Iowa State an invaluable resource for growing Iowa wine industry

wineFrom the evaluation of cold-hardy grapes to providing quality assurance and chemical analyses, Iowa State University researchers are lending their expertise to put the state’s growing wine industry on the map.

“The industry has boomed in the last 10 to 12 years and they needed technical support for making better wine, growing grapes, any kind of informational or educational tools they could get a hold of to do a better job,” said Jennifer Savits, an Iowa State research associate at the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute.

Iowa has 101 wineries and more than 300 vineyards. That’s up from 74 wineries the state had in 2008 when the industry had an economic impact of $234.3 million, according to a study that was the first of its kind for Iowa’s wine and vineyard industry.

The Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute provides support for Iowa’s evolving grape and wine industry beginning at the grape-growing stage. It’s a collaboration of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and the Department of Horticulture.

Savits said the institute grew from a need for greater expertise for Iowa winemakers.

Better grapes for Iowa’s weather

The institute assists in determining what kinds of grapes will grow best in the state, given the soil and climate.

Murlidhar Dharmadhikari, ISU Extension and Outreach enologist and director of the institute, is conducting research on cold-hardy grape varieties. His work, in collaboration with other Iowa State researchers, is being financed by a $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to support rural wineries.

Dharmadhikari said these new grapes will allow wineries to flourish in areas where it would have previously been impossible to have a grape and wine industry. He sees the advantages of increasing the variety of crops available for Iowa fields.

“Many people in newer generations, their parents have been growing corn and soybeans,” Dharmadhikari said. “This gives them the ability to diversify their operations and use land that might not be as good for growing crops. It also doesn’t require as much land to make a living … with grapes you only need around 20 acres.”

Michael White, Iowa State Extension and Outreach viticulture specialist, provides advice, teaching, referrals, and visitations to wineries and vineyards. He helps with a wide range of grape-growing topics, from vineyard establishment to pesticide use.

White estimates that he has worked with about 90 percent of Iowa vineyards. He said helping growers improve grape-growing practices will improve Iowa’s industry.

Quality assurance, chemical analysis

The institute is also working with the Iowa Wine Growers Association to provide local wineries and consumers with quality assurance through the Iowa Quality Wine Consortium.

Wines are awarded the consortium quality status if they pass laboratory chemical analysis, and sensory panel evaluation. Savits estimates a quarter of Iowa’s wineries are participating in the consortium.

Many area wineries also utilize the wine lab, the institute’s fee-for-service laboratory on the Iowa State campus that provides wineries with a chemical analysis of their grapes and wines – an opportunity that can improve quality and increase profits.

The lab can prevent the loss of wine by catching problems early, which can save operations money in the long run.

“Wineries can send in samples for analysis if they think they might have a problem with the wine or just want to double check the wine before bottling,” Savits said. “We are able to analyze and recommend procedures and practices to improve quality of wines and remedy those that may have potential problems.”

“Many wineries do not have equipment on-site to perform these tests,” Savits added.

Tassel Ridge Winery in Leighton is one of the many Iowa wineries benefiting from the institute. Bob Wersen, founder and owner of the winery, said he estimates the winery uses services provided by the institute monthly.

He said researchers provide guidance and answers to questions, which is leading to better results and a better end product for the winery.

For more information about the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute contact:

Jennifer Savits, research associate, Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, 515-294-1555,
Michael White, viticulture specialist, ISU Extension and Outreach, 515-961-6237,
Murli Dharmadhikari, enologist, ISU Extension and Outreach and director, Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, 515-294-7211,
Tara Lackey, graduate assistant, ISU College of Human Sciences, 515-294-9424,

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