Local wineries show Iowa pride


Photo Illustration: Abby Gilman/Iowa State Daily

Iowa wine selections. Photo Illustration: Abby Gilman/Iowa State Daily

Red or white, dry, sweet or even sparkling, the wine business in Iowa has grown tremendously in the past 10 years.

Iowa is now 16th in the nation for number of wineries, said Stewart Burger, instructor of the introduction to wine, beer and spirits class. And, since it takes several years from the first planting to bottles of wine appearing on the shelves, the trend will probably only continue.

“It’s pretty amazing, how fast the industry grew,” said Ron Mark, owner of Summerset Winery in Indianola. Summerset is one of the oldest vineyards in the state. Mark said when he founded his winery he gave a lot of seminars on grape growing, and it started to take off after that. 

Grapes grown in Iowa have to be able to withstand the cold winters, so they aren’t the same varieties found in California or imported wines.  They tend to be lighter and sweeter; it isn’t common to be able to make heavier, dry red wines from Iowa grapes.

However, around 70 varieties of grapes can be grown in Iowa, so not all fit the stereotype.

“We’re really trying to change the misconception that all Iowa wines have to be sweet,” said Chris Hudnall, wholesale and vineyard manager for Snus Hill Winery in Madrid. 

Roger Esser, manager of Cyclone Liquors, said retailers can be a good source of information about different wines. Cyclone carries wine from 10 different vineyards in Iowa, and more than 2,500 types total. 

With all those different labels on the shelf, it can be hard to know which wine to choose.

“There are lots of rules and things that people look at for wine, but the biggest thing is to try a lot and find what you want,” Burger said. “The one you enjoy is the right wine for you.”

Burger said students can find wines at every price level, for both local and imported varieties. However, he recommended attending tasting events, which are always free in Iowa, to try a lot of varieties. 

The following are just a few of the close to 90 wineries in Iowa.  All offer tastings, and most offer entertainment and facilities for weddings and other events. All can be purchased at Ames-area retailers.

Prairie Moon Winery: Ames
Prairie Moon started as a 2-acre hobby between a father and son both Iowa State graduates and an uncle, said Matt Nissen, winemaker and manager. They opened for business in 2006.
“We have a really nice setting out here,” Nissen said. 
Prarie Moon strives to use Iowa products in their wines as much as possible, including  Iowa oak. They sometimes have to import grapes from other areas in the midwest, depending on the harvest.
From the first weekend in June, until September, Prairie Ridge has a live band each Sunday. A schedule is available on their website.
  • Website: www.prairiemoonwinery.com
  • Must-try: Their Winter Moon, made from vidal blanc grapes, is the only true ice wine made in Iowa, Nissen said. An ice wine is made by waiting for the grapes to freeze solid before harvesting them. This makes a thick, concentrated syrup which results in a very sweet desert wine.
Snus Hill Winery: Madrid
Also known as the “cat winery” for their distinctive labels, the name of Snus Hill winery refers to the Sweedish heritage of the family that has owned the land for four generations. Snus Hill started as a commercial vineyard, but in 2005 the family decided to build their own winery. 
“We really like to focus on dry semi-sweet wines made from Iowa grapes,” Hudnall said.
From April to November, Snus Hill has live music each Friday and on some Sundays; a list of bands is available on their website. The winery is also open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday for tastings.
  • Website: snushillwine.com
  • Must-try: Their Edelweiss, a dry white wine, was voted the No. 1 wine in Iowa in 2008 and has won other awards around the country. Catnip, another white wine, is also popular. 
White Oak Vineyards: Elkhart
White Oak started as a family farm that was growing corn and soybeans, but in 2000 they planted their first batch of grapes. For the first couple of years, they sold the grapes to other wineries, but then eventually decided to start their own.
Mike Epps, winemaker at White Oak Vinyards, said that Iowa wineries are getting closer to being able to produce chardonnay-like wines, but there will still be some unique Iowa flavors.
White Oak hosts free “Wine Downs” every Friday, with food and live music. These are outdoors in the warmer months, and a schedule of bands can be found on their website. Their tasting room is also open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.
  • Website: whiteoakvineyards.com
  • Must-try: Celebrate, their best-selling wine, is a semi-sweet red that uses entirely their own grapes. Epps recommends the St. Croix for a drier variety.

Jasper Winery: Des Moines

“It’s a hobby that went astray,” said Jean Groben, owner of Jasper Winery. She said a lifelong interest in gardening and cooking naturally led to wine making.

The winery was founded in Newton around 10 years ago, and they still have their 100 acres there; although they opened a facility in Des Moines three years ago. The building has a contemporary, urban feel and is suited for events, with high ceilings and large windows.

Jasper is open seven days a week for tastings, and they have events throughout the year.

  • Website: jasperwinery.com
  • Must-try: Le Crescent, a white wine Groben recommends. Also look out for wines made from noiret or marquette grapes, which are new varieties.
Summerset Winery: Indianola

“It’s always been a passion for me,” said Ron Mark, owner of Summerset Winery, who has been a winemaker since he was 15 years old.
He started as a hobbyist, then when the military sent him abroad, he lived with a family in Italy that had their own winery. He learned more about it while studying at UC Davis, and upon moving to Iowa he promptly started making wine in his garage.
Summerset is one of the oldest wineries in Iowa; they planted their first grapes in 1989, and opened to the public in 1997. Mark said they are also one of the best, consistently winning gold medals, yet they keep their prices low. He said their wines actually outsell California varieties in Des Moines. Summerset does not produce any fruit wines, but focuses exclusively on grape wines, especially using Iowa grapes.
Every Sunday afternoon, they host a blues band: outside in the summer, and inside their banquet hall in the winter. In the winter months, they host other events such as murder mysteries and girls nights. From mid-August to the end of September, they allow patrons to participate in the harvest by picking and stomping grapes. Their website also has an extensive list of recipes that can be made using their wines.
  • Website: www.summersetwine.com
  • Must-try: Caba Moch, a gold-medal winner, sells more than 40,000 bottles a year. Similar to a sangria, it is a very fruity wine and sweet, but also with a bit of a tang.

Tassel Ridge Winery: Leighton

Derek Whittington, manager of Tassel Ridge Winery, said one of their biggest priorities is to educate their patrons about the wide varieties of wine that can be made in Iowa. They offer chardonnay and zinfandel varieties, and will soon offer a merlot. 
Tassel Ridge, founded in 1993 when the owner moved from California and saw a potential market, tends to use a mix of grapes in their wine, including some imported from California. However, last year they didn’t use any imports.
They offer free tours and tastings seven days a week. As part of their educational mission, they also offer dinners to inform people about wine and food pairings. A schedule can be found on their website.
  • Website: tasselridge.com
  • Must-try: Red, White, & Blue, a sweet red wine, is their most popular.  Rockets Glare Rose is a new variety which has been popular. For a drier red wine, Whittington recommended In The Dark.
Other tastings:
Cyclone Liquor usually has wine tastings once a month, the website, cycloneliquors.com, has a schedule.  West Hy-Vee usually has wine tastings each Friday while school is in session from 4 to 7 p.m., and they often have holiday-themed events as well. They also have a wine club that meets once a month to sample wines, cheeses and crackers, but a year’s membership is required to attend club events.