At one time—in the early 1900's -- Iowa ranked sixth in the nation in grape production. But in the 1930s and '40s, Iowa shifted its major crop focus to corn and soybeans and the grape industry in Iowa declined.
Flash forward several decades to the 1990s. The state has seen a resurgence of interest in growing grapes and making wine.
In 1996, there were only a handful of wineries in the state, with most in the Amana Colonies. By the end of 2009, that number was 74.
Keith Weuste grew up making wine with his father for the family to enjoy. Now he’s turned his hobby into a small business.
While maintaining full-time jobs, Keith and his wife Sherry --- started bottling Brush Creek Wine 3 years ago. They split duties at their rural Bellevue location which is attached to their Jackson County home.
Sherry cares for the grapes, which they grow at the winery.
Keith Weuste: “She’ll get out there and she’ll talk to the grapes and everything else. ‘Now, you naughty grape. You shouldn’t have been growing here.’”
Sherry Weuste: “He’s telling the truth. I do a little singing, do a lot talking, and enjoy the outdoors.”
Keith: “We work together on this to the actual final tasting of the grapes and deciding when the wine is actually ready to be bottled. We are very meticulous on that. We want to make sure we have a very good product when we bottle. So, when we both agree that’s it’s ready. Then we bottle.”
The Brush Creek Wine is sold in the attached retail shop that sells one of the Iowa State Fair’s Gold award-winning wines. Brush Creek is also distributed in several stores across Iowa.
For a 2-person operation, Brush Creek has already exceeded expectations. Keith Weuste wanted to only bottle 25-hundred gallons in 2007. A year later, his production increased almost 50% and they still sold out of 3 labels.
According to ISU Extension, the Weuste’s are one of 400 Iowa grape growers who plant a total of 1200 acres of vineyards. The Iowa grown crop produces nearly 300-thousand gallons of Iowa wine and wine sales bring in 22 million dollars in revenues.
Some farmers, like the Wueste’s are small. They harvest their crop by hand. Others, like Tassel Ridge near Pella and Oskaloosa are large enough to necessitate mechanical harvesting of 120 ton of grapes.
Iowa wine producers are still buying grapes and juices from out of state to mix with Iowa grapes.
Also in east central Iowa is one of the state’s first established wineries.
The Tabor family farm was in corn and soybean production for decades. In 1989, they planted grapes to diversify, and in 1997, one of the Tabor sons, Paul moved from Indiana back home and opened the Tabor Home Winery near Baldwin.
Tabor: “We had done some research about how a native winery would go in Iowa, and I think it was – the family was sort of ready to come back.”
Tabor Home is recognized nationally with several industry awards for the Iowa-produced product.
Paul Tabor has taken what he’s learned to help others, often using his farm as a classroom to educate potential growers and winemakers.
Tabor: “You know, we were really, really out there on the edge in terms of an industry that Iowa hadn’t seen from just, you know, generations, and to have our own vineyard and to start that winery out here and potentially in the beginning to do all of – all of selling here form the winery was really quite an adventure. We had a lot of curious looks you know the first year. They people drove by wondering what are they doing there.”
When Tabor Home opened in 1997, there were only a handful of wineries in Iowa.
A huge boom happened in 2005 to 53 and now there’s 74 wineries across Iowa.
Some wineries have clustered geographically into 5 wine trails.
Many of the wineries on the Eastern Iowa Wine Trail are in a new federally-named viticulture district. The Upper Mississippi River Valley has distinct climate, topography and geology.
Wine grown and produced in this region will carry a logo on their bottles.
Tabor: “it’s going to be very important for those wineries who want to sell wines and the grapes that are produced here and I think we will be seeing is some wines that are made from grapes that are very distinct, that will help develop a regional identity for this area.”
Tabor Home Winery is also a tourist destination.
Visitors can walk thru the vineyards, see the wine in-production, and also buy a bottle on-site.
Fireside Winery between Marengo and Williamsburg is also a tourist destination.
The winery won the Dick Peterson award, the top prize at the MidAmerica Wine Competition. The Midwest competition is held annually at Des Moines Area Community College.
The award is named for Iowa-native Dick Peterson, who spent much of his career helping develop the California wine industry.
Peterson says the largest hurdle in Iowa’s wine industry is fining and perfecting the grapes.
Dick Peterson: “I think given a few years, Iowa can easily plant enough grapes to sustain itself. The only reason it isn’t able to so sustain itself right now is nobody here is quite sure which varieties are best and in California they weren’t sure, in fact some place they still aren’t sure. One grape variety will do beautifully in one spot and four other varieties won’t. How do you know which one is which. You got to plant all five and then eventually you weed out the four that are not very good. Iowa in the process of doing that right now.”