Politics & Government

Fine wine from Iowa? Midwest winemakers seek label of their own

Wine bottles.
Wine bottles. Robert Durrell / MCT

WASHINGTON — The roster of beloved winemaking regions rolls right off the tongue. Napa. Sonoma. Mendocino. Washington state's Columbia Valley.

Now try sipping on this: the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

Audacious Midwestern winemakers are trying to secure federal recognition for a viticultural area sprawling over four states and 29,000 square miles. If it's approved, it would be the largest designated winemaking region in the country.

"The number of vineyards per square mile is a lot smaller in our region," Iowa-based winemaker Dorothy O'Brien said Wednesday, "so we have to take in a larger area."

O'Brien owns the Wide River Winery, commercially established four years ago on the bluffs above the Mississippi River near Clinton, Iowa. Producing wines with names such as Felony Red and Blushing Testimony, it's one of roughly 65 wineries in Iowa, many of whose owners think they'd benefit if Uncle Sam gives them a nod.

"It would be good for tourism," O'Brien predicted.

The proposed Upper Mississippi River Valley designation would cover wine from northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois.

In size, at least, the new viticultural region would surpass anything in California. It would be five times larger than the North Coast, California's biggest region. It also would exceed the current national leader among viticultural areas, the 26,000-square-mile Ohio River Valley region.

If the Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau grants it, the viticultural area name can become part of the wine label. In return, at least 85 percent of the grapes used in the wine must come from the specified area.

"It will help to foster awareness of the unique identity of wines produced from that region," Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey advised the Treasury Department.

The route to viticultural area recognition can be long and complicated. Paul Tabor, of the Iowa-based Tabor Home Vineyards Winery, began leading the push for the Upper Mississippi River Valley designation more than three years ago.

Applicants must demonstrate that their region has a distinct climate, soil, terrain and history, among other things. The Upper Mississippi River Valley application, for instance, notes the region's "stony or rocky soils on steep slopes," and the wine varieties differ from those found in California or Washington state.

"We have to have grapes that are hardy enough to survive a cold winter, and they also have to be disease-resistant because of our humid summers," O'Brien said.

In California, 107 viticultural areas already run the gamut from the sprawling 2.6 million-acre Sierra Foothills to the modest 4,000-acre Sonoma Valley.

Recently, though, the naming trend has gone global. Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley and the Snake River Valley in Oregon and Idaho were the most recently designated regions. Nor is designation strictly correlated with production.

The eight viticultural areas in Texas, for instance, number only one fewer than in Washington state, although wine production in the latter is nearly 20 times that of Texas.

In every state, boosters can cite their respective credentials quickly. Iowa officials, for instance, say that their state was once ranked sixth nationwide in grape production.

The year was 1919.

Big as it is, the proposed Upper Mississippi River Valley proposal seems to have excited little outside interest. Northey, the Iowa agriculture secretary, was apparently the only individual to submit written material to the Treasury Department during a public comment period that expired in October.

The Treasury Department hasn't indicated when it might rule.


Tabor Home Vineyards Winery Web site

Wide River Winery Web site


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