There are wineries in all 50 states. Lest we forget, Wine Diamonds, a new documentary set to hit festivals in 2017, is here to remind us with a look at winemaking in the Midwest.
Yes, the Midwest.
Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are apparently making some good wine these days—capable, says one winemaker in the film, of standing up against the likes of Champagne.
Winemaking in the Midwest is no new thing. At the turn of the 20th Century, states like Iowa were among the largest producers of grapes and wine. That all changed with Prohibition and the advent of harsh herbicides used to support cheaper and more-efficient crops like corn and soybeans.
Today, thanks to a cadre of private grape breeders who took to hybridizing in the 1940s and 50s, Midwest winemaking is seeing a resurgence. Wine Diamonds paints the region as a new frontier full of rugged pioneers who take pride in the harsh climate and unconventional grapes.
“The world,” after all, “is much bigger than Chardonnay and Cabernet.”
The film goes to great lengths to call out the uniqueness of the Midwest. Contrasts are drawn with California, which is repeatedly criticized for being too accommodating of winemaking. “Any gorilla can make wine in California,” says one winemaker. There is heavy investment in this juxtaposition of Midwestern brawn and West Coast privilege. It’s sincere but not always astute.
I can appreciate the trials and tribulations of the men and women featured in the film. The risks they take are in fact greater than other winemakers. They battle rough and variable weather, rigid state laws, chemical drift from neighboring megafarms, and a market with a strong preference for beer and whisky over wine. On top of that, they’re making wine from grapes few have heard of, with limited winemaking tradition from which to draw.
Pioneering and laudable? Absolutely! But is the wine any good?
While I’m intrigued by the great variety available in the Midwest—roughly 40 winegrape species, many of which were created at Cornell and the University of Minnesota—I can say that the film gives reason to be skeptical about quality. The wine looks at times more like fruit punch and a poorly timed shot has the narrator comparing Midwest winemaking to that of mid-twentieth-century France while the camera pans across a bottle of “Chocolate Reserve.” Cringe.
What did pique my interest, however, is what the Midwest is doing with sparkling wine. At least one winery, Illinois Sparkling Co., is making Champagne-style wines from grapes that do well in the local soils, like St. Pepin and Chambourcin. Now that’s something I want to try.
Wine Diamonds is a beautifully filmed and well-produced documentary with a large cast. It accomplishes much in its 76 minutes, but most importantly does great service—much like Idaho Wine: From Bud to Taste Bud—to a little-known region on the rise.
Wine Diamonds (see website for screening info) continues the drumbeat for regional novelty and unpretentiousness in wine. But it can’t tell you whether or not Midwest wine is actually good—and to me that’s all that matters. While I enjoyed learning about a new region, I’d rather just go find a bottle and taste for myself.