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Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier - Wine-making is part hobby, part art
Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier By KARRIS GOLDEN
Courier Associate Editor

Wine-making is part hobby, part art -- and becoming a business for some Iowans


Although California is renowned for its wine country, Cheryl Dieter didn't consider making her own vino when she lived there.

"It's funny. ... We moved to Iowa to start a vineyard," she says, laughing.

The Michigan native settled between Iowa Falls and Alden four years ago. One day, she decided she'd like to try her hand at grape growing.

When the grapes matured, she asked herself, "Why not make wine?"

Now, her hobby has exploded into a commercial enterprise. In December, she plans to open the Willow Ridge Vineyard & Winery for business.

"I'm still very much an amateur -- I'm still learning," she says.

It was the same for Ken Groninga of rural Ackley. He and his wife, Carolyn, moved to an acreage. After noticing wild berries growing on his property, he bought books on wine making.

"It was a hobby that, over the last 10 years, developed into a commercial setup," he said.

His business, the Eagle City Winery, opened in December. He buys juice from Chile and Australia, and cranberries from a farmer in Wisconsin.

"My wife and I decided this was something to do to keep busy after I reached retirement age," he says. "We decided on a small winery, as it's something we're both interested in."

Groninga's winery offers four varieties of dry grape wine and a cranberry wine. He's also planted his own grapes -- four French hybrids -- and plans to harvest them this fall.

Eagle City is one of three active wineries currently operating in Iowa.

Dieter hopes that by opening her business nearby, it will attract wine lovers from across Iowa. "We welcome competition. If we can get five wineries going in this area, maybe it would be something people would specifically come here for."

Dieter believes growing grapes in Iowa is tougher than it would be in California. "The season is shorter, that's why our grapes are lower in sugar and higher in acid."

Still, her motto is "Carpe Vinum!" or "seize the wine."

Currently, she plans to offer seven or eight different wines; full-bodied reds, whites and desserts. "People in Iowa tend to prefer sweet wines, which is tough with the acid content in our soil."

When she's able to offer wines from her vineyard, she'll include them in the selection. Eventually, she hopes her winery will offer Iowa wines exclusively. Her signature wine, an orange Muscat, has a fruity flavor and goes well with desserts.

Grape growing can be very lucrative for Iowans, she insists. "If you have a vineyard and produce your own wine, you can make $30,000 per acre per year. It is hard work, because you have to prune and check for diseases and insects, but Dave and I have fun with it. We find we get very relaxed working in the vineyard."

Taking your operation commercial is serious business, Groninga notes. "It's a long process - a lot of paperwork, with the state and federal permits. And it takes a while to get into it."

However, those who simply want to dazzle dinner party guests or blend their own Sauvignon won't have many problems, he says. Both he and Dieter recommend investing in a book on wine making.

On the surface, making wine seems simple. It requires minimal equipment, and recipes are easy, with grapes and just a few additives.

The tough part is balancing temperature, yeast, oxygen levels and other factors. To get started, most amateur and professional wine makers recommend picking up one of the many guides to making wine at home.

Once you've harvested your grapes (or bought juice), it's time to start making wine.

"There are two processes, one for reds and one for whites," Dieter says.

To make red wine, you place whole grapes, skins and some stems, in a tank and close it. The respiration in the fruit, which consumes oxygen and creates carbon dioxide, kills the skin cells and extracts color.

Thus, the skins, seed and juice are all fermented together. This product requires careful control, to maintain adequate yeast levels and other factors.

You will probably have to add yeast for the fermentation process, Dieter says. "Grapes have their own yeast on the skins, but you have to be very skilled to ferment a grape with its own yeast."

With reds, there is a cap, which is simply the skins and seeds floating in red musts. This cap rises to the top many times, and you must punch it down, says Dieter. When it sinks, your wine is ready to press the grapes.

"The best wine is the free wine, which is the juice at the bottom," Dieter says. "You pour this through a filter before pressing the wine."

After it's pressed, the result is "second run" wine, also called the "must."

The process is slightly different for making white wine. First, the grapes are pressed and must be removed from their skins immediately.

The must is then put into a fermentation container and yeast is added.

In the fermentation process for both red and white wines, contact with air must be restricted to prevent oxidation. For at-home wine makers there are traps available for small fermenters, which prevents air from entering but allows carbon dioxide to escape.

Once the amount of fermentable sugar is very low, the process ceases. The period of fermentation varies, depending on the grapes. Often, you'll be able to tell when the majority of the yeast cells can be found in the sediment, or lees.

At this point, it's time to "rack" the solution, or separate the supernatant wine from the lees.

You will also need to clarify your wine. Bentonite is the most widely used clarifying agent. Others, such as gelatin, nylon or egg whites, may be used to remove excess color.

Once this is completed, the wine is filtered through rough, cloth-covered screens.

This brings you to the aging process, which requires great patience. For example, a good Zinfandel has to age for at least two years to have a good aroma, Dieter says.

If you're impatient to try your concoction, there are wine kits that produce a fair wine within 60 days. There are also nouveau wines, which take three to four months to age.

"They don't have the complexity that a nicely aged wine will have, but they're a good start," Dieter says.

For more information on wine making or Iowa's wineries, contact the Iowa Grape Growers at (641) 648-3888 or log on at

Learning about winemaking

Grab a glass of Merlot -- one from an area winery, of course -- and learn about making wine yourself with one of these selections:

"Home Winemaking Step-by-Step," by Jon Iverson.

"From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine," by Jeff Cox. (This is the No. 1 pick of many grape growers.)

"Grapes to Wine" and "Wine Growers Guide," by Philip M. Wagner.

"The American Wine Society Presents Growing Wine Grapes," by J. Loenholdt.

"General Viticulture," by Albert Julius Winkler.

"Winemaking: Recipes, Equipment, and Techniques for Making Wine at Home," by Stanley and Dorothy Anderson.

"First Steps in Winemaking : A Complete Month-By-Month Guide to Winemaking (Including the Production of Cider, Perry and Mead) in Your Own Home," by Cyril J. J. Berry.

Getting started

Once you've read up on making wine, you'll need some basic equipment. Most amateur winemakers start with the following:

* a five gallon glass carboy or glass jug;

* siphoning equipment, including a plastic hose, rigid "J" tubes and a sediment excluder;

* airlocks and rubber bungs;

* a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content;

* two ounces of potassium metabisulphite, a sterilizing agent;

* filtering equipment.



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