Monday, July 23, 2012

Iowa Wine: Visit to Cedar Ridge, White Cross and Ackerman Wineries Plus Amana and Amish Communities

July 2013 – Iowa is now home to 81 wineries according to I am in Iowa City for one week to attend the Summer Writer’s Festival, but had a free afternoon and morning to visit some of the local wineries and the unique Amana and Amish communities’ near-by. All are within a 20 or 30-minute drive of Iowa City.

Cedar Ridge Winery – Celebrating Iowa Grapes

In the afternoon I drove to Cedar Ridge Winery first because it has the largest vineyards in the area, boasting 10 acres of 10 different varietals. The winery itself is also big by Iowa standards, producing 15,000 gallons of wine per year (6250 cases) and 15,000 gallons of spirits (rum, gin, vodka). They are located just a few miles off of 380 south of Cedar Rapids. The tasting room is large and impressive, set up on a hill with a view of the vineyards. They also have a restaurant, which serves wood-oven pizzas and prime rib several nights a week.

I was traveling with Peggy, a colleague from the Writer’s Festival, and we were immediately welcomed when we walked in the door and allowed to taste all 17 wines available with no tasting fee. Iowa law also allows visitors to taste up to 3 spirits. The winery specializes in grapes that grow well in the mid-west, but supplements these with purchased grapes from Lodi, California and the Finger Lakes region of New York. Some of the Iowa grapes include: La Crosse, La Crescent, Brianna, Edelweiss, Frontecnac, St. Pepin, St. Croix, and Marchel Foch.

My favorite whites were the La Cross, La Crescent, Brianna, St. Pepin and Frontecnac Gris – the latter two being dessert wines. Interestingly none of these wines have vintage dates. My favorite, and the one I purchased, was the Cedar Ridge La Crescent ($16.99). It has a lovely floral nose of apricot and honeysuckle, which carries through on the palate but ends with a bracing grapefruit acid, which I loved. La Crescent is actually a hybrid grape that is a cross between St. Pepin (v. ripara) and Swenson, which is related to Muscat. It is extremely cold hardy and can withstand temperatures as low as -36 F. My second favorite was the Cedar Ridge Winery Brianna ($12.99), which was like biting into a ripe pineapple with a touch of banana on the finish. A true tropical bombshell, but delicious.

The outstanding reds were the Cedar Ridge St. Croix ($12.99) which was a lighter style red similar to pinot noir and the Cedar Ridge Marechal Foch ($16.99) which had more complex earth and berry flavors with good tannin structure. They also make a pretty decent cab from Lodi grapes, but I wasn’t in Iowa to taste Lodi.

After the tasting, they allowed us to go into the winery and see the bottling operation, which was in process. I also was granted permission to wander through the vineyards and encountered a man who was hedging the vines with a chainsaw. Well, that’s one way to do it! All together, a very pleasant visit to Cedar Ridge. I just wish we would have had time to sit on the patio, order a pizza, and drink some wine.

The Amana Colonies & Ackerman Winery

After Cedar Ridge Winery, we drove about 15 minutes south through the cornfields on very small paved roads until we arrived at the Amana Colonies. These are a group of 7 villages settled by Germans in the 1800’s who wanted to created an “inspirational socialist” community. They each have individual houses, but do communal dining and farming. What is especially nice about the Amana communities is they brought their winemaking skills from Germany, but were forced to apply it to dandelions and rhubarb. They have since expanded to other fruit, including grapes.

I visited Ackerman Winery where they have 22 different wines, and tried the two whites made from Iowa grapes, but they were not exceptional. What was excellent were some of the fruit wines with the cranberry and raspberry really standing out for me. They also have a nice self-guided tour and are located in the middle of the charming town of South Amana. Interestingly every wine, except the merlot ($11.95), is $9.95 a bottle.

In addition to Ackerman’s, South Amana is filled with wonderful shops and restaurants. Peggy and I had an enjoyable time stopping at the visitor’s center, and then going to a variety of stores. The furniture shop with beautiful handcrafted wood furniture and grandfather clock’s was especially nice. We also visited the woolen mill and the general store where I was able to pick up a variety of gifts. Later we had an excellent German dinner, served family style, at Ronneburg Restaurant. I had the pork chop with apples and sauerkraut, which was locally produced and seasoned – exceptional.

White Cross Cellars

White Cross is a relatively new winery, which is located in downtown South Amana. They have a darling tasting room with very friendly service and offer tastes of 10 wines for free. The winemaker specializes in blending other people’s grapes and fruit, and produces his wine as custom-crush at Cedar Ridge Winery. He also purchases grapes from Cedar Ridge. I was most impressed with the White Cross Cellars Chateau Blanc ($13.95), which was a blend of La Crescent and Chenin Blanc. It reminded me of a semi-sweet Loire wine with peach notes and crisp acid. Another favorite was the Cranberry Bog ($12.95), a semi-sweet wine made from cranberries and apples with lots of spice.

Iowa Amish Country - Kalona

The next morning I left Iowa City to drive to the town of Kalona, the headquarters of the largest Amish community in Iowa settled in 1846. The minute I turned into the town, a horse-draw buggy approached me. Soon, I saw them everywhere! They even have special lanes on the road for the horses and carriages. Every buggy was black with one large horse pulling it, and most were manned by men wearing old fashioned overalls and long white beards.

The Amish are originally from Switzerland and came to America so they could practice their religion in peace. They do not believe in amassing material goods and live simply with no electricity, running water, or school beyond the 8th grade. Everyone dresses in old-fashioned clothes, which they make themselves. All food is produced on their farms. Wine and other forms of alcohol, however, are not allowed.

Driving down gravel roads, I passed many Amish farms with black carriages parked in barns surrounded by horses and goats. At one farm, I saw a small boy and girl driving a horse and buggy, and then a whole family came trotting by. As I turned a corner, a teenage Amish girl was standing barefoot in the grass near a wooden fence. She was dressed in a long blue home-made dress with a blue bonnet covering her hair. She looked up and smiled at me, and I could see she had large blue eyes in a red sun-burned face with pale lips devoid of any make-up.

I stopped at the general store, which had a sign stating, “We request our customers dress in a modest fashion.” It was like stepping back in time to shop in the store filled with bolts of materials, cooking pans, shoes, and flour and barley sold by the scoop. Later I stopped at the cheese factory and sampled some wonderful curd. Just before I left, I encountered a man in a carriage with his horse coming towards me down the road. He stopped, tipped his hat, and said good morning. I responded in kind and then asked if I could take a picture of him. He smiled politely and said, “I would prefer not.” Apparently the Amish are very photo shy so I thanked him and wished him a good day.

The whole experience of driving around Amish country for an hour left me with a feeling of awe. The minute I entered the area of gravel roads and large farms, a sense of peace descended upon me and I felt very happy.

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