The Ottumwa Courier

December 21, 2010

Iowa wine industry explodes in new millennium

MATT MILNER
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — A few years ago southeast Iowa didn’t really have much exposure to the wine industry.

That shouldn’t be a surprise, really. Neither did most of the state.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around just how fast Iowa’s wine industry has grown. Explosive isn’t the right word. It’s too slow. There are 85 licensed wineries now, up from two native wineries in 1999, and more than 400 vineyards. Most of that growth has come in since the new millennium dawned. Iowa saw a 125 percent rise in the number of wineries between 2003 and 2008.

Iowa does have a tradition in wine making. That shouldn’t be a surprise, either. Most areas settled by European immigrants do.

The first commercial vineyard in the state was planted in 1857. A series of events clobbered the industry in the late 1800s and the first part of the 20th century. Yes, prohibition played a major role. But so did disease, disinterest and sheer costs.

The combination brought an end to what might be called Iowa’s historic wine industry and allowed the recent development of the state’s modern industry.

Few people know Iowa’s wine history like Mike White. He specializes in viticulture — the cultivation of grapevines — for Iowa State University’s extension office.

“The number one reason why the industry has grown so much is we’ve got so many more wine varieties that have been developed,” he said.

Cornell and the University of Minnesota have been at the forefront of creating new hybrids from French wine grapes and native varieties, White said. The new breeds are strong enough to withstand cold winters and are resistant to disease. That makes them ideal for an area that sees sustained sub-freezing winter temperatures and gets significantly more rain than traditional wine-making regions.

In January Iowa ranked 14th nationally in the number of wineries and No. 22 in production. The growth is continuing, though it will likely plateau at some point. White looks at Missouri as a likely image of how the Iowa wine industry will mature.

“I’m sure it will slow down,” he said. “If you go down in Missouri, they’ve been at it about 30 years.”

If a plateau is coming on the number of wineries, why should people think the state’s industry will continue to grow? The answer is that people will drink more wine as they become used to the idea.

In 1990, Americans consumed 2.05 gallons of wine per person. That dropped to a low of 1.77 gallons per person in 1994 and 1995. But over the next 15 years per capita consumption soared, until Americans consumed 2.5 gallons of wine per person in 2009.

Iowa’s wine consumption is 1.4 gallons per person, per year, White said. That’s below the national average and suggests there’s plenty of room to grow. And he believes Iowa has an ace other states don’t: It’s not all about the grape.

Iowa wineries differ from those in many established areas in that they produce wine from more than just grapes. Fruit wines made of apples or berries also have a place in the state’s wine landscape. Some wineries make mead, a honey wine. Some even make wines based on vegetation, like dandelions and rhubarb.

“You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you walk in the door,” White said.

The wineries themselves also serve a different function than those in grape-focused areas. According to White, 30-50 percent of a winery’s income in Iowa comes from items other than wine. That means a lot of food and merchandise is being sold.

Many Iowa wineries also allow people to rent the tasting room and public areas for events like weddings and family reunions. That helps explain why every $1 spent on wine in Iowa has a $30 impact residually.

“An Iowa winery today is an event center,” White said. “The wine is kind of the seed. Everything else grows up around it.”