From 13 wineries and just two vineyards a decade ago, to more than 85 state-licensed wineries and more than 413 vineyards covering more than 1,200 acres this year, the Iowa wine industry is growing quickly, due, in part, to the help of Iowa State University. There are vineyards in 95 counties and wineries in 55. The largest concentration is in Warren County, just south of Des Moines -- an area called the "Napa Valley of Iowa" by ISU Extension viticulturist Mike White.
A recent study commissioned by the Iowa Wine & Beer Promotion Board estimated the total annual economic impact of the wine industry on the state at $234.3 million.
White is on the front line of the work ISU does for the growing industry and has been involved in the growth of the wine business almost since its inception. "I've worked with every one of the wineries in Iowa, probably," says White. "I can't think of one that I haven't had contact with in some form or another."
Growers get considerable technical help from ISU Extension
White gives technical help to growers on how to choose the right soil, how to grow the grapes, how to control pests and diseases and many other problems growers encounter. "Much of my time is spent on e-mail, where I answer questions from growers or give them a list of people who can answer their questions if I can't," he says. "People send me photos of bugs or diseases in their vineyards, and I tell them what to do about them."
A co-owner of the Two Saints Winery in St. Charles has asked White questions many times and they say White's answers have been awesome. "We make a dry Frontenac and we had some black rot on the grapes," says Christine Carlton. "I had Mike come out and look, and he recommended we use a fungicide. He didn't know if it would work since the plants were pretty far gone. But we used it and the disease stopped. He saved the Frontenac that year."
While White works closely with growers, he admittedly doesn't have all the answers. He often refers questions to other growers and industry resources who may have solutions. "The main thing I do is network people together," he says.
Besides working with growers, ISU does lab analysis of wine
In addition to the field work provided by White, ISU is also involved in laboratory analysis of wine. Once the grapes leave the vine, Murlidhar Dharmadhikari, director of the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at ISU, works with wineries to improve the product. The institute offers fee-based services in an on-campus laboratory, with another lab set to open soon.
"With these labs, we will be able to provide assistance to the wineries," says Dharmadhikari. "That means if there is any problem, the winery operators can send us a sample. We can run the analysis, check the chemical composition. We can taste and smell the wine and tell them what is right, what is not right and help them so they can make a quality product."
Since the wine growing industry is so new in Iowa, he says it is important to help the wineries produce high quality wine right away. If customers try Iowa wine for the first time and it is not good, they may never try it again, he says.
For Good Reasons--let's try to get it right the first time!
Dharmadhikari is developing a system to ensure quality standards are met. The wines that meet the standards will carry a special seal on the label so the consumer can easily distinguish them as a quality product in the marketplace and purchase them with confidence, he says.
Quality assurance is one reason Dharmadhikari says Iowa wine should continue to grow with the help of ISU. "Iowa is a leader in corn production, egg production, soybeans, pork, all with some help from ISU," he says. "There is no reason we can't be a leader in cold-climate wine production."
Viticulturist White also thinks the future looks bright for the industry and believes there are several factors as to why the industry has already grown so quickly in the state. "Everybody worked together to make this happen, in Iowa," he says. "ISU, the state legislature, the department of economic development, the wine growers association, the community colleges, the Department of Agriculture -- we've all worked in one direction. The goal for everyone has been to help this industry prosper, and we're doing it."
ISU specialists think future is bright for Iowa wine industry
And, like Dharmadhikari, White thinks the future is even brighter for the industry.
"All the indicators point to wineries continuing to grow. These wineries are becoming meeting places and event centers," he notes "People are getting married at wineries, they're having meetings there, social groups use them, chambers of commerce are holding events there. And as far as economic development, they are great for rural areas. It is like a pipeline of money going from the urban centers directly to rural areas without going through middleman."
All that revenue that is coming from the hosting parties adds up. Carlton, of Two Saints, estimates that more than a quarter of the winery's revenue is from hosting events and other non-wine revenue streams. Many Iowa winery's are growing and reinvesting much of their profits. Carlton says the winery is still trying to upgrade the consumers' experience. "We're constantly improving stuff," she said. "We're not going to get rich doing this, but it's very satisfying. It's a great life."