ST. CHARLES - Although Christine Carlton used to wonder what she'd do after she retired, her answer came sooner than planned. When an unexpected layoff ended her 26-year career in construction management amid the economic turmoil of 2008, Carlton began her new role as a winery owner.
"I either had to get another job or start my dream a little sooner," said Carlton, 60, whose interest in Iowa's expanding wine industry led to the creation of Two Saints Winery, in St. Charles, which she owns with her partner, Gary Edgington.
Carlton and Edgington found the right location for their new vineyard and winery south of Des Moines and purchased 65 acres near the small towns of St. Charles and St. Marys. The pair undertook much of the construction work on their winery, which includes a 2,400-square-foot banquet room, adjacent serving area, spacious outdoor deck, tasting room, gift shop and basement where Edgington ferments and bottles wine.
-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Christine Carlton checks a gauge on one of the large tanks in the fermentation and bottling room in the basement of Two Saints Winery, near St. Charles.
"We get to meet so many interesting people through the winery," said Carlton, who noted that Two Saints Winery's prime location near Interstate 35 has attracted many out-of-state visitors since the tasting room opened five years ago.
Learning to farm
Managing the vineyard involved more of a learning curve than building the winery, said Carlton, who grew up in Des Moines. "Gary and I were two city kids, and we were somewhat naive when we planted our first five acres of grapes."
The pair carved out a vineyard in a former pasture, not realizing that weed seeds can lay dormant in the soil for decades before germinating when the conditions are right.
"That first year we fought weeds that were really tall and were choking out our little grapevines," said Carlton, who quickly gained an appreciation for effective weed control.
Today, Carlton's and Edgington's vineyard has expanded to more than 10 acres, where they grow nine different types of wine grapes.
"Each variety has its own personality," Carlton said. "Noiret wants to grow in a jumble. Edelweiss produces large clusters of big grapes, but it's kind of wild and crazy and needs to be cut back."
Caring for the grapevines and running the winery require a lot of hours, said Carlton, who works at Two Saints full time, while Edgington helps out on nights and weekends when he's not working full time as a project manager for Baker Electric in Des Moines.
"You constantly have to mow the property and train the vines on the wires," said Carlton, who often begins her spring and summer days in the vineyard at 6 a.m. before opening the winery at 11 a.m. She returns to her outdoor chores in the evening after the winery closes at 6 p.m.
During the labor-intensive spring season, Carlton and Edgington hire Max Chavez of Carlisle and his crew of eight to nine workers to handle the extensive pruning chores. One of the most inexpensive labor forces at the winery includes the free-range Buff Orpington and Black Australorp chickens that Carlton purchased as chicks from the feed store in St. Charles.
"Not only do they lay a lot of eggs, but they do a great job of eating bugs in the vineyard," Carlton said.
When the grapes are ready to harvest from late August to mid-September, Carlton and Edgington often receive extra help from family and friends.
"While the vineyard and the winery are a lot of work, I love it," Carlton said.
Red distinguishes Two Saints
Since grapevines prefer hot, dry weather, the summer of 2012 produced some exceptional grapes that will help create the superior dry red wines that distinguish Two Saints Winery.
"We age our red wines at least three years in special aging tanks to get the tannins right and develop the flavor," said Carlton, who noted that Iowans are becoming more sophisticated in their wine tastes.
Two Saints Winery offers 17 varieties of red and white wines, including their best-selling Frontenac Blush, which starts with a delicate strawberry aroma and continues with a playful tart cherry flavor with subtle kiwi and floral notes.
More than 90 percent of Two Saints' wines are made from grapes grown at the winery, said Carlton, whose goal is to increase this to 100 percent. The wine also provides the starting ingredient for other unique items. A neighbor, Holly Wiederin, creates Off the Vine Wine Gelee with grapes and wine from Two Saints Winery.
This popular product, which is sold through Two Saints' gift shop, can be spread between cake layers; served with waffles, pancakes or croissants; incorporated into a sauce for baked ham; used as an ice cream topping or served as an appetizer with cheeses.
Marketing a taste of Iowa
Since the success of a winery depends not only on distinctive products but creative marketing, Carlton looks for new ways to attract visitors to Two Saints Winery. The winery hosts weddings, reunions and other gatherings, along with Hear It in the Grapevines live music performances at an outdoor pavilion from April through September.
In the winter, Carlton and Edgington offer weekend wine tasting classes that focus on wine and food pairings. In March and April this spring, Two Saints Winery will debut Tanks and Tapas on the weekends, where guests can enjoy tapas and sample wine right from the tanks.
As members of the Heart of Iowa Wine Trail, Carlton and Edgington also exchange ideas and cooperate on promotions with other local wineries. This past January marked the second year for The Wines of Warren County, where visitors paid $5 a ticket to sample local wineries' wines and vote in a cook-off contest featuring homemade chili made with wine. Proceeds from the event were donated to a food bank in Indianola.
All these opportunities make Two Saints Winery an enjoyable second career for Carlton, who looks forward to adding walking paths this spring throughout the property's rolling terrain so guests can experience Iowa's wildlife, wildflowers and birds. "I've always liked gardening and spending time in nature. Now I get to do it on a big scale and share it with others, so it's very rewarding."
For more information on Two Saints Winery, log onto www.twosaintswinery.com, or find the winery on Facebook.