Friday, July 31, 2009

Scenic Rivers Wine Trail - Northwest Vine, Part 2

Okay, down to the wire again. Heidi and I leave for our week-long wine-tasting adventure to southwest Iowa day after tomorrow, so I need to get caught up tonight.

I'd like to share our adventures from our second day exploring the Northwest Vine of the Scenic Rivers Wine Trail, July 19, 2009.

Sunday morning in the cottage was lovely, particularly since the neighbor's maniac barking dogs were completely silent. Sweet. I played outdoors a little bit with the fat red non-barking doggie next door, she of the underbite, Chelsea. No pic, more's the pity, she was sweet, and seemed to enjoy having company. Heidi and I went for a walk into Bentonsport again -- and plumb forgot to watch for the Amish carriages that Rick (our host) had promised us parade past on the main road on Sunday mornings on their way to church. Shame.

We crossed the restored pedestrian bridge again, stopping enroute to admire the river. By the time we were back on the Bentonsport side of the river, some of the little shops were open, so we went visiting. One was a shop full of fabricky, stuffed, embroidered, sewn stuff, loads of pretty things, a few antiques in back room. Not much my style, but even less that of the proprietor, an older guy who sat very glumly at the front desk looking like this was the last place on God's green earth he wanted to be spending his Sunday morning. He barely greeted us and certainly didn't offer any pleasantries or assistance. How his wife talked him into doing a stint there is beyond me.

We enjoyed quite awhile in the Greef General Store, which is basically a large antique shop now, also dabbling in fudge. Odd. Samples were tasty. Because we'd only left home for a walk, I hadn't any money, but managed nonetheless to find a few things I wanted to buy, so once we were done, we went home, packed up, and enroute to our daily wineries stopped again to make some purchases. One of my buys was a six-volume set of books, The Young & Field Advanced Literary Reader, published in 1916, only $15 for all six! Now to read them. OMG, check this out! Here is Book Six in Google Books! The Internet is SO WONDERFUL.

Okay, shopping finished, we bid our fond farewells to Bentonsport and head off for Sunday adventures. Today, we're headed for Alabama! At least you'd rather think so: goal historic communities are Selma and Birmingham. However, on the way, since we are going through Keosaqua again anyway, we are making a little detour to Whispering Pines, to get our passports signed since "the boys" neglected to tell us about these when we visited yesterday. This time, sister-of-Shawn/wife-of-Dustin was there, with another baby, and she apologized, stamped our passports, and I think was really just as glad she didn't have to do the wine spiel.

We were very literally quite through Selma before we realized it and had to find a turnabout spot so we could head back. Oops. Here was one of the fascinating little wineries that make the trip worthwhile, so far afield from a Tassel Ridge or a Southern Hills, no fancy retail place, this. Crane Winery is located in a building that has housed a community center, Post Office, and hunting lodge. Gerri was our proprietress and was full of fascinating historical anecdotes about Selma (population fewer then 100 people now) and the surrounding area, including tales of the Ioway Indians, Black Hawk, the Underground Railroad. This little corner of the state is bursting with history! And yet now so little remains of most of these communities. Crane is in a building that's pretty beat up, in a big room that looks extremely lived in, with kids, toys, and young adults. Not at all the sort of place you'd expect to find wine. But very welcoming, just oddly charming.

Gerri served up her wines enthusiastically and chatted us up about them. She poured a Concord wine which was the best I've tasted on our tours so far -- the best since
the Concord my former work colleague Gerhold made for me from my own Concord grapes a few years ago. It was quite dry. (I think - hope - I bought a bottle of this one.) She also had a wine made from the Norton grape, very different from the Norton at Whispering Pines yesterday; it was quite thick but still pretty good. They plan to make a port from this. The wines here were mostly fun and reasonably tasty; Heidi described them as "more flavorful" than many Iowa wines we've tried in many fancier places.

Next stop, Birmingham. Another teeny tiny burg. They're everywhere! And loads of them have wineries. What an odd new phenomenon. In Birmingham we beelined for Stone Fox Winery, a nicely renovated and kept little building in the middle of town. Yesterday, when we'd passed through, there had been a sign along the main street with an arrow pointing to the winery. Today, no sign. When we arrived, though, we were greeted by a lovely young woman, who apparently got interested in wines because of her husband. He walked in shortly -- my gosh, I'm just here to say, you have no idea who all is making wines in Iowa. To see this guy on the street, you would just simply never think wine. He couldn't have been more pleasant and was glad to talk about his wines. But he looked a kid, longish scruffy blonde hair, maybe early 20s.

The couple has had some financial help from parents, notably with remodeling the building. They are already looking ahead to a bigger building, a place where they can have parties, weddings, celebrations, be more commercial. We mentioned the missing sign and the young man pretty promptly left to go down to the corner and put it up. They are really pleased that one of their whites recently won a silver medal in a Midwestern competition and talked a little about how you enter those things. The lady is still waiting for the actual medal and is really hoping she'll get one! (Me too.)

She designed the fox on their labels -- and I'm sorry to say the fox doesn't show up at their Web site. Heidi had showed me the site before our trip and I didn't care for it. It looks canned and I don't like sites with music. But now, revisiting it after our visit, I like it much better. It makes a difference having met the people and knowing a bit about what's going on. I didn't notice on my first visit that their winery dog, Merrick, gets front page billing and is helping to raise money for rescue causes -- I wish I'd known that; I would have donated. We did meet Merrick, a nice nearly white (!) Shiba Inu, who is very good with winery guests. My girls wouldn't be so calm and and polite, I'm sure. I do hope they can add the fox to their site, though. All this fun, and they had pretty decent wines, too. Heidi and I each bought a bottle.

Three bottles this weekend from five wineries. And they were only a little bit obligation purchases; I do try really hard only to buy bottles I have pretty much enjoyed!

Heading home, thinking of lunch but not sure what to do. We are contemplating wine, cheese, crackers. We'd thought maybe to sit outside a winery with a bottle of their wine and our own cheese and crackers, but the two we visited today didn't have that sort of option. So we drive through Fairfield -- no sites are evident. Driving on, we come to a turnoff for Lake Darling. Sounds inviting! We turn in, and follow the signs for the wedding. :)

When we reach the shelter and the beach, we pull in. Puzzled. What happened to the lake? Seriously. There is no water. I still haven't taken time to investigate this. At any rate, we did stop for our light lunch, and finished an open bottle of Heidi's white wine, drinking from yogurt cups in the assumption it's probably not okay to drink wine in a state park. I probably shouldn't be writing that here, should I?

After empty Lake Darling, all that remained was the drive home. Weekend vacation over. Boy, we did a lot, saw a lot, learned a lot! Southeast Iowa was fun!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Scenic Rivers Wine Trail - Northwest Vine

Over the weekend of July 17-19, Heidi and I took a merry jaunt down to the historic southeast corner of Iowa and the Villages of Van Buren as we continue on our Iowa winery mission. It was a fabulous weekend, filled with eating, sightseeing, relaxing, and wine. We packed a lot into two days yet didn't feel like it was too much -- mostly, I claim, because Heidi found us the perfect "base of operations."

We left on Friday afternoon and arrived in Bentonsport early in the evening, with time enough to scope out our weekend digs and still get in a good local supper. Heidi's internet searching earlier in the month had uncovered a href="">Hattie Corns Cottage, owned and rented out by Rick and Nancy Alexander in Bentonsport. What a delightful place! We chatted several times over the weekend with Rick, who was a gracious host -- even providing us with a bottle of his own homemade and bottled black cherry wine (which, for a fruit wine, was really quite lovely). The cottage was only $75/night -- isn't that amazing? It was so pretty, nearly in sight of the Des Moines River, kitchen, living room, bedroom (mine) - including laundry facilities, and full bath on the main floor, and one large bedroom with private toilet and sink (Heidi's) on the upper level. A beautiful screened in front porch, and a nice deck with grill in the back, though the weather was unseasonably cool, so we didn't make any use of the deck or as much use of screened porch as we might have liked.

After we dumped off our junk, we headed backwards for Bonaparte and the Bonaparte Retreat for dinner. This was a kinda cool place, sort of typical restaurant-in-a-remodeled-historic building place to look at. But very small town steakhouse with regard to wait staff and clientele. There was no way either our surly teenage bus girl or our even more surly waitress was going to crack a smile at us during our visit, but despite this the service was fast and efficient and we had a great little table overlooking the river. And, probably most important, the dinner was fabulous! Soup was to die for, my steak was just excellent, and there was a very tasty fried bread. We left more than sated, and I had a good steak lunch from the remainders once I was back home.

There was a funny and very rotund little dog with the most astonishing underbite I've ever seen, and a shock collar (apparently for an invisible fence) who lived just across the drive from the cottage. I later learned her name is Chelsea; wish I'd thought to snap a photo. She and I did play together a bit on Sunday morning. Throughout the weekend, I'd catch her sitting on the lot line looking toward the cottage; fat little spy.

We had such a productive day on Saturday! Started out with a lovely walk around Bentonsport, a very small but very historic little burg. Found self-guided tour pamphlets outside Iron & Lace, a local shop (which wasn't open yet), so helped ourselves and used that to find out what all the neat old buildings used to be. Also walked across a restored bridge, now restricted to pedestrians, which lead to another burg called Vernon, though we never did see anything of Vernon except for signs saying "Vernon." Still, the mysterious Vernon-ites kept up their end of the bridge better; there were loads of pretty flowers on the Vernon side of the bridge. (The video below is for Heidi; she wanted the sound of the river.)
Back home to Hattie's cottage to get ready for our day's travels. On the way out of town, we stopped again at Iron & Lace, where Betty Printy exhibits her pottery and woven rugs, she has beautiful stuff; and Bill Printy displays his ironwork. Of course, I had to purchase a souvenir for myself. Betty uses actual Queen Anne's Lace flower to create a unique image on each piece of pottery. I picked up a few Christmas ornaments as well.

Then, onward and forward to the serious stuff: wineries. Well, with some other nice touristy things tossed in. Fun day!

Whispering Pines Winery in Keosaqua was our first stop. Shawn and Dustin were in charge for the weekend; they'd finally convince mom and dad to get away for a weekend! And they were obviously having a fun time showing off the place to visitors. Shawn in especially involved in operations and even showed us his personal cache of strawberry wine actually gurgling away as it fermented. We, of course, are more interested in the grape wines. They had plenty of those, too. And Shawn was glad to share his knowledge and his wine. Here's what I know about the family: Shawn is paying child support, he works as a painter (in addition to the winery regarding which, he says, they are doing something they like to do and to share). The bad economy doesn't adversely affect the wine business as much as you might expect: people still like to drink, and are interested in traveling more locally. We were interested when a young couple came in to sample wines and Dustin (Shawn's brother-in-law -- whose young daughter was in and out) carded them. And, when the young man didn't have any I.D., both of the guys apologized and said they couldn't serve them. Apparently, officials are cracking down the the fines for getting caught serving to minors are significant. One of the wines I like pretty well here was their Norman -- made with the Norman grape. Neither Heidi nor I had ever heard of this grape, and apparently, this area is as far north as it will grow. In fact, several of our other wineries this weekend also had wines made with Norman grapes. I bought a bottle to enjoy at home, and we took off for our next stop ...

Kaiser Home Winery, also in Keosaqua. Heidi had already expressed her reluctance at visiting Kaiser, but I said we had to. After all, we are visiting ALL the Iowa wineries, even the ones that specialize in FRUIT WINES. (See December 2007 post re: Amana; ugh.) Which is what Kaiser does. The lady behind the counter was older and quite nice. I had to laugh, as when we mentioned we'd been to Whispering Pines, she knew that the boys were on their own and that mom and dad were away. She figured they were "having fun." Kaiser had a winery dog, a little black Schnauzer named Pepper, who would retrieve the tiny little plastic sample cups. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she had tried recently to breed one-year-old Pepper to a Maltese, but apparently Pepper "didn't want to be a mommy." In my mind, I added "... to stupid Maltese puppies ... " The wines were, as expected, awful, sweet, fruity things. She does have a grape wine or two, also -- also not good. We asked if she has vineyards and she says no, they buy all their grapes and juice (this isn't so unusual); says having vineyards is expensive and very labor intensive. One important thing we did learn, one winery too late, is that the wineries we are visiting (in fact, the EXACT five wineries we are visiting!) are a little sub-trail (the Northwestern Vine) of the Scenic Rivers Wineries. There are two other vines (future trips ... ). And if you get your (free!) passports initialed or stamped at each, you get a free glass! Well, why hadn't those boys told us this? Actually, I think this is when she commented that mom and dad are away and the boys are on their own. We took a passport, which she initialed, and went on our merry way. I bought nothing nothing.

Following our route on the map above, you'll find Cantril is our next stop, and The Dutchman's Store. This reminds me of a story I neglected to tell! (You see why this project takes me so long? It's still Saturday morning on our trip, but 9:30 already here in real-life.) Rick, our host, had told us that in the Bentonsport area, there has been an influx of Amish families in the past several years. The Clan in Michigan was starting to get a bit liberal -- you know, like, okay, we can have ONE outlet for our refrigerators, but that's IT. And as might be expected, not everyone appreciated this. So 19 families ("and by family, I mean aunts, uncles, cousins ... " --Rick) broke off and moved down here to Iowa, bought huge tracts of land and split it all up, built very large fancy homes (though apparently unheated and with no plumbing and electricity). The following year, 19 more families joined them. So there is this burgeoning Amish community. And indeed, we passed quite a lot of horse-drawn buggies during our weekend. We asked Rick later in the weekend how they actually GOT to Iowa from Michigan. I was figuring, since they are so conservative, that they probably had to sell off all their worldly goods. After all, they cannot drive power vehicles, their buggies cannot have metal wheels. I figured they could sell their houses and their stuff, come down here in buggies, and have plenty of money -- since it seems they are quite well-off financially anyway -- to start over. Ah, but no, this is not the case. They had people TRANSPORT them down here. And even down here, they have "regular" people with vans take them where they need to go. Which sure feels like cheating and like a bit too liberal to me. But, as we all decided, I guess we all rationalize what needs to be done.

Amish aside, there is apparently also a large Mennonite community. Heidi was clearly better versed in the differences than I, but, getting back to the Dutchman's Store, it is apparently managed and staffed by Mennonites. This is a marvelous and huge general store with loads of extremely cool bulk products (grains and flours, spices, stuff you'd expect; but also powdered chocolate, mini animal crackers, sesame sticks, cake decorations, chocolate covered nuts, dry soup mixes, salad toppings, aisles and aisles of stuff. Plus regular grocery items, locally baked breads, good produce, touristy gifts, farm wear, religious books, an aisle of quilting fabrics and supplies. Heidi and I both bought a fair lot of stuff.

Next stop: Milton, home of the Milton Creamery. We were helped by a lovely and charming Mennonite (right, Heidi?) lady, who happily talked about their cheese and shared samples. Wow, there were some really good cheeses. I bought about three different kinds, plus a bag of squeaky fresh cheese curds. Heidi asked if she knew a place for lunch and she guided us to Misty's Malt Shop (she's "heard" it's good) in Keosaqua. Sounded like just the things, so we headed in that direction. Fun stop!

Misty's Malt Shop. What can I say? The perfect completely unhealthy luch: huge breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches and delicious chocolate malts. Don't believe me? Check it out:

While enjoying our lunches, we browsed the Sports section (the only section left behind by some previous customer) of the local paper, the Ottumwa Courier. Lo and behold, why, there is an article about our last winery of the day -- Cedar Valley Winery (looks like at this writing, they are still waiting for Web site development) in Batavia!

Now heading north for Cedar Valley. The thumbnail map in the wine guide book was, it turns out, completely and utterly wrong. We ended up having to phone the place to find out where the HECK they are. Opposite direction. Opposite. There oughtta be a law ... This is a brand new place; they only just opened up on July 1. The building is new, country setting, vineyards all around, very pretty. Working that day behind the counter were Penny (sister of Seth, who was profiled in the article) and Mom. David (Dad) was also around, though he couldn't be convinced to stop chatting with friends to come give us a tour of the winery; mom eventually did that. Heidi offered at this visit that vineyards and wineries are "the new family farm" which seems true. This particular family actually started planning to bottle water from a spring on the property, but so far, they still haven't made it to the water. She would like to get her wines into other outlets, saying "we don't need to give Hy-Vee all the business." She would like to be able to support smaller, local businesses, and noted that New Pioneer in Iowa City would be one such place. Cedar Valley also had a reasonably nice Norton wine.

After Cedar Valley, we headed home to our little cottage. We relaxed for awhile, and then Heidi kindly made us a light dinner, though I was still so full from that tenderloin and malt that, good as it was, I could barely find room. An evening of relaxing and reading. I took a late evening walk around Bentonsport -- minorly determined to find the source of the incessant dog barking in the vicinity. As I neared home, I found them: I'd thought there were at least two dogs who just would not quit. It turned out I counted at least eight in the near-dark. And of course seeing me didn't help them with their barking. Though I don't think it made them any worse, either. I wanted to open my window when I went to bed, but decided against it because of the dogs. My only complaint of entire weekend.

End: Saturday. Tales of Sunday must wait for posting until later in the week.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Grand Prize

I believe the date was December 20, 2008, though my date book offers no hints. I know bad winter weather was predicted, that we decided to make our trip anyway, and that Heidi drove -- which I've been sorry about since. She had a new Forester, which was (is!) lovely, but she's a more conservative weather driver than I, and I know it was a more stressful day driving for her than it would have been for me. At any rate, it did, indeed, snow a good deal of the day as we ventured north to take in the last two wineries on the Heart of Iowa Wine Trail, aiming to claim our prizes!

On this cold and snowy day, we visited Bluestem Winery in Parkersburg and Eagle City Winery in Iowa Falls.

Bluestem was remarkable mostly because it is in Parkersburg, made famous in summer that year by the tornado that almost completely decimated the entire community. We heard a few interesting tales from the winery proprietor and saw some interesting sites around town, mostly loads of brand new houses and a notable lack of trees. The winery itself was unremarkable, as were the wines. It was tiny, largely a retail gift and antique shop, with one small room dedicated to the wines. Here are the only two pics I took.

Eagle City was a bit more interesting. Partly because they had a donkey. Sweet. And mostly because the lady seemed a bit more interested in her wines than in her gifts. It's always nice when a place offers crackers and such to taste between wines. This was a nice cozy place - though you can tell it's winter from the way the proprietor is dressed! Not to mention the outdoor shots. This was the last winery on the tour, and we (finally!) got our lovely wine glasses, two each, engraved with Heart of Iowa Wine Trail and their logo. They are quite nice glasses, and the lady packed them for us in tissue paper and pretty gift bags (evidenced on counter in third shot below).

Was it worth it? Well sure. I am not sure Heidi thought so, at least at the time. She seemed to think risking our lives for two wine glasses might not have been the best use of our time. But she was a good sport about it. And now she's got those two pretty glasses and all our fine and fun memories. And this blog, which she never reads or otherwise pays any attention to. Doing the trail passport forced us to get done a good chunk of wineries in pretty short order. We were a little tight at the end, especially given the weather, and we were both ready for a break. Though we didn't intend for the break to extend until JULY 2009 ...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

After a long break ...

... I'm back. I couldn't do it. I tried to stop, but too much guilt. The Iowa wineries blog must go on. First of all, big news in Iowa wine world (Upper Mississippi River Valley -- including Iowa -- is new AVA, American Viticulture Area) at:,0,7376110.story; check out the serious government info at this link to the Federal Register:

Okay, a little quick catching up. In our frantic effort to finish the Heart of Iowa Wine Trail before the end of the year, Heidi and I took a weekend in early December to chop away at the list. On December 6 and 7 we visited Southern Hills Winery in Osceola, Two Saints Winery in St Charles (love love the logo!), La Vida Loca in Indianola (this guy is a little crazy -- but great fun to talk to!), Dale Valley in Stuart (probably the best white wine I've found in Iowa so far), Summerset in Indianola, and Penoach (Pin Oak) in Adel. We spent the night in Osceola. Whew. Just two more to go!

I was determined not to blog anymore at that time, so didn't take any notes, though I did take a few pics, I think. Let's see what I can dig up. And, if I can remember how to post them, ugh. It's been eight months.

Okay, well first of all -- best and weirdest, this was the view from Southern Hills, right in the back yard of Terrible's Casino. Though we did not go gambling. This big neon guy was sort of scary. Our motel was not far from here and there was a nice little place for breakfast the next morning, just across the parking lot. Heidi ordered pancakes and they were big. This, I remember. What I ate, I know not.

I'll just add in a pic or two from each of the wineries. Alas, I can't even remember off-hand the order in which we did them. The first two are Southern Hills, our last Saturday visit, just at dusk and before heading to the motel. I remember we were the only customers, it was a quite large and new-ish place, and the young lady working was definitely just doing her job, nothing vested in the operation here. Not that fun.

These next two are from Dale Valley. Looking at the pics reminds me that this was a very fun place. It's in an old one-room school building. One of the walls (in the photo) had an interesting history, too. I believe the blackboard there is original to the old school -- people sign their names and write notes. The lady was lots of fun to talk to! I wish I could remember which wine it was I so enjoyed later; I believe it was their Country Parrish.

Next on our list that weekend is La Vida Loca. This was a pretty memorable place. This guy makes wine out of all sorts of unimaginable things, including garlic and jalapeno peppers. I tasted the jalapeno wine -- it was startling. Seriously. He suggested people mostly use it to cook with. What a bite. I did buy one bottle from La Vida Loca, one of my obligation purchases, and I find today, July 26, 2009, it is the only bottle I have left from that trip. It is La Vida Loca Red, and of course I bought it because it was drinkable, at least. But I've been scared actually to open it. Maybe I'll set it out and make it next.

I believe Two Saints has my most favorite logo/label of all the wineries we've visited so far, sweet and simple and clear. The winery was also fun, new building, the lady was interesting to talk to, the wines were okay -- although I believe the one I bought is the one I left until early this summer to open, and I ended up having to dump it; it didn't "age" well. Two Saints does have their own vineyards, too.

Summerset doesn't hold any fond memories. In fact, it barely holds any memories at all. I think it was very retaily. Here is the winery building and a photo of Heidi browsing the wines. This is why it wasn't good to stop blogging. I certainly can't make any comments on the wines so late after our visits.

Finally, there was Penoach. Penoach, I remember, was very busy; I think they were having a celebration of some sort. They had good dip and crackers! Don't know about the wine. :( They also had an extremely cool old silo on the farm (see pics), designed to let air in but keep moisture out with very creative bricks.

Tick tock tick tock, wine trail passport must be filled by December 31. Time is running short ...