Events Spark Stories That Help Backcountry Winery Grow in Iowa
Ask Amber Gable about the back story behind Backcountry Winery at her family’s home east of Stratford, and her answer is straightforward. “It’s a hobby out of control.”
That hobby has taken Gable and her husband, Preston, on dynamic journey that has led to the creation of a small business that’s helping spur economic development in rural Iowa. At the heart of it all is a century-old barn that’s central to the story, offering an attractive venue for gatherings, celebrations, music concerts and more.
“This barn is such a unique building,” said Amber Gable, 27, who grew up on a farm near Sibley. “There’s so much history here, including original interior boards that have Stratford Grain and Supply stamped on them.”
Guests who come to Backcountry Winery for bridal showers, wedding receptions, class reunions and other celebrations enjoy exploring this rural heritage. So do the visitors who stop by for Backcountry Winery’s live music events.
“When we’re open on Saturday afternoons without a special event like live music, we tend to have smaller crowds,” Gable said. “Events help create experiences that people seek out.”
Events of all types have become an increasingly important part of running a successful winery, noted Mike White, a viticulture specialist for Iowa State University Extension. “More wineries are realizing that there’s big potential in event centers, and many are going this way.”
Putting down roots in Hamilton County
For many guests, part of the experience involves learning the story of the winery. In the case of Backcountry Winery, that story began with Preston Gable’s long-time interest in home winemaking.
“We’d talk about how we might open a winery someday,” said Amber Gable, whose husband is a fellow northwest Iowa native from Hartley.
“Someday” seemed far off, however, when the high school sweethearts started their careers in Ames following their graduation from Iowa State University (ISU). Amber Gable became a landscape designer for an engineering firm, while her husband worked in biofuels research at ISU.
When the couple began looking for an affordable acreage in central Iowa where they could establish a home, start a family and maybe operate a winery eventually, the process became frustrating at times. “We actively looked for about a year and often came up with nothing,” Amber Gable said. “There were some tears along the way.”
Things turned around in 2014, though, when the young couple found an acreage with a house and barn northeast of Stratford. “We really needed a fixer-upper, and this place needed a family to put down roots,” Amber Gable said.
After the couple purchased the property in August 2014, they began remodeling the barn within a few months and exploring its history. The abstract for the property goes back to 1920, when the current home on the acreage was built by Alfred Erickson. “We know the barn pre-dates 1920, although we don’t know exactly when it was built,” Amber Gable said.
While the barn is structurally sound, time had taken a toll on some parts of the building. “We poured a new concrete floor and replaced the entire hayloft floor,” said Amber Gable, who noted that the barn once housed cattle.
After months of work, the Gables opened Backcountry Winery in May 2016. “The barn is still a work in progress, but it has allowed us to open our winery sooner than we anticipated,” said Amber Gable, who appreciates the opportunity to run a home-based business, especially now that she and her husband are raising their 1-year-old son, Ivan.
Word-of-mouth marketing, Backcountry Winery’s website and a Facebook page have helped the couple’s business grow. While Backcountry Winery hosted one wedding in 2016, this grew to five weddings in 2017 and has increased to seven weddings slated for 2018.
The Gables have invested in an expansion near the barn to accommodate these events. A connecting space on the west side of the barn will include a room when brides can get ready for their wedding. This connecting space is attached to a 60-foot by 90-foot addition that will provide additional production space, storage space and office space for the winery.
This infrastructure is just one part of Backcountry Winery’s recent expansions. While the Gables maintain a vineyard on the east side of the barn, the couple also began leasing an established, 4-acre vineyard near Webster City in the spring of 2017.
“It’s exciting to raise more of our own grapes so we can produce estate wines, which are made from our own crop,” said Amber Gable, who is a member of the Iowa Wine Growers Association. “There’s a great deal of pride in that.”
Wine wins big at Iowa State Fair
This pride is reflected in the large, silver trophy that graces the barn at Backcountry Winery. When the Gables competed in the commercial wine competition at the 2017 Iowa State Fair, the judges selected Vignoles from Backcountry Winery for the top honor, the Governor’s Cup. Vignoles is a semi-dry white wine that boasts crisp flavors of tropical and citrus fruits and a clean finish.
Vignoles is just one of the wines available from Backcountry Winery, where the Gables grow six varieties of wine grapes. They make 12 different wines, including strawberry, raspberry, cherry and apple wines, and plan to expand to 14 wines soon.
Backcountry Winery’s products can be purchased at the winery or through the approximately 25 retailers in Hamilton County and central, northern and northwest Iowa that partner with Backcountry Winery.
Raising specialty crops like wine grapes and offering Iowa wines offer unique opportunities to boost economic development in rural Iowa, Amber Gable said. “When visitors come to our winery, they not only buy wine, but they buy fuel at the convenience store in Stratford, which is owned by the local co-op, and they can go to Stanhope to get a burger. It’s rewarding to promote the whole Hamilton County experience.”
The Gables hope to attract more guests to the area by offering more live music this summer at the winery. This builds on the success of the three performances offered in 2016 and the 10 shows offered in 2017. The 2018 concerts, which range from country to classic rock, cost $5 for admission and will be held on certain Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the barn.
“Visiting a winery is all about the experience,” Amber Gable said. “We enjoy creating these memorable experiences, meeting people from across Iowa and beyond and promoting rural Iowa.”
Iowa’s Wine Industry, By the Numbers
Data from the Iowa Wine Growers Association (IWGA) shows that Iowa has:
• 103 wineries
• 267 vineyards
• 1,300 acres of grapes
• 8 wine trails
• 40+ cold-climate grapes grown
• $420 million of economic impact in 2012
• 2,600 full-time jobs
• 358,000 wine related tourists per year
On average, the typical Iowa winery produces approximately 3,000 gallons of wine annually. The Iowa native wine industry helps promote and establish additional activity in the state, including lodging, food, travel, gifts, agri-tourism, event centers, festivals, music, art and a host of service industries.
“By our estimation, based on direct feedback from the wineries we surveyed, there was over $2.1 million in revenue generated from these wine-related events and facilities,” according to the 2012 “Economic Impact of Iowa Wine and Wine Grapes” report produced by Frank, Rimerman + Co, LLP.
In order for the industry to keep growing and attracting new visitors, wineries not only need to continue focusing on improving wine quality, but consider expanding into more wine-related events like private parties, weddings and festivals held on winery properties, according to the report.
- I originally wrote this story for the Progress section of Farm News, Ft. Dodge, Iowa in February 2018.
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