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Grape harvest is nearing, too

By Staff | Aug 27, 2015

FORT DODGE – Harvest season in Iowa usually means big, lumbering combines rolling through the fields.

But for Anne Zwink, winemaker with Soldier Creek Winery of Fort Dodge, harvest time means walking the rows of her family’s vineyard to judge the level of veraison of the grapes.

Veraison is a maturity phase of the fruit, a time when the individual berries can change colors from green to dark purple depending on their variety.

And once Zwink spots the tell-tale turn of color, it won’t be long before there will be wine.

First, the hanging clusters of grapes are hand-harvested using clippers, Zwink said.

Each variety matures at a different rate, but they are generally ready for harvest locally between Labor Day and the last weekend of October.

When the grapes have turned and the family is ready to bring them in from the vineyard, an additional 10 people are hired to help harvest.

“It still takes all day,” Zwink said.

The workers head out into the vineyard in the early morning, the most opportune time to pick the fruit, she said.

The vine has a day-long cycle in which the sugar content of the grapes ebbs and flows, but overnight is when the plant pushes the most sugar into the individual berries.

Getting the grapes early maximizes the sugar content which is what is converted into alcohol during the fermentation period.

She estimated that each plant averages anywhere between 40 to 100 clusters of grapes.

Last year, the family harvested 60,000 pounds of grapes from their six acres of plants.

“The hardest thing is just finding all those grapes,” Zwink said. “Some are easy to see on the vine, but others blend in with the leaves.”

Once the grapes are brought to the winery and unloaded, she said her family tries to process them immediately.

“Our first year, we spent all day in the vineyard then all night in the winery,” she said. “It was exhausting.

“Now, we stay in the winery to process and the people we hire go out to harvest.”

During processing the grapes are destemmed, crushed and pressed for juice which is then put into tanks to ferment for up to three weeks.

The family generally spends two days processing each variety of grape which translates into 18 days to do all nine varieties it grows.

“We then use different aging techniques, depending on the varieties,” Zwink said. “The sweet wines are usually ready quicker and the dry tend to have a longer aging period.”

In the end, it takes a minimum of three months from the time the grapes are harvested to the time the wine is ready to be sold.

“Our wines don’t need to be aged beyond that,” Zwink said. “They are already at their peak when we sell them.”

A new addition to what they are selling this year is a Marquette rose, she said. It is unique in that it uses the same grape as the Marquette red wine already offered by the winery, but the rose is different.

“It’s the wine style that defines the wine,” Zwink said.

Additionally, she said, they are working on a blend that brings together three of the red varieties they currently grow to create a synergy that results in a more complex and interesting taste.

Soldier Creek Winery started in 2005 when farmers Bill and Rob Secor, Zwink’s father and brother, considered what to do after a fire destroyed a hog barn on their property.

It took two years, but they decided on wine. They planted a vineyard with varieties of cold-weather, hardy hybrid grapes in the plot where the barn had been and now the family cares for nearly 10 acres of plants that produce the grapes they use in their wines.

The Soldier Creek Winery tasting room is open to the public from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

And it will remain open all through the harvest which Zwink said can give people a peek into winemaking.

“Harvest takes place in here,” she said, “so people can come in if they like and see the whole process, even smell the fermentation.”

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