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Uncork the Uplands: A Community of Winemaking

Success for the wineries along the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail comes from their sense of community

  • Creekbend Vineyard

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    Photo: Courtesy Photo

    Grapes growing on the vine at Oliver Winery's Creekbend Vineyard, the location of the 4th Annual "Uncork the Uplands" event

  • Jim Butler of Butler Winery

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    Photo: Courtesy Photo

    Jim Butler, owner of Butler Winery, explains Indiana viticulture at the "Uncork the Uplands" event

  • French Lick Catawba

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    Photo: Courtesy Photo

    A patron at "Uncork the Uplands" samples French Lick Winery's Catawba. French Lick Winery was one of the big winners at this year's Indy International Wine Competition

  • Oliver Winery's Bernie Parker

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    Photo: Courtesy Photo

    Bernie Parker, vineyard manager of Oliver Winery's Creekbend Vineyard, explaining Indiana viticulture on one of the tours of the vineyard.

  • Oliver's Creekbend Vineyard

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    Photo: Courtesy Photo

    The Creekbend Vineyard at Oliver Winery. Most of the vines fared well during the rough winter of 2014.

  • Bernie Parker, Maria Kennedy, Jim Pfeiffer

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    Photo: Courtesy Photo

    From left to right: Bernie Parker (vineyard manager of Oliver's Creekbend Vineyard), Maria Kennedy (employee of Oliver Winery), and Jim Pfeiffer (owner of Turtle Run Winery and the President of the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail) share stories at the "Uncork the Uplands" event

When you think of the big winemaking regions, your first thoughts probably go to Napa Valley in California, the Bordeaux Region of France, and maybe not South-Central Indiana.

But as Jim Butler, the owner of Bloomington Indiana’s Butler Winery, said at the fourth annual “Uncork the Uplands” event, that shouldn’t be the case.

“People should think of Indiana, because the first successful commercial wine production in the country was in Indiana,” he said. This production came from a group of Swiss Settlers who had the first successful growing of grapes in Vevay, Indiana in 1802.

Modern winemaking in Indiana Uplands region of South-central Indiana did not begin however until 1972, when the Farm Winery law was passed. Ever since then, winemakers have begun to notice what those Swiss settlers noticed back in 1802.

Last year, even the federal government recognized the distinct winemaking that’s been happening in this region, when the Indiana Uplands was named an official American Viticultural Area, putting it on par with Napa Valley and other established regions of winemaking.

For the past four years, the nine wineries along the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail have gathered at the “Uncork the Uplands” to celebrate wine in the Indiana Uplands region. This year, it took place in August at the Creekbend vineyard of Oliver Winery.

Changing Tastes

Tim Huber, owner of Huber Orchard, Winery, and Vineyards in Starlight, Indiana mentioned at the event that “the Upland Area is completely different. The soils are different. Our climate is different.”

He said that the soil and climate in this region has allowed him to grow different varieties of grapes, which has in turn allowed him to create different types of wine than most people in the state of Indiana can make.

Having the ability to grow different varieties has worked well, because Indiana wine makers have been able to adapt to changing tastes of Indiana wine drinkers.

Huber said that the customer base has changed dramatically since his winery began in 1978. “When we first started the winery, we had maybe 10 percent or 15 percent of our customers walking in the door [who] appreciated and drank drier style wines.” Today, Huber makes more dry reds than all of their sweet wines combined.

All of this comes out of the unique topography of this land, which differs from the rest of Indiana’s farming land.

Butler said that the lean, non-glaciated soils are more ideal for growing grapes. “You don’t want to put grapes on good corn ground where it gets 200 bushels to acre. There’s too much nitrogen. So, these poorer soils lend themselves to that.”

It’s not just the soil that makes the Uplands good for growing grapes, it’s the weather too.

“We’re not too far south and we’re not too far north,” Butler said. “We’re in this zone where, you know, the summers are good, we have good heat in the summer, and it’s not too cold in the winter.”

Polar Vortex

Butler takes exception with the bitter cold of past winter.

According to Bernie Parker, the Vineyard Manager of Oliver’s Creekbend Vineyard, the cold temperatures in January affected many of the crops in the midwest. However, the vineyards fared much better.

“The vines fared surprisingly well through the polar vortex,” Parker said.

That’s not to say some varieties of grapes, like the state grape of Indiana the Traminette, were not affected. While on a tour of the Vineyard during the “Uncork the Uplands” Parker said that the Traminette vines had about a quarter of the fruit on them this season than they otherwise normally would.

At Creekbend, Parker said that he had to replant 9000 new vines, covering each of them with a white tube.

But with so many varieties, all with different levels of cold-hardiness, it really wasn’t that much of a loss overall for Indiana wines.

According to Huber, “a couple of varieties didn’t do as well, and other varieties have done extraordinarily well. We’re probably going to be somewhere like 85 to 90 percent of crop.”

Indy International Wine Competition

This year’s “Uncork the Uplands” event was particularly special because it was also cause for celebration. Just the day before, the wineries received the results from the 2014 Indy International Wine competition.

Every winery from the Indiana Uplands that participated won.

Jim Pfeiffer, the owner of Turtle Run Winery and the President of the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail, was particularly proud of the results. Not only did he point out that wineries leaned heavily on gold and silver medals in the competition, Pfeiffer also noticed that “a lot of this fruit is Indiana-grown. That’s another strong positive. It makes you feel good when your wines are holding up to the best in the world.”

You can chalk up much of the recent success of the Indiana Uplands wines to the winemakers’ sense of community. Growing wine in this region is a shared enterprise.

“One of the neat things about the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail” Pfeiffer said, “is that when we have our meetings, a lot of times they spin out into wine quality, grape quality, not issues, but ideas. ‘What are you doing?’ Things like that.”

Huber also cited the collaboration as an important part of the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail community. He said, “just about everything it takes to make a great grow in the vineyard, harvest it correctly, how to pursue it in the wine cellar, we work together.”

Pfeiffer says that the sense of community may be one of the leading factors into the success of the Indiana Uplands wines.

“Something that I observe here, at my vineyard [Turtle Run], may help the Oliver’s at this location, or vice versa,” Pfeiffer said. “So with those shared thoughts, we’re able to collectively grown our industry and stay on par. That’s why we’re able to get so many medals.”

Mark Chilla

Mark Chilla is an announcer and producer for WFIU, where serves as the host of All Things Considered and the music trivia show Ether Game. His knowledge of food comes mostly from his Italian mother.

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