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From mill town to wine country
Nestled on top of a hill in the woods of what was once the bustling settlement of Eagle City, lies Dr. Ken Groninga's Eagle City Winery.
Groninga recently embarked on his retirement by opening a winery and tasting room in Eagle City.

  About eight miles southwest of Ackley, and 10 miles southeast of Iowa Falls lies the vineyard grown to fill the time of a retiree. The winery and tasting room helps Groninga fulfill the back of his business card which is a quote from Father Robert Capon during the Supper of the Lamb, "God makes wine. Only the ungrateful or purblind can fail to see that sugar in the grape and yeast on the skins is a divine idea, not a human one."
  Wine making did not begin with such a lofty mantra for Groninga. "In 1994 , I retired from my veterinary practice and have been working for a veterinary biologic company from that time until the present," Groninga said. "Making wine was just a hobby, something to do. The more I did it, the more I thought I'd do."
  Groninga said he tossed the idea of becoming a professional winemaker for two years. When he completely retired from being a vet, wine making gave him something to do. He decided to plant a vineyard and construct a building for the purposes of making wine. "In 1991, my wife Carolyn and I bought an acreage in a wooded area along side the Iowa River near my hometown of Ackley," he said. "The year after we moved here, I began making wine from the various wild fruits and berries that grow here. I made a lot of wine from elderberries, chokecherries, raspberries, mulberries, and wild plums."
  As it was merely a hobby at first, Groninga learned much from experience and even more from books. He said he and his wife enjoy a glass of wine every evening, so wine making seemed a natural. In 1994, he decided to see where he stood with other winemakers in the state. "I began entering wine competitions in 1994," he explained. "I went to the Iowa State Fair, Clay County Fair, and the Steele County Fair in Minnesota. I did pretty well, even winning the Best Of Show at the Iowa State Fair in 1998."
  That showing springboarded Groninga into becoming a professional. "I entered the competitions just to see how my wine compared to others," he said. "After doing well, my wife and I decided that operating a small vineyard and winery during our retirement years would be something that we would both enjoy, so we began planting in 1996. Everything was completed in June of 2000."
  Groninga traveled a long road before opening Eagle City Winery. "The labels took a long time," he explained. "It went down to a dot here, letter size, a comma there. Just a lot of little stuff."
  Before he could open, he had to get permits from the Iowa Tobacco and Firearms Alcoholic Beverage Division, as well as other state and federal permits and building. "We started the building in 1999 with Meyer Construction," Groninga said. "The paperwork took some time, though."
  Groninga said the paperwork did not end when he received his Class A wine permits and labels for seven varieties. He must send in a report to the state once a month, explaining how many gallons he has sold, and how many gallons on hand. He said large wineries must send in reports every two weeks to the federal government. A winery of Groninga's size is only required to report once a year.
  Groninga currently has 250 gallons bottled, and another 250 gallons in various stages of readiness. "So far, I have sold as much retail as I have wholesale," Groninga said, explaining that his wine is currently carried at Waldorf's Food Center in Ackley, Mulligan's Supper Club in Geneva, and the Liquor Store in Iowa Falls. "I would like to get into more restaurants. It is my intention to sell most of my wine within a 50-mile radius."
  To get the Eagle City Winery name out to the public, Groninga has gone on a marketing blitz. He has printed maps, posted signs, and placed ads to let people learn about his wines. "The Iowa Department of Commerce has a program where I can get listed in pamphlets at rest stops throughout Iowa," he said. "I will also be getting an Internet site, but I'm not really planning on selling over the Internet, though."
  In the short time the Eagle City Winery has been open (selling Merlot, Cabernet, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cranberry, Apple, and Honey wines since December), Groninga said he has hosted several small groups of six or more people. "A lot of people drive through the Greenbelt and are curious," he explained.
  Each tour group is given a tour of the small facilities, and a brief explanation of the wine making process. Visitors learn that he ordered 550 pounds of cranberries from a farmer in Wisconsin in order to make an initial batch of 1,000 bottles. They will learn the fermenting process from the 55 gallon stainless steal primary fermenters to the five-gallon carbays. They will learn how Groninga decides when a wine is ready. They will also learn anything else, should they ask.
  At the end of the tour, they are allowed to sample Groninga's wines, and purchase anything from T-shirts and wine, to corkscrews and coasters.
  "My Class A permit carries one stipulation," Groninga grinned. "This is not a bar. You can't buy a bottle and drink it here."
  Eagle City Winery is located at 28536 160th Street. The phone number for information is 641-648-3669.
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