Les Ackerman

Ackerman Winery, Main Amana, wine maker
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Rhubarb wine, known in Amana Colonies’ German as piestengel (pie plant for the English “pie” and the German “stengel” or stalk), is one of two original wines (along with Concord grape wine) produced in the Colonies. Ehrle Brothers (re-established 1934), the Village Winery, and the Village Vintner, all owned by the Krauss family, and Ackerman’s winery (re-established 1954), The Heritage Wine and Cheese Haus, and the Old Wine Cellar Winery, all owned by the Ackerman family, produce dandelion wine and different varieties of rhubarb wines from local flowers and plants. While the dry wine is not as well-known as the sweet, it is both a part of the Amana Colonies’ (and thus Iowa’s) story and heritage.

In 1954, Les Ackerman’s grandfather, Henry, a butcher by trade, had his basement winery bonded. Les’s parents, Harry and Louise, opened the Ackerman Winery, which produced grape and rhubarb wine from local fruit. They also added cherry to the list. When Les and his wife, Linda, bought out the winery in 1974, they added several new varieties. At first, he and his wife wild-cropped elderberries, mulberries, strawberries, and other fruits. Demand for their sweet wine grew, however, and eventually, they decided to focus on wine making itself. Ackerman’s purchases fruits, berries, and grapes from Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, California and elsewhere. According to Les, in 1954, the winery made 12 barrels of wine, six of rhubarb and six of concord grape; today, the winery produces 22 varieties of wine, including a premium merlot, for a total of 14,000 gallons.

A third-generation vintner, whose daughter Greta makes the fourth, Les was, as he puts it, “raised in the wine cellar.” His great, great-grandfather came over with the original group of True Inspirationists. From the time he was five, Les picked rhubarb for his grandfather’s and then his father’s wine making. Amana folklore has it that rhubarb wine became popular one year when there was a shortage of grapes; someone came up with the idea of fermenting rhubarb. Explains Les, “rhubarb loves to ferment, and make lots of alcohol, so it became very popular very quickly.”

Dandelion made is made from locally grown flowers. It is always place-based, because of the nature of the plant, whose blossoms start to close as soon as they are picked. Wineries have to be close to where the dandelions grow so that the just-picked flowers can be quickly run into the wineries; the flavor can get aggressive fast because of the plant’s bitter leaves.

Every spring, around the last week in April and the first week in May, ads for dandelions appear in the local paper. Local scout troops and other groups use dandelion picking as a fundraiser. Winemakers pay $4 per gallon of blossoms. “If the dandelions are nice and open, you can pick three to four gallons per hour, but it’s very hard on your back. So people tend to pick for 2-3 hours then quit. . . . It usually takes a gallon of blossoms for a gallon of wine, . . . but the main ingredient is the yellow flower,” explained Ackerman.

Making rhubarb wine is not quite as time sensitive as dandelion, but it can still be a delicate process. Ackerman Winery buys about 40% of its rhubarb locally; the winery would be more than willing to purchase more, but not enough is picked in Iowa for its needs.

According to Les, good rhubarb wine should taste like rhubarb. “The minute it hits your palate, you should know it’s rhubarb.”

Contact: Les Ackerman, Ackerman Winery, 4406 220th Trail, Amana, IA 52203, 319/622-3279, 319/622-3379, Fax: 319/622-6513, http://www.ackermanwinery.com