Courier Staff Writer
It’s early September, going to be a warm day. All the more reason to get started early as Cedar Valley Winery harvests its Foche grapes.
The harvest is something of a surprise, really. No one thought they would be ready, but testing showed they matured suddenly. Leaving the grapes on the vine another week would reduce their quality.
Seth Miller isn’t out in the fields where perhaps a dozen people are filling buckets with the deep purple grapes. He’s closer to the converted barn the winery uses to produce the wine, getting ready for the day’s first crush.
“The majority of our time is really preparation,” he said. “The biggest thing with making quality wine is making sure the tools are clean.”
Cedar Valley started as a small, 1.5 acre vineyard in 2002. The Miller family has expanded it to more than six acres now. And it found success fast in Iowa’s growing wine industry, taking home a bronze medal at the Mid-American Wine Competition only two weeks after opening.
That success has continued. Cedar Valley’s Norton, a dry red wine made from grapes that are native to North America, took a gold medal at the 2010 Iowa State Fair wine competition. Their chardonel, a cross between a seyval and chardonnay grape, took a silver medal.
The successes of those two wines also shows one of the key issues for an Iowa grower. Nortons are a hardy vine. Seyvals are as well. But chardonnay vines would never survive here because of the winters. The cross between seyval and chardonnay does, though, and the Iowa weather helps determine which wines the winery can actually produce.
The Millers envisioned the winery as a business that would give the family a reason to stay planted in southeast Iowa. David Miller, the family patriarch, is a former state senator. Seth moved back to the area from Kansas City to help run the winery.
It’s small right now. There’s a big difference, the Millers note, between a small family startup and a facility with corporate investors. But they pick up a new piece of equipment every year or so, usually something that allows the winery to process more grapes.
It takes about an hour for the Foche grapes, which are destined for a rosé, to finish the crush. The machine smells strongly of grape juice, combined with a light smell of freshly-cut grass.
The juice goes straight into a fermentation vat, a tall stainless steel column in the barn. Truth be told, it looks like a 1950s B-movie spaceship model. Other grapes are destined for open vat fermentation prior to being pumped into the metal fermentation tanks.
The Millers have to balance the morning’s work of harvesting and crushing the grapes with the occasional curious visitor. But the main focus is on the work, and time passes quickly. With luck, most of the work can be completed during the daylight hours.
If not, then they’ll work into the night. It’s happened before. The family accepts it as part of the price of starting a business they hope will help keep them in southeast Iowa for generations.