It used to be if you wanted to buy a bottle of wine produced in Iowa, you headed to the Amana Colonies and hoped the dandelion crop had been a good one.
It wasn’t always that way. During the early 20th century, Iowa was the nation’s sixth-largest grape producer. The industry declined as a result of Prohibition, the growing market for corn and soybeans, damage to grapevines caused by herbicide drift, and the 1940 Armistice Day freeze.
Now, a rebirth of Iowa’s wine industry is underway, and Murli Dharmadhikari is playing a major role. Iowa State’s proposal for a Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute received the go-ahead a year ago. The institute focuses on research, teaching and outreach that support the Midwest’s evolving grape and wine industry.
Dharmadikari is the institute’s director. The Iowa Grape and Wine Commission, under the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, is providing the largest part of the institute’s funding in its first three years. Other revenue sources are ISU Extension, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a private three-year gift.
Dharmadhikari came to the United States from India in 1968 to study grape-growing. In 1972, he earned a doctorate in grape nutrition from Ohio State. He worked at a grape juice processing plant and helped establish wineries in Ohio and Indiana. In 1986, he started a wine advisory service at Southwest Missouri State University, serving winemakers and grape growers in Missouri and several Midwest states.
One of those was Iowa, so he became familiar with the state’s emerging wine industry. When the position of extension enologist was created at Iowa State, he was ready for the challenge.
“I thought this position would give me an opportunity to do different things,” said Dharmadhikari. “Since Iowa is a prime agricultural state, I thought it was a place I could make a difference, and have the most impact.”
Iowans consume about 3 million gallons of wine each year, yet Iowa wineries produce just 250,000 gallons annually. Dharmadhikari said those numbers show there is a huge opportunity for Iowa wineries to serve Iowa wine consumers.
An estimated 340 commercial wine grape vineyards now exist in Iowa, along with 70 bonded wineries and 20 more being developed.
Many of Iowa’s new wineries are on family farms.
“In many cases, the parents own the farm and the next generation decides to start growing grapes and establish a winery,” Dharmadhikari said. “One acre of grapes made into wine means a much higher profit than one acre of corn. This is a good way to diversify Iowa agriculture.”
Wine consumption in the United States has been increasing since the 1970s. Along with that increase in consumption has been an increase in the number of wineries in areas not traditionally known as wine country.
“Regional wineries are being developed to serve customers in their own backyards,” Dharmadhikari said. “Agritourism is on the increase.”
The past summer was spent setting up a wine laboratory near Dharmadhikari’s office in the Food Science Building at Iowa State. A full-time lab supervisor, Sebastian Donner, was hired in June.
Iowa wineries can submit samples for analysis of sugar, acids, alcohol content and a host of other factors. State laws dating back to Prohibition don’t allow wine tasting in the university laboratory, but an analysis of a wine’s chemical makeup can show how to improve it. Dharmadhikari hopes a law change will eventually make it possible to establish an experimental winery on campus.
Dharmadhikari is working with the industry to develop quality standards for Iowa wines. Wines meeting those standards would be certified and special labeling would help consumers recognize the higher quality products.
One question Dharmadikari has been asked many times is how Iowa wines can compete with established wines from California and elsewhere. He has a quick answer.
“We’re not trying to copy what others can do. We’re trying to figure out what we can do best in Iowa. Iowa wines may be different, but different doesn’t mean bad,” he said. “This is the way new markets evolve.”