Iowa wine is a real thing, with more than 100 wineries and an annual best wine competition
Iowa had just 13 wineries in 1999. As of 2017, it had 118 and ranked 14th among the states in number of wineries compared to its population. Des Moines Register
Iowa might not be the first state that comes to mind as a winemaking region, but its wineries and the Iowa Wine Growers Association are challenging that notion.
In lieu of the Iowa State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, postponed when the 2020 fair was canceled, the Iowa Wine Growers Association conducted a standalone contest in March to shine a light on the best wines in Iowa over the past year.
The numbers tell the story of the industry's growth. The judges tasted 186 wines and handed out 149 awards to products from 30 wineries, including best-of-show winners from Fireside Winery in Marengo, Eagles Landing Winery in Marquette and Rustic River Winery & Vineyard in Lake View.
The overall winning wine, Fireside's Storyteller, received the Governor’s Cup trophy. It also took home the Best of Show White award for its sweet, fruity blend of Vignoles and St. Peppin grapes that the judges said provided notes of citrus, apple and pineapple.
Eagles Landing's Rohde Red landed Best of Show Red, and its blueberry-derived Bluesfest took the Best of Show Fruit. Coyote Call blush wine from Rustic River was named Best of Show Other.
The contestants were a cross section of the more than 100 wineries in Iowa.
“We opened up the entry period originally held in November,” said Nicole Eilers, marketing director for the Iowa Wine Grower’s Association. “Some of the newer wines that [wineries] had just bottled from their 2020 grapes they were able to submit.”
That helped ensure more robust participation than the association usually sees at the Iowa State Fair commercial competition. Also helpful: the lifting of the August fair's requirement that wineries provide a case of each entered wine for judging. Eilers said some wineries can’t spare the inventory during the busy summer months.
Seven judges met at the Chateau at White Oak in Cambridge to start blind tasting at 10:30 a.m. March 24. Judges included wine industry professionals, enthusiasts and sommeliers. One of them, Jorene King, co-owner of Valley Junction shop Wines of Iowa, admitted the seven-hour process was “somewhat grueling," even though the judges swished and then spat out the wines.
"The taste has to be everything you expect from each varietal," King said.
But even with dozens of wines in each category to try, the spectacular ones were easy to spot.
“It has to stand out and be the best of that particular varietal," King said. "When you’re tasting that many wines, it really does stand out."
Judging criteria included color, clarity, bouquet and how the wine tasted against others of its varietal.
King owns Wines of Iowa with her sister, Rae Ann King. They have been in business for nine years, offering a variety of wines from the ever-expanding ranks of Iowa vineyards.
“We felt like this was an industry that was growing,” Jorene King said. “There is a whole movement of eat and shop local.”
She likes to help customers find Iowa wines based on their preferences for better-known, out-of-state bottles.
“We really are kind of relentless at pushing this because you go to farm-to-table restaurants around Des Moines and they have local beer — and California wines,” King said. “They usually get a message from me later saying, ‘Hey, you should try this next time.’”
The winning wines from this year’s commercial competition will be available to taste at Wines of Iowa, 234 Fifth St. in Valley Junction, starting at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Iowa's wine industry is growing, gaining recognition
Getting people to consider Iowa wines alongside those from leading growing regions is “a big issue we face every day,” Eilers said.
According to a 2017 wine industry economic impact report conducted by John Dunham & Associates for the National Association of American Wineries, there were 118 wineries in Iowa, up from just 13 that Iowa State University extension counted in 1999, and they have a $1.6 billion annual impact on the state's economy.
The WineAmerica/National Association of American Wineries report shows Iowa is a disproportionate-to-its-population 14th among states for its number of wineries — though that may be logical for what is, after all, a farm state.
The wine world seems to be taking notice.
“There are national and international competitions where Iowa wines are receiving high awards as well,” Eilers said. “Soil type, specific climate and weather conditions all contribute to the uniqueness of the grapes grown in this region.”
Terroir, or the influence of soil and growing conditions on the taste of a finished product, is often associated with famous wine regions like California's Napa Valley and France's Bordeaux. Iowans might be surprised to find out there are two such designated growing regions, known as American viticultural areas, or AVAs, in the state: the Loess Hills District AVA and the Upper Mississippi River Valley Region AVA.
“The Upper Mississippi River Valley Region is actually the largest AVA out there,” Eilers said. It covers 29,914 square miles and sweeps across northeastern Iowa, reaching into Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Visiting Iowa's wineries, apprenticeships
The Iowa Wine Growers Association is pushing for more consumption of locally produced wines through resources available on its website, iowawinegrowers.org. Vino lovers can explore the state’s growing and production areas by following the Iowa wine trails and interactive maps show grape-growing information by county.
“I would really encourage people to get out and visit wineries,” Eilers said. “It’s a perfect way to get away for the weekend, socially distanced, and experience local.”
In addition to resources for consumers, the association runs a first-of-its-kind registered apprenticeship program for cellar workers, winemakers and most recently vineyard managers.
“You want to get young people into trades, but for our particular industry it doesn’t do them any good to get involved before the legal drinking age,” Eilers said.
The association hopes to bridge the age gap between high school graduates and legal drinkers with the new vineyard manager apprenticeship, which will focus on overseeing and maintaining a quality vineyard.
Different grapes, unique Iowa wines
“The varietal of grapes that are growing here are different than what California is growing and what warmer regions are growing just because of our shorter growing season and the really harsh winters we have,” said Eilers.
Because of the all-seasons growing conditions in Iowa, many local grape varietals are still relatively new to the wine world. “There’s a lot of research still going into them,” Eilers said.
According to the association's website, over 40 types of grapes grow in Iowa. Popular grape types include La Crescent, which produce a pale wine similar in flavor to a Riesling, and Marquette, which have a hardy black currant-and-spice flavor and produce wines similar to a Zinfandel.
“They have their own set of flavor profiles, and they’re just as good, if not better, than the ones that have been around forever,” Eilers said.