Iowa Public Television


Iowa WIne

posted on October 19, 2001

Enterprises that add value to commodities, especially at the local level, have become a staple of Market to Market reporting. The program has broadcast profiles of ventures ranging from high-tech, high-cost ethanol refineries to more modest on-farm facilities, like tofu plants.

Efforts to add value can embrace not only manufacturing, but also marketing. A host of livestock, grain, fruit and vegetable producers and co-ops have found profit in building an identity and consumer awareness.

And occasionally, value can be added by resurrecting a familiar crop and an ancient craft in a ready market. Producer John Nichols explains how such an opportunity is being nurtured in Iowa.


Iowa WIne

It's harvest time in America's vineyards. And soon, these grapes will be crushed, and made into wine.

While the vast majority of domestic wine comes from California, this 121/2 acre vineyard is more than 1,500 miles from Napa Valley.

In fact, Summerset Winery is located smack dab in the middle of Corn Country. Here, in south central Iowa, Ron Mark produces more than 40,000 bottles of wine annually.

Ron Mark: "I've always been a winemaker. I've been making wine since I was 15 years old and my grandfather was one of Iowa's large grape growers. My folks always had vines on our place and as a kid I learned how to turn mom's grape juice into grape wine."

In a time when many family farms are struggling to survive, Summerset Winery is growing by leaps and bounds.

Much of the success can be attributed to Mark's talent as a grower, vintner and marketer.

Rather than produce a raw commodity, Mark receives a hefty premium for his fruit by turning it into wine. In fact, Mark claims grapes are the ultimate value added crop.

Ron Mark: "If I take 12 ½ acres of grapes, I can sell those on the market and it equates out to about 1,500 acres of corn. But, if you have the wherewithal to have a winery, that 12 ½ acres of grapes equates out to 40,000 bottles of wine. You can get to where you can do a half million dollars off a small farm and a half million dollars in sales might equate out to $250,000.00 in your back pocket if you're a good business person."

150 miles to the northeast, in a setting that looks much like a Grant Wood painting, another Iowa winemaker is hard at work.

Paul Tabor represents the 5th generation of his family to cultivate the rolling slopes of eastern Iowa.

Though well-versed in the business of winemaking, his formal education was in microbiology. And Tabor claims that gives him an advantage.

Paul Tabor: "I think it gives me an edge particularly in the winemaking, in the winemaking side of it. I think there's things that maybe come second in nature to me that new winemakers would have to learn or spend a lot of time so technically I'm very comfortable with the winemaking part of it. I think it's a big advantage."

Apparently, the critics agree. In the past two years, Tabor Home wines have won more than 30 international awards, including a dozen gold medals as the best in their class.

Tabor claims to sell out of wine every year, so he's tripling the size of his winery by adding a 5,500 square foot addition.

While other Midwestern states have well-established wine industries, Tabor claims there's plenty of room for growth in his state.

Paul Tabor: "Iowa, even compared to the surrounding states, has a very, very small wine industry. So, even in Midwestern standards, Iowa doesn't produce very much wine. Something has happened in the last year or so to get a lot of interest going..."

Rich Pirog: "I would talk to people in agriculture about Iowa grapes and they would say "Grapes? In Iowa? You've got to be kidding..."

Rich Pirog is the Education Coordinator for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

In April of 2000, he published a study on redeveloping Iowa's grape industry. Currently only about 30 acres of vineyards are tended statewide. According to Pirog, the state would need more than 10-times that amount to supply just five percent of the wine consumed in Iowa.

And if history is any indication, Pirog is justified in having "grape expectations" for the industry.

Rich Pirog: "Grape production in 1870 census, this is based on the 1869 production year. Iowa was 9th in grape production in the United States. Now by the turn of the century we dropped to 11th place but by the 1920 census based on the 1919 production year Iowa was 6th in grape production and when you tell people that we were this high, that we had a grape industry in the state they really don't believe it."

Both Summerset and Tabor Home wineries offer on-site tasting rooms where customers sample and purchase the Iowa Vintages.

Summerset Winery features a thriving bed and breakfast business and Tabor's long range plans include renovation of a Civil War-era Barn into a similar facility.

But while business is brisk, both wineries face a significant challenge in their efforts to develop a regional identity for Iowa wines -- A shortage of Iowa grapes.

Ron Mark: "I can't make enough wine. I have to buy more grapes, so we've encouraged the grape growing industry in Iowa so that we can up our production. The grape crop is the only thing that limits me right now. If I could have 100,000 bottles of wine I could sell it.

Since both vintners are willing to pay up to 1,000-dollars per ton for high quality, locally grown grapes, interest is growing in re-establishing vineyards on Iowa's farms.

Tabor and Mark are more than happy to advise other farmers on the pitfalls and potential of grape growing.

Rather than viewing other growers as competition, the wineries hope to capitalize on symbiotic relationships.

Paul Tabor: "Ron Mark and I have been talking to growers as well as perspective winemakers about what they should be thinking about and not going really off the deep end one way or another because I think Iowa should have a much larger wine industry and could. I think that this is the time to make those correct decisions because the opportunities are there."

Iowans purchase more than 2-million gallons of wine annually, and the state ranks 40th in wine consumption.

Since it's estimated that less than one-percent of the wine comes from Iowa vineyards, Mark claims the time is right for Iowa Wines.

This is untapped. There is absolutely no reason why Iowa shouldn't be competing with the other Midwestern states. It's just that we haven't done it yet. Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Nebraska are all way ahead of us. Iowa has just not gotten there and it's just that we have not decided that it's time to be wine country yet."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: agriculture industry Iowa news wine