Move over soybeans: Missouri’s, Iowa’s wine cup runneth over

written by Michael Doyle

August
17

Pedro Nunez picks Chardonnay wine grapes just after dawn in a vineyard near Outlook, Wash

WASHINGTON - Northwestern Missouri meets the wine world, under a bid to designate one of the nation’s largest grape-growing regions.

At more than 8.2 million acres, the proposed Loess Hills District sprawling across western Iowa and a slice of northwestern Missouri would far surpass any federally recognized winemaking region in California. It could also add some fizz to an area currently home to 13 bonded wineries, vineyards that pay a federal excise tax.

“I think this is going to be great for economic development in both states,” Michelle Wodtke Franks, executive director of the non-profit Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development, Inc., said in an interview Monday.

If approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, following the public comment period that expired Monday, wineries within the Loess Hills District Viticultural Area could use the term on wine made from the region’s grapes.

Sixty-six commercial vineyards, spanning a modest 112 acres, currently operate in the region still dominated by corn and soybean fields.

“The idea is that it would enhance the demand for grapes from the Loess Hills area,” Franks said, adding that viticultural area designation “has a capacity to be used as a marketing tool” for the broader region.

The Golden Hills organization filed the viticultural area application, along with the Western Iowa Grape Growers.

8,254,151 Acres in proposed Loess Hills District Viticultural Area.

More than 210 viticultural areas are currently recognized. The greatest number are still in wine-rich California, though by far the largest is the 19.1 million-acre Upper Mississippi Valley Viticultural Area that spans parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

By contrast, California’s highly regarded Napa Valley area is a relatively compact 400,000 acres.

Since the first American viticultural area was designated in Augusta, Mo., in 1980, winemakers, developers and promoters have sought recognition in hopes of gaining an edge or simply a rebranding. New Jersey winemakers, for instance, won approval in 2007 to tout their Outer Coastal Plain product.

Some Missouri winemakers, for their part, can label their wines as coming from either the distinctive-sounding Ozark Highlands or from the 3.5 million-acre Ozark Mountain region.

THE PRIMARY DISTINGUISHING FEATURE OF THE PROPOSED LOESS HILLS DISTRICT AVA IS THE DEEP LOESS SOIL. LOESS IS A LOOSE, CRUMBLY SOIL COMPRISED OF QUARTZ, FELDSPAR, MICA, AND OTHER MATERIALS.
- Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

The proliferation of viticultural areas has sparked occasional talk of tightening standards, and a proposed 22,000 square-mile California Coast designation pit major wineries against each other before officials rejected the proposal in 2002.

Most proposals, though, remain uncontroversial, if not downright obscure. As of Monday morning, no public comments had been received in the two months since federal officials first invited feedback on the Loess Hills District proposal.

Encompassing portions of Missouri’s Atchison and Holt counties, as well as portions of Iowa extending to the South Dakota border, the Loess Hills District is unique because of its soil, rolling topography and climate, promoters say.

The region’s deep, loose soil typically has a high pH value, which vintners say helps set the Loess Hills grapes apart. The area’s growing season and precipitation likewise differs from surrounding regions.

“We had the initial conversations about this about five years ago,” Franks said. “It has been a long time coming.”

Federal officials, meanwhile, are weighing other viticultural proposals as well, including a “Tip of the Mitt” area proposed for parts of Michigan and a “Champlain Valley” area proposed for New York state.