The Ottumwa Courier

December 23, 2010

IOWA WINERIES: From hobby to vineyard: Whispering Pines had its start in a kitchen

A toat to Iowa wineries

Courier Staff Writer

KEOSAUQUA — Eventually, a good cook, a talented singer or a gifted artist will have a revelation: “Hey, I’m actually good at this.”

For winemaking enthusiast Steve Tucker, the beginnings of Whispering Pine winery came after another winemaker tasted his product, said his wife.

“My husband [Steve] did it as a hobby for nine years,” said Becki Tucker of Keosauqua. “It was a hobby that grew out of control. It started in my kitchen, outgrew the kitchen then moved to the garage. It just keeps growing.”

At first, the couple didn’t do it for profit. They did it because Steve loved it. He gave their wine away to friends and family. Steve likes to talk about winemaking, too, but won’t brag about himself, Becki said.

So she’ll do it.

“It was when an Iowa senator who also owns a vineyard told Steve, ‘You’ve really got something here.’ That’s when Steve decided to get serious.”

That former senator, Dave Miller, owns Cedar Valley winery near Batavia with his family. It was his advice that launched Whispering Pines from a kitchen sink operation to one in which the awards began to flow.

After just three years in business, the family took the 2010 Double Gold Medal at the Iowa State Fair Competition with their Back Roads Red. They’ve won more, including some awards from an international competition at the Finger Lakes in New York.

They use a combination of local grapes, which they crush themselves, and pure grape and fruit juice the purchase from other vineyards.

“Good winemaking starts with a good fruit, but the winemaking process has a lot to do with it,” Steve said.

That’s what brings a temptation. Steve, his wife said, is a perfectionist. He always feels he can make his wine a little better. But their are customers who feel it’s just right.

“We try to reproduce them the same year after year,” he said, then paused for several moments. “But if we can tweak them, just a little, make them better...”

See? said Becki, a perfectionist.

Maybe, said Steve, but he would definitely rather make a smaller amount of great wine than a large amount of mediocre wine.

“When I [start a batch], quality is always on my mind. That is our top priority here,” he said.

Whispering Pines larger batches are made in a 240-gallon batch, though the vintner wants to do a “double batch” during the upcoming season. Other wines are made in 120-gallon vats. A 240-gallon batch only makes about 1,200 bottles of wine.

“We’ve had up to 10 wines on the market at [one time, but] I only have so much tank space,” Steve said.

That means if one of his efforts doesn’t play well with their customers, it’s retired to make room for something better appreciated by the public. Still, said Becki, it’s a long way from the 6-gallon batches made in the kitchen.

“This [current operation] is about the perfect size for us,” she said.

“We’re at the size we’d like to be at for now,” agreed Steve.

The couple has branched out in their sales, but bringing samples to buyers takes time they don’t always have. Several grocery stores have started selling Whispering Pines wines. But a lot of wine is sold when interested folks stop by for a tour.

So how’s business?

“We have had a good season,” Steve said. “Our best sellers, we can’t keep in stock.”

That includes the Back Roads Red, which won a “double gold” medal at the Iowa State Fair, which only happens when every judge decides on a gold medal for the entry.

Last year, their best-selling wines had sold out by October. This year, though, the best sellers were gone in August.

Steve credits, in part, the recognition and the thumbs up from the judges.

“Some people will tell you the awards don’t make a difference,” said Steve. “[But] they really do.”

Two recent bus tours of the county, arranged through the booster organization Villages of Van Buren, stopped at the winery. After giving out some samples, passengers bought more than 60 bottles of wine, which included at least one guest purchasing an entire case.

Though winemaking is more about passion for the Tuckers than making money — Steve said he’d keep making and selling wine even if he won the lottery — it’s nice to be appreciated, they said.

Whispering Pines, 18356 222nd St., Keosauqua (just off J-40), 319-293-6294, is open weekends or by appointment.