Sunday, August 31, 2008

Winery Picnic

August 23, 2008
So, now we have these Heart of Iowa Winery Passports, and our trips for the rest of the year will entail scrambling to get every page stamped! Off we go!

First stop today was Tassel Ridge Winery in Leighton near Oskaloosa. This is one of the biggest, fanciest places yet, everything looks slick and professional. We spent some time browsing around the gift shop. There was a constant flow of customers. When the tasting bar was empty, we walked over. And stood waiting. And waiting. It was sort of odd. An employee even walked by and said hi. At last, Victoria came over to help us. She wasn't too chatty, but poured us a sample and answered questions. She's been with Tassel Ridge part time for two years. Shortly, Jeff Card came over and Victoria wandered off. Jeff was lots more chatty and told us about each wine, what kinds of grapes, where they came from.
Tassel Ridge has a large placemat-sized sheet for wine notes - the front is like a mega-graph with dry to sweet along the top and white/light body to red/full body along the side. Each of their wines is printed on the mat with name of wine, label, and a check box to mark when you've tried it. Tassel Ridge has at least 25 different wines!

No winery dog -- anymore. Jeff said they used to have one, and remarked that there are photos of Boomer displayed near the entrance. As we walked that way I had to check it out, of course: Boomer was a blue merle Aussie!

I asked about the labels, and Jeff said the winery has a graphics person. They harvested their first grapes in 2005.

If my notes are correct, it looks like I tried nine (9!) wines! Good heavens! Can that be? Starting with whites, I sampled their Candleglow White (a California chardonnay), their Dry Riesling (also from California) - which was good with a crispy citrus flavor. I tried the Overture (contains a blend of Iowa and California grapes): I must have tried this after the Prelude (also a blend), as my note for Prelude says "sweet, nice, good sipping wine" and for the Overture "not as sweet, nice." Don't you love my discriminating notes?

I only tried one blush. I'm trying to focus on more of the Iowa grapes, and I wanted to try the Iowa Steuben. It was very sweet, but I thought it would be nice for a summer evening sipping wine.

I sampled three of their four reds (despite the slick professionalism, one of their reds missed making it onto the placemat!): St. Croix (an Iowa grape), which I liked quite well (in fact, ended up buying this one). It was bold and full-bodied; Jeff suggested it would pair well with steak, pasta, or chili. Next up was the Candleglow Red (another Iowa/California - syrah - blend), which is noted as my "least favorite." Also tried the In the Dark (also Iowa/California syrah). This was much drier; Heidi and I agreed it "needs food," though it grew on me as I sipped.

Last but not least, we both just HAD to try the Tassel Ridge Chocolate Granfinale'. This is a dessert liqueur and is really rather amazing. It smells and tastes astonishingly like chocolate!
Though Jeff swears there in no chocolate in it. Heidi even bought a bottle of this (also amazing! - at $20, well beyond her generally conservative wine purchasing nature). I was tempted, but really, this would require a party. Heidi promised to share.

I asked if Tassel Ridge caters parties and banquets and Jeff said they do have wine pairing dinners. There is a grand piano in a corner of the shop, and he confirmed they do have music sometimes.
The winery itself if viewable mostly from above in a self-directed tour -- you overlook the production facilities through glass. As we saw some visitors coming up the stairs from the floor below, we traipsed downstairs ourselves to have a look around.

Tassel Ridge does vineyard tours - by appointment only. And after our tasting, I did notice a man (I believe the owner) pontificating about the wines with a small group of people at the tasting bar. Later, as we were eating dinner, he and the group were walking back to the building from the vineyards, so they got to see the part I'm most curious about. There is also a tractor and trailer that must take larger groups out into the vineyards.

After we'd had our fill and made our purchases (including a bottle of white for our picnic!), we went out to sit on their patio. Heidi had prepared a lovely picnic lunch for us! (She'd declined my offer to contribute, saying I could buy the wine. Although then she bought the wine. Hmmm, come to think of it, she also declined my offer to help pay for gas at the end of the day, too. So what am I, the poor cousin?) Anyway, she had break, cheeses, fruits and veggies, and a brownie for dessert! The weather couldn't have been more lovely and we tarried rather too long.

From Tassel Ridge, we took off in search of Grape Escape Vineyard and Winery in Pleasantville. Here was an interesting place: looks just like a home in the country -- do we just, um, ring the bell? After greeting winery dogs Ozzie (a Great Dane) and Joe (a shy Brittany), we did just that, to be
greeted by Karen Haworth who dug in immediately and started pouring samples. As we talked about her wines, Karen also told us that Grape Escape shows a movie outdoors each Saturday (Wine-In Movies) from June through September (their flyer touts: "Join the fun! Good Times, Great Wines. Starts at 6:30 PM"). Loads of people come to enjoy wine and free popcorn and they show a movie on a 10' x 20' screen on the side of their barn. You can buy wine and sandwiches, bring your own chair, and there is music. "Bucket List" is tonight's movie. What a kick!

Grape Escape did their 2nd bottling of grapes in 2007. They do have vineyards on site though don't grow all their own. I tasted their Twilight, a blend of Edelweiss, LaCrosse, and Vignoles grapes. It was pretty nice and crisp. Karen then added a bit of white grape and cherry juice to each of our glasses for an interesting party twist. It was tasty. I also tried their
Simply Red and the Simply Blush. The bottle that came home with me was their Twilight. It's difficult not to buy a bottle from these small places, though I always enjoy them and it's nice to support the Iowa wineries and fun to remember our trips as I enjoy the bottles later on.

Karen told us they built the shop and live in the apartment adjoining it. They planned to build a home but that's been delayed and the apartment is working fine. They also have building plans for an estate with more sophisticated wine tasting facilities. This may be down the road and the architect designed something a bit out of their price range. Karen tried to talk Heidi and I into buying an old Victorian mansion for sale in town -- she says we could turn it into a bed & breakfast and do cooperative marketing and ventures with Grape Escapes!

I did ask about their label (how could you not?). Well, these people take their label design seriously. They even talk about their label on the back of their tri-fold brochure. It is a water color created by their daughter-in-law's brother when he was visiting from Canada in the spring of 2006.

Her husband and partner Rod walked in just before we left. He has been manning their booth at the Iowa Wine Festival in Indianola, which is also today, and we chatted a bit too. Karen will go and take over for him in Indianola. A fun place! We noticed they had picnic tables and thought it might have been more fun to enjoy our picnic lunch here; another time ...

Our last stop of the day was to be Rosey Acres Winery in Runnells. Runnells, indeed. Unfortunately, the little Wine & Beer brochure map didn't give us enough perspective to get there. Where is Runnells on this map? Where is Rosey Acres in relation to Runnells? We got into Runnells, tried to compare highways with the numbers on the maps, wandered a bit. Then, as it was already around 4:15, figured we needed help (assuming the closed at 5:00). We saw a sign for the public library -- perfect! Let's ask a librarian! But, um, this is a school, and it clearly isn't open? Where is the library? Okay, there is a Casey's. We stopped and I went in. The clerk looked frankly horrified at the thought of having to give directions, but a friendly customer did her best, although she wasn't familiar with the winery and sort of gave me her most educated general guess based on the not-so-good map. In the end, we just called and asked Tom Diltz (ack! phone number is wrong at Web site!), one of the owners, how the heck to get there. Even with his directions, we still had to maneuver through some road construction, but we finally made it; whew!

Rosey Acres was a neat little place: they are using wine bottles in their outdoor decor! Tom was a delightful host. Heidi and I browsed around his little place for a bit while he finished helping a small crowd who were tasting and making some purchases. He has a very nice, homey place.
About the time it was our turn to try wines, a couple of ladies walked in who had been enjoying an outdoor table at Tassel Ridge when we were there, so they joined us for the sampling.

Tom says he gets cold calls from vineyards asking him to buy their grapes NOW; this is often difficult, even it is may be a type of grape he could use, because once the grapes are picked, the must be used almost immediately. A guy called just this morning trying to sell him grapes that he could probably use -- but not this weekend (they are also at the Iowa Wine Festival in Indianola). He told the guy that if he could put off picking until next weekend he might be able to help. Tom says that while there are around 70 wineries in the state now, there are about 360 vineyards! He agreed that it would make more sense for these places to arrange in advance with wineries where they could sell their grapes at harvest time.

Rosey Acres got its name from naming parties. Rosey (a winery dog!) was
a Beagle-Cocker mix, now deceased. There also used to be Brutus, a Rottweiler; no current winery dogs. The pretty Rosey Acres labels were designed by a friend of his daughter who is in graphic arts and Web design.

Tom has a lovely variety of wines available.
He actually grows Marechal Foch grapes, but he doesn't care for the wine they produce and expects to tear them out and replace them with something else. He thinks it is too bitter. I tried his Paradise Mist, a clear sweet Riesling, very smooth with no bite. The Sweet Cheeks was a blend of white merlot grapes and strawberries (I hope I'm reading my scribbled notes right!), which definitely had a distinct strawberry taste, sweet and summery. The Rosey Red is made with Chambourcin grapes; it's a sweet red wine with some blackberry wine blended in.

Tom shared his Rising Sun Red, made from Leon Millott grapes: he wants this to have the same body as his Brutus Red (Corot Noir grapes), but doesn't think it's there yet. I did try the Brutus Red and really like it!
This is the bottle I brought home (along with a tea towel that will match the decor in my living and dining rooms perfectly). The Runnells Red is a lighter red wine made from Chambourcin grapes. And I tried the Spring Creek, made from Vidal Blanc, a semi-dry white wine. This was a lovely visit, my favorite stop of the day! (Tom, if you're reading this -- I wish you'd include the grapes from which the wines are made at your Web site! I'm very interested in what's happening with Iowa-grown grapes.)

Three more stamps in our Heart of Iowa Passports: only 10 to go! TEN. This year yet.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Heart of Iowa Passport

July 19, 2008. Saturday. Summer. Central Iowa. The next leg.

I have to say, I have postponed writing about this leg of our journey for far too long. Now, with the trip so far behind me (today is August 27), I'll be scrambling to come up with details. I am really HOPING that my colleague in wine (hello, Heidi!) will at least make some comments about this post, add in some details -- particularly about the cultural part of the trip, fill in some blanks!

Anyway, we took off bright and early in Heidi's brand spanking new Subaru Forester, and headed for Newton. And just in time! Jasper Winery is moving to Des Moines -- and today is moving day! It was a lovely summer day, though, and Jasper was destined to be the highlight. We browsed around outside the building for a little bit -- though it's tucked back in an out-of-the-way industrial location, they have a small Rain Garden; we stopped to admire the flowers, bees, and butterflies.

We headed on into the building and pretty soon got hooked up with Joan, who shared wines and talked about the winery. Jasper had its first harvest in 2003-2004. Paula and Jean Groben are the owners, and their son Mason is the winemaker; he has a degree in enology. Joan told us they have had to create a new label, as a California vineyard that uses the "J" apparently complained about their "j" label. You can see the new "JW" label at the right side of the photo below.

I tried their Le Crescent, which was fruity and tasted good alone. The label on this one has a picture of the new winery. Their Seyval Blanc was drier and Joan said it goes nice with creamy food. I didn't care for the Back Road, but their Behind the Shed was nice -- would be good with chocolate! I also tried the 2006 Iowa Chancellor. Ended up buying white -- a bottle of the Seyval Blanc. There is a winery dog -- Lucy -- but we did not see her, alas.

Also at Jasper, Heidi and I committed ourselves to the Heart of Iowa Wineries by purchasing passports. At each of the Heart of Iowa Wineries, we will get a stamp, and once our passports are filled, a gift! Worth $25? We shall see!

Joan gave us some ideas for lunch restaurants and we headed back into town. We found a new little place she had recommended, Bistro 211, and had quite a nice little lunch. The proprietor was in there chatting up the customers, most of whom he seemed to know. It was a small place and he seemed dedicated to the cause, but somehow wasn't the kind of guy to be running that sort of bistro. Of course, he's not really attracting the kind of customers you might expect at that sort of bistro, either, so maybe it'll all work out.

Before leaving Newton, we took a little cultural tour, driving past the Emerson Hough home, which is near the eponymously named Emerson Hough Elementary School.

Because we bought passports, we modified our plans for the day, figuring we should get started knocking Heart of Iowa wineries off our list. The passports are for 2008, so our time is already limited. We decided to circle up to Tama and the John Ernest Vineyard & Winery for our next stop.

Another pretty new building. Scenic, vineyards nearby, green, flowers, not terribly unique. Whitney helped us out inside. Preparations were underway for a party that evening and we talked a little about that. They have a special banquet room available and caterers were in attendance getting things ready. John Ernest is a family affair and we did meet DeeDee, the family matriarch.

At JEV I tried the Iowa Sunset (made with Iowa Foch grapes), the Pinot Noir (grapes from Chile), and the LaCrosse (Iowa grapes). I also tried the Timber Ridge (made with Iowa Frontenac grapes -- it touts a cherry aroma and I could definitely smell that!), the Ernest Delight (Iowa St. Croix grapes), and the Lincoln Highway Red (a blend of Iowa Frontenac and Merlot wines). Wasn't impressed enough with any to make a wine purchase, but did buy a prettily packaged Wine Glace' -- a powder that you use to make "wine-a-ritas." I don't know why. I guess because I felt like I ought to buy something. And because the idea of a "wine-a-rita" intrigues me. Though you've definitely gotta have a party to use this, and it's not as though I have a lot of parties.

We didn't get a tour of the winery; somehow, it didn't seem right even to ask. I don't think I even remembered to ask about their labels.

JEV had two resident winery dogs! Jed (called Nuts), a very cute older gold dog, and Scabbers (Buster), a Schnauzer.

Next stop: The Fireside Winery in Williamsburg! This one doesn't count toward completion of our passports, but it is on the way home. Another vaguely uninspiring building -- all these new places must have the same architect.
Pretty countryside, pretty flowers, handsome old white church across the street. Got my favorite photo of the day here, anyway (below).

This place was busy. Much gift shop. Many customers. We didn't get much opportunity to chat with anyone who knew anything. We talked a little with Renee, who was serving our wines -- and also serving to many others, so busybusy. I tried their Matchbox (Chambourcin and Merlot) and thought it too sweet, although Heidi liked it;
their Serenade (my note says "Yeah!", although I apparently wasn't impressed enough to buy any); the Amberglow (note says "nice"), the Iowa LaCrosse (this was good -- I think I didn't buy any because I just wasn't excited about the place overall, and because since no one working there cared whether I was there or not, I didn't feel any obligation to buy anything). Also tried their Iowa Vignoles (notes say "cool treat by itself," and "very unique!" -- again, no purchase).

No wine dog. Didn't ask about labels. Want inspiration on next trip, please!