The Ottumwa Courier

December 21, 2010

IOWA WINERIES: Getting started in wine is a long process

A vineyard takes three years to yield its first crop

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Getting into the wine industry is a major investment of both time and money. But Iowa is seeing more people make that leap.

Mike White, an expert in the state’s wine industry, said people should expect the state’s wineries to grow as they mature along with the broader industry.

“Most people that get into this, they start off small,” White said.

There’s a reason. Setting up a winery is not cheap. White estimates a typical small winery requires $250,000-$500,000 to get started. That’s just the start. It takes three years for a vineyard to yield its first crop and five years for a full crop.

By the time a winery is producing wines for public sale the total investment can easily top $1 million.

The Miller family, owners of the Cedar Valley Winery in Batavia, sent their first couple of harvests to other wineries for their use. That’s not unusual, because the state has far more vineyards than wineries.

But even with Iowa vineyards selling their grapes to wineries, there’s not enough to produce everything Iowa consumers want. Many wineries import grapes or juice from wineries in other states, either to supplement their own supply or to produce vintages made with grapes that won’t grow locally.

“Bringing in juices from outside the state is always going to be part of the industry,” White said. “As the industry matures we’re going to see fruit juice brokers.”

White sees another factor that is helping to drive the wine industry. People who lived in Iowa as children are coming back after having been exposed to wine in other parts of the country. When they return, they bring their knowledge with them.

Maturation of the industry will bring other changes as well. People from both inside the industry and outside observers say most people don’t drink dry wines right away. In fact, White puts national sales of sweet wines at 75-80 percent of the total. Iowa’s habits follow similar trends.

“If you’re going to have a winery, you’d better have sweet wine. That’s your customer base,” said White.

David Miller, the family patriarch at Cedar Valley, had a similar view shortly after the winery opened to the public. If you make just the wines you want to drink, he said, you’re not going to stay in business long.

So Iowa wineries are probably looking at a long-term blend of appearance and necessity. Most will probably come to have vineyards in the general area of the winery, but also draw on sources from outside the area for what they need to make things work.

“Kind of the rule of thumb with wineries is to have enough vineyards around to make it look like a winery, then work with growers to have the grapes,” White said.