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Joe's Neighborhood

Water into wine

10/29/2014

Dead would not be too strong to describe the wine industry in Iowa just a few years ago. Only 30 acres were in grape production as recently as 2000. I’m not kidding. Thirty acres. My goodness, there’s residential homes in Waukee with more acreage. Herbicides, bad weather and row crops tolled the bell for what was once a vibrant Iowa crop. And if you stirred in all those problems with the post-2000 years of recession, the increased push to plant corn and the forecast of a Zombie Apocalypse, the dark days were close upon us.

A miracle was needed, folks.

The barker stood several feet up from his audience. Microphone clutched in his left hand. Iowa State Cyclone T-shirt front and center, walking his narrow stage. Bespectacled, balding and bearded, his patter was smooth and comfortable — mashed potatoes and gravy for the soul. As he talked, the underbelly of a joke seemed cooking just on the other side of whatever he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, keep on stomping. And don’t give a worry about your feet. All we have to do is strain out the warts and the toenails, and it’s ready to drink.”

Dead silence.

HIV

joes1Warts and toenails? Is that what this guy said? Is he kidding? Is this legal? Why is anyone taking off shoes and dipping feet in that barrel of grapes?

Oh, a joke!

He had us hooked.

“How come that juice won’t come out, young man? Act like a windshield washer. Yahoo. There you go.”

Enthusiastic, with a stage-quiet voice that could quickly crescendo to a boom, Michael White of Iowa State Extension, a viticulture specialist, was hard at work at the Iowa State Fair in August teaching us how to stomp grapes.

joes2And so now it is harvest time in October — more than two months later — and time for Mr. White to answer a few questions.

“You see, the 101 Iowa wineries now have 5.93 percent of the market share of the retail wine sales in Iowa,” White said. “The average Iowa adult consumes approximately 1.4 gallons of wine per year. The national average is approximately 2.8 gallons per year. Just promoting Iowa wine to a few Iowa wine consumers is not enough. Part of the mission of the Wine Experience at the State Fair is to introduce Iowans to the culture of wine — the music, meals, socializing and wide range of wine types. In many parts of the world, wine is part of the meal and the center of family and friend get-togethers. The native Iowa wine industry would like to see our wine culture grow in Iowa.”

joes3Now as you consider the virtues of Iowa wine, remember that just 4,500 miles away, grape fields stretch for miles and miles and miles. Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Alsace, Rhone, Languedoc, and Provence, to name just a few. And I’m only talking about France. What about Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, California?

The lesson from White? Don’t leave out Iowa. Remember, the wine industry has existed for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. Heck, even Noah planted a vineyard. And Iowa was a part of this boom in times past. Believe it or not, our heyday was 1919 when we were ranked sixth in the country in grape production. A powerhouse. “The 1900 U.S. Agricultural Census showed that Iowa produced 7,403,900 pounds of grapes and 76,301 gallons of farm-processed wine,” according to White. Wow. But by 2000, White says that only 30 acres of grapes remained. Not a pretty picture.

“I jumped on board ISU Extension in October of 1994, taking a job as a regional crop specialist,” White said. “It was while I was working as the central Iowa crops specialist that Ron Mark of Summerset Winery, located north of Indianola, contacted me early in 2000.  He asked if ISU Extension could put on some grape growing classes because he needed grapes. At the time, Iowa had 13 wineries of which only two grew grapes — Summerset Winery in Indianola, Iowa, and Tabor Home Winery in Baldwin, Iowa.  The rest is history.”

Well, with a little work. White started holding monthly meetings at Summerset Winery. And the industry slowly started to take off with the efforts of a lot of people and a lot of institutions — Iowa State University, community colleges, the Iowa Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development, and the Iowa legislature, to name a few.

joes4“I eventually became a full-time viticulture specialist in 2007, leaving my agronomy days behind,” White said. “We now have 101 licensed wineries and 312 vineyards covering 1,250 acres in Iowa.”

My goodness. An increase of 88 wineries in 14 years.

But why would anybody get into this business?

“People get in the wine business primarily to have a good time,” he said. “Nobody in this business is bad. It is a great industry to be with. I enjoy being up on stage promoting the industry. I don’t even think; I just do it. I like to work with families and kids like this. I’m married — myself, with three kids, four grandchildren and one on the way. When you work with Extension, you’d better like kids. We have this little program called 4-H.”

Back up on the stage in August, White is dancing around, helping each group to stomp grapes, and congratulating everyone for just showing up.

“Give them a hand everyone,” he said.  “Now you all know how to do this.”

Really? Is this really possible? A wine industry in Iowa? And if wine is possible in Iowa, what else is possible? A cure for Ebola? Why not. World peace? We’re ready for it. East High School facing Ames in the final of the Iowa Football State Championships? Ah, now that would send you back to church.

“By the way, everybody who participates can get a ribbon,” White says to the crowd.

JoeWeegBWMmmm… water into wine. A miracle. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com. Joe can be reached by email at josephpweeg@gmail.com.

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