Fire brings opportunity

A new winery has been growing north of Fort Dodge and will soon come to fruition.

The Soldier Creek Winery, run by Bill and Tammi Secor and their family, will be ready to start selling next month. The family has been growing vines since 2007 on the family farm between Fort Dodge and Badger, and becoming familiar with the process.

The first vines were planted in space left when one of their hog buildings burned down in 2002.

“It was a good end and a new beginning,” said Bill Secor.

“The stars aligned for this whole project,” he added.

Secor’s son, Robert Secor, was in his freshman year at college studying political science. This was an election year, and he quickly became disillusioned and switched to horticulture, Bill Secor said.

“He came home and said, ‘Dad, I know what we could do,'” Bill Secor said.

“Not two months earlier, my wife Tammi had told me to go to an adult ed class at Iowa Central. And I heard Richard Black from Farnhamville (who raises grapes) come and talk, and also another speaker at that same meeting. I came home and said, ‘That’s a cool idea, but it sounds like a lot of work,'” he said.

Meanwhile, Bill’s daughter, Anne Zwink, was studying food science in college, and by chance ended up in a wine lab analyzing wines from all over Indiana. She then moved to Washington State and studied wine sensory analysis.

“She has a tremendous nose. She can smell things that we can’t even begin to pick up on,” Bill Secor said.

She is now the winemaker for Soldier Creek Winery.

After more classes for Bill and Robert Secor, they were ready to start building.

There are about 3,700 vines now in the 6 1/2 acre vineyard. The Secors grow nine varieties of grapes, and make both red and white, dry and sweet wines.

The vines take years to become established, said Robert Secor, and won’t reach peak production until they’ve been growing10 to 15 years. They can live to be 50 years old.

Amanda Secor majored in music at college, but now is another integral part of the winery.

She and her sister have to test the grapes every morning as harvest season approaches.

“We take a random sample of every variety, and we crush the grapes up, measure them for pH, and for Baume – that’s a sugar level measurement – and for titratable acids,” Amanda Secor said. “When we have the right balance of those three things, we decide it’s time, and we try to pick all the grapes in that one day.”

In juice, tritratable acidity is a snapshot of the major acids present.

Grapes should be picked in the morning, Bill Secor said, both because it is cooler and because sugar content is higher in the morning. Then the grapes are run through a de-stemmer machine, squeezed in a machine using a canvas bladder filled with air, and loaded into the tanks for fermentation.

The family harvested about 33,000 pounds last year, Bill Secor said. They only got about 10,000 pounds the year before, but they expect 40,000 to 50,000 pounds this year. Each bottle of wine takes about 15 pounds of grapes.

Once the wine is in the bottle, it’s capped off with a screw cap – not the traditional cork.

This is a growing trend, Bill Secor said. People like to be able to remove and re-seal their bottles. Plus, corks can fail and allow the wine to oxidize.

Even with all the traditional cropland surrounding their vineyard, Bill Secor said spraying hasn’t been a problem. Many herbicides used in corn and bean fields can harm grape vines.

“All our neighbors are very respectful,” he said, adding that sometimes they ask him if it’s all right to spray on a certain day.

Bill Secor said he might have a concern next year, when a new genetically modified soybean becomes available which can be used with Banvel-type products, used for perennial broad-leaf weed control.

“Supposedly the chemical company that made the product that is suitable for this put in a safener, so it doesn’t pick up and drift,” he said. “That’s the problem with Banvel. On a warm day, it will move miles.”

Bill Secor said the winery will be ready to start selling bottles by mid- to late-July. They are also in talks with vendors in the surrounding area including Fort Dodge, Webster City and Humboldt. Updates on the winery’s progress are posted on its website – soldiercreekwinery.com.