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?

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