Independent growers help make Indiana grape again
By CJ Woodring
Wine’s history is believed to date to at least 6,000 B.C. Its Indiana presence, however, dates only to 1810, when Swiss emigrant John James Dufour abandoned his decimated Kentucky vineyard and established the Hoosier state’s first commercial vineyard and winery in Vevay (at that time called New Switzerland).
Wineries dotted the Hoosier landscape into the early 1900s, eventually making Indiana the 10th-largest grape-producing state, until after Prohibition. At that time, the industry died on the vine, nearly disappearing until the Small Winery Act of 1971 was enacted. The following year, Bloomington-based Oliver Winery was founded, the oldest in the state.
Hoosiers continue to value their regional vino. Indiana currently boasts 87 wineries, according to Katie Barnett, Purdue University wine grape marketing extension specialist. The newest popped its cork in December.
Although most wineries, including Bargersville’s Mallow Run Winery, boast their own vineyards, less than 10 percent of wine produced in the state is from Indiana fruit. The lion’s share of the grapes used in Indiana wines come from California, Michigan, New York and Washington. Thus, a majority of vintners look to independent growers, both within the state and beyond, to meet their needs. The following are among independent Hoosier growers who produce for Indiana’s wineries.
Big Run Vineyards, Butler
Maryland native Bruce England’s interest in wine is rooted in France, where he worked in a vineyard during the 1973 harvest. Moving to California, England earned a bachelor’s degree in winemaking and a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He served as an assistant winemaker for four years, then changed careers to work in the biotech pharmaceutical industry from 1984 to 2005.
“I had a small backyard vineyard and garage winery from 1997 to 2005, so when my wife and I decided to take early retirement and move back to Auburn, her hometown, I researched the possibilities for viticulture here and decided to give it a go,” he says.
England has been growing grapes commercially since 2007. About three acres of his 18-acre Butler property, 14 miles from their Auburn home, are planted in Noiret, Corot Noir, Traminette, De Chaunac, Cayuga White, Aromella and Marquette grapes. In 2016 the crop output was 12 tons, all earmarked for Angola-based Satek Winery.
“Originally, I’d planned to start a winery, but decided early on that the vineyard was plenty enough work by itself,” he says. “I’d met Larry Satek and asked him if he wanted to buy my first crop in 2009. He did and was happy with the quality, so I’ve continued to sell exclusively to him.”
England says he has no plans to expand. “There’s room for another three or four acres, and that’s about all the size I can manage on my own.”
Varietals to know
Easiest to grow: Marquette, Corot Noir
Best for wine: Traminette, Noiret, Marquette
Pine Hill Vineyard, Hamilton
Living and working on his family’s former DeKalb County homestead, high school sweethearts Tim and Cheri Wolfe manage Pine Hill Vineyard. The couple, retired schoolteachers, always enjoyed visiting wineries, where Cheri tempted her palate in the tasting room, and Tim “nosed around” in the vineyard, he says.
Tim has been associated with Satek Winery for 10 years, initially working there during the summertime and, since retirement, as vineyard manager. His 5-acre vineyard produces eight varieties of grapes for Satek.
“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, and when Larry [Satek] asked me if I’d grow for him, that sparked an interest. I began with 1,200 vines and am now up to 3,000,” he says. Wolfe notes industry changes within those 10 years, influenced by an influx of Indiana wineries and a fickle weather pattern, specifically the polar vortex.
“At first, I was probably one of the only growers, and Larry the only winery in northeast Indiana,” Wolfe says. “I think it’s going to get a little more competitive. Growers are going to have to grow exceptional grapes because wineries can be more selective.” To withstand colder weather trends, he recommends to growers he mentors a Minnesota variety that’s more winter hardy. Wolfe cites the Purdue Wine Grape Team, whose members support growers and vineyards throughout the state. “They’ve been fantastic, and I can’t say enough good about them. They’re very supportive,” he says.
Varietals to know
Easiest to grow: Steuben
Most popular: Noiret, Marquette, Traminette, Chambourcin
Creekbend Vineyard, Ellettsville
About 25 percent of the medals Oliver Winery won over the past five to six years were won with grapes produced at Creekbend Vineyard in Ellettsville, on land leased to the winery by Joe Oliver, says Bernie Parker, Creekbend’s vineyard manager. “Creekbend is our estate label,” Parker says. “Nearly all grapes grown here go to Oliver Winery, but we do sell some of our excess –– maybe 5 percent –– to other local wineries.”
Parker’s foray into the wine industry began in 1997, when he assisted during Oliver Winery’s harvesting. Following discharge from the Navy two years later, he continued harvesting and in 2000, at the request of Bill and Kathleen Oliver, took on his current position. Oliver Winery’s nearly 50 acres are planted in 10 varietals, including two that are fairly new, Parker says: Crimson Cabernet and Cabernet Doré. The Creekbend Collection includes rare varietals, such as Catawba and Chambourcin.
Parker notes that Oliver Winery won the Governor’s Cup in 2016, an honor generally awarded to the winery that has won the most medals overall.
“One of the things that Oliver Winery does is try to make wines soft and refreshing, with sun-ripened sweet flavors,” he says. “They’re always very popular.”
Varietals to know
Easiest to grow: Catawba
Most popular: Catawba
Dulcius Vineyards, Noble County
It’s all in the family at Dulcius Vineyards, owned and operated by Austin and Nancy Fergusson and their son, Scott. But it wasn’t always grapes that drew the Columbia City residents to their southeast Noble County acreage: It was corn and soybeans.
“In 1971, soon after I received my Ph.D. in plant physiology from Purdue, I bought a 100-acre farm, which we farmed ourselves,” Austin says. “After I retired, I wanted to do something a little more hands-on and to grow something that stays alive rather than having to cut it down every year. So in 2012 we founded the vineyard.”
Dulcius grows more than a half-dozen varieties of cold-hardy grapes. Along with other varietals, the Fergussons are experimenting with Itasca, which is grown from tissue culture.
Now the largest vineyard in northern Indiana and third-largest (in acreage) in the state, the 19-acre operation in 2016 employed more than 60 individuals who assisted at various times. The output? More than 30 tons of grapes, all sold to Briali Vineyards and to Byler Lane, Hartland and Two EE’s wineries.
“There are 10,000 plants out there, and each is handled at least five times during the season. So while it’s a lot of work, it’s very satisfying to be out in the vineyards,” Fergusson says. As with other growers interviewed, he lauded the Purdue Wine Grape Team for assistance and support. “They’re fantastic in all aspects, very knowledgeable and helpful.”
Varietals to know:
Easiest to grow: Marquette, Steuben
Best for wine: Marquette, Steuben
Most popular: Marquette
Somermeyer Farms, Danville
Steve and Kim Somermeyer met at Eli Lilly and Co. But while the couple’s shared backgrounds may have been a catalyst for founding Somermeyer Farms, its roots were anchored in Steve’s youth.
“My dad made wine at home from grapes shipped from California to Iowa in a refrigerated rail car. From the time I was 5 or 6 years old, we always had a glass of wine as part of the meal,” he recalls. “When I moved to Indy and had money to buy better wine, [we] joined several wine enthusiasts’ groups and got involved with competing.”
When Dr. Charles Thomas, founder of Chateau Thomas Winery, called for assistance when his winemaker was laid up, Somermeyer took over duties. It’s a position he still maintains two to three days a week, also working daily during harvesting.
“I’ve been one of two winemakers there for 14 years,” he says. “I’ve judged wine across the country for many, many years and have judged the Indy International Wine Competition for 42 consecutive years.”
Following retirement, the couple purchased land outside Danville and in 2015 planted a 2.2-acre vineyard. They grow varietals the Purdue Grape Team recommended, Somermeyer says: Chambourcin, Traminette, Noiret and Vidal Blanc.
The Purdue team was “very supportive,” he says, as was Oliver Winery. “Oliver will help anyone with whatever they need and have really been an asset to the industry.” The Somermeyers look forward to their first commercial crop this year, with plans to sell to Chateau Thomas or another local winery.
Varietals to know
Easiest to grow: Chambourcin, Traminette
Most popular: Maréchal Foch