I’m one of three people sitting in one of those sporty golf carts, which I later find out, after some Google-ing, is called a UTV, and if I close my eyes, I’d probably think I’m riding some sort of bumpy roller coaster in some Iowa version of a jungle.
But my eyes are wide open and I’m watching Dorothy O’Brien effortlessly turn the steering wheel around corners and through mud patches on a narrower-than-one-lane dirt road surrounded by trees and greenery.
I casually hold onto the side railing and sneak a glance at the speed gauge.
“10 mph sure feels fast right now,” I scribbled on my notebook, as if I would forget this.
Dorothy is driving because she knows this road, which leads to a large section of her 21 acres of land, better than anyone. The 69-year-old viticulturist and wine-maker makes this trip at least five times a day to check on her vineyard.
At the end of this part of the road, we see rows and rows of different varietals at different stages of growth. Dorothy puts the UTV in park for a second to show me something.
She walks up to one of the vines and points at a bundle of tiny green grapes.
“Look at those,” she said. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
We get back into the vehicle. From here, Dorothy will go to show me more of her vineyard, saying about some rows that, “In three years, we will get grapes from these,” and circle back down the twisty dirt road to her house to pick up a bottle of a new red wine she wants me to try.
And then, we’ll walk into what used to be her garage and is now the home base for Wide River Winery, which Dorothy, who is a full-time attorney, owns and, with the help of her family, now calls the fifth largest in Iowa.
On our way in, I hear her daughter, Liz Quinn, who handles the business’ sales and marketing, say, “Well. Good driving, Mom.”
Welcome to Wide River Winery
I had asked for this behind-the-scenes tour of the winery after getting an email from Liz saying that May is officially Iowa Wine Month, as declared by Gov. Kim Reynolds.
I’ve visited Wide River Winery’s tasting rooms in LeClaire and the Village of East Davenport and sampled the wines with fun names like Felony Red, Pursuit of Happiness, Ms. D’Meanor White and White Collar Crime. I had also recently noticed Wide River wines were available at local stores in Davenport.
I was curious about how this winery based in Clinton, Iowa, was growing so, seemingly, quickly.
When I arrived, after driving up a 1-mile gravel road off of Highway 67, I found Dorothy standing over a wine tank, stirring a summer white wine that she had been experimenting with.
She had been working here, what she calls her “part-time job,” since 7:30 a.m. and, on a normal day, would be off to her full-time job by 10:30 a.m.
I tell her something like, “That seems like a long day.”
“Most days," Dorothy said. "I smile about it."
'I liked wine and I liked to grow things'
Before it was her part-time job and an attraction for area residents and tourists, this was just home. Dorothy, an attorney, and her husband, Charlie Pelton, a retired Clinton County judge, have lived on the property — their yellow house overlooking the Mississippi River — for over 20 years.
In the late ‘90s, Dorothy, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, needed a side project. So, she began making wine in her basement.
“I don’t know why I did it. It just seemed like a good thing to do,” she said. “I liked wine and I liked to grow things. It seemed like a good combination.”
She also started hanging out with winemakers and picking their brains about growing and picking grapes and what to do next with them.
“I was kind of like a groupie,” she said. “I would say, ‘Please tell me what you’re doing. Please explain that.”
When her adult children came over, she’d show off what she called a hobby.
And the kids would say, “You know, it’s not that bad.”
And the kids would take home cases of wine. The bottles were recycled and Dorothy added post-it notes describing what each wine tasted like.
“When we tasted it, we were pleasantly surprised,” Liz said. “We basically kept encouraging her, like, you should sell this.”
Dorothy started making wine in bigger batches and became licensed. The family started selling wine at farmers markets in 2004 and Dorothy outgrew her basement and moved her wine-making operation to the garage in 2007. In 2010, the family invested in a bottling system.
“It was pretty primitive in the beginning,” Dorothy said. “We used to do everything with buckets.”
Dorothy and Liz let out a shared laugh at this: They used to have a big box truck parked down the road with an arrow and the words, “Winery open.”
Together, sitting at the bar of the tasting room in the former garage, they could spend hours talking about how things have grown and changed since then.
They’re up to selling 85,000 bottles per year. The LeClaire tasting room opened in 2011 and and the Village of East Davenport tasting room opened in August 2016. Plus, bottles are for sale at stores, including area Hy-Vee and Target locations, throughout Iowa and Illinois.
That rapid growth is why Liz, who formerly worked for Deere and Co., signed on last year to work full time for Wide River Winery.
“It’s been a few years since I thought, ‘This isn’t just a hobby for her anymore,’” Liz said. “The third location in Davenport really got my attention. There’s just so much potential for this to grow.”
Her mother says that success is owed to her two daughters and her two sisters.
“I feel like we couldn’t do it without the support of the community, so I feel humble about that,” she said. “And, God knows, we couldn’t do it without the family selling wine.”
One sip equals a lot of work
“I guess it’s fine to drink wine at 11 a.m.,” I said, after Dorothy poured me a sample.
I was sipping a new version of a dry red called Caught Red Handed that Dorothy made using Petite Pearl grapes.
“I can’t help myself,” Dorothy said, in the middle of saying something else. “What do you think?”
Dorothy is excited about the Petite Pearl because of this: “It’s not the typical Iowa grape. And it’s not like a California grape, either. It can survive the Iowa winter and it can make a great red wine.”
This version of Caught Red Handed will be available for purchase by the end of June and Dorothy hinted this about it: “It might be my new favorite.”
Dorothy mentioned California, which kind of felt like the equivalent of hearing Voldemort out loud in a Harry Potter movie, so I asked her and Liz if they’re always comparing their wine to the wine made in You-Know-Where.
“Yes,” Liz said. “They run the world of wine. They grow the common ones that everyone knows — Chardonnay and Cabernet, etc. — and we can’t grow them here.”
But, they also think there’s more than that to the world of wine.
“The traditional slogan is that Midwesterners like sweeter wine,” Dorothy said. “I don’t know if I buy that. I think people should try Iowa wine.”
And, the mother-daughter pair, who say they are “party-throwing kind of people” take pride in the fact that their wines bring people together.
“Our wine is often the first wine that a non-wine drinker tastes,” Liz said. “We take pride in that.”
After my sample, Dorothy showed me the long counter next to the wine tanks that serves as her desk. This is where Dorothy tests and tastes her wine for final approval. It’s where, I learn, the magic (or should I say science?) happens. It's covered with post-it notes, a textbook and devices, including a PH meter that measures acidity levels. “I’m obsessed with acid,” Dorothy said, while telling me about that step in the process. “It’s all I think about.”
She says she compares this part of the process to cooking more than chemistry.
“Some grapes are perfect,” Dorothy said. “A lot of what a winemaker does comes in when the grapes are not perfect. There’s a lot you have to do then.”
“It’s not like you’re making Coke or Pepsi,” Dorothy added. “It’s not like you’re following the same exact recipe every year. The grapes change and the weather changes. It’s never the exact same wine.”
Dorothy’s desk was the last stop on my tour and it was about the 20th time that morning that I found myself saying, “Wow, this is a lot of work.”
“Yeah, every sip of wine you have,” Dorothy said. “You think, that was a lot of work.”
Take, for example, what her daughter, Liz, said: “When I think about her drive, I’m amazed and motivated and inspired. And she can outplant me in the vineyard.”
So, before I drove back to Davenport, I asked Dorothy, “Why do you do this, anyway?”
“It’s very satisfying to grow the grapes, pick the grapes, make the wine and then have a glass,” she said. “I’ve always loved learning. And every time you make a batch, you learn something new.”