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Grapes grab Groninga's interest
EAGLE 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 counterparts.
  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 corkscrew imaginable.
  "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."

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