As anyone who’s driven across the Hawkeye State knows, Iowa has mile upon mile of fields of corn and soybeans that will soon be sprouting.
But it also has hundreds of acres of vineyards growing maréchal Foch, La Crescent, Brianna, Marquette, Frontenac, and other grapes that can withstand the Midwest’s sometimes brutally frigid winters.
Michael and Lorraine Jordan know where to find them.
The couple, who live near Iowa City, regularly tour the state on their 2014 Road King Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Former California residents, they’ve visited nearly 20 wineries in Iowa, as well as others in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and New Mexico — to say nothing of the vineyards they’ve toured in California.
“The easiest way to get us to stop on a road trip is for one of us to see a sign that says winery or vineyard and then we’ll have to go check it out,” Michael Jordan said. “The Road King is big enough that if we want to buy some wine, we can fit up to six bottles in the saddle bags. We do occasionally drive our car, though, especially if we want to stay late some place for dinner.”
I met the couple recently at the Daly Creek Winery in Anamosa, made famous as the birthplace of “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood. Daly Creek is one of nearly a dozen wineries on the Iowa Wine Trail in the northeastern part of the state.
The Jordans, who are in their mid-50s, were celebrating their 33rd wedding anniversary with a glass of dry red wine.
“Generally, Iowa wines tend to lean toward a sweeter palate because that’s what many Midwesterners seem to like, and you make what people want to buy,” Jordan said.
“The wineries here are also a lot younger than ones in California. But as the wine industry matures here in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest, growers are putting in more grapes that lend them to drier wines — both reds and whites.”
He said wine aficionados who are familiar with wines from the West Coast need to keep an open mind when they drink wines made in Iowa and other states in the middle of the country.
“What we’ve found is that while certain grapes make good dry wines, they won’t taste quite like the zinfandels or cabernets that people might be familiar with in California or Washington because they are made from different grapes,” Jordan said.
“So if you can adjust your palate, you can enjoy them. I prefer drier wines, and we’ve found that many of the wines in Iowa now are quite good.”
At the Brick Arch Winery in West Branch, birthplace of former President Herbert Hoover, co-owner Ilene Lande said she has already moved away from sweetness.
“Our wines tend to be drier than most Iowa wines,” she said. “I have eight white, four of which are completely dry, and seven reds, six of which are dry. But I do make an Uber Cherry that is somewhat sweet, almost like a port.”
She said the Uber Cherry goes especially well with chocolate, cheesecake and shortbread.
Lande, who has a doctorate in microbiology/immunology from the University of Iowa and once ran a small biotech company, doesn’t grow any of her own grapes.
Some come from vineyards around the Midwest, others from New York and California’s Mendocino County.
The cherries, she noted, come from near Traverse City, Mich.
The winery, which serves food and has music several days a week, got its name from the post office that once shared the same footprint. It was built in 1907 after a fire, and the postmaster liked arches.
Unfortunately, he was not an architect and left no blueprints.
So when Lande was renovating the building, one side of the arch collapsed because it was not attached to the foundation.
The arch took down much of the rest of the structure with it, but Lande rebuilt the edifice, staying true to the original design.
To the east in Clinton, the Wide River Winery offers views of the widest point of the Mississippi River. Owner Dorothy O’Brien started it in 2005, she said, because she “likes to grow things and likes to drink wine.
“And now it’s pretty much taken over my life,” she said with a chuckle.
Her vineyard is seven acres, including one acre that is planted in the Verona varietal, which was developed in Minnesota.
It makes a “nice, dry red wine and tolerates cold winters well,” she said.
The other parts of the vineyard — which sits on a bluff above the river — include Brianna, petite pearl and Frontenac grapes.
She makes a dozen wines, at least four of which are dry.
Farther north at the Eagles Landing Winery in Marquette, owner and winemaker Jay Halvorson said the operation is now in its 16th year. It started, he said, as his father’s retirement project and grew from there.
The winery is just several hundred yards from the Mississippi, while the vineyard is on a bluff.
It has Brianna, petite pearl, Marquette and maréchal Foch grapes.
“Dad had been a wine hobbyist for 40 years and thought it would be fun to make a little wine and sell it as part of the Eagles Landing B&B that he and my mom ran. Dad passed last year, but my mother still runs it,” Halvorson said.
He said the winery makes 34 mostly seasonal wines, many of which are on the sweeter side. He also makes three dry reds, a dry white and several semi-dry whites, as well as a port wine.
More information: The Iowa Wine Trail wineries are part of the Upper Mississippi River Valley Viticulture Area and are within 250 miles of Milwaukee. For more information, see iowawinetrail.com.
For ideas on other things to see and do in the Hawkeye State, see traveliowa.com.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison writer.