Wine: Grape expectations

Iowa’s wine industry boosts states economy

-Photo by Dawn Bliss At Soldier Creek Winery, visitors harvest grapes.

AMES — With approximately 105 wineries operating across the state, Iowa is reaping the benefits of its wine and grape industry, which pumps millions of dollars into the economy each year as the industry continues to mature.

“The numbers show that 2016 was a good year for Iowa native wine,” said Michael White, Iowa State University’s viticulture specialist.

On average, the typical Iowa winery produces approximately 3,000 gallons of wine annually, according to the Iowa Wine Growers Association. Not only were 310,803 gallons of native Iowa wine sold in 2016, up 9.1 percent from the previous year, but native wine excise taxes rose to a new high of $311,627, up 11.7 percent. Iowa wine consumption per capita increased slightly from 1.2 gallons to a new high of 1.53 gallons, said White, who added that the national average is 2.83 gallons per capita.

Iowa offers a good place to develop a wine-related business.

“Iowa’s wine law is very good for native winery establishment — maybe the best in the nation,” White said.

-Photo by Dawn Bliss Iowa wine is gaining in popularity.

Wineries find economic opportunity with event centers

White has watched Iowa’s wine industry grow from humble beginnings to a significant sector of the state’s agriculture industry. In 1999, there were only 13 wineries in Iowa. By 2016, Iowa had roughly 105 wineries and 270 vineyards covering approximately 1,200 acres.

Iowa wine and wine grape businesses diversify local economies and create new employment opportunities. According to one of the most recent surveys from ISU, the full economic impact of Iowa wine and wine grapes totaled $420 million in 2012.

Wine-related tourism in Iowa has generated one of the biggest economic impacts. Wine-related tourism expenditures jumped more than 51 percent from 2008 to 2012, rising from $27 million to $41 million. The number of wine-related tourists in Iowa also soared from 237,000 in 2008 to 358,000 in 2012.

“Wineries continue to spread their footprint as they expand into event centers, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, wedding venues and more,” White said. “While a few wineries make their living selling wine, most make their living with gifts, food, beer, facility rentals, music concerts, special events and more. Most wineries are realizing that there is big money in event centers, and many are going this way.”

Vineyards grow in size

Growing grapes and making wine in Iowa reflects a long-term commitment, both financially and physically. New vineyard plantings require three to five years before yielding a full crop, with another one to three years of aging for wine to be ready for sale.

While the number of vineyards in Iowa rose to nearly 425 in 2010, with each vineyard averaging around three acres each, this has changed in the past few years. Today, there are 270 vineyards in Iowa, reflecting operators’ increased interest in economies of scale.

“As vineyards get fewer in number and larger in size, we are seeing more equipment being used,” said White, who noted it takes about 150 to 200 hours per acre to operate a vineyard.

“We now have eight mechanical grape harvesters in Iowa. Last season was the first time two of them were doing commercial harvesting for other vineyards.”

It takes about 75 to 100 hours to harvest an acre of grapes by hand. Contrast this with a mechanical grape harvester, which can harvest an acre in 1 to 1.5 hours. Mechanical hedgers and pruners are also being used to lower the need for manual labor, White said.

The average four-acre vineyard is only economically viable if it’s owned by a winery, White added.

“I tell new people getting into this industry to consider at least 10 acres of vineyard so that they can afford labor-saving equipment. For a person to raise wine grapes for a living, at least 20 or 30 acres would be needed.”

New wine products offer more options

The development of cold-climate grape hybrids helped fuel Iowa’s wine industry growth. Now Iowa winemakers are offering new products for customers to enjoy.

“Many wineries are starting to do new types of wine, like fortified wine, sparkling wine, keg wines, ice wines, hard ciders and more,” White said.

New products may help Iowa wineries reach more potential buyers, which could be important for a market sector facing more competition from other alcoholic beverages. While Iowa native wine sales grew in double-digit percentages up through 2010, this slowed down to the low single digits through 2016.

“I think craft beer, hard cider and craft spirits have been taking some of this market away from wine,” White said.

Although Iowa’s wine industry may not be charting phenomenal growth, it has become an established, solid part of Iowa’s economy.

“A mature, slow-growing industry is not that bad,” White said. “People now realize the amount of time, labor and money necessary to get into this business. Instead of a bunch of newbies jumping in without a clue, we now have good information to make good decisions.”

Did You Know?

Here are some fun facts about Iowa’s wine and grape industry from Iowa State University Extension and the “The Economic Impact of Iowa Wine and Vineyards.”

• Wine has been made in Iowa for more than 150 years. The book “History of Western Iowa” noted, “In 1867, over 500 barrels of wine were made from native grapes and shipped to Chicago, besides large quantities which were used at home.”

• The first commercial vineyard in Iowa was planted in 1857, 11 years after Iowa became a state.

• In 1893, the Council Bluffs Grape Growers Association was formed with 21 member growers and 100 acres of grapes.

• Grape yields can run from 3 to 8 tons per acre in Iowa, with the average yield typically in the 3 to 4 tons per acre range.

• It typically takes 75 to 100 hours of labor per acre to hand harvest a full crop of Iowa wine grapes.

• One ton of Iowa grapes will produce approximately 150 gallons of wine, which equal 750 bottles of wine.