Friday, March 28, 2008

North Central Iowa

February 14, 2008: This is what North Central Iowa looks like on a bright sunny morning in the middle of one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record: BLEAK

We left Cedar Rapids late in the afternoon of Valentine's Day, headed for Fredericksburg, the Englebrecht Family Winery, and the Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast. It was a beautiful day, sunny and NOT below zero. The weather highlight for the weekend, by the way.

At the B&B, we were greeted by Judy, filling in for Dianna and Loren Englebrecht who were out of town. Judy works for the Englebrechts at the winery (she knows all the grapes and says the Blue Bell -- related to the Concord -- is the prettiest!) and fills in as needed at the B&B. She showed us around the house, introduced us to H.J. (winery dog - a Blue Weim), recommended restaurants, opened up the gift shop for us so we could taste wines!, and made us breakfast in the morning (excellent!). Check out this spread: scrambled eggs with ham, whole wheat pancakes with grape/raspberry/maple syrups, pepper bacon, fresh fruit, muffins, coffee (good!), orange/grapefruit/grape juices, milk. Whew, so delicious.

The winery is 10 acres and they had their first harvest in the fall of 2006. The wines for sale now are from that harvest. Besides Judy's pretty Blue Bell grapes, she says the Eidelweiss has the prettiest vine: the leaves are shaped different and look velvety in the sun. Judy told us winter is a quiet time, but you can prune the vines in the winter; the vines are pruned by hand. The winery has a destemming machine, but the grapes are picked by hand using scissors. She says it's very hard on the hands, her thumb didn't work for some time after harvest!

In the shop, I tried the Farm House Bella (too sweet for me), Farm House Hombre (quite dry, sharp taste), Farm House Red (very smooth, but also too sweet for me), and Farm House White (nice, sweet, smooth). I bought a bottle of the Farm House Hombre and some pepper bacon, which looked too good to pass up. (Proven so at breakfast the next morning.)

Morning dawned bitter cold, below zero again, crisp and sunny thank goodness, but not good for being outdoors. Heidi and I took a brief walk about the farm with H.J. following along to keep us company. While I went off to try to get a nice photo of the house, Heidi met the winemaker. He has been there just a few months and previously made his own wines at home. He proudly pronounced that he was a three-years-in-a-row blue ribbon winner (no one's ever done that before!) at the Iowa State Fair, twice for his rhubarb and one for a (dark?) cherry. He's not allowed to enter anymore since he works for a commercial winery, but says he's tempted just to see if he can win again, then of course not accept the award. (We're sure he was joking!)

We left mid-morning for the drive to St. Ansgar and Bel-Aire Estates, owned by Steve and Lorraine Beland.

What a fun place! Steve had his tractor plowing a path for us when we arrived. First greeter -- another winery dog -- was Maya, a pretty young girl who was happy to have guests. The winery is on the site of an old Fly-In Drive-In Theater owned by Steve's parents, the building itself used to be where you bought refreshments. They are in the midst of refurbishing and creating a show room.

The wines offered by the Belands are also from their first harvest. (They sold their first bottles of wine on June 1, 2007 after a fall 2006 picking.) In addition, they are importing grapes from other places -- notably California -- to help them get started. They have used grapes from another Iowa vineyard (in Forest City) which they picked themselves. Their wines so far include Frontenac, Chenin Blanc, Happy Apple, Apple Delight (Sweet and Dry), and Fly-In Drive-In (combination of Chenin Blanc and Muscat grapes). Steve gave us samples of their Blue Bell wine right out of the stainless steel tank, which was "unclarified." (The tanks cost $800 each!)
Steve and Lorraine are more enthusiastic about their wines than I was -- I need to cast aside my expectations when tasting Iowa wines; am working on mastering that. I did buy a bottle of the Fly-In Drive-In.

The Belands told us their apple trees took seven years to produce. The grape vines were put in in 2000. They actually started their wine avocation with kit wines, and just got more and more serious. Steve says they look up information at the Iowa Wine Growers Association; he said it is "pricey, but a good resource."

The two donkeys on their labels are real -- they live there on the farm. The baby's all grown up now, though. We didn't get to see them as they were not outside.

One thing I've pondered about Iowa wines is that many of the places we'll visit are just now offering wines from their first harvests; lots of the Iowa wineries are quite new. So as we progress in our visits, it will be interesting to see how the wines taste at places that have been around a few more years -- or eventually, to come back to some of these new places to see how they are developing.

BTW, Lorraine mentioned to Heidi that others are visiting all the Iowa wineries; sad to know our idea isn't original. A recent visitor to their place commented that he had only five more wineries to visit. Wonder when HE started?

First Adventure

Amana at Christmas

December 8, 2007: Food. That's the thing. You start with food. Food is basic. We met at the Ronneburg for lunch: do we order family style? That's traditional in Amana, but it's also a TON of food. We opt for platters. When Heidi went to the restroom, I was thrilled as I read the placement to discover they have actually provided the menu for their fabulous cottage cheese! You may not think this is anything to get so excited about, but I swear, you haven't tasted cottage cheese until you've had it at the Amana family-style restaurants. (Thank goodness, when we were done with lunch, Heidi reminded me to take my placement -- thanks Heidi!)

Here, okay, a diversion, before we get to the wine part. This is from the placemat. Cool.

After lunch, we walked next door to the Ackerman Winery. "Winner of more than 300 awards. They must have them all displayed! Self-guided tour, sample bar. Choose from more than 21 varieties of exotic fruit and table wines." This was a lovely place. There were two ladies working; both were friendly and informative. They were able to answer all our questions and were very accommodating. No, they don't grow their own fruit. The fruit comes from states all around the country. The merlot grapes come from California. We braved a few fruit wines -- we were both a little ambivalent about fruit wines, but heck. It's a PROJECT. I tried the Crimson Cranberry. This is their sweet fruit cranberry wine. Actually, rather a nice flavor, but too sweet for me. Probably nice as an apéritif or dessert wine, though. Next up, their Dry Cranberry. This was a little better, snappy, but I didn't care for the flavor. In the sweet, you could definitely taste the cranberries. In the drier version you could mostly taste the dry -- it was a little bitter. I tried their Merlot. Well, now we're getting someplace. As merlot goes, I wasn't too impressed, but at least it tasted like real wine.

As we sipped from the teeny sample glasses, we browsed in the large gift shop: it's wine accessory heaven, goodness. So much charming and goofy stuff. Ackerman has (as quoted above) a self-guided tour. Basically, you can walk on public walkways through the small winery, viewing through windows and reading labels. They have some photos from the '70s, odd statues (a life-sized Tarzan-like dude hanging from a vine in a corner of the winery above some vats?), Q&A signs; neat and simple. Back to the samples: I tried the Autumn Red. Best yet. This one is the only remote possibility for purchase for me so far. Finally, because I wanted to be able to say I'd actually tried Dandelion Wine, I sampled the Dandelion. This is actually made from Dandelion blossoms -- who'da guessed? It really had quite an interesting sort of earthy, mild flavor. Still too sweet for me, but -- as I told Heidi -- I could taste the dandelions. (She kindly pointed out to me that she doubted I know what dandelions taste like -- though in retrospect, I'm not sure that's a relevant point, as in the wine classes I've taken, people say they can taste leather and dirt and oil and plastic -- and honestly now, what do THOSE taste like?)

Oh! When I tried the dry cranberry, I swallowed wrong -- as everyone looked on -- and choked. The kind lady helping went right over and got me a small glass of water. This is only particularly notable because of our visit later in the day to the Sandstone Winery (no specific Web site, but here's their info from the Iowa Wine & Beer page).

I ended up buying a small bottle of the Autumn Red. A nice beginning for our upcoming Project.

Onward and forward!

We drove down the road to the Woolen Mill. This is one of the few mostly authentic sites still available for tourists. They have plenty of stuff imported from other places, but they really do still have a working woolen mill, and some of the products in the store are actually manufactured there; those are the ones to watch for. Though they do have sock monkeys. It's hard to say no to a sock monkey. Heidi and I went rummaging in one of the bargain bins for double mittens, and we each found a great pair. Worthwhile purchase: I highly recommend double mittens.

From there we walked next door to the Village Winery. The Web site sort of says it all. The wine is about five down on their home page menu. It's a gift shop: Hummels, Precious Moments, crap I hate. (There was a young man taking a photograph of shelves of Hummels -- he saw us noticing and said "My mom LOVES Hummels, and I'll never buy one.") The winery manufactures only fruit wines, but okay, in for a penny, in for a pound. They were out of cranberry ("because it's so good," the sample lady told us). Whatever. We decided to try the grape, which they have in white and red. We started with white. Ick. Not good. Okay, let me try the red. [As an aside, I have Concord grapevines in my backyard, and in the fall of 2006, a work colleague, Gerhold Lemke, picked the bulk of my grapes and made wine. I was pretty incredulous at the very thought of Concord grape wine, but I swear, the wine he made was sort of astonishing; like nothing I expected, and quite lovely.] The Village Winery's red grape wine is also made from Concord grapes. Gerhold's was MUCH MUCH better. This was bad. Ick. I asked if both the red and white grape wines were made from Concord and the lady said no. I asked what kind of grape did they use for the white? "Some white grape." I swear, she said this. Finally, I decided I'd try the Dandelion, just to have a basis for comparison since I'd tried this at Ackerman's. ("Ours is better than Ackerman's," she said.) She was wrong. It was bad. All the wines here left a mediciny aftertaste, very unpleasant. (Who drinks fruit wines? There must be a market? I can't figure it out.) Luckily for us, a group of four young folks came in and were trying a few wines, which gave us an easy escape. No purchases here. Lucky to get out with our taste buds intact.

Moving on. Back in the car, and over to the Smokehouse. Another of the authentic remnants of old Amana, though even here you have to search diligently and read the labels to make sure you getting meats actually processed in the villages. I picked up a few Christmas ornament gifts, we tasted some of the sausage samples (Thuringer! Yeah!), I bought a package of Thuringer and some strawberry preserves. Right next door is the Grapevine Winery. With a CLOSED sign on the door. I guess that would (sort of) explain why whenever I had tried to call them, the phone rang once, paused, and then played music for me -- apparently endlessly. The lady at the Sandstone Winery (below) told us they are no longer in operation. I'm gonna check into this, as I didn't find her to be a particularly trustworthy source. If so, though, I guess there's another we can cross off our list.

Around the corner to the main drag, and we parked in front of a Christmas store near the Sandstone Winery. At first, this seemed like a neat little place. Not so much a gift store, just a few trinkets on display. It had the look of a wine cellar, small, cozy. Shortly after we entered (the car outside had license plates that read "WINERY;" nice touch), a lady came out from the back room. She was pleasant enough, but not overly friendly. She didn't seem all that excited about having us try wines. No open bottles or sample cups were displayed. We asked to try the cranberry. She let us. It wasn't good. Their menu board actually suggested they had dry and extra-dry versions of some of their fruit wines (nothing BUT fruit wines though). So I tried the dry strawberry (?) -- I'm not even sure; I only know it wasn't good. Then I tried the extra-dry cherry. Before I got a chance to taste this, I knocked the tiny glass with my hand and it spilled. Not a word from the lady, she just walked over and got a paper towel and wiped it up. She didn't offer to replenish my glass. I had a tiny bit left in the bottom, so drank that. Nothing from the lady. Heidi asked her if she had a favorite. No, she doesn't drink wine. SERIOUSLY. I asked if I could have another sample of that wine since I had spilled mine. She refilled it, reluctantly. It didn't matter, it was bad. You couldn't even taste the fruit, all you could taste was the dry. Just an alcohol taste. And while I'd thought it would be a more genuine experience without all the distracting gifts, in fact it just made it awkward, because there wasn't anything to browse around and look at while we drank. And this lady wasn't at all chatty. Good-bye, Sandstone Winery.

Coffee! We need something to wash the taste of sickly fruity wines out of our mouths! We trudged through the wind to Java Junction. Closed. Argh! We had passed a bakery, so we headed back in that direction. Another place where you don't find nearly as much authentic Amana stuff as you'd like, but I selected a good homemade loaf of Crunch Bread, and a loaf of Cinnamon Bread. Then we got treats (strawberry cream cheese turnover) and coffee (not good) and headed for the "seating upstairs" area. The higher up we marched, the hotter it got. It verged on intolerable up there -- but given that we'd been complaining all day about how cold it was, it seemed a little silly to complain too much about this. So we found the least hot seats we could (under a ceiling fan) and sat down to enjoy snacks and conversation. After a bit, when we felt we had cooked long enough, we decided it was time to call Day 1 of our Project to a halt and head for home. We hopped in my car, I dropped Heidi off at hers, and we headed in our separate directions toward home and dreams (nightmares?) of fruit wines.

Iowa Does Wine?

In December 2007, Heidi and I set out to visit all the wineries in Iowa within two years. We'll report on our adventures in Iowa Wine here!

Yeah! It's winter in Iowa! At least our First Adventure isn't too far away: we are going shopping and wining on the Amana Wine Trail. Temps are in the mid-teens, it's windy, it's snowing off and on. We're up for it.

If you'd like an overview of what we've set ourselves up for, visit the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board page. They've got a really nice printed booklet that lists all the wineries (and breweries), with contact info and maps to show you the way. There are also several established Wine Trails -- we hope to take advantage of some of the trail events, where we can cover more ground on a day then we can just meandering on our own.

3/08/08: The project begins to seem rather more far-fetched, at least in our allotted time frame. Friend Gerry shared an article today from a January issue of Iowa Farmer Today ("Wine Institute Sees Limitless Opportunities for Iowa Vineyards") which said that there were 67 licensed wineries in Iowa. Just a few minutes later, I was looking at an article at the Web site for the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute (affiliated with ISU Extension), "Iowa's Grape and Wine Industry Provides Significant Economic Activity," dated February 5, which says "Iowa boasts 70 licensed wineries." Aiyee.

Here's a map of Iowa vineyards from ISU dated 2004 to give you a quick (and somewhat dated) idea of the scope of our project: