Cascade's Crimson Sunset Takes the Organic Route
Visitors seek out one of Iowa’s newest wineries for the rural ambiance and flavorful wines, but owners Kevin and Lisa Miller believe it’s only a matter of time before connoisseurs discover the organic nature of their business.
The Millers’ Crimson Sunset Vineyards & Winery, near Cascade, produces Iowa’s only wine created entirely from its own estate-grown, certified organic grapes.
“A true crimson sunset is really rare,” said Kevin, who conceived the idea and name for their business. “That’s kind of like our wine.”
To put that rarity in perspective, Iowa licensed just over 100 wineries last year, with Crimson Sunset the sole wine-making operation with a certified organic vineyard on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statewide list.
Even as fruits and vegetables, livestock and other organic foods gain a foothold in Iowa - the state’s 467 organic farms accrued $60.7 million in sales in 2011 - organic wine doesn’t appear to be a high-demand item for Iowans concerned with what they are consuming.
“The word hasn’t gotten out yet,” Lisa said of their wine’s organic ingredients, but the Millers think that will change as customers realize the difference in the way their grapes are grown.
Standard vineyards use fungicides, pesticides and herbicides to control a myriad of diseases, pests and weeds, but those synthetic chemicals are not used at Crimson Sunset.
Because of the extremes of Iowa’s humid summers and fluctuating temperatures, however, growing grapes organically can be a challenge, said Matt Nissen, manager and winemaker at Prairie Moon Winery and Vineyards near Ames.
Prairie Moon operated an organic vineyard for about five years until those weather obstacles, along with Japanese beetles that devoured the foliage, proved too much to overcome, he said.
A similar scenario played out at Wide River Winery near Clinton, where weeds were difficult to control organically in the young vineyard, owner Dorothy O’Brien said, adding that Wide River hopes to eventually re-establish its organic certification.
Many wineries use grapes grown elsewhere, both in- and out-of-state, and because of the weather challenges few vineyards in Iowa grow organic grapes. One of those, Black Squirrel Vineyard in Council Bluffs, sells its organic grapes to three wineries, co-owner Jolene Caldwell said.
With no one nearby to offer guidance or serve as mentor for their organic vineyard-to-winery operation, the Millers have developed their own strategies to cope with Iowa’s climate, while following strict organic guidelines.
Kevin logged naturally decay-resistant black locust trees to serve as posts for the vineyard’s vertical shoot position trellis system. The system helps maximize sun exposure for the developing grapes.
A small flock of Babydoll sheep that roam the vineyards provides a “biodynamic” form of weed control under the grapevines. Kevin has used praying mantises to battle voracious Japanese beetles, which can defoliate a vineyard.
While they are able to forgo the costs and potential health risks of chemical applications, growing organically comes with at least one drawback.
Kevin heavily prunes the grapevines - a time-consuming process - so air can circulate throughout the canopy, allowing the vines to better resist certain diseases.
The grapes, too, are thinned for airflow, and because herbicides are not used, groundcover competes with the vines. All of those factors reduce the quantity of grapes.
Kevin said Crimson Sunset produces about half as many grapes as conventional vineyards: 10 pounds per vine, compared to the 20- pound standard.
“It’s less quantity, but better quality,” he said. “Having healthier plants helps the quality of the wine.”
Even with a lower yield, the Millers made 1,000 gallons of wine last year. Their boutique winery officially opened in December 2012, and already, two of the 12 wines made in 2011 have sold out: Swenson White, the sweetest wine on the list, and Crimson Rose, a semi-sweet blush.
Although the vineyards are certified organic, Crimson Sunset wines are not labeled as such, because sulfites are added to the wine as a preservative, to prolong shelf-life.
In the United States, wine with added sulfites - which also occur naturally in wine - cannot be labeled organic, so Crimson Sunset bottles carry a “99 percent organic ingredients” designation.
That choice to grow organically reflects the couple’s lifestyle.
Lisa offers a fresh-picked sand cherry to the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Brielle, who eagerly tastes the blood-red fruit.
“We’re definitely conscious about what we feed her,” Lisa said.
Kevin, 33, and Lisa, 34, began their venture in 2005 - the same year they married, and the same year their bichon-yorkie, Vinifera, (Vinnie for short) was born.
Peach, apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees, which Kevin planted after they bought 54 acres from his parents (who still farm nearby), produce a range of fruit not far from the house
The couple purchased the site to build their dream home, which also serves as their winery. The first-floor dining room in the three-story limestone house doubles as a tasting room, with full windows overlooking the scenic vineyards.
Exhaustive work went into building the home, down to the stone they quarried on-site.
Their home/winery is in an off-the-grid facility powered by a one kilowatt wind turbine and a 3800-watt solar array, with 15 panels.
“We produce our own power here,” Kevin said. “It doesn’t get any more local than this.”
Because access to the site was limited, he leveled and built a three- quarter-mile lane to connect Crimson Sunset to Highway 151, using more than 300 truckloads of base rock.
The Millers worked together to build the vineyard’s trellises, with Lisa stringing the seven-wire system.
“It was a good feeling when the last wire was run,” she said, citing the
7.5 acres now used for grapes.
The couple planted their first acre in 2006 with 50 grape varieties to test which grew best organically and were the most fungal- and pest- resistant. From those, they selected the 12 top varieties and planted six more acres in 2008.
White La Crescent and Brianna and dark Marquette are among the grape varieties that grace the gently sloping hills near Highway 151, just outside Cascade. Their latest, 400 Petite Pearl vines, were planted in 2011, and like the others, will take several years to reach the point of harvest.
The Marquette grapes resulted in a rich, complex red wine, which, at about $35 per bottle, is at the high end of Crimson Sunset’s wine list. White wines run about $19 to $25, with the blush and reds slightly more at $25 to $35.
Kevin points to the Marquette as his favorite, though it often “depends on what I’m doing,” he said, while Lisa favors the Frontenac Gris, a full-bodied white wine.
Varietal wines named after the grapes - Frontenac, LaCrosse and Sabrevois, for example - must have at least 75 percent of grapes of that variety in the wine, but Lisa notes that their wines are made with even more: about 98 percent.
“Most are single barrel, single varietal,” she said.
Kevin, who serves as viticulturist and winemaker, guides the grapes through to wine with minimal intervention, without pumping or filtering. Cane sugar and water are never added to the wine and whites and blushes are sweetened with pure grape juice.
His fermenting knack has a hereditary link, as Kevin’s great- grandfather, according to family lore, was a bootlegger during prohibition. A search for a fabled buried whiskey barrel on their property has so far come up with nothing, Lisa said, with a smile.
Although both are firmly dedicated to their business now, operating a winery wasn’t first in their career choices.
Lisa graduated from Hawkeye Community College with an associates of applied science degree in dental hygiene and worked as a dental hygienist, a job she enjoyed.
Kevin graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. While working a desk job as an accountant, he kept feeling drawn back to the farm.
“He wasn’t happy in his other job,” Lisa said. “He was happy out here.”
The Millers are continuing work to finish their site, with patios and a retaining wall planned as seating for live music events. Started on Sundays during the summer, the music events are well-attended, Lisa said.
“We really want to be about the wine,” she said. “And we want people to enjoy themselves, too.”
Wine Pairing: Fresh Iowa Salad with Prairie Star wine
Prairie Star wine’s delicate essence of apple, gooseberry, wildflowers and minerals complement the fresh flavors in this Iowa salad.
Directions: Gather what local Iowa produce you can from the following ingredient list, depending on what is in season, and what you like.
- Lettuce | Arugula | Baby Spinach | Sweet Corn | Onion | Chives | Tomato
- Peaches or any fruit
Wash and chop what needs to be chopped, including cutting corn off the cob. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper to your liking. Enjoy with chilled Prairie Star Wine from Crimson Sunset Winery.