My family has been a fan of the Iowa Wine Trail for several years now (I know, right? IOWA. It’s actually really delicious wine). Myself and my husband go on their November tour event every other year while other members of my family go every year without fail. None of us are, by any stretch of the imagination, wine connoisseurs, but we absolutely love these tours! It’s not about the drinking—unless you buy a bottle and drink it on your way to the next winery, it’s actually pretty hard to get drunk on a wine trail tour—it’s about the time spent with family, the magic of the Road Trip, and the experience of talking with people who are passionate about what they do.
Ok, it’s about the drinking too 🙂 The wine we get to taste (and purchase) during the wine tour is unique, and in a good way. It’s unlike anything I have found in the liquor stores. I think it’s because there are so many good memories associated with it; it just tastes better than the stuff I get from the store and has no story. In any case, it’s an event we all look forward to each (or every other) year.
This year we did something different. We tried the Great River Road Wine Trail and their June Bloom event. It was pretty great and I encourage everyone to go on their November tour event.
Winona, for us, was the starting point of our tour, and thus the gateway to the Mississippi valley drive that would end for the day in Alma, WI. If you have never been to the Mississippi valley along the MN/WI border you are missing out on one of the most amazing scenes in the world (and I’ve been a few places in the world). It’s a place totally unique, in my opinion. I am not a poet so I can’t properly describe it. So here is a picture of part of our drive and it’s not even the prettiest part:
The first winery we visited was Garvin Heights Vineyards in Winona, MN. The drive was stunning. The people were friendly. The view from their deck was gorgeous and overlooked their vineyard. The wine was… average. Most of it was ok, but nothing really to write home about. Their St. Urho White was absolutely delicious, though, and we bought a bottle.
Next up was Elmaro Vineyard in Trempealeau, WI. WOW. The property is amazing. They’ve just built a stunning new facility for tastings, and have a patio where you can order up a glass of wine and a cheese platter. It’s just gorgeous. And the wine is absolutely amazing. We didn’t try a single bottle that wasn’t delicious. Dry, sweet, fruit, it was all awesome. We immediately broke our “1 bottle per winery” rule and purchased 3. And talk about friendly, passionate people! They were excited to talk about their product, their history, the property. They happily answered any question we had and were more than willing to let us try whatever we wanted. Elmaro was just an amazing time and we are all very excited that they are about a 5 minute drive from Perrot State Park where we just happen to be going on a family camping trip in August!
After Elmaro we headed north along the Great River Road (WI-35) to Seven Hawks Vineyards in Fountain City, WI. You know the saying if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? Well I won’t be saying much. But I do believe in constructive criticism and if by chance someone from Seven Hawks reads this maybe some good will come from it. Basically, we found this place less inviting than others. We were given 3 wines paired with a range of food and were then told that we could only sample 5 wines in total, which, to me, is fine but many members of my family were quite upset at this. Most wineries we visit on these tours will let you taste as many different wines as you want. When we went downstairs to try our remaining 2 tastes, though, the guy at the counter (who I assume was one of the owners?) said we could try whatever we wanted. So we did. Then he gave us this long speech about how the other wineries make their wines really sweet because they think that’s what people want, so here at Seven Hawks we purposefully don’t make our wine sweet. I like both sweet and dry wines, but I must say, not a single one of their wines appealed to me at all. They all tasted, or felt, dusty, bitey; none of them were easy to drink. And the guy had basically just insulted my intelligence by the tone of voice he used to describe those people who like sweet wines. By the way, if people like sweet, and that’s what they’re buying, then you should probably offer them sweet, and not make them feel like they are unworthy of drinking your dry wine.
Next we made the drive up to Alma, WI to visit Danzinger Vineyards. What an absolutely spectacular view, both at the winery and on the road. The wine was great too. Once again, broke the rule. The people giving out the food/wine pairings didn’t really go into much detail about the wine they were serving, and for the most part I give the people on these tours some slack, especially at the end of the day. They have repeated the same things over and over and over for hours, and I’m sure a lot of people just don’t care anyway. When we went to the counter to try some more things, though, the owner was there serving the tastings and he was quite entertaining! He was definitely enjoying himself and that made the experience all the better. Oh, did I mention that the winery is perched on top of one of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and you can see EVERYTHING? Yeah. Amazing.
That ended Day 1, and what a day it was. We all went home, grilled out and opened several of the bottles we had just purchased. A good time was had by all.
Day 2 started with Maiden Rock Cidery & Winery in Stockholm, WI. This is the one I was most excited for. I love a good cider and the one on the Iowa Wine Trail is ok, but they only make 1 kind of cider. So there’s never anything different to try (they always have really good food, though). So I was all geared up; ask my husband, I was practically dancing in the car for 1.5 hours before we got there. We arrived early and they weren’t set up for the tour yet, but they let us try some of the things that weren’t on the official wine tour list. We tried some of the wine they sell, though they don’t make it themselves. They were ok, but I was anxious to try the ciders. Then we tried their crabapple wine, which was amazing. We bought a bottle of that.
They were finally set up and ready for us tourists and we moved on to try the ciders. I was so excited, and I am sorry to say I was a bit let down. Most of what they served tasted like apple flavored water. I wasn’t impressed, and slightly crushed. Then we tried what they called a Scrumpy. They said that the scrumpy is an english style cider that is made from “scrumps,” which are the apples that fall to the ground. But in the USA cider makers are not allowed to use apples that fall to the ground—the government has deemed that as soon as an apple touches grass it is instantly toxic. So right off the bat, even by the cidery’s own definition, it’s not a scrumpy. Also, I know a thing or two about ciders, and I have been to England. I can tell you that a scrumpy is not just hard cider made from grounded apples. It’s an unfiltered, cloudy cider that is typically a little more alcoholic than traditional hard cider. It’s flavor is warm and complex, and should remind you of autumn.
I am sorry to say that Maiden Rock’s scrumpy was not this. It was filtered, not cloudy, and it’s alcohol content was about the same as all the other ciders we tried. The flavor was lacking and weak; there was no body or excitement in it. This was the most disappointing part of our time at this cidery for me. The last cider I tried almost made up for it, though. It was made with honeycrisp apples and sweetened with honey. It was delicious and paired excellently with the ice cream and peach amaretto topping. We bought a 4-pack of that too. Maybe if I went back I would have a better experience; maybe I just built it up too much in my mind and now that I don’t have that expectation everything would taste a lot better. Well it’s a good thing I plan on going back 🙂
Wow! That was quite a book. I’ll try to keep the rest short.
After Maiden Rock we went on to Valley Vineyard in Prescott, WI. What a beautiful setting! I would love to go there and sip a glass of wine on their deck overlooking a gorgeous tree-filled valley. The people were all very friendly and we had a good time. Maybe it was too early, maybe we were in a funk because half our party had to cut the tour short and get home to relieve the baby-sitter, but none of us were very… into it. Some of us didn’t buy any wine here. None of it really seemed all that special. The thing about these wine tours is that they are regional, so everyone is using the same grapes—St. Pepin, Marquette, Frontenac, etc. Thus, everyone ends up with very similar wines, but places like Elmaro, Danzinger have found a way to make their wines unique. Valley hasn’t quite figured that part out yet, it seems. We had tried it all before elsewhere.
Next up, Falconer Vineyards in Red Wing, MN. Remember that saying about if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? Here we are again. Falconer has the potential to be awesome. The wines we tasted were delicious. But we were only allowed to try three wines and if we wanted to try any more than that we had to pay extra. We have not experienced this at any other winery (except Park Farm, part of the Iowa Wine Tour). It was really disappointing. So since we couldn’t try anything else, and because they felt the need to price their Reisling at $18 a bottle (we tried the reisling; it was good, but not that good), we just bought 1 bottle of Chamborcin and left. I should also mention that everyone on the wine tour had to go in through a different entrance, through the back, and through a maze of their equipment. Maybe they were afraid we’d scare away the regulars? My husband and I took the first wine sample and a piece of pizza (they also run a bistro with wood-oven pizza) and made our way to the back patio where there were tables and chairs. But as soon as we sat down someone came over with a menu; apparently those on the tour were not really wanted on the back patio where paying customers could sit. So for the next 2 samples we just stood in the maze of equipment with a bunch of other tourists. This is the only place I’d skip the next time we do this tour.
We finished out the day and the weekend with Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, MN. Right up there with Elmaro and Danzinger! We did not try a single bad wine there and we walked out with 2 delicious bottles. It would have been more, except they were a bit pricier than we’re used to ($15 each. I know, we’re cheap). There was live music, which was really good, and they paired some of their wine with chocolate—always a good move. I’m glad this place is between where I live and where my parents live so I can stop by whenever I go home 😀
Marquette Winery is also on this wine tour, however we skipped it because it would have added about 200 miles to our trip and we’ve all been there before; it’s on the Iowa Wine Trail. If you have never been to Marquette, though, you NEED to go. Their specialty is fruit wines (cranberry, strawberry, blackberry & chocolate, etc.) and it’s all amazing.
Over all this tour had it’s ups and downs; there were some amazing wineries and there were some duds. We all had a really good time and I definitely recommend this tour to anyone who’s mildly interested. Just don’t expect anyone to be talking to you about the leathery mouth-feel or the grapefruit notes in the wine you’re tasting. Just go and have fun!
Oh, and I would also recommend the Iowa Wine Trail. I think the quality of the wines are better than the Great River Road Wine Trail’s, but the drive is so much more beautiful for the latter, and shorter too. The average drive time between wineries on the GRR Wine Trail is about 30-45 minutes (and the view is awe-inspiring), while the average drive time between the wineries on the Iowa Wine Trail is more like 1.5-2 hours… and it’s mostly flat. It really takes all day, 8am to 8pm, both days for the Iowa trail, but you can be done with the GRR trail in 5 hours (both days), if you’re taking your time.
From left to right, top row: Honeycrisp Cider [Maiden Rock], Dolgo Crabapple Wine [Maiden Rock], Chambourcin [Falconer], Go Go Red [Cannon River], St. Pepin [Cannon River]
Bottom row: St. Urho White [Garvin Heights], Marquette Rose [Elmaro], Elmaro Rosa [Elmaro], West Prairie White [Elmaro], Old Fashioned Frontier Red [Seven Hawks], Bluff Top Breeze [Danzinger], Sunset Ridge [Danzinger], Sweet Ruby [Danzinger]
- An afternoon in wine country (wisconsinbucketlist.com)
- Great River Road Wine Trail (greatriverroadwinetrail.org)
- Iowa Wine Trail (iowawinetrail.com)