How Knoxville’s first (and only) winery grew from a hobby to 5-acre vineyard

·5 min read

Knoxville’s first (and only) winery and vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground. Set in the middle of English Creek Valley, it not only offers award-winning wine but also beautiful vistas. In this location since 2018, the seed for what has now blossomed into a thriving winery and vineyards was planted years earlier.

Owner Michael Van Natta said, “I began growing grapes and making wine in 1979 as a hobby.” But it quickly grew to much more than a hobby into what Van Natta calls “serious wine tasting,” which took him to visits to Napa and Sonoma Valley, California wine meccas, and eventually winning a Gold at the Iowa State Fair Amateur Oenology (winemaking) competition.

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Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.
Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.

“I planted grapes in earnest beginning in 2010,” said Van Natta, opening Nearwood Winery on the square in Knoxville, beginning with about 300 gallons from other growers.

“After the original 2010 vineyard and facility proved too small, I searched for a more adequate piece of property in the Knoxville area and eventually bought this 5-acre plot and planted grapes in 2013 with a plan to eventually build a bigger winery/tasting room, which came to fruition in 2018,” he said.

Van Natta, along with his wife Joann Schissel, produces about 1,800 gallons of wine a year, 500 gallons of which are from their 1-acre vineyard on site.

Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.
Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.

“We are a very small boutique winery and still do everything by hand, mostly with just the two of us,” said Van Natta. “We can and do spend significant time with our customers, and they appreciate conversations with the actual owners who know and carry out all the art, science, labors, crafting, sensory evaluations, food pairings, grape growing agronomy, pest management, et cetera, often one-on-one in an idyllic country setting. We use almost exclusively Iowa-grown grapes and strive to use time-proven French and German methods of winemaking.”

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Nearwood offers between 10 and 15 different wines, both red and white, ranging from dry to very sweet.

“Though most of the world's wine consumers prefer dry wines, as do we, three-quarters of Midwestern wine drinkers prefer sweet,” said Van Natta. “Our wines are tailored toward that. We have won awards with a number of our wines at the Iowa State Fair Commercial Wine Competition as well as the Midwest Wine Competition, including past favorites like Fight, a label that supports breast cancer awareness, Ten Speed Sweet, our RAGBRAI wine, and Zuckerwine, which means ‘sugar wine’ in German.”

Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.
Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.

Visit the winery and choose to sit inside in the Gathering Room, which houses intimate seating for six, a tasting bar and an open seating area with a performing stage, where they host events ranging from open mic nights to poetry slams to author readings, fashion shows and musical performances.

“Our mission includes supporting local artists of all stripes,” said Van Natta. This includes authors, as they host a 3-hour meeting of the Marion County Writers Workshop each week. You can find works by local authors and artists displayed and for sale at the winery.

Outdoors, you can sit on the porch or choose the Zen Garden, which holds up to a dozen. There is also an outdoor event area complete with a bandstand stage.

For $5 you can choose five different 1-ounce tastings, or you can enjoy wine by the glass or bottle. Kids and pets are also welcome. “Ditto, our winery cat in residence, doesn’t mind,” said Van Natta.

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Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.
Nearwood Winery & Vineyards is located 2 miles south of Knoxville on Highway 14 on 5 acres of rolling ground.

Address: 1699 Highway 14, Knoxville

Phone: (641) 891-2469

Website: nearwoodwinery.com

Distance from Downtown Des Moines: 39 miles

Hours: 12-5:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday

Food: Nearwood Winery offers food, including fish and chips, hamburgers, paninis, chicken fried steak, BBQ ribs, a charcuterie tray among other rotating items. “We offer Savory Sunday on weekends, usually items like Chicken Pot Pie or Outrageous Nearwood Nachos, Nearwood Beef Stew and the like,” said Van Natta. “Both Joann and I love to cook.” Make a reservation for one of their Rock Star Dinners. “We prepare and serve a private three-course meal for two or four people over candles and a white tablecloth complete with four wine pairings. The best steak in Marion County, if I may say so,” Van Natta said.

The Name: “The original vineyard was planted near the woods, and we felt (the name Nearwood Winery) had a sort of Middle Earth feel to it,” said Van Natta. “Romantic notions, I know, but wine is all about such romantic notions.”

Harvest Hosts: Nearwood Winery & Vineyards participates in Harvest Hosts, a membership program that offers self-contained RVers to have unique overnight experiences at places like wineries, breweries and distilleries, and offers sites for up to five Harvest Host RVs. They even offer a deck, fire pit and access to showers. “During COVID 2021, we saw a bright spike in numbers of RVs (over 150 in 2021) and actually had our best sales year ever,” said Van Natta. “We often connect with our guests and often find ourselves whiling away the evening with a glass and great conversations with these complete strangers from all over the U.S. It is one of the things we both love about this business.” For more information, visit harvesthosts.com.

While You’re There: “Our customer base is 80 percent tourists, often people who come to the area for another reason and Google ‘wineries near me,’” said Van Natta. He encourages people who want to get away for a day or afternoon without traveling too far to check out the Knoxville National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, Lake Red Rock or Pella’s windmills and historic sites and then drop by Nearwood. “Traveling distances has become problematic ... but it hasn't quelled the desire to take a road trip and go explore the local countryside, looking only for ‘something to do,’ or ‘someplace new,’  a spur of the moment adventure, somewhere to ‘chill,’” said Van Natta. “We are happy to do vineyard and winery tours upon request.”

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Knoxville's only winery started as a hobby and grew into a business