When English mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his response was simple: because it’s there. Anyone who thinks humankind has run out of novel goals to reach is just not thinking creatively enough. Michael Delcau (’13) is hard at work trying to achieve his dream of opening the northernmost winery in the world in Iceland. Most people would consider trying to break into the wine industry on land that sits a stone’s throw away from the Arctic Circle a quixotic endeavor, and Delcau is among them.
“It is a country that, to my knowledge, has never in its history had commercial scale wine production, and probably for good reason,” he said. “I like to think of it as a good challenge.”
Delcau’s project is more than whimsy – it is an amalgamation of two subjects for which he has a passion. His interest in wine started during his time at Truman when he met fellow alumnus Jared Steck (’13) whose family was in the business. Through Steck, Delcau learned about the winemaking process and all the technicalities associated with it. For a chemistry major, there was a certain appeal, and he soon found himself purchasing equipment and dabbling in his own production.
His love for Iceland fully matured thanks in part to an internship Delcau completed during graduate school. While working toward his Ph.D. in chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, he secured a three-month internship in Reykjavik with a large biotechnology company. Much of his time was spent researching the native seaweed and its potential to be used as a natural preservative. Delcau also found time to volunteer at an artic fox sanctuary where his duties included feeding the animals, teaching visitors about the fox and its current status in the wild, and even playing with some of the baby foxes.
After returning to the states to complete his degree and start work as a postdoctoral researcher at Iowa, Delcau still felt a pull from Iceland. Although it may not look like the ideal place to start a wine business, he sees opportunity.
“It has enormous potential and is extremely unique, even for a project,” Delcau said. “Iceland is one of the few countries in the world without a winery, and furthermore the niche of fruit wines does not exist in the country at a commercial scale production. They have unique herbs and fruits such as bilberries, crowberries, birch and angelica that would make a very special gift, souvenir or just a beverage to enjoy.”
For now, Delcau is starting small. He lives primarily in Iowa City, but ideally, he would like to split his time evenly between the U.S. and Iceland. He is working with two collaborators in Iceland on a number of issues which include navigating the many local, state and federal laws in the food and alcohol business. In Iceland, wine is not available at the grocery store and can only be purchased from government-run liquor stores. Additionally, Delcau does not yet have a vineyard of his own.
“At this stage, we are sourcing our fruit from people in Iceland or picking berries to experiment with in our batches,” he said.
The first bottles of wine from Delcau’s Westfjords Winery label will be available starting in 2019. Eventually he hopes to produce around 2,000 bottles annually, but the inaugural batch will be small with only about 200 bottles. Nearly half of the first order will be meads, a sweet wine made from honey with a moderate percentage of alcohol. The remaining half of the first batch will be split between bilberry and crowberry wines known for being sweet and tart, respectively, with more of a fruit flavor.
Customers who visit fjordswinery.com in search of a bottle might take notice of some of the brand’s unique names such as The Arctic Fox and The Puffin. Like the name of the winery itself, they are nods to the Westfjords region and some of the species that inhabit the area.
“I wanted my wine to embody not only something unique to Iceland, but more specifically something unique to the Westfjords,” Delcau said. “The region often gets overlooked, not only among tourists, but among locals as well due to its isolated nature. It is off the common highway, so I wanted to emphasize this region is worth visiting. Each wine will encompass an interesting aspect of the Westfjords region and be named accordingly.”
Being true to Iceland sets Delcau’s brand apart, but he anticipates that might not always be a good thing. Wine connoisseurs rarely hold fruit wines, or “rural” wines, in high regard, and some might not even consider them wines at all since they are not made with grapes.
“I am okay with this criticism, but then again, our goal is not to make a beverage traditionally from grapes,” Delcau said. “Growing up in Missouri and going to school in Iowa, I was surrounded by many non-traditional fruit wines. Pineapple, dandelion and blackberry wines are largely produced in rural regions of Iowa – these fill in a cool niche with the local fruits. So, I thought why not take the same approach in Iceland where they have such interesting, delicious and antioxidant-rich fruits like crowberries which people don’t use for winemaking. I think the people of Iceland and the tourists to Iceland will appreciate being able to drink native wine.”
Delcau predicts his wines might have their own niche in Nordic cuisine and could pair well with certain foods in Scandinavian restaurants. Wherever his products ultimately fit in the wine culture is irrelevant.
“I have always wanted to do something of my own, with not even a goal to make a lot of money, but to sustain a moderate lifestyle and do something I love,” he said.
Future projects for Delcau might go beyond wine. He has considered venturing out into other biotech areas of innovation with foods like beer, yogurt, cheese and coffee, all which could incorporate food-related biotechnology and bioprocess.