CITY-Back in the days when he was posting hogs,
dehorning cattle and vaccinating sheep, Dr. Ken Groninga
never thought he'd be another Julio Gallo.
It was the furthest thing from his mind.
Groninga did however, think he would someday make
it back to Hardin County, near his hometown of Ackley.
His opportunity arrived when an acreage near the
Iowa River came up for sale in scenic Eagle City, just
across the road from Upper Eagle City Park. Today, Ken
and his wife, Carolyn, operate Hardin County's first
vineyard and winery, Eagle City Winery.
Groninga officially opened for business on Dec.
18 and has sold more than 500 bottles since then.
"I'm amazed. It's been very cold weather and
snowed every other day in December and people still came
out to buy and taste wine," Groninga said.
After 30 years as a large animal veterinarian in
Sheldon, Groninga returned to the Iowa River Greenbelt
of his youth, this time near the mill started by Jacob
Kidwiler some 150 years ago.
"I hadn't even thought about entering the
wine business or even making the stuff until after I
moved here. There were a lot of wild fruits and berries
growing in this area -
elderberries, raspberries, wild plumbs,
after a few years I got into competitions and things
just kind of snowballed," Groninga recalls.
Did they ever. His operation now includes 120
grape vines, a steel storage building converted into a
storefront and wine cellar, and five varieties of wine
he is now marketing.
"I started fooling around with a few
different varieties and started entering some amateur
competitions. To Groninga's surprise, he did quite well.
He began entering the Iowa State Fair Oenology
Competition in 1994 along with shows at the Clay County
Fair in Spencer and the Steele County Fair in Minnesota.
He captured four silvers and a bronze at the Iowa State
Fair in 1995 and followed that up with at least one gold
and several silver and bronze medals every year after,
including a gold medal-Best of Show Award for his '98
chokecherry wine at the 1998 Iowa State Fair.
The know how:
Groninga started buying books on wine making and
began to find sources for yeast and fruit that he did
not grow in his backyard.
"Basically all I've put together has been by
experimentation and I've never had a batch to vinegar or
anything like that. I had some that didn't taste too
good, especially some watermelon and strawberry wine I
tried, but the elderberries, mulberries and raspberries
made some fine wine."
Basically, grape wines and fruit wines
require two different processes. Grapes don't require
sugar and yeast while fruit wines require water, sugar
and yeast to begin the fermentation process.
Groninga uses 55-gallon stainless steel
containers where the wine sits and ferments for a week
to 10 days before it is transferred to glass jugs that a
labeled with the batch number and type of variety. Fruit
wines are strained to eliminate any yeast cells still
present. Sugar and acid content can be adjusted. As a
rule, white wines are more acidic than their red
New technology in crop genetics has really
allowed wine growing to become a viable agricultural
enterprise in the 21st century, Groninga explains.
"You see a lot of grapes growing in Iowa,
most are Concord grapes (red) or Niagras (white) and
they are good table grapes because they are low in sugar
and high in acid. For wine, you want grapes that are
high in sugar and low in acid content. The only reliable
way of getting the acid down is diluting it out and
adding sugar," Groninga said.
Now French hybrids are being crossed with
some Iowa grapes. The University of Minnesota is doing a
lot of research on the subject and their development of
some of these new strains have allowed the growth of
wine production in the Midwest, Groninga said.
Groninga is currently selling five wines.
Merlot is a full-bodied red wine; Cabernet Sauvignon is
a rich, medium-bodied red wine; Chardonnay, a
light-bodied white wine with a fruity flavor; Riesling,
a light-bodied, high aromatic white wine and Cranberry,
a dark, full-bodied tart wine made from cranberries.
Because it takes six or seven years before
most grape vines are at their peak for harvesting,
Groninga has had to purchase grapes. "I buy the
juice or grape but hope to blend my own grapes with them
next year and in a couple of years, I'll have enough to
make all of my own," Groninga said.
Just like traditional farmers with their
corn plants, lots of care is required to develop a
healthy-rooted grape vine. "Spring pruning takes
about two days," Groninga said. "It is
important to control the rate of vine and leaf growth to
get more grapes." Fungicides and herbicides are
required because there is the potential for a lot of
disease and some weed problems. There are 40-50 clusters
of grapes on each vine and they bud in mid-April and are
ready to pick by hand in late August or early September.
Groninga has added a few elderberry plants and
chokecherry trees but most of his fruit wines come from
naturally growing plants around his Eagle City acreage.
Groninga and his wife began working on
developing the winery in the fall of 1999 and completed
the work last summer. And wine is not the only thing
visitors will find. The Eagle City Winery offers
sweatshirts, T-shirts, glasses and be sure to check out
Ken's conversation piece, a collection of every type
"I started collection these a few years
ago. There sure are a lot of different ways to get into
a wine bottle," he laughed, while looking over his
collection of 50 or more devices.
"I hope to sell everything I make here
locally or within a 50-mile radius. I've gotten quite a
few calls from business people or tour groups or people
just out on their own." Some outlets locally are
handling the Eagle City wines for Groninga, including
Discount Liquors in Iowa Falls, the American Legion and
Waldorf's in Ackley, Mulligan's in Geneva, The Lone Tree
Inn in Holland and The Broom Factory in Cedar Falls.
Groninga is still serving as a veterinary
consultant to a biologic company but homes to make the
Eagle City Winery his full-time occupation. Because he
is sometimes gone on business, it is a good idea to call
the winery before visiting. The number is 641-648-3669.
Connoisseurs know wine by the smell and the
taste. Groninga agrees. "Those two things will tell
you what is good."