Vines of the Times

When considering the alcoholic beverage of choice for the evening here in Iowa City, only the hardcore eco-warriors factor in environmental sustainability. The hardcore are not surprised that wine shipped to the Midwest creates a smaller carbon footprint when it comes from Napa Valley than when it comes from Bordeaux. Nor are they surprised that wine packaged in Tetra-Pak containers instead of glass bottles produces a smaller amount of greenhouse gases as it travels on its way.

What surprises hardcore wine-loving environmentalists here is that they might find an Iowa wine they like.

“Iowa wines can’t really show their potential with young vines,” said New Pioneer Coop’s wine guy, Robert Morey. “Iowa wines don’t have history–the industry is in its infancy. There’s no telling what Iowa wines are going to taste like in 30 to 40 years.”
Morey said the Iowa wine industry has just exploded recently. He gets multiple inquiries from Iowa wineries each month, letting the rule of “quality, price and provenance” dictate his purchasing decisions. Iowa wines have the provenance category in the bag, but have certain drawbacks to overcome when competing with European or Californian wines.
For instance, that black Iowa dirt might be perfect for the heart of the Corn Belt, but, according to Morey, “beautiful soil will produce beautiful foliage and mediocre grapes.” Grape vines are the Buddhists of the agricultural world, following the life is struggle model. Suffering builds character for grapes.
Wallace Winery, Iowa City’s pocket of whimsy to the east, rests alongside one of the state’s older vineyards. Tasting room staffer Kïrsten Wallace said the vines have been around for 16 years, while the winery has been in operation for five years and the tasting room for three-and-a-half. She said that 20 percent of the grapes that go into their wine comes from their own vines, however, and that the majority come from southern Illinois. She thinks their Iowa Barn Red and Iowa Barn White wines sell more than others because of their labels.
Little Village convened a group of its editors, writers and friends to hold an informal Iowa wine tasting with official reportage. Tasters rated and remarked on the labels first–would they buy them or not based on the art’s appeal?–and then sniffed and sipped. It must be said that red-bias was professed strongly throughout the night. The wine palette was limited to the handful of Iowa wines, and the subjectivity was limited to the amatuer-taster experiences in the room.
Cheeky Blush
Park Farm Winery, Bankston
Miles to Market: 98.7
Price: $7.95
Grapes: Steuben
Aroma: 3.5
Taste: 2.17

Five-sixths were attracted to the label, which portrays a blushing wavy-haired redhead staring straight back at the soon-to-be-imbiber. Her pink-lipped smile and rosy-cheeked pun were welcoming, the unabashed sweetness of the wine was not. This first wine we tasted was so sweet it assaulted the taste buds of my guests, who all preferred dry wine. Positives included its decent complexity that would complement the porch-sitting days of summer.

The Park Farm Winery website states, “All of our wines are produced from grapes and fruit that can grow in the upper Midwest.” That does not mean the winery’s wine was made with 100-percent Iowa grapes. The winery’s vineyard planting began in 2001 and now has over 4600 vines, said winemaker Dave Cushman. He said they’re purchasing a lot of the Cheeky Blush’s Steuben grapes from Pennsylvania while they wait for a four-acre vineyard near Dubuque to come in production next year.

Fireside Winery, Marengo
M2M: 31
Price: $13
Grapes: Vignoles and Chardonell
Aroma: 2.67
Taste: 2.33

The biggest overall hit of this wine was its label and its name. Everyone at the party loves a good story, and all good stories need good storytellers. I was the only one turned completely off by the label, calling it the upscale Wal-Mart look, pastel puke. The bookshelf-and-fireplace concept wooed the majority into a Reading Rainbow-like land of possibilities. Each spine of each book, with each night of imbibing different from all others, illustrated a refined individualism that the other wines of the evening failed to inspire. With the Fireside Storyteller, maybe my guests thought they could go twice as high. I don’t know why this wine didn’t score higher in the aroma and taste categories. Did my guests expect butterflies? Were they too anxious to get to the reds? Or was the book they wanted to read written in French?

Iowa Barn White
Wallace Winery, West Branch
M2M: 8.5
Price: $10.99
Grapes: Chardonel, Vignoles and Vidal Blanc
Aroma: 2.67
Taste: 3.08

Iowa Barn White’s label was slightly reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World, with 100 percent of the wistfulness and 10 percent of the despair. The rural realism of the label compelled some but not others, earning an attraction rating of a strong maybe-I’d-buy-it. Being the last white wine tasted of the evening, expectations were low, but the individual ratings were all over the board on this one. One taster wrote, “I love it, tastes like a barn,” and “It’s the celery of wines!” exclaimed another. Despite the bias for reds openly professed in the room, this was the first wine where guests kept wanting another taste, which made me think it was welcomed a little more favorably than people would actually let on. That, or else we were sick of the tasting and wanted to get on with the actual drinking.

St. Croix

Cedar Ridge Vineyards, Swisher
M2M: 29
Price: $13.99
Grape: St. Croix
Aroma: 3.5
Taste: 3.67

Cedar Ridge Vineyards’ first estate-grown red was more than a happy change of pace for my guests. It was probably the most dramatic wine of the night, prompting love, hate, curiosity and redemption. The label was the biggest let-down of the wine–no one would think to purchase it on first or second glance. You have to squint to tell the white splotch is a cedar tree, and the Hawkeye-gold letter that’s supposed to represent the varietal looks like sunshine spittled out a typeface.

As the bottle was uncorked, a pungent alcohol scent shot into the air like a cannon, almost raping our nostrils. We let it breathe, the exaltations gave way to acceptance, and the red wound up having one of the higher ratings. Casual imbibers like me prioritize drinking the wine over letting it breathe. For the Cedar Ridge St. Croix, that oxygen turns a smelling salt into a rose, Tiger Balm into sweet mint.

Jasper Winery (J.W.), Des Moines
M2M: 117
Price: $20
Grape: Norton
Aroma: 3
Taste: 3.75
Although the Norton grape is not listed on the Iowa State University’s viticulture webpage, Mason Groben of Jasper Winery assured me via email the grapes from their 2007 Norton were 100-percent grown from that black Iowa dirt near Newton. The vines are seven years old, he said, from Sugar Grove Vineyard. The State of Missouri adopted Norton as its state grape in 2003, calling it one of North America’s oldest grapes that produces red wines quite lush. The J.W. Norton lived up to this description and was quite a crowd-pleaser. The label disappointed the former art school attendees among my guests, but several enjoyed the Des Moines skyline illustration, a total cuvée of urban and agricultural Iowa. However, the $20 price tag would steer others away from one of the most-favored wines of the night.
Wallace Winery, West Branch
Price: Out of Stock
Grape: Malbec
Aroma: 4.17
Taste: 4.5
The Wallace Malbec is one of Red Avocado Chef Dave Burt’s favorite Iowa wines. Kïrsten Wallace, who staffed the Wallace Winery tasting room on my end-of-summer visit, said the grapes came from a farm undergoing organic certification and thought they would no longer be able to buy their grapes now that they were certified. So the chances of finding this wine now are slim to none. The winery didn’t even have a bottle at the time of my visit.

The label was pleasant on the eyes, the majority favoring it, and one taster’s experience with the wine prompted the exclamation, “No, this is the best wine of the night!”  The Wallace Malbec made from the Saracina vineyard in California has taught me a lesson about good wines made in Iowa: If you hear one praised, move on it. Buy it; try it. The grapes might not come from here, and they might not come here again. The depth of the Wallace Malbec was glorious and delighted even the hardest-to-please of palates.

Melody Dworak enjoyed her first glass of red (and second and third) 10 years ago, with a beloved friend and a Christopher Guest marathon. This one’s for you, Krannie.