Kirkwood Community College offers a perfect spot for a vineyard on the southeast side of the campus. An acre of gently sloping hillside made up of sandy, porous soil provides perfect drainage for the vines’ root systems. That kind of soil is great for grapes.
The south-facing slope on the south edge of Cedar Rapids provides protection from freezing winter winds from the north and northwest, and the southern exposure makes the most of direct, warming sun during all seasons.
The vineyard now contains 16 grape varieties that are suitable for making white, rose and red wines, as well as grape juice. A new variety is selected and added each year to continually expand the vineyard and provide vines of every maturity for Kirkwood students to learn with.
"Most vineyards are planted 'all at once' and so it's difficult to find young vines for students to train on. We will always have a fresh planting and young vines so our students will understand what they will experience in their own vineyards," says Viticulture Technician Tom Moore.
Until they’re more mature, the younger vines wear beige-colored plastic sleeves, or “grow tubes” around their bases to protect them from pests and elements. Eventually, canopies of green will link the rows. As they continue to lengthen, alternate vines will climb horizontally along the trellis or up and over the canopies, building leafy green hallways dappled with filtering sun.
Since this is a teaching vineyard, on this day students guided by a faculty member are placing poles at the end of newer rows to anchor trellises. Irrigation systems made up of black hoses along the ground and draped over the trellises provide the 1 to 2 gallons of water each vine needs the first year or two; after that, vines pretty much are drought-resistant, much like trees and shrubs.
Mature vines require about 30 gallons of water every week to develop fruit, but water from the ground generally is sufficient. Root systems can go as many as 25 feet deep.
Kirkwood isn’t the first college to use vineyards to further its mission. The Cornell (NY) University, the University of Minnesota and Niagara College in Canada are some that are very active in research and development.
“There’s always going to be new varieties to try,” Moore says. “We want to be one of the first to try in Iowa to give Iowa growers a chance to see how they grow in our particular climate.
“It’s evolving,” he says of Iowa vineyards. “Look at what was available (in Iowa) five years ago and what’s available now. Every year, there’s a clearer vision and a better product.”