Iowa Public Television


Road Trip Diary: Sugar Clay Winery, Thurman, Iowa

Tucked into the rural Loess Hills of western Iowa is one of the more than 70 licensed wineries in the state. Dan Kaercher checks out the vineyard, learns how the grapes turn into wine, and gets a taste to boot!

Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures features Iowa travel destinations, restaurants, events, parks, recreation and more. Produced by Iowa Public Television, the series highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see and taste, right here at home. Below are excerpts from Dan's journal of his travels in the state.

Road Trip Diary: Sugar Clay Winery, Thurman, Iowa

I'm cruising down Southwest Iowa's open roads once again, bobbing up and down rolling hills past endless cornfields that eventually surrender to the winding lanes of the tree-and-grass covered Loess Hills. Each town brings back a memory: Walnut, Hancock, Oakland, Carson, Macedonia, Emerson, Randolph, Thurman. I'm originally from Council Bluffs, where I was a roving reporter/photographer for the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil during my college years, so Iowa's "West Coast" is very familiar to me. I've since traveled these country byways on various IPTV assignments. Yet I've never visited a winery in this part of the state--until today.

Grapes were a top crop in western Iowa until a massive killing freeze, pesticides, and expanded row-crop farming all but eliminated the business. Now, grapes are making a comeback, as are the unique Loess Hills themselves, where naturalists are striving to return the landscape to its pre-forestation grassland state (caused by many years of overgrazing after European settlement).

After a scenic drive involving many twists and turns (are we still in linear Iowa?), we meet our hosts, Frank and Amy Faust at their Alpine-looking home and winery compound. What a hidden gem just the kind of place we are trying to ferret out for our Simple Pleasures viewers. Frank tells me he was a stay-at-home dad for years, while he and Amy (who has a day job in counseling) developed their vineyard and winery. In launching their dream business, both took classes, shadowed other winemakers, and did a lot of studying and experimenting. Now, Frank's headed back to work in construction, and Amy is taking her turn at home. I love it!

Both Frank and Amy share the chores at their vineyard and winery, and both obviously love the vocation they've chosen. I get a tour of the rows of grapes that march neatly along the hillside near their home, then I get a quick lesson in how wines are bottled and labeled. Finally, we head for the inviting, cedar-canopied deck along with some of the Faust's friends for some sampling (complete with tasty appetizers) and entertainment provided by two talented singer/guitarists from nearby Tabor.

What a perfect summer afternoon! While I had a wonderful career as a magazine editor-in-chief, I’m so thankful at times like this that my years of sitting indoors behind a desk are over. Sugar Clay offerings are vinted entirely from grapes grown on this property and nearby in Iowa and neighboring states. I'm surprised at the range: whites and reds, sweet and dry. Our cameraman says he needs yet another retake of me sampling a glass. Fortunately, I'm not driving us to our next stop!

Before we leave, I have to ask where the name "Sugar Clay" comes from. Frank explains that its how the area's original German settlers described the unique windblown loess soil found hereabouts, which seems to dissolve like sugar when added to water. I’m so glad this colorful term is being kept alive at this terrific Iowa getaway.

Tags: Fremont County Iowa IowasSimplePleasures ispfestival Loess Hills rural Thurman tourism travel


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