue educational classes and bills that make it easier for people to sell Iowa wine and hold special events. The Department of Agriculture's Iowa Wine and Grape Development Commission supports research and marketing efforts, while Iowa's first-ever enologist is dedicated to improving the quality of Iowa wine.

As this framework continues to support the industry and more vineyards cover the Iowa landscape, winemakers hope to use grapes solely grown in-state for 68 percent of their production by 2009. To further promote the state as a true market contender, Iowa will soon boast membership in its own "viticulture area." Like California's Napa and Sonoma valleys, Iowa will become part of the Upper Mississippi River Valley wine district, which also includes parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Tabor Winemaker Paul Tabor (right) oversees bottling of raspberry wine at Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery outside Baldwin. Tabor Home is known for its quality fruit vintages.

The quip that appears on the Wallace T-shirts tells the story: "Will Work for Wine."

Melody Wallace says she's never worked so hard in her life. The winery is a full-time job on top of a full-time job — running Ed's chiropractic office out of their home. Around here, there's no such thing as a day off. Wine is a year-round affair.

Around the same time Tabor and his fellow Godfathers held their wintertime clinics, they also established the Iowa Grape Growers Association to encourage the development of new vineyards and to persuade farmers to consider grapes as a viable alternative crop. Not everyone is in a financial position to grow grapes, which require an investment of $5,000 to $7,000 per acre and a ten-year wait before they begin to net a return. Most growers have full-time jobs on top of managing their vineyards. Many vineyards are owned by small families and couples who have returned to Iowa to plant acreages next to the rural places of their childhoods. But as they discover the potential profits — a few acres of grapes can equate to 1,000 acres of corn on the market — more and more farmers are dedicating their crop ground to vineyards. Plus, they've found that if they plant grapes, their children — more interested in the cool, sophisticated atmosphere of a winery than the standard-issue cornfield — will likely stay home and work the farm.

For the Wallaces, it's a thrill to play a role in the Iowa wine renaissance. Melody opens the doors to the barrel room, where the temperature dips several obvious degrees. She thinks about the tedious work ahead, when her family will gather perfectly ripened clusters of fruit, taking great care not to bruise the delicate skins. They will crush the grapes and pour the juice into fermentation vats, where yeast will perform its magic tricks.

Then, in the belly of small barrels made of Midwestern oak, the richness and character of this year's Iowa wine crop will unfold.