Raising a glass to retirement

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Whispering Oaks Vineyard and Winery is a product of owner Larry Green’s childhood spent alongside Italian winemakers.

SEYMOUR – It may be nestled on the western edge of Wright County, but Whispering Oaks Vineyard and Winery actually represents a little piece of Italy. Well, at least when it comes to wine. And that ties back to owner Larry Green’s early years spent living in the middle of an Italian community — but not one located in Europe.

“I graduated from high school with a girl whose father was the master winemaker for the community I lived in,” says Larry, who moved to the Seymour area with his wife Miriam in 1967. “They were Italian, and had immigrated from Italy back after World War I into Chicago and didn’t like city life. So they migrated over into Iowa where I was born and raised.”

That exposure offered Green an invaluable appreciation for wine — both about how to make it and how to be responsible with it. So when retirement approached, he turned to the beverage as a new way to keep active. “(I decided) to put in a small vineyard and make my own wine,” says Larry, who had already experimented with making it from blackberries.

From there, one thing led to another and Whispering Oaks was officially born in 2004. Today, the operation looks different today than it did back then. To begin with, it’s a much larger family affair. Early on, the couple’s son, Nathan Green, quit his job and began working at the winery full time. He still works there today, as does his wife, Amy, who does all of the winery’s social media and marketing.

Whispering Oak's building is located next to part of the vineyard, and fronts U.S. 60.
Whispering Oak’s building is located next to part of the vineyard, and fronts U.S. 60.

In order to increase their exposure — and keep from making people travel on dirt roads to their farm — the family bought property fronting U.S. 60 and built a dedicated building for the cause. They also drastically upped grape production. “Instead of picking them by the bucketful, we were bringing them in by the ton,” says Larry, who notes that the winery’s best year came in at a whopping 28 ton. Some of those grapes are exported to other wineries, which have made their way all the way to Oklahoma and up near St. Louis.

Challenges in the business 

While developing different types of wine involves a lot of five-gallon, trial-and-error batches, there are a few fundamental guidelines the Greens stick to with their wine. Rule one: you should always be able to taste the grape the wine is made from.

“That’s just always been my belief, and I got that from the Italians that I knew and learned from,” says Larry, who doesn’t like traditional additives — such as oak tannin — distorting the flavor of his wine. “I taste a wine and if I can’t taste the flavor of the grape, to me, it’s just not a very good wine. You should be able to tell the different flavors.”

Like a good bread, those flavors begin with yeast. “Different yeast will bring out different things in the wine,” says Larry, noting that alcohol is created by the yeast eating the sugar out of the grapes. Because of this, it’s crucial to harvest when the sugar level is desirable. “Before we harvest them, we test the grapes to see how high the sugar level is,” says Larry. Those levels dictate when harvest should occur — which at Whispering Oaks, can be a time-consuming process. “All our grapes are hand-picked,” says Larry.