DR. KEN GRONINGA
grows grapes on a fourth of an acre, right behind Eagle
City Winery's gift shop and production facilities.
Groninga offers tours of the vineyard and winery.
(Farm News photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby)
Eagle City Winery Thrives
in Hardin County
By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
Farm News Staff Writer
IOWA FALLS - During his career, retired
veterinarian Dr. Ken Groninga has worked his way from the barnyard
to the vineyard. Now a winemaker at Eagle City Winery, Groninga is
enjoying his new taste of success in rural Iowa.
"It has been fun starting a winery, and it's
something new and different for many people in Iowa. We get lots
of visitors and bus tours here. People are curious about the
winery and want to see the vineyards," Groninga said.
Located southeast of Iowa Falls in rural Hardin
County, the Groningas' Eagle City Winery has developed into a
thriving business and tourist attraction. If you're looking for
merlot, cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, Eagle City offers it.
But if you want something a little out of the ordinary-like
cranberry wine or rhubarb wine-you've come to the right place.
"The rhubarb wine has been one of our most
popular products. We also sell a red altar wine that churches use
for communion services. I sell 70 percent of my wine from this
shop, but you can also find our wines at 24 retail outlets within
a 50-mile radius of here, from Ft. Dodge to Reinbeck,"
Groninga's wines have proven popular with customers
from around Iowa and across the country. "We opened the
winery, tasting room and gift shop in December of 2000 and sold
5,000 bottles our first year. Our sales have remained strong ever
since," Groninga said.
Groninga grows his grapes on a fourth of an acre,
right behind Eagle City Winery's gift shop and production
facilities. Prices for Eagle City wines range from $9 to $15 per
"In a good year, a grape vine will yield 14
pounds of grapes. This will make one gallon-or five bottles-of
wine. If the growing conditions are good, you can make as much as
$1,000 to $4,000 per acre raising grapes," Groninga said.
While Groninga admits he has always enjoyed fine
wine, he wasn't always interested in winemaking.
For more than 30 years, Groninga worked as a swine
and cattle vet in the Sheldon area. In 1991, Groninga and his
wife, Carolyn, bought an acreage in 1991 near his hometown of
Within a year, Groninga decided to try making wine
from the various wild fruits and berries that grew around their
acreage. "I tried everything, including elderberries,
raspberries, mulberries, chokecherries and wild plums. I bought
some books on winemaking, and just started this as a hobby."
He began entering-and winning wine competitions in
1995, including the Iowa State Fair, the Clay County Fair and the
Steele County Fair in Minnesota. In 1998, his chokecherry wine
earned a Best of Show award for a non-grape wine at the Iowa Sate
Fair. Groninga has also won medals in international wine
competitions like the Tasters Guild.
"It's been a lot of hands-on learning from the
ground up, although my chemistry knowledge from my days in vet
medicine helped," said Groninga, who learned some tough
lessons when he started growing wine grapes in 1996. The first
varieties he planted weren't hardy enough to survive Iowa's harsh
"You couldn't really grow good wine grapes in
Iowa until French-American hybrid grapes became available. They
are a cross between French varieties and native grapes, so they
can survive temperatures as a low as 20 or 30 degrees below
zero," Groninga explained.
Processing the harvest
Today, Groninga's vineyard features varieties like
Frontenac, Foch and St. Pepin. All the wine Groninga sells is made
at the vineyard. How does the process from vine to wine work?
"We harvest the grapes at the end of August,
when the grapes' sugar content reaches 23 percent. We take buckets
out the vineyard and harvest the fruit by hand. Then we run the
grapes through a machine that crushes them and separates the stems
out," Groninga said.
In the production room located just off the gift shop
and tasting bar, the crushed fruits are poured into 55-gallon
stainless steel primary fermenters, where they will ferment for
about a week. The product is then transferred to 20-liter glass
bottles called secondary fermenters. The wine is processed several
times through secondary fermenters to clarify the wine and remove
the spent yeast.
Once the wine is filtered, it is bottled with a small
vacuum-operated bottle-filling machine. The bottles are then
corked and labeled by hand.
"The process from fermenting to bottling takes
about 10 to 12 weeks. Then we age the wine for at least six
months," Groninga said.
Labeled with the Eagle City Winery logo, the wine
bottles recall a bit of local history, Groninga noted. Between
1850 and 1900, the area included the tiny settlement of Eagle
City, which had a sawmill and gristmill along the Iowa River.
a value-added crop
When Eagle City was still a town, grape growing was
not a novelty in Iowa. By 1919, Iowa was sixth in grape production
in the United States, according to the Leopold Center for
Interest in grape production waned in the 1930s and
1940s, however, as the focus shifted to corn and soybean
production. Widespread use of the herbicide 2, 4-D also damaged
vineyards throughout the Midwest.
Groninga said he is fortunate that the farmers who
grow crops near his vineyard use pre-emerge herbicides.
"Those don't hurt the grapes like post-emerge herbicides can.
Overall, the grapes are fairly easy to grow."
Grapes prefer sandy, rocky soil and require little or
no fertilizer. "I don't irrigate them, either. In dry years,
they do just fine," Groninga said.
The grapes require the most attention in the spring,
he added. "It takes quite a bit of work to prune them, and
learning to prune them right takes some practice. I also spray the
vineyard with fungicides and insecticides in the spring. My
biggest problem hasn't been insects, though. It's the deer and
birds that eat the grapes."
People who are interested in growing grapes often
turn to Groninga for tips. "I get a steady flow of people who
want to learn about it. I'm not worried about competition. We all
market to our local area, and hardly any two wineries make wine
the same way," he said.
To learn more about the Eagle City Winery, call
641-648-3669, or go online to www.eaglecitywinery.com.
To learn more about Iowa's grape industry, visit www.iowagrapegrowers.com.