Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery is one of the most amazing Iowa business ventures I’ve come across. Like many states, Iowa is awash with vineyards and wineries. But how many of them are also distilling vodka or whiskey? Only one, and that would be Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery. Making this a destination worth putting on your calendar is the fact that Iowa law has been changed so that you can even buy some distilled spirits while there. You are limited to two bottles per adult per day. This is the only location like this in Iowa and, I believe, several states around Iowa.
Lured by these attributes, we stopped by the Cedar Ridge Winery just outside of Swisher, Iowa. Swisher is southwest of Cedar Rapids at 1441 Marak Road just west of I-380 at the 120th Street NW ramp (Exit 10). Just go south one mile on Marak Road (follow the sign) from 120th St. NW. It sits on top of a hill surrounded by vineyards. The day we visited the weather was nasty and we assumed that the place would be deserted. We were wrong. The place was packed, with a lot of people coming through to buy wine, taste the wines and spirits and to enjoy the pizza that the Winery serves.
The tasting room has tables and very comfortable chairs so that you can take it easy. We asked our host what the crowd was like when the weather was nice and were told that people are stacked five to ten deep waiting for their turn to try some of the wine. The day we were there there were several groups that were spending time relaxing and eating pizza. There is also a small private dining or conference room available for groups as well. Service was very friendly and casual, as is the norm for these sorts of places.
What makes Cedar Ridge one of the most unique wineries in the country, or perhaps the world, is the fact that they make and sell both wine and their own distilled spirits. I am not just talking about selling vodka. They make and sell an astonishing variety of wine and spirits. They make six white wines, five red wines, two blush wines, and two dessert wines. All are for sale at the store, including the distilled spirits, though We have only now started to try the whites and I can tell you that the Candlelight White is a very solid white wine. It is a blend of Chardonnay and LaCrosse grapes. I believe that the Chardonnay is brought in from California. That explains the fact that this is a dry wine. I also perceived some minerality and a “just” noticeable oakiness. The local LaCrosse grape gave it just a bit of that familiar Iowa fruity taste as well, but it was not all that sweet.
Even before making the trek to the winery/distillery, I had purchased both Clearheart Vodka and Cedar Ridge’s new Iowa Bourbon Whiskey. The Bourbon was first poured from the aging barrels and bottled for sale in July of 2010. I made sure that I grabbed some. I have not performed a proper blind taste test of either product, but I have certainly been impressed with both so far. In fact, I am eager to put the Bourbon against some of the mainstays of the industry to see how it fares. I can say that it is one of the smoothest bourbons I’ve tried, so I strongly suspect that it will fare well. A writer for the New York Times recently awarded it a five star rating so I appear to have some company. The Vodka, which includes some spirits distilled from apples, has also won high ratings in some competitions.
The mash bill for this Bourbon includes the minimum amount of corn (51 percent) for it to qualify as a bourbon, with the rest made up of rye and barley malt. The bourbon was first moved into American oak barrels in 2008 to begin the aging process. I do not know if the distillery is keeping any bourbon in barrels past the three-year minimum for some special premium release some time in the future, but you would hope so. (put me in for some!) Next on the agenda is the sale of a new Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey, which may debut any time now. Other dark spirits that are already for sale include a dark aged rum, an apple brandy and a grape brandy. In addition to the vodka, Cedar Ridge makes and sells several other clear spirits under its “Clearheart” brand. These include a white rum, a gin and a grappa. Fruit liqueurs include both lamponcella and lemoncella liqueurs.
This was one of the toughest blog entries to write. Cedar Ridge can be described so many different ways. I could have written about a winery, a distillery, a tourist destination, a vineyard, a prime example of a business overcoming the Flood of 2008 and persevering, a story about making value-added products here in Iowa, or even try to get behind the story and figure out what makes Jeff Quint one of the most hyperactive Iowa entrepreneurs I’ve ever heard of. Does he ever get any sleep? I don’t see how. So, I finally gave up trying to choose a single theme and just plowed ahead, trying to cover as much ground as I could. The scattered approach to the blog article reflects, in a way, the Medusa-like nature of this business. While some businesses can falter by spreading the talent and effort across many different ventures, as far as I can tell, the execution is flawless in all of these areas. The wine is one of the best being made in Iowa, the whiskey and vodka are world-class, the facility and grounds may be one of the top tourist destinations in the state for the “no kids” crowd. What is next for this business? I am expecting even greater things.
I encourage everyone with any interest in wine or distilled spirits to venture out to Cedar Ridge to take a tour. Meanwhile, here are some other articles written about the place: