Courier Staff Writer
Monica Sullivan is relatively new to wine, but she’s helping introduce others to what Iowa has to offer.
Sullivan is a new employee for Tassel Ridge, new enough that she still says, “I just started,” when asked how long she’s been in the job. And on this particular day she’s doing her first solo wine tasting at the Oskaloosa Hy-Vee.
The wine tastings are one of the winery’s basic strategies for introducing people to its wares. The Iowa wine industry is still new enough most people don’t think of the state’s offerings when they think of wine. That puts the tasting events in position to introduce people to something most probably didn’t even think they were missing.
Sullivan’s take on how people start drinking wine in the Midwest holds true for Iowa’s wine industry in general:
“It takes somebody to introduce you to it or direct you to enjoy wines,” she said.
So that’s what she was doing for a mixed audience. It took patience. Most people politely declined samples. Those who accepted generally did so with good grace. But there’s always the chance of a personality that doesn’t allow for politeness.
One man wandered up and immediately declared the wines “grape juice.” You want real wine, he said, you go to Italy.
Sullivan kept her smile in place and offered a sample.
“You have a sweet one?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “We have two sweet ones.”
After a sample and a few more grumbles, the man left. “That ain’t bad,” was his final, grudging assessment.
Sullivan took the encounter in stride.
“It’s different,” she said. “It’s really different. You’re never in the same situation twice.”
Marlis Davis of New Sharon was more typical of Sullivan’s customers. She was surprised the first few times she saw wineries in Iowa.
Time has brought familiarity for Davis. Wine isn’t something she drinks routinely, but she has come to appreciate a nice glass. Like most Iowa customers, she prefers the sweet wines.
“The other just kind of makes me thirstier,” she said.
That reaction is fairly typical. People usually start with sweet wines before venturing into semi-sweet or dry wines. The real leap comes when people start looking at wines not as something mysterious or intimidating but as a welcome guest in the kitchen.
Gordon Rader is familiar with trying to get people to make that leap. He’s the lead instructor at Indian Hills Community College’s culinary program, and he sees language as one of the basic challenges.
“To me, if you look at it they’re immediately intimidated because there are so many varieties. The names are unpronounceable,” he said.
Rader’s basic advice is simple: Find a decent bottle, open it and give the wine a try. Ask for help finding a wine that matches your taste preferences and remember that cost isn’t always a good indicator of quality.
Trying wines in an informal group is one of Rader’s favorite ways to introduce people to them without putting pressure on everyone. A group of friends can discover good wines just as well at home as at a restaurant, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
There are good wines available for well under $20 per bottle, particularly if you focus on domestic and Iowa wines. The key rule on pairing wine and food is to pick a robust wine to go with strong or heavy flavors. Use lighter wines for less intense food. There’s not much point in picking a good wine if the food you eat is going to overwhelm it.
“When you combine food and wine together, that’s a whole other dimension,” Rader said. “You’re looking for balance. It’s about balance. It’s about harmony.”
Rader says Ottumwa actually has a better appreciation of wines than many areas, a fact he credits to knowledgeable salespeople in town and aggressive winery marketing. When that edge matches with the wide availability of fresh food, he sees endless possibilities.
“Iowa is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever lived,” he said. “Culinarily it’s crazy. There’s never been a better time to be in this area.”