Courier Staff Writer
Even though Tassel Ridge is a “Johnny-come-lately,” the rural Leighton winery in Mahaska County is among the first to recognize the value of food and wine pairing.
“Wine goes with food and that’s where we’re going,” said Bob Wersen, Tassel Ridge’s president. “We cater to developing those preferences. [Other wineries] focus on entertainment but we decided not to go down that road.”
Wersen owns Interpower Corporation, located on the eastern side of Oskaloosa. How does someone with a power company end up as president of a winery? Wersen was already a wine enthusiast when he “saw an opportunity.”
“The opportunity was to be among the first wineries to recognize food and wine pairing and to cater to developing those preferences,” he said. “And, Tassel Ridge will also increase the penetration of Iowa wines in today’s market.”
Wersen and his family shared ideas about a winery in 1999 but didn’t plant any vines until 2002. They bought a vineyard in 2003, started construction in 2004, finished the project in 2005 and opened in 2006. Today Tassel Ridge has four vineyards, which contain 59 acres of plants, and 40 to 45 of those are producing.
In 2004, when Tassel Ridge received its license, there were about 35 wineries in Iowa.
“Today there are 85 wineries,” he said.
Rhonda Taylor and Steve Richardson are also key to the winery’s development. Taylor serves as winemaker and cellar manager, while Richardson manages the vineyards. Taylor and Richardson work closely together during the growing season and harvest.
Taylor said 60-gallon barrels in the winery’s cellar, which also serves as the bottling operation for the winery, age most of their wines.
“We age the wine in these, except the red wines go in the oak barrel and the Chardonnay white also needs some oak contact,” Taylor said. “The taste is spicy characters when aged in an oak barrel. The alternative to oak is stainless steel.”
Tassel Ridge Winery isn’t far from the four-lane highway. The main building’s interior is clean and well-lit from the gift shop to the cellar. Numerous windows allow lots of light in and visitors can watch wine activities in the cellar.
When asked about the future of wine in Iowa, Wersen said the industry “isn’t profitable at this time.”
“You have to have an income from another source to make it happen, to be sustainable,” he said. “I feel the potential is there for us to make good wine from grapes in Iowa.”
And Iowa wineries have to deal with the state’s low totals of wine drinkers. He said Iowa is sixth from the bottom, per capita, and lower than North Dakota, which had 1.6 gallons per capita in 2008.
“We’re way down there. I think the reason is we don’t have the major urban centers that make a difference,” Wersen said. “We haven’t had wineries here until recently. Wine is helpful beverage when consumed in moderation and, I would argue, the alternatives aren’t as good for people.”
For Your Information
Tassel Ridge Winery is easy to find. It’s just south of Iowa Highway 163 on 220th Street near Leighton.
From Ottumwa and Oskaloosa, drive northwest on 163 to 220th Street and turn left toward Leighton.
From Des Moines and Pella, turn right at 220th Street. Drive west on 220th about 0.7 miles from the highway and right into the Tassel Ridge Winery parking lot.