by Gigi Wood
SWISHER – The vines are about ready.
Workers are pruning and preparing the vines at Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery for the upcoming season, fertilizing the plants and grooming the 10-acre vineyard.
“This is probably the busiest time in the vineyard for us,” said Luke French, sales manager at Cedar Ridge.
The winery and distillery, 1421 Marak Rd. off Highway 965 in Swisher, opened to the public Nov. 27 once its 7,050-square-foot retail, entertaining and production facility was complete. It is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays for tours of the production area, tastings and sales of Cedar Ridge’s wines, spirits and accessories.
“The plan is to be open year-round, our first winter was kind of slow, but we expected that,” he said.
Starting July 1, Cedar Ridge can begin selling its distilled spirits on site. Before a state law change this year, the company could only sell its wine on site.
Since the Prohibition era, Iowa has been what is known as a “control state,” meaning the state has direct control over the wholesale of distilled spirits in Iowa. Cedar Ridge produces its distilled spirits and ships them to an Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division building in Ankeny, where they are checked in. The state then ships them to retailers.
Cedar Ridge teamed up with Templeton Rye, the state’s other privately-owned distillery, to lobby to change the law. After several years of work, the law finally passed this year.
“The new legislation is awkward but it’s a step in the right direction. We’ll live with it and see maybe if over the year we can make it better,” said Jeff Quint, owner of Cedar Ridge. “We have to haul the product to the (state’s alcohol) warehouse and then when we get back, we have to call the warehouse, the Alcoholic Beverages Division and order it back. And that’s not a real green process but that’s all they were willing to do for now. To some extent I can see why they would want it done, to preserve the control aspect that the state has on alcohol.”
Also in July, Cedar Ridge will release its first bourbon, Iowa Bourbon.
“We started last year doing a bourbon in small-sized barrels, 15 and 30 gallon barrels to help it to age faster,” Mr. French said. “The bourbon is going to be a very big roll-out for us; we’re expecting to sell a lot of it.”
Cedar Ridge decided to enter the bourbon business because 51 percent of the liquor comes from corn.
“Bourbon is typically made in Kentucky, Tennessee, places like that but we thought, ‘Why not make bourbon where it makes sense, in a corn state,’” he said. “The misconception is bourbon must be made in Bourbon County, Ky. We can’t call it Kentucky bourbon because it’s actually made in Iowa but it’s going to say Iowa Bourbon Whiskey, so it will be the only bourbon on the shelf in Iowa that’s not made in Kentucky.”
According to the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, 54 bourbons are sold in the state, each of which is produced in Kentucky. Although Cedar Ridge’s bourbon is local and aged only a year, Mr. French said consumer demand is high for the product.
“The people who actually enjoy whiskey or bourbon or scotch, they’re always looking for something new, especially hand-crafted, small batch,” he said.
Winery and vineyard
Cedar Ridge started planting its vineyard in 2001 and has added additional vines nearly every year since then. Now, the property has 5,000 vines.
Despite a cold winter, the vines faired well during the down season.
“They’re doing pretty well, I haven’t seen a whole lot of winter rot on any of the vines,” Mr. French said. “They’re French-American hybrid vines, so they should be able to the cold winters here.”
Customers can walk in during business hours, or visit Cedar Ridge with a tour. Tours typically take place during the weekends because production at the facility is ongoing during weekdays. Cedar Ridge is in talks with Fireside Winery in Marengo and Amana Millstream to create a beer, wine and spirits tour.
At the end of the season last year, contractors finished a concrete patio area, where an outdoor fireplace and seating area will be located. A large tent will soon be installed that can seat up to 250 people. It will feature windows, lighting, and air conditioning and can withstand high winds. Capacity inside the winery is 65 people.
Dozens of wine and bourbon barrels are stacked in Cedar Ridge’s adjacent production facility, where the custom-made distillery is housed. Each barrel used to store wine costs Cedar Ridge $600, lasts for six years and is made with American and French oaks.
“American oak gives you really bold, intense flavor in the wine and French oak is more mellow; with the hybrid barrels, it’s just right,” he said.
During the distillation, the heads and tails, which are poor-quality components of production, are removed and hearts, the high-quality components, are preserved.
Molasses is also processed on site. The entire process requires considerable energy use.
“The way the rural power is out here, our peak power that we use when we turn the still on, we get charged $900 a month extra just for peak power usage,” he said.
Cedar Ridge is keeping one bourbon still offline because of the energy cost and plans to add energy-efficient measures to reduce costs.
“We’re building a heat recoil system for (the unused still) so when the water comes out, it comes out at 240 degrees, so they’re basically going to make a radiator hood so when the water comes out they’ll put a fan on it and it will heat the whole back area,” he said.
A 40-foot wind turbine will also be installed on the premises. It will not provide energy for the entire facility, however.
“It would supplement, it would just reduce the energy needed,” Mr. Quint said. “One wind turbine is not going to handle it. We’re a pretty big user of power and it would take several units to eliminate our need and get us to neutral.”
The new facility will allow the company to quadruple production of distilled spirits to increase distribution into states such as Illinois, Missouri and New York.