Inside Iowa State

Inside Archives

Submit news

Send news for Inside to, or call (515) 294-7065. See publication dates, deadlines.

About Inside

Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Sept. 21, 2007

Murli Dharmadhikari, extension enologist and director of the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, works with Iowa's grape growers and wine makers, helping the state establish itself in the industry. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Winemaking expert is helping Iowa market emerge

by Susan Thompson, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

It used to be if you wanted to buy a bottle of wine produced in Iowa, you headed to the Amana Colonies and hoped the dandelion crop had been a good one.

It wasn't always that way. During the early 20th century, Iowa was the sixth-largest grape producer in the nation. The industry declined as a result of Prohibition, the growing market for corn and soybeans, damage to grapevines caused by herbicide drift and the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard.

Now a rebirth of Iowa's wine industry is under way and Murli Dharmadhikari is playing a major role.

He came to the United States from India in 1968 to study grape growing. In 1972, he earned a doctorate in grape nutrition from Ohio State University. He worked at a grape juice processing plant and helped establish wineries in Ohio and Indiana. In 1986, he started a wine advisory service at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State), serving wine makers and grape growers in Missouri and several Midwest states.

One of those was Iowa, so he became familiar with the state's emerging wine industry. Enology is the science and study of winemaking. When the position of extension enologist was created at Iowa State, he was ready for the challenge. He is a professional staff member in the department of food science and human nutrition.

New opportunities

"I thought this position would give me an opportunity to do different things," said Dharmadhikari (pronounced Dur-MAU-DEE-kar-ee). "I wasn't able to do much research in Missouri, but here the resources are available. Since Iowa is a prime agricultural state, I thought it was a place I could make a difference, and have the most impact."

Iowans consume about 3 million gallons of wine each year, yet Iowa wineries produce just 250,000 gallons annually. Dharmadhikari says those numbers show there is a huge opportunity for Iowa wineries to serve Iowa wine consumers.

An estimated 340 commercial wine grape vineyards now exist in Iowa, along with 70 bonded wineries and 20 more being developed.

Dharmadhikari works with Iowa's grape growers, wine producers and others to improve and expand Iowa's wine industry. Many of Iowa's new wineries are on family farms.

"In many cases, the parents own the farm and the next generation decides to start growing grapes and establish a winery," Dharmadhikari said. "One acre of grapes made into wine means a much higher profit than one acre of corn. This is a good way to diversify Iowa agriculture."

Regional growth

Wine consumption in the United States has been increasing since the 1970s. Along with that increase in consumption has been an increase in the number of wineries in areas not traditionally known as wine country.

"Regional wineries are being developed to serve customers in their own backyards," Dharmadhikari said. "Agritourism is on the increase. People are becoming more interested in local foods, local wines. They enjoy the opportunity to learn about their own preferences in wines, and to taste, buy and share with their friends."

Paul Domoto, horticulture professor, is testing several varieties of cold-hardy grapes at four locations in Iowa.

"Once we know how certain varieties perform in Iowa, we'll be in a position to make recommendations to growers and winemakers," Dharmadhikari said. "We need to find our niche and produce for that market."

Wine laboratory established

The past summer was spent setting up a wine laboratory near Dharmadhikari's office in the Food Sciences Building. A full-time lab supervisor, Sebastian Donner, was hired in June. He toured wine labs in California to determine what was needed at Iowa State.

Iowa wineries can submit samples to the lab for analysis of sugar, acids, alcohol content and a host of other factors. State laws dating back to Prohibition don't allow wine tasting in the university laboratory, but an analysis of a wine's chemical makeup can show how to improve it. Dharmadhikari hopes a law change eventually will make it possible to establish an experimental winery on campus.

Dharmadhikari is working with the industry to develop quality standards for Iowa wines. Wines meeting those standards would be certified and special labeling would help consumers recognize the higher quality products.

One question Dharmadikari has been asked many times is how Iowa wines can compete with established wines from California and elsewhere. He has a quick answer.

"We're not trying to copy what others can do. We're trying to figure out what we can do best in Iowa. Iowa wines may be different, but different doesn't mean bad," he said. "This is the way new markets evolve."

Another question often asked - after a day of talking about wine, what does he drink when he gets home? "A cold beer," is his reply.

Grape and wine institute celebrates first birthday

Iowa State's proposal for a Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute received the go-ahead from the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, in September 2006. The institute is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and focuses on research, teaching and outreach that support the Midwest's evolving grape and wine industry.

Murli Dharmadikari is the institute's director. The Iowa Grape and Wine Commission, under the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, is providing the largest part of the institute's funding in its first three years. Other revenue sources are ISU Extension, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a private three-year gift.

Goals of the institute include conducting research to develop new cold-hardy grape varieties that can thrive in the Midwest; conducting enology research; developing a wine quality certification program; establishing an industry outreach program by training a team of specialists; and partnering with community colleges to develop job training programs.

More details are online.