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.

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