Murphy Quint remembers -- not so fondly -- digging post holes for the trellis system at the family vineyard in Swisher, Iowa. He was 14 years old at the time and pitching in as his mother and father, Jeff and Laurie Quint, were about to launch Cedar Ridge, a small family winery.
"Our original business plan was to make wine, he said. "It was a family affair. I planted vines. My mom planted vines. Digging post holes, that was the hardest." The vines were typical of the Midwest: Marquette, Marechal Foch, Edelweiss, etc.
The winery was not only a success; for Iowa, it was a bit unique. It had a still to make grappa and grape brandy. To this day, it is the only combo winery and distillery in the state.
But the landscape has changed dramatically. Founded in 2005, the winery has gradually morphed into full-blown whiskey production, and the distillery was recently named 2017 distillery of the year by the American Distilling Institute.
Using three pot stills imported from Europe, Cedar Ridge produces 60,000 cases annually of reserve Iowa bourbon, malted rye whiskey, wheat whiskey and a solera-style single malt that utilizes used wine, rum and port barrels in the aging process.
"Whiskey was not on our radar in the beginning," Murphy remembers, "but I pushed hard for us to have a whiskey focus. It just made sense in Iowa, where we are surrounded by all this grain, especially corn."
Cedar Ridge has a tasting room that is strategically situated halfway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Previously, it could only serve Cedar Ridge wines, but the law was recently changed to allow the distillery side to strut its stuff.
"Locals thought of us as a winery because it was illegal to serve cocktails in the tasting room," Murphy explained. "But outside of Iowa consumers think of us as a distillery."
The major thrust of Cedar Ridge whiskey seems to be Iowa bourbon. While the state of Kentucky might claim bourbon has to be produced within its borders, the legal definition of bourbon is simply that it must be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new American oak barrels.
Whisky production started in 2010, but Murphy says, "After we got going, we had this realization that bourbon is made from corn, and everyone in Iowa grows corn."
I recently nosed and sipped the spectrum of Cedar Ridge whiskies, and I must confess to a fondness for the single malts. That said, the Iowa bourbon and malted rye are beautiful sipping whiskies. The wheat whiskey was a bit one-dimensional and seemed to my palate to be best suited for mixing in cocktails.
Cedar Ridge spirits are distributed throughout the United States, though no one region of the country has access to the entire lineup. For more information about this unique wine-to-whiskey project, visit the distillery website.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2016 Fume Blanc, Sonoma County ($15) -- The 2016 vintage of Dry Creek's fume blanc is an easy quaffing white that shows hints of lemon grass, green citrus and stone fruits. It goes down easy, and it's a steal at the price. Rating: 88.
Rombauer 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($55) -- Rombauer is so famous -- or infamous, depending upon your preference -- for its chardonnay that hardly anyone talks about its cabernet sauvignon. That's too bad because it's a delicious expression of Napa Valley cab, and it's made to be supple and voluptuous and ready to drink now. The wine shows notes of ripe blueberry and blackberry with an attractive touch of wood spice. Rating: 92.
Goldeneye 2014 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($56) -- The crowd that enjoys Goldeneye pinot noir will no doubt love this appellation-branded pinot because it's a substantial savings over the pricy vineyard-designated bottlings. With excellent palate weight and depth, and layers of vibrant cherry and raspberry, this is Goldeneye is easy to drink, and what I mean by that is easier on the wallet. Rating: 91.
J. Lohr 2014 Pinot Noir 'Fog's Reach,' Arroyo Seco ($35) -- J. Lohr's Fog's Reach pinot noir is the model of consistency. This vintage exhibits good palate weight and depth, impressive length and classic notes of cherry and spice. The tannins are firm but manageable, meaning they soften with aeration and will soften with another year or two in bottle. Rating: 89.
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