Working on a Vineyard in Iowa

In our last two posts, we talked about our HipCamp stay at 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard in Hayfield, Iowa. In the description, the host offered campers an opportunity to work in exchange for a free night. We’ve visited plenty of wineries, but never worked on one before. It seemed like a great way to save a little cash and try something new, so I paid for one night and requested to work in exchange for an additional night. Our hosts seemed happy to have a couple extra hands around and asked us to swing by the house some time after 9AM to get started on our first task.

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Picking Grapes

The first item of business was to collect our supplies. We would be needing scissors (I found the kid size gave me more maneuverability, while Josh liked the cutting power of the adult scissors) and a bucket. Next, we needed grapes. Due to a picking party that was hosted at the vineyard the weekend before, there weren’t many grapes left, but there were a few patches of unpicked areas among the various grape varieties.

Jen from The Places We Live is working on a vineyard. She clips purple grapes off a vine

The aim of the game was to collect as many grapes as possible. The hard part was the sorting. We had to check each cluster before throwing them in our buckets, checking for ripeness and bugs. Grapes that are too young are sour and will throw off the flavor of the final product, so we needed only the plumpest, juiciest grapes. The bugs (mostly ladybugs, but some ants and larger beetles too) loved those juicy grapes, and apparently burrow inside to lay their eggs, which are obviously not what you want in a delicious glass of wine. So we did our best to get rid of as many as possible, checking the grapes to make sure they hadn’t been nibbled on or infested. It was challenging at first, but I started to get the hang of it and ended up really enjoying the challenge of collecting the perfect cluster of grapes.


After about an hour, we had collected several buckets of grapes, and our host announced the official end of that year’s grape harvest, prompting an audible sigh of relief. Next up was the sorting. This was a fairly easy process thanks to a nifty sorting machine and the small collection that we had collected. There were several different types of grapes, but if it was to produce any wine, they had to be put together as a single batch.

Josh from The Places We Live is working on a vineyard. He is dumping buckets of grapes into a machine that separates the grapes from the stems.

Josh helped the host hoist the buckets of grape clusters into the sorting machine. The small and simple looking machine separated the grapes from the vines. One side of the machine spit out leaves and twigs while the other side neatly collected individual grapes.

Our host said he liked to feed the leftover leaves and bits to the steers, who seemed to really enjoy the flavor, being covered in tasty grape juice. In addition, their behavior after eating the fermented snack gave our hosts and their neighbors a good laugh.

The Squish

I assisted in the squishing process (technically called “pressing”, but squishing sounds more fun). During the picking parties that the vineyard hosts each fall, the guests are invited to stomp the grapes with their feet. This year, there was even a contest that apparently got very competitive. We, however, squished the grapes in a more modern fashion.

A mesh cylinder sits on top of a red basin. Inside there is a black bladder and clumps of grapes. At the bottom of the basin, there is a lip that is pouring out green liquid.

We took Josh’s sorted buckets of grapes and dumped them into the open top of a mesh cylinder. At the center of the cylinder was a large bladder attached to a hose. The bottom was balanced on a grooved, round dish. Once the grapes were all in the cylinder, we gently pumped up the bladder. As the bladder got larger, it squished the grapes up against the sides of the mesh wall. The fresh and fragrant juice escaped out the holes in the mesh, where it was collected in the grooved dish and funneled into a new bucket. By the end of the squish, we had several gallons of grape juice.

From Juice to Almost Wine

Our barrel of grape juice was moved into the wine making room with the others. Our host had yet to decide what he was going to do with it, so it was covered and set aside for a while. However, we then got to help out with some of the other wines in progress. We checked a few of the fermenting barrels, and Josh helped add a little extra yeast to a few that needed a little extra encouragement. We also checked the settling tanks (the big steel ones in the picture), which are used for removing sediments from the wine once the fermentation is complete. The wine in these tanks undergoes several rounds of removing particulate matter and sterilization before bottling, which is one thing we didn’t get to do.

A room full of large white trash cans sit in the middle of a floor. The walls of the room are lined with plastic tubs and large steel tubs. Each trash can is covered with a white cloth. Inside one of the trash cans smashed, purple grapes are visible

Wine in Our Bellies

Once the wine was ready to rest, it was time for some tasting. 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard has an adorable tasting room complete with a bar, both an indoor and outdoor seating area, and bathrooms. Each wine is made in small batches and is sold locally, either at the winery or at some of the nearby markets.

A flight of wine from 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard. The Youngest Child is a white, The Middle Child is a red, and The Oldest Child is a white. The Oldest Child also shows the label: Semi-sweet white table wine. It's delicious! Get the keys from your little sister. Somebody has to be the responsible one.

The various flavors of wine are family-themed, with names like The Black Sheep, The Only Child, and Bird Dog Red, which was named after one of their retired family pets. One of the owner’s children designs all of the labeling and does an excellent job at it. Each description not only accurately describes the wine, but the member of the family it represents. A silver medal winner at the Iowa State Fair, The Youngest Child is a semi-sweet wine. With a  description like “adorable and sweet, and maybe a little whiny”, the wine is aptly named.

We had such a great time working on a vineyard! Picking grapes was the perfect way to spend a sunny morning, and what’s more, drinking the literal fruits of our labor was the perfect way to spend a quiet afternoon. I could not have asked for more from this excellent example of experience-based travel.

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The Places We Live: 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard

We spent three days in Hayfield, Iowa “working” and living at 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard. I put “working” in quotes because, really, we had a lot of fun being out among the grapes with the owners and learning about wine making. The days were filled with sunshine, laughter, wine, and plenty of peace and quiet. It was an amazing experience, something I’ll remember forever.

Hayfield, Iowa

Iowa is a Midwest state bordering Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. It was the 29th state to join the Union and has a long history of Native American inheritance and colonial trade. Iowa has a population of around 3 million. Against the usual Midwest stereotypes, Iowa’s top industry isn’t actually farming. A large percentage of Iowa’s residents are working in the manufacturing industry.

Map of the USA highlighting Califoria, New York, Idaho (with a heart), and a large highlight on Iowa. Hayfield, Iowa, USA. The Places We Live.

Hayfield is an unofficial community near Clear Lake, Iowa. Some of you may be thinking to yourself, “I know that name, but why would I know the name of a small town in Iowa?” Well, Clear Lake, Iowa is where “the music died”. After performing in Clear Lake, musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richards (The Big Bopper) boarded a plane that crashed and killed the musicians shortly after takeoff. We did not visit the site, but listened to first-hand stories of the event and the impact it had on the community.

Our Home

99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard is a beautiful farm located at the top of one of the only hills in the area, with the nearest neighbor nearly a mile away. The farm consists of two fields of grape vines, an entertaining yard, field for cattle, and a garden with the house, barn, winery, and tasting room. We lived in the entertaining yard which is used for hosting campers, large parties, and weddings.

Barn, silo, and picnic benches at 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard in Iowa

The yard includes cabins as well as spaces for RVs and tents. We parked in an RV space at the bottom of the hill, where we were provided with electricity and a fire pit. The well-kept bathrooms were only a few yards away. We had the whole yard to ourselves. It was silent and incredibly peaceful.

Jen from The Places We Live sits in a camp chair in front of a fire and our travel van, Darla

Our Family

Our hosts are a local couple who have moved in and out of the area before finally returning to start their winery business. They were very knowledgeable about wine and the science behind it. It was very interesting to listen to them explain the business as well as their life stories. We had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with them and honestly grew quite attached. They were so generous and kind, and we really enjoyed their company.

Three bottles of win next to partially filled glasses at 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard in Iowa. The Yougest Child (white wine), The Middle Child (red wine), and The Oldest Child (white wine). The Oldest Child also shows a label "Semi-sweet white table wine. It's delicious! Get those keys from your little sister. Somebody has to be the responsible one."

We didn’t get to spend as much time with the family critters. However, we still enjoyed the company of a few steers in the field between us and the house, as well as the two chickens that lived in the garden. I think I heard their names were Henny and Penny, which was just too cute.

three angus steer in a green field

Our Lives

Wifi is not included in this stay, so we spent our working time writing offline. Working the vines was fun, but that’s a story for another day. Otherwise, we spent our time focusing on reading and writing. Josh particularly enjoyed sitting at the tasting room with a bottle of wine while he worked on editing his book.

A bottle of red wine (The Middle Child) sits on a picnic table next to a laptop at the winery

I liked sitting in the van with all of the windows open and reading my book, The Branches of Time by Luca Rossi. It is an indie fantasy novel which is, so far, just OK. I’m trying to support self-published writers in my attempt to prove to Josh that self-publishing isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t working so far, but I can be quite persistent.

I know you are all dying to hear about our time working on the vineyard and I am dying to tell you about it. Stay tuned for our adventure making wine!

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99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard. Camp local in Iowa  The HipCamp that lead us to camp at a winery