We're making brandy in collaboration with Bloomington's Oliver Winery using its catawba grapes, and the great part about sourcing a raw ingredient close to home is that you can go see exactly where it came from.
So, our crew took a field trip to Oliver's vineyard, called Creekbend Vineyard. It's on 54 acres about 10 miles north of Bloomington (a separate location from Oliver's winery and tasting room), and it's like nothing you'd expect to find in Indiana.
We knew it was practically in our backyard; we didn't know how faraway we would feel once we got there.
We roamed the vineyard with Oliver's CEO Bill Oliver and plucked grapes right off the vine to taste. We popped ripe catawba and traminette grapes, and then, Bill pulled catawba and traminette wines from a cooler and we sipped them right there at the end of the rows. He showed us a new variety called crimson cabernet, a cross between cabernet sauvignon and norton, which yields wine that he calls "more exotic" than cab.
What started as Bill's father's hobby in the 1960s has turned into a winery that makes more than 50 wines and distributes in more than 20 states. It has been 100% employee-owned for 11 years.
Oliver is one of a handful of Indiana companies that have paved the way for craft distillers like us. For decades, the Olivers have changed laws, shaped the industry and proved that Indiana is a place where great things are made. We are standing on their shoulders.
After our visit to Creekbend, we asked our crew: What surprised/delighted/stuck with you? Here's what they had to say. (And more on that brandy at the end....)
"The amount of work that goes into winemaking. People trim that whole vineyard by hand, which is crazy. Bill said they start when they're done harvesting in October, and they don't get done until April."
—Justin Hughey, head distiller
"The variety of different wines that they produce. I've only seen the classic Oliver white and red, and Creekbend sparkling white, but I had no idea they make a Noir and multiple different (and all tasty) white wines!"
—Alyvia Cain, bartender and server
"I couldn't believe how good those catawba grapes were. I could have sat there and ate them for hours — they were the best grapes out there, and here we're going to have them in our brandy."
— Doug Lingo, sales director
"Besides Pickles (Bill's dog) and his tiny little legs? Bill brought up a topic that really stuck with me. He mentioned Oliver's future plans of refining their bottle offerings. He aligned this goal with the term "Standard of Living," talking about becoming proficient in fewer things rather than spreading yourself thin just for the sake of having and doing more."
—Kevin Hinkle, manager and bartender
"Oliver has a limited-production sparkling wine that is hand-riddled, made in the méthode champenoise. They're doing it the traditional way. You see some places in California doing this, but I would not have expected Oliver to be making it in the traditional Champagne method."
—Robin Wirkerman, general manager
"I was surprised by the traminette grapes/wine. I had never had anything quite like that before and thought that the grapes had an striking color and the wine was delicious."
—Matt Swinehart, barback
"It was really exciting to see a non-California vineyard expanding past the sweet realm and trying some dry varietals."
—Sarah Swartz, tour guide
"What struck me was that there's this amazing plot of land to do this vineyard, and it's right here in southern Indiana. It just didn't feel like Indiana to me — it felt like maybe California? Just this idyllic microclimate for growing grapes."
—Adam Quirk, co-founder
"I didn't realize how different grapes could taste. The gewürztraminer grapes — that flavor was cool. And I didn't know that concord grapes would taste like concord grapes. That is a thing."
—Jason Hackett, production manager
"The thing that stood out the most to me was finding out how many different varieties of grapes they're able to grow and how vast their product line is (50+ products!). I was also particularly impressed with the frost/wind fans they use to raise temps across their whole lot."
—Gabe Garber, server/production assistant
"I really liked how smart Oliver is about the agricultural side of wine. It impressed and surprised me to see how well thought-out the vineyard was designed. The vines were planted on slopes to aid in drainage, and there is a flower patch to help attract bees, which then help pollinate the grape vines. There are also huge fans that aid in moving warm air down and cold air up and out during times of frost. All of these things were really neat to me. The puppy welcoming party was super delightful as well."
—Alex Utter, bartender and server
Thanks a million, Bill and Oliver staff, for having us at the vineyard. It was an unforgettable afternoon. By the way, the brandy that we're making with Oliver Winery is aging in barrels right now at our distillery. We're hoping it'll be ready within a year — but! but! but! — we often sample it straight from the barrel on our VIP tours.