Growing wine industry showcased at Days of Olde
OCHEYEDAN, Iowa — The predominant crop in northwest Iowa is still corn, but tucked among the fields of tasseled stalks, more and more vineyards are starting to pop up.
The region’s burgeoning wine industry was on display Saturday at Ocheyedan’s Days of Olde. The Home of the Mound Wine & Arts Festival drew seven wineries and two breweries, as well as some local artisans — all eager for people to check out what they had to offer. Partakers paid a set fee for a small wine glass with the festival insignia, then lined up to sample the area vintages.
A couple of the wineries are recent additions to the area, such as Plum Creek Winery near Algona, Iowa, which just opened its doors in January.
“But it’s been three years in the making,” said owner Mary Haverkamp.
Plum Creek’s most popular offering on Saturday was a semi-dry red called Elevator Red.
“Usually our most popular is our Raspberry Blush,” noted Haverkamp, “but we had a tour bus come through, and whatever we had left, they bought out.”
Even newer to the northwest Iowa vineyard scene are Paul and Sheila Thomsen, who own InnSpiration Vineyard, which is also a vacation rental venue, in Linn Grove, Iowa. The vineyard just celebrated its grand opening in June.
“But we’ve been making wines since 2008,” explained Paul. “We started with an apple-raz, and once our grapes got mature enough, we started making grape wines. It’s a process, but we’re pretty much in full production now.”
The Thomsens were offering six of their nine wine selections on Saturday, including their top seller, Touch of Sun. The labels on the wine feature a scenic painting created by an artist friend.
For those who prefer a different kind of beverage, two breweries also had booths at the festival: Okoboji Brewing Company and West O Brewing, both located in the Iowa Great Lakes area.
West O has only been open 10 weeks, according to owner Matt Matthiesen of Spencer, Iowa, who had several beers on tap, including what has so far been the brewery’s top seller, a smoked red ale.
“A German wheat is our summer seasonal,” Matthiesen said. “It’s just a really good clean, crisp beer.”
Across the way, brewer Eric DeKuyzer of Okoboji Brewing Company was pouring his samples out of well-chilled cans — the brewery’s signature packaging.
“The most popular is usually the lightest, especially in the smaller towns,” said DeKuyzer. “Every once in a while you’ll get somebody who likes something odd, or a hop-head. The biggest struggle is just getting them educated, that there’s more than just the domestic beers that are out there.”
Also on hand was one of the more well-established wineries, Little Swan Lake Winery of Estherville. Owner Scott Benjamin was busy dispensing sips of the beverages along with advice on what wines his potential customers might prefer.
“The favorite is the cherry or the peach,” Benjamin said. “It just depends on the crowd. We always have some dry red drinkers, but in the summertime, the sweet ones really go. When we have the peach, it outsells everything else at the winery.”
On just about every weekend during the summer, Benjamin said Little Swan has a booth at a festival in the region.
“It just gets your name out there,” he said.
And that’s the whole idea of the Home of the Mounds event, explained Duane Tracy, owner of Cat Tale Country Wines in Ocheyedan, Iowa.
“It gives us great exposure, and we sell some wine,” he said.
Tracy was excited about how the wine festival, which also includes an amateur wine competition, has grown.
“We had 25 wines judged last year,” he reported. “The first year we did it, we had five. … Last year, when we were planning this, people told me it was going to be a flop, and we had 300 people show up. This year, we’re expecting 500.”
All of Tracy’s wines are named after different breeds of cats. His best seller is Colorpoint, made with Wisconsin cranberries. On Saturday, he debuted a brand-new seasonal offering — Lambkin, a lemon wine.
Among those sampling the lemon wine were three members of Ocheyedan Class of 1971 — Terry Rueter Dias, Rhonda Engel Capron and Jewel Wallace Garms — who had just gotten off their class float in the parade and were eager to quench their thirst. An all-school reunion was another featured component of this year’s Days of Olde, with bright orange reunion T-shirts visible throughout City Park.
“We get together every five years,” explained Capron, as she sipped on her wine sample at Tracy’s booth. “Our class is really tight.”
As wineries continue to sprout up throughout the region, Tracy expects the wine festival will continue to grow.
“I saw some numbers that just came out,” Tracy said. “There are more acres of vineyards in Minnesota and Iowa than in California, and Iowa is almost to the point where it can make that claim by itself.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.