Iowa Wine: Dubuque and the Iowa Wine Trail

Eastern Iowa Wine Trail: Wine Country in the Heartland

Mississippi’s historic river towns beckon with their architecture, scenery and more. Since Interstate 80 cuts directly through central Iowa, exploring any of Iowa’s wine trails is an ideal destination or scenic detour for anyone traveling cross country.

Let’s start our exploration of the Eastern Iowa Wine Trail in the small town of West Branch, adjacent to I-80 and about 45 minutes west of the Quad Cities and the Mississippi River.

If West Branch sounds even vaguely familiar to you, congratulations, you’re an historian! West Branch is the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, and houses the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Far from a stuffy and dusty old museum, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library not only chronicles Hoover’s presidency, it features fascinating exhibits pertaining to all the presidents. In reality, it’s a learning center devoted to American history and specifically presidential history.

Our first winery stop is along the Herbert Hoover Highway, about 4 miles from the Presidential Library. It’s
Wallace Winery, about as scenic a setting as you’ll find. With a century-old barn and a post and beam tasting room, you’ll want to linger. We felt the white wines starred here, especially the Traminette, made from the Gewurztraminer grape — a great buy at $13.

Also be sure to try and buy the Iowa Barn White. This friendly, easy to enjoy white table wine is a tribute to a vanishing part of our national landscape, the old wooden barn. In fact, Wallace Winery donates a portion of its profits from the sale of these wines to the Iowa Barn Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic heritage barns.

From Wallace Winery, travel north on beautiful Iowa Route 1 toward the town of Anamosa. On the way, you’ll drive right through the antiquing town of Mt. Vernon. Stop, stroll around, and enjoy small town Iowa hospitality. In Lisbon, Iowa on the lower half of the Iowa Wine Trail, the Sutcliff Cider Company is on the way from Wallace Winery to Daly Creek Winery. Sutcliff’s ciders are crisp, dry, and fresh — just what a hard cider should be. They’re open by appointment, if you’d like to stop in.

In Anamosa, you’ll find Daly Creek Winery on North Ford Street. Located in a former creamery building, one of the first things you’ll notice is the Iowa red cedar tasting bar. Adjacent is Daly Creek’s 50-seat bistro, featuring items such as a tuscan chicken panini, caesar salad and tiramisu for dessert.

On to Daly Creek’s wines! Being a big fan of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” my first pour was Penitentiery Red, a Cabernet Franc that’s full bodied and full flavored. We also enjoyed Daly Creek’s white table wine, Gothic White. This wine is named after Anamosa, Iowa’s most famous resident, painter Grant Wood, most known for his classic painting “American Gothic.”

After grabbing a few bottles to take home, we headed east from Anamosa on Iowa Route 64. It’s about 25 minutes to Baldwin, a small village that’s home to our next winery, Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery.

Since 1997, Tabor Home has been adding to their wine offerings and racking up wine awards. These are true Iowa wines, with most bottlings created from grapes grown in Tabor Home’s vineyard.

For this visit, we focused on Tabor Home’s award winners, including First Bloom, a mildly sweet Vidal Blanc, and Barn Dance Red, a soft, pleasing red that’s Tabor Home’s best seller. Our favorite of all, perhaps on this whole trip, was Moonlight White, a delicious and fruity white that’s been served at the Iowa Governors Mansion. You won’t need to dress up to enjoy it though — these wines are friendly, approachable and pair with just about anything.

Two Nights in a River Town

From Tabor Home, it’s a short 40-mile drive north on Iowa 51 to our overnight destination, historic Dubuque, nestled along the Mississippi River at the confluence of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

There’s a lot to see and do here. Dubuque is a perfect long-weekend destination that can be combined with its Illinois historic counterpart, Galena, just 20 miles away. Dubuque has been described as a river town, a history town and a college town. Of course, it’s all three!

Dubuque: The Particulars

In Dubuque, everything starts with the river. Along the banks of the Mississippi, you’ll find a nationally-noted aquarium, a 19th century restored brewery building, a redeveloped riverwalk, nightlife, boat rides and entertainment options. Just blocks away, there’s the historic downtown district with unique shops and live jazz at night. Farther west, it’s the college district, with its own style and vibe.

Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest city, celebrating 175 years in 2008, and it has long been a vibrant river city. Dubuque is particularly distinctive because of its steep hills and river bluffs — geographic features that many people don’t expect to find in Iowa. With 62,000 residents, it’s large enough to be diverse and small enough for easy navigation.

There are a number of “must sees” in Dubuque. A good place to start is the Mississippi River Aquarium. Here you’ll enjoy dynamic exhibits, including an up close and personal visit with a few river creatures such as catfish and alligators. You can watch as a boat is launched into the Mississippi River and learn all about the wildlife that thrives in and around the river. Plan to spend a few hours — it’s one of the best bargains in the Midwest.

From here, you can take a boat ride via Dubuque River Rides or stroll the riverwalk. The boat will take you up to the renovated Dubuque Star Brewery building, now housing a new winery, Stone Cliff Winery. There’s a stylish, new restaurant on the brewery’s second floor — affording expansive river views — and the new Stone Cliff Winery, owned by Bob and Nan Smith, downstairs.

When you visit, you’ll taste wines made from grapes grown in Stone Cliff’s vineyard just west of Dubuque. Our favorites were the Cabernet Sauvignon, a silver medal winner at the Indiana State Fair wine competition, and the Riesling, a semi-sweet fruity gem of a wine. Open in the Dubuque Star facility since May 2007, Stone Cliff is the newest Dubuque attraction along the riverfront, and we’re happy to recommend a visit!

An Evening in Dubuque

After enjoying Stone Cliff wines, it was time for a sightseeing cruise on the Mississippi, followed by an elevator ride. Dubuque is home to the world’s shortest and steepest incline elevator, the Fenelon Place Elevator, located downtown in the Cable Car shopping area. Tracks follow a 296-foot path up a steep bluff, taking you up to a very nice view of the tri-state area.

Upon descent, you’ll be in the midst of Cable Car Square. Here you’ll find a collection of shops, all housed in century-old brownstones. This area offers everything from specialty boutiques to antiques to jewelry stores to an ice cream parlor for a late afternoon treat.

You won’t lack for dinner options in Dubuque. We have a few favorites, starting with Catfish Charlie’s River Club, located just north of downtown. Enjoy a cocktail and a view of the river from indoors or their outdoor patio. If you’re a brewpub fan, there’s the Bricktown Brewery and Blackwater Grill on Main Street in the heart of downtown.

We hit Bricktown for our first dinner in town. Be sure to print the online coupon available at their website for a free 16 oz. beer with any purchase. Free beer … yes! There’s a rotating selection here, so choose the style you like best and enjoy it with an appetizer, lunch or dinner. There’s a wide ranging menu here, probably over 100 items, so it’s suitable for any taste or budget. For our dinner, we enjoyed smoked bbq backribs braised in beer and an Iowa pork tenderloin dish. The burgers and salads looked great, too! Lot One is also known as a fun place in downtown Dubuque for a good sandwich and a cold beer. Grand Harbor Resort is a convenient place to stay while in Dubuque — it’s adjacent to the aquarium and riverfront attractions.

Enjoying More Wineries

Relaxed and refreshed the next day, we headed 15 miles west of Dubuque to our next winery, Park Farm Winery and Vineyard. If Iowa’s terrain is supposed to be flat, no one told the folks around here. This is beautiful countryside, with rolling hills, trees and terraced fields.

Park Farm Winery and Vineyard leans heavily on Iowa-grown grapes and crops, with grape varieties like LaCrosse, Niagara, Marechol Foch and Vidal, to name a few. It’s a warm and welcoming site, with a stunning outdoor deck added to the chateau which houses the tasting room and gift shop. The deck itself overlooks a lush valley, and it’s a visit you won’t want to rush.

We were tipped off to the award-winning Picket Fence, a fruity and semi-sweet white wine that’s been lauded by several mid-American wine competitions. This wine is a best-seller, and luckily, some remained for our visit. Another wine not to miss is the Vintner’s Reserve Chambourcin, a light bodied, medium finish red wine. We loved the smell of dark fruit in the Chambourcin, and we can see why Park Farm was listed as one of the Top 100 Places to see in Iowa by the Des Moines Register. If you visit Dubuque, be sure to visit Park Farms Winery.

Our last winery gave us the opportunity to travel north on Iowa Route 52, more or less along the river. Eagle’s Landing Winery is located in Marquette, Iowa, just across the river from Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin.

Eagles Landing is not only a winery, but a bed and breakfast as well. Located directly on the banks of the Mississippi, this is a bird-watchers paradise. The name stems from numerous bald eagles who winter in this area, perching high in the trees or swooping onto the river for a meal.

There’s a separate tasting room in downtown Marquette offering 18 varieties of Eagles Landing wine. Try the Frog Hollow Foch, a dry red finished in oak, with grapes grown in Eagle Landing’s Iowa vineyard. This is another bargain at less than $10 a bottle. There are some great fruit wines here, too. Last but not least, we enjoyed the Iowa Pearl, a semi-dry white with a nose of apricot and a nice clean, fruity finish.

After exploring downtown Marquette and neighboring Prairie Du Chien — both well worth a stop to stroll around — we headed back to Dubuque. We should mention there is one additional winery on this wine trail — it’s Winneshiek Wildberry Winery in Decorah, about 30 minutes away from Marquette. We heard very good things about their fruit wines, so if you’re in the area, do stop in!

This part of Iowa is a scenic, relaxing place to visit, and Dubuque is perfectly located in the middle of the Iowa Wine Trail, making it an ideal overnight stop. If your plans call for I-80 travel, or if you live in the upper Midwest, be sure to carve out some time for the wineries of eastern Iowa.


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