An interview with John Barber, Co-Founder of the Cellar Winery
(L to R: The Cellar logo, John Barber and Barb Hokel, Josh Ellenberg, The Cellar varietals carried at the Co-op)
WHO IS BEHIND THE CELLAR?
A: There are five faces behind “The Cellar.” My wife, Barb Hokel, and I started the business, but now employ our son-in-law, Josh Ellenberg, as our Wine Maker, Christie Jensen as our Marketing Coordinator and we recently added Emilee Newell to assist in the tasting room. We all do whatever it takes to move our vision forward. It’s a small business!
WHAT WAS YOUR JOURNEY TO OWNING AND OPERATING A WINERY?
A: As I believe most wineries in the Midwest begin, it was a dream of keeping busy in retirement and combining that with some fun. We started to discuss creating a vineyard operation in 2009, actually took over management of a vineyard in 2012, and that same year planted our own vineyard of Marquette grapes. WOW, the work was somewhat overwhelming, but as we learned our way it became clear that vineyards alone were not enough to sustain the venture especially when you consider all the work. We were about to withdraw from vineyard management and just harvest our small vineyard to make dry red for family and friends.
Things took a turn when I decided to leave the engineering firm that I worked at for 32 years. At that same time, friends of ours purchased the former White Oak Vineyards and Winery to set up an event venue. However, they didn’t want to manage the grapes and wine production. We talked, and there you have it! Still a ton of work but in time it will be sustainable.
Josh and I are engaged in the industry working with the Iowa Wine Growers Association, where I sit on the Board. We are also an apprenticeship winery and Josh is one of the first apprentices in the state. This all has helped us learn the craft, but it is an endless learning combination of art and science.
WHAT GRAPE VARIETALS GROW AT THE WINERY?
A: We grow Marquette and Frontenac and soon will be planting Frontenac Blanc.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THESE VARIETALS
A: We love red wine but also like to have a summer white as well. Frontenac Blanc is a newer variety that we feel has a lot of promise. When we look toward the West Coast wineries and vineyards, we see them specialize in particular varieties versus growing and making everything under the sun. We would like to find that niche in a dry red and white and feel these varieties are cold-hearty, disease resistant and make excellent wines.
We do purchase the following varieties from vineyards around Central Iowa:
• Iowa State University Research Farm (Gilbert, Iowa), La Crescent and Marquette
• Hickory Creek Vineyards (Adel, Iowa), Brianna, Frontenac Blanc, Marquette, Riesling, St. Pepin
• Tin Roof Vineyards (Baxter, Iowa), Edelweiss
• Victoria’s Vineyard (Altoona, Iowa), Edelweiss, La Crescent
• Back Country Winery (Stratford, Iowa), St. Pepin
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE SECRET TO A GOOD WINE?
A: Patience, knowing the chemistry and technical knowledge required for wine making, passion, and knowing the story about each wine and why these cold climate wines are so nice.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING ASPECT OF OPERATING A WINERY?
A: Meeting people. We are best at direct to consumer sales. The biggest reward is when a person has been dragged to an Iowa Winery by friends, but all they drink is Cabernet or Chardonnay and think all Iowa wines are low quality and sweet. When we sample our wines they are blown away at these nice, fruity crisp wines and then purchase a case.
I love all wines from all regions, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” I believe he was right and the same applies to these cold climate wines grown in the Midwest today versus the vinifera from the west coast.
THE MOST CHALLENGING?
A: 1) Being a part of a small team and having to grow grapes, maintain a facility, run a tasting room, make wine, do events, distribute wine, administrative work and have a life (life is the most important).
2) Convincing people that Iowa is not all sweet wine and taking that challenge to the industry as well.
GOALS FOR THE FUTURE OF THE WINERY?
This may sound cliché or corny – we prefer to remain a small boutique winery where excellent cold climate wines are shared with our friends and customers. We like to create personal connections and leave the stresses of the daily grind behind. Limit email and social media to connect our business to new friends and other businesses, while relying on human-to-human interaction for the most part. We love music, especially the Blues, and we love to make good wine. We would love to continue that indefinitely.
CAN CUSTOMERS VISIT THE WINERY?
A: YES, people can visit the winery! It’s a great place to relax and visit. We have a ton of things happening, like music every other Thursday evening and a Vines to Wine series where we meet and discuss monthly activities and eventually will be making some wine with attendees.
Two big events this summer are:
• July 8th: The Reds Whites and The Blues Music Festival (four bands) Co-sponsored by Central Iowa Blues Society.
• Labor Day: Annual Polk County Breweries Invitational Harvest Event