I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I am passionate about wine. But there were no wine lovers in my family. Why? I learned only recently about a possible explanation that took root in the 19th century.
A rich history of winemaking by Swiss immigrants who settled in Vevay, dating back to 1813, was invisible when I came “of age.” The influence of the first commercial winery in the United States — in Kentucky!! — had floated westward down the Ohio River to Switzerland County. That little-known fact remains mostly hidden history. (If you are super curious about all of that, I recommend Indiana Wine: A History by James L. and John. J. Butler. This father/son duo owns Butler Winery near Bloomington, a neighbor of Oliver Winery profiled below.)
While most of the United States managed to spring back into action when Prohibition ended, Indiana actively prevented the reboot of commercial wineries. A restrictive law passed in 1935, the Alcoholic Beverage Act, required businesses to buy bulk wine from California and bottle it in Indiana for wholesale distribution. There were no local wine growers to speak of, except for a few random farmers and backyard hobbyists.
That all changed in 1971 when Professor Bill Oliver of Indiana University penned the Indiana Small Winery Act. This legislation opened up production of wine for either wholesale or retail, invigorating a “buy local” wine movement. Locally grown grapes joined vast acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay as one of Indiana’s most important crops.
Today there are more than 100 wineries in Indiana spread across a long state that stretches 240 miles, from Michigan to the north down to Kentucky along the southern border.
Indiana Wineries provides a complete listing of all wineries in the state that provide tasting opportunities. Indiana Wines is a good resource to plan wine expeditions in specific parts of the state. Another wine tourism resource is the Indiana Wine Trail in southeastern Indiana, which includes Indiana’s spiritual wine home in Vevay.
This sampling of three wineries in Central Indiana reveals the range of approaches that enterprising Hoosiers are pursuing from grape to glass.
Oliver Winery: Indiana’s Oldest and Largest
“The Hoosier state doesn’t exactly inspire images of vineyards or fine wines, and yet, one of the largest wineries in the country makes its home here.” (Forbes, 8/30/19) Oliver Winery is 44th largest in the United States.
In 1972, Bill Oliver transformed a home winemaking hobby into a significant commercial winery just outside of Bloomington. The year after the Small Winery Act passed the Indiana legislature, an industry was (re)born! Oliver’s son, also named Bill, took over winery operations in 1983, growing the winery into a destination experience for people of all ages. One of son Bill’s innovations in 2006 was to convert to a 100% employee owned company.
Oliver Winery produces a diverse array of wines and ciders from both Indiana-grown and imported grapes. About 450,000 cases of wine are distributed in 28 states. Oliver is perhaps best known for its sweet Camelot Mead made from honey, a style perfected by the winery over a period of 40 years.
Today Oliver makes wines in all styles ranging from dry to sweet and sparkling. The Creekbend Collection of estate bottled wines is especially noteworthy as a showcase for Indiana grapes, available only online or at the tasting room. Click here to experience (and purchase) the full range and diversity of Oliver’s wine offerings.
If you go:
200 East Winery Road
Bloomington, Indiana 47404
Buck Creek Winery: 100% Estate Bottled
Like Bill Oliver, but about 30 years later, Jeff Durm honed his winemaking chops at home for more than a decade before establishing Buck Creek Winery in 2006. Planting grapes on 4.5 acres just south of the beltway around Indianapolis, Durm specializes in 100% Indiana-grown grapes. Most of his American native and French hybrid vines were planted circa 1991.
Like many Indiana wineries, Buck Creek grows the white Traminette grape. It is a hardy grape, making it ideal for cold Midwest winters. Although Traminette was bred at University of Illinois, it is widely considered to be Indiana’s signature grape. Rarely blended, it can be finished in a wide variety of styles ranging from dry to sweet, still to sparkling, and even ice wine. As its name might suggest to those familiar with Gewurtztraminer, Traminette offers aromas and tastes of fruit and floral notes of peach, rose, orange blossom, pineapple, honey and more.
The winery is open every day, and offers a $5 tasting of six wines from an ever-changing roster of 30 wines. Spring and summer concerts in the outdoor pavilion are a pleasant draw for visitors who may be touring other nearby wineries along the Indy Wine Trail.
If you go:
11747 Indian Creek Road South
Indianapolis, IN 46259
Peace Water Winery: Indiana’s Napa Valley Winery
Scott Burton is a recovering Indianapolis lawyer. Shortly after Scott retired, wife Laura — mom to their eight children — sagely encouraged him to find something meaningful to do. For the Burtons as a couple, this meant finding a way to give back. Being fun-loving people, they thought “what better way to do it than share wine…and donate 50% of net profits to charity”! With every tasting, visitors get to choose a donation to one of the eight charities pre-selected by the Burton children.
Peace Water Winery is an urban winery. With two locations (downtown Indianapolis and nearby suburban Carmel), Peace Water sells only wines bottled in Napa and Sonoma, California. Winemaker Brian Brakesman learned the ropes at his family’s winery, Napa’s Summit Lake Vineyards, where Brian still lives with his family in the Howell Mountain.
Peace Water offers a diverse selection of varietal and blended wines, all labeled with playful names that reflect the light and breezy spirit of the winery itself.
Downtown Indianapolis tasting room:
747 N College Avenue, Suite B
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Carmel tasting room:
37 W Main Street
Carmel, IN 46032
Click here for more posts in the "United States of Wine" series.