The man behind the wine
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
Eagles Landing Winery has been a staple in the Marquette community since it began operations in 2000. With the first grape vines planted near Fayette in 1999, the winery was meant to be a retirement project for Roger Halvorson, who had been making wine as a hobby for years.
In 2003, Roger and his wife Connie’s son, Jay, left his career as a computer programmer in Dallas and moved to Iowa to see what kind of business could be built. Jay said transitioning from computer programming to winemaking wasn’t as drastic a change as some might think. He dabbled in winemaking himself, producing his first wine in 1999.
“The discipline that goes into computer programming is similar to the discipline that goes into winemaking,” Jay explained. “You spend a lot of time planning and less time implementing.”
While the winery has won dozens of state, national and international awards over the years for its wines, Jay was recently named Iowa Winemaker of the Year—his first solo award.
Jay said the experience was humbling, but was quick to credit his family—his parents and wife Cindy—and the Eagles Landing employees.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “The people who work for us have helped build something wonderful for the area.”
Eagles Landing Winery currently has 34 different wines, although some are only offered seasonally.
“From day one, our focus has been on wine quality,” Jay said. “That’s one of the keys to what we’ve done.”
The quality starts with the grapes and carries through the whole production process. The grape vines were developed at the University of Minnesota to suit the local climate. Jay said they take awhile to develop, with four years between planting and harvest. Each year, the vines are pruned, with 95 percent of last year’s growth cut back. The vines are dormant throughout the winter, insulated by a layer of snow. Jay said it’s important that they get “just enough” water and a certain number of heat days in order to mature. Like winemaking, he said, learning more about growing grapes is a continual process.
“Every year’s a new challenge. Every growing season is different,” he said, explaining that, in 2012, they were out of the vineyard by Labor Day, while last year’s harvest wasn’t until October.
Jay said many of the winery’s visitors are curious about the vineyard.
“The first question is ‘Do you have a vineyard?’ followed by ‘Can we go there?’” he said.
While it’s a trek now, Jay said the winery will soon develop a closer vineyard located near Maggie’s Diner.
While Eagles Landing does use its own grapes, a lot of product is also brought in, including 20 tons last year from local vineyards in places like Viroqua and Ossian.
The fruit is processed in September and October, while some juice, coming from New York, is brought in around November and December. Other juices, including some from Chile, arrive in the spring.
With aging time, Jay said white wines can be produced in six to eight months, while drier reds can take one year. At three to four months, berry wines take the shortest amount of time to produce. They are also made every month, so Jay said there is always something to do year-round.
The wine is created, aged and bottled on-site, which Halvorson said some people are surprised to learn.
“They don’t realize there’s another whole building,” he explained. “We touch every bottle.”
The process starts by dumping the grapes into a crusher, which separates the grapes from their stems. The grapes are then moved to a press, which can hold 3,800 pounds, that is set to a specific program depending on the type of grape. That program runs for an hour and 20 minutes, extracting the juice, which is collected in a tray and pumped into a fermentation tank. Once the juice has been sucked out, Jay said all that is left behind is a very dry cake. Each drop of wine is also filtered, with two filtrations occurring in one pumping.
“One thing with wine quality is that you touch the wine as little as possible,” Jay said, “and that includes pumping.”
Jay said bottling involves a three-person team. One person displaces the oxygen in the bottle with nitrogen, then a machine automatically fills the bottle with precisely 750 mL of wine. The second person then puts on the lid and uses another machine to cut the threads and seal the bottle. The final person adds the label. In four hours, Jay said three people can fill a 1,000-liter tank.
“There’s a lot of trial and error,” Jay said of the winemaking process. “You try not to make the same mistake often—or again.”
Campfire Hootch, a berry wine, is currently the most popular among consumers. Jay said popularity changes as new wines are introduced. The seasons also play a large part.
“Certain styles are more popular at certain times,” he said, noting that dry wines are more popular during the winter, while people tend to enjoy sweeter, fruitier wines during the summer.
Production is also seasonal, with apple and cherry wines made in the fall and strawberry and peach wines in the summer.
No matter the flavor, Jay said the winery strives to provide a quality, affordable product.
“It means a lot to me that we are able to produce the wine from locally-grown products,” he said. “The payoff is seeing people in the tasting room laughing and enjoying themselves.”