Tucked into the rural Loess Hills of western Iowa is one of the more than 70 licensed wineries in the state. Dan Kaercher checks out the vineyard, learns how the grapes turn into wine, and gets a taste to boot!
Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures features Iowa travel destinations, restaurants, events, parks, recreation and more. Produced by Iowa Public Television, the series highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see and taste, right here at home.
Kaercher: How often can you see your wine grow on a vine, learn how it's processed, and get a taste to boot? It's easier than you think with the more than 70 wineries in our state. Nestled in the Loess Hills of Southwest Iowa is a scene reminiscent of something you'd see in Colorado. The chalet style tasting room and shaded meandering decks fit perfectly into the rolling landscape, creating an inviting atmosphere for wine enthusiasts. I'm here with Frank and Amy Faust, the owners of Sugar Clay Winery. What a perfect afternoon. What a perfect spot. We're on the deck overlooking the vineyard over our shoulder. Frank, how did you get into this gig?
Frank Faust: Well, right around the year 2000, the first grapes went in the ground. We put in approximately about 6 acres, about 3,500 vines, and waited about five years until they came to production. And in that time we were building the winery and getting ready to produce wine. At the fifth year, our first harvest came out and we started making wine.
Kaercher: Amy, tell me what kind of grapes do you grow here? What kind of wines do you produce?
Amy Faust: We have to carefully select the grapes so that they withstand the Midwest temperatures and the growing season. So we've got a Norton/Cynthiana grape, which makes a really nice robust red -- dry red. We have Vignoles, Catawba, Concord, Edelweiss. We've got Marechal Foch, St. Vincent, Chambourcin.
Kaercher: Quite a variety.
Amy Faust: We have about ten varieties.
Kaercher: Frank, where does the name Sugar Clay come from?
Frank Faust: Well, in the early 1800s when the settlers and the pioneers came to the Loess Hills, they noticed when they went into farming and they tilled the ground and cleared the ground that when it would rain, the soil would just dissolve like sugar with water on it. So therefore they coined the name Sugar Clay.
Kaercher: I’m ready for my tour, but first I’ve got to toast. Here's to the good life in Iowa.
Amy Faust: Cheers.
Frank Faust: Dan, this is where it all begins. It starts in the vineyard. That's where the wine actually really starts.
Kaercher: What kind of grapes are grown here?
Frank Faust: This is our Cynthiana grape. It has still not turned to veraison yet, where it's starting to get color to the grapes. It still has probably another two months before it's going to be ready for harvest.
Kaercher: How do you know it's ready for harvest?
Frank Faust: Well, a lot depends on the PH and the titratable acidity in the wine itself or in the grape itself.
Kaercher: You test that yourself?
Frank Faust: Yes, we do. Yes, we do.
Kaercher: The grapes are harvested in the fall and then the wine production begins.
Amy Faust: Dan, this is our production area. After the grapes leave the vineyard, they go outside to our crush pad where they first enter the crusher destemmer and then the bladder press, and that's how we extract the juice from the grapes. After the press is done, the juice is pumped into these various vats that you see.
Kaercher: Those are big too! How many gallons?
Amy Faust: We can produce up to 10,000 gallons in this small room. Some of the blue barrels that you see are actually barrels that we use to blend the different juices to make different wines.
Kaercher: Once the juice goes into the vats, yeast is added and fermentation begins. The process can take between two to four weeks, depending on the style of wine. After the finishing, the wine gets hand bottled, hand corked, and hand labeled. As Amy wrapped up this portion of the tour, there were two words she said that really sparked my interest. Did I hear you say tasting room?
Amy Faust: Right.
Kaercher: That sounds really good to me. How about we head up there?
Amy Faust: Let's go.
Kaercher: Okay. Oh, boy, great ambience.
Amy Faust: Yeah, this is a great room. This is our tasting room.
Kaercher: It's got a really comfortable kind of chalet, ski-type feel to it almost. Well, I’m ready to try something. What are you going to choose for me?
Amy Faust: Let's start with the III Vines. This is our nice dry white. It's fairly acidic. It makes a great food wine. This reminds me of a Seyval Blanc. I'll let you try that.
Kaercher: Oh, yeah, we love Seyval Blanc.
Amy Faust: But it's got three Iowa grapes: La Crescent, Edelweiss, and Frontenac Gris. So we'll give it a swirl.
Kaercher: Those all do well in Iowa, those grapes.
Amy Faust: They do. And they make a nice blend. This has been oaked for a little while, so you can taste the oak in there.
Kaercher: Wonderful. Great.
Amy Faust: All right. Next I think we'll try the Loess Hills Blush. This is a blend, Dan, of two real familiar grapes, Catawba and Concord. They're both Labrusca style grapes, so it's a real fruity, almost similar to a Sangria style wine.
Kaercher: So this is going to be a lot sweeter.
Amy Faust: It is going to be a lot sweeter.
Kaercher: It's amazing the variety of wines you can produce right here in Iowa.
Amy Faust: That's the beauty of it. The varietals make wonderful wines. We have a lot of fun as well blending wines. Some of our blended wines are the most popular. This is a blended wine. It's got a beautiful cranberry red color. You can really taste the fruit.
Kaercher: Quite a contrast to the tart one we had earlier.
Amy Faust: Exactly.
Kaercher: It is a beautiful color too. The variety of wine offered at Sugar Clay was impressive. They also have a small menu that boasts appetizers and sandwiches, along with a unique item very fitting for a winery, Amy’s Grape Salsa. Is this the famous grape salsa?
Amy Faust: This is the grape salsa, yeah. Everybody is talking about it. We offer lunch and dinner. We make lots of appetizers that go well with wine. This Loess Hills Blush would be a really good complement to this. It kind of cuts through some of that heat.
Kaercher: I love it. It's very sweet but then it has this kick, the hot stuff.
Amy Faust: Exactly.
Kaercher: Great combination of flavors.
Amy Faust: Thank you.
Amy Faust: Thank you. Cheers.
Kaercher: Outside under the canopy of trees, Sugar Clay frequently offers live music. What a relaxing way to unwind: sipping wine, enjoying live music in the company of my new friends, and Amy’s grape salsa. My day is complete.