SWISHER — Some hobbies can appear to stick in a family’s DNA as reliably as genetic traits.
In tracing back his ancestry, Jeff Quint, co-owner of Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery in Swisher, said wine-making has been in his family for nine generations. Originally, Quint said, his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather worked as a wine and spirits tradesman in Wintrich, German, around 1705.
Now, he and his wife, Laurie, operate Cedar Ridge, which he said is projected to bring in $5 million in revenue this year offering wines made from grapes grown off 5,000 onsite vines, spirits and whiskey. The winery and distillery’s products can be found in most Iowa retailers and have been distributed from coast to coast and occasionally even overseas, Quint said.
Though the winery and distillery opened in 2005 as what Quint described as a small “lifestyle business,” it grew to offer facility tours, casual dining and event space for weddings or corporate gatherings.
For Quint, growing Cedar Ridge as a business also meant growing its business rights under Iowa law.
Q: When it opened, Cedar Ridge became Iowa’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition — did you face any challenges in getting your business licensed, without any recent state precedent at the time?
A: In Iowa, being the first was quite a process; the state wasn’t even sure how to process it. We didn’t need any laws changed to create the distillery, but the laws had never been modernized since Prohibition ended, and so the laws ... weren’t very favorable on behalf of the distillery. For instance, not only could you not have a drink at a distillery but you couldn’t even buy a product. (The regulations) had been set up but never optimized, so once we got our license and opened our doors, it became apparent to us quite quickly that we were at a major disadvantage compared to neighboring states, where distilleries could sell their products and cocktails with spirits in them. When a visitor comes out here, you want the opportunity to highlight your products, reinforce your brand, get more visitors coming to build your name recognition. We didn’t have any of that going for us when we first opened.
Q: What sort of negative impact did that status quo have on your business?
A: You spend all day talking to customers, then you can’t sell them a bottle. You hope they go into a store and buy it. That’s no way to try to build an industry. Blaum Brothers Distilling Co. were going to set up in Iowa and chose Galena, Ill., because laws at the time were better in Illinois.
Q: What steps did you take in pushing for changes in state law?
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A: To get the initial law changed (in 2010, for permission to sell up to two bottles of spirits per visitor per day), it was primarily us and Templeton Rye ... It really transformed business here because it’s just odd if you come out here and you can’t buy a bottle. Visitors and consumers from around the country have come to expect that that would be possible, and I remember how often we’d have to tell visitors, ‘No, we can’t do that here in Iowa.’ That was what really drove it. To get the cocktail bill passed (in 2017, to serve visitors cocktails, to sell up to 12 bottles of spirits per visitor per day and craft beer as a winery-distillery hybrid) took several years, and we ended up hiring a lobbyist to help get it done. There are some powerful forces at the Capitol in Des Moines, and if you want to be heard, you really have to have somebody down there on more of a full-time basis. We were going down weekly during the session but a two-hour visit once a week probably is not enough.
Q: Where did you encounter pushback in your efforts?
A: One of the strongest lobbies in the state is the beer wholesaler lobby, and they spend a lot of money. They support a lot of new campaigns every session. They probably didn’t want to see the distilling industry getting a lot of traction in the state would be my guess. I’m only hypothesizing, but I do know they were speaking out against our bill early on. What we found was that legislators always wanted to know ‘where did the beer wholesalers wind up on this?’ It really took a lobbyist on our part to continuously fight the battle with the legislators to the point where there were enough legislators who started to understand this need we had better.
Q: What changes have you observed at Cedar Ridge since that law changed in 2017?
A: If I had to say what it did, I would say it kept us busy but it didn’t make us busy. Before, people would come out and they could only have a glass of wine, and now with the new law, they can have a glass of wine, they can have a cocktail or they can have a beer. It opened us up to a larger possible audience because people now have choices out here ... It’s hard to measure the result quantitatively because our wine sales dipped a bit as our cocktail and beer sales went up, and starting from zero, they can only go up. You can tell qualitatively you’re in a better position here because you can offer the consumer whatever it is they want rather than just one option.
Q: Are there any other changes in the works at Cedar Ridge?
A: We are finishing an expansion in our stillhouse, where we’re adding a fourth still. We’re nearing completion of a barrel shed, rickhouse seven, and what’s just getting started this month are new offices and a warehouse. The site plan shows two more houses after that, then we’ll be approximately right-sized for business here, which would be putting out about 200 barrels of whiskey per month. That’s about 2,400 a year, and if you want it to be four years old, you need storage for about 10,000 barrels. The last distillery expansion was so we could make that much, now all we really have to do is continue to expand.
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