five miles of gravel roads between Iowa Falls and Ackley in north
central Iowa, down a winding lane, in a clearing right next to the
river, Ken Groninga happily tends to his Eagle City Winery.
Located near the site of one of Hardin County's oldest
settlements, the winery produces 5,000 bottles of wine in a
handful of varieties each year.
Not a lot by some standards, perhaps, but for a beginning
winemaker like Groninga it's just fine. This is supposed to be my
retirement, you know, he jokes. When I decided to try making wine,
I hoped to work my way up to 5,000 bottles (per year), but we did
that in the very first year.
Groninga says he's always enjoyed drinking wine and serving it
when entertaining. Yet it wasn't until he retired from his 30-year
veterinary practice in Sheldon and moved with wife Carolyn to the
old dairy farm in 1991 that he started experimenting with making
his own wine from the wild fruits and berries that populated the
In 1996 he began planting a small vineyard and making plans to
build a winery and tasting room. By 1998 his efforts earned a Best
of Show ribbon in wine competition at the Iowa State Fair.
Now Eagle City Winery is one of just four commercial wineries in
Iowa (outside of the Amana Colonies). It is a picturesque setting
not far from Ackley, Groninga's hometown. For the last half of the
1800's Eagle City, a small village centered around a gristmill and
sawmill, existed here. Making the leap from veterinarian to
vintner wasn't that difficult, Groninga claims, and neither is
making wine. It's pretty easy to make, he notes. I read lots of
books about it, and then it was trial and error. I can honestly
say I've never had a big batch go bad on me here.
concepts of chemistry and bacteriology that he used in his
veterinary practice have been put to good use in the winery, adds
Groninga. Once the fruit is fermenting into wine, for instance,
the juice is tested for acid and sugar. If there's not enough
acid, the wine tastes flat.
Four dry wines, four white wines, and one medium are produced at
this rural winery. Cranberry, made from berries grown in
Wisconsin, is a popular variety, as is rhubarb wine produced from
Iowa rhubarb. The red altar wine from Eagle City Winery is used in
communion at seven area churches, and Eagle City wines are served
in restaurants in Iowa Falls, Fort Dodge, and Geneva. It's also
for sale in 24 retail outlets within a fifty-mile radius of Iowa
His wine is popular, Groninga theorizes, because it's unique and
different. People like it, he says simply. I've never had any
complaints. Besides, wine is a healthy drink, and classier than
drinking beer. Reduced rates of cancer and heart disease have been
linked to regular, moderate use of wine. Although Iowa was
formerly one of the top grape-producing states in the nation, an
emphasis on corn and soybean production coupled with herbicide use
saw a decline in the interest in growing grapes. Helping change
that trend was the introduction of new grape varieties, a cross
between French varieties and native grapes that can survive frigid
Iowa winters. Lots of Midwest states are getting more into
wineries and grape production, comments the vintner, who also does
some consultant work for a vaccine company. Groninga's grapevines
require the most attention in the spring, when they must be
pruned, sprayed, and repruned, he says, adding that it takes some
practice to learn how to prune correctly. The grapes are easy to
grow in rocky, sandy soil.
The 120 vines at this Iowa winery are planted in neat rows just
outside the gift shop, where they can get the sun needed. Because
he can't produce enough grapes to meet the demand for wine from
his winery, Groninga makes red wine from juice that comes from
Chile and white wine from juice from grapes grown in Australia.
Grapes are generally harvested in late August to early September.
Exactly when is determined by their sugar content, which Groninga
tests often as the grapes approach maturity.
When the sugar content reaches 23 percent, the grapes are
harvested by hand into buckets, taken into the workroom behind the
gift shop and run through a machine that separates the grapes from
their stems. Another machine crushes them before the grapes go
into stainless steel fermenters, where they ferment for ten to
fourteen days before the must (fermenting juice) goes into glass
bottles and spends another few weeks fermenting until it settles.
After filtration and more settling, the wine is bottled and
labeled for sale. The whole process takes 10 to 12 weeks.
as he has learned over the past several years about the process it
takes to make good wine, Groninga has become more involved with
promoting and marketing his wine. He promotes his product through
wine tastings and tours of the business, where 60 percent of his
wine is sold from the gift shop that occupies one corner of his
In warm weather, about a dozen tours per season come to see the
winery, check out the gift shop, taste some wine, and learn a
little about the historic wooded area that's bordered on two sides
by the Iowa River. Visitors are welcome to stop by the winery on
weekends but should call if they'd like to visit during the week.
The original wooden dairy barn and the house that was built in
1863 still remain on the site.
In July the Groninga's enjoy hosting what they call Wine Tasting
at Twilight, an evening open house with a wine tasting and a
classical guitarist providing entertainment. For that evening, the
old settlement comes to life with about 500 guests, the host
notes. A similar event is planned for sometime each fall.
Eagle City Winery, 38536 160th Street, Iowa Falls, IA 50126. 641-