Vintners at work

Craft and cooperation build region's viticulture tradition

Wine barrels at Country Heritage Winery, photography by Neal Bruns
Two-EE's wine pairs nicely with this charcuterie plate prepared by 800 Degrees Three Fires restaurant. photography by Neal Bruns
Satek Winery wine and its recommended food pairing, photography by Neal Bruns
Country Heritage Winery is designed with a homey, lodge-like feel. photography by Neal Bruns
Tonne's Traminette is the 2014 Indiana Wine of the Year. photography by Neal Bruns
Briali Vineyards wine, photography by Neal Bruns

It’s time to celebrate Northeastern Indiana’s growing and profitable wine industry. Yes, we have a small but growing group of winemakers who are experimenting with taste and terroir. In doing so, they are continuing a long tradition of Indiana viticulture.

Commercial winemaking in the United States actually began in Southern Indiana. In 1802, Swiss émigrés joined John James Dufour in Southeastern Indiana, along the banks of the Ohio River, and cleared woodlands to plant grape vines and create the first successful wine industry in the United States. Earlier efforts failed, according to Purdue University, because native American wild grapes were too tart. Imported European rootstock couldn’t adapt to the American climate, or its pests and plant diseases. Dufour’s winemakers crafted Cape and Madeira wines from European-American hybrid vines and by 1810 produced 2,400 gallons of wine. (According to Purdue, “there were a lot of mixed reports about how good the wine was … Generally, the longer it had been since that individual drank European wine, the better the Cape wine tasted.”) Dufour later gathered his extensive knowledge of winemaking into “The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide,” a tome that has guided winemakers since it was published in 1826, the year before Dufour died.

The Indiana wine-grape industry rose to being the 10th largest in the United States, despite the challenges produced by corn-based whiskey and bourbon, but the death knell was sounded on Jan. 16, 1920, with the introduction of Prohibition. It took Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 to restart national winemaking in earnest, but the impact was felt in Indiana until the passage of the Small Winery Act of 1971, which allowed wineries to sell directly to the public. Since then, there’s been a slow but steady growth of Indiana wineries. The first in Northeast Indiana was Satek Winery, located in Fremont.

 

TWO EE’S
6808 US 24, Huntington, IN 46750  •  (260) 672-2000 

Sleek and sophisticated, Two EE’s Winery, on U.S. 24 just west of Roanoke, is owned by the husband and wife team of Eric and Emily Harris (the source of the “E”s in the winery’s name). And there’s no mistaking the design: Emily worked with noted Fort Wayne interior designer Cindy Friend for several years and majored in interior design at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and her final project was the winery’s look. Eric is the wine-master while Emily created the look and books events.

“We didn’t want to be” similar in look to other wineries, Emily said. “We wanted to be different.”

Two EE’s is distinguished by its unique rock wall fronting the winery and its clean, cool gray, white and black color scheme. Racks of wine serve as decoration in a utilitarian design scheme because, Emily noted, that’s what guests are visiting the winery for in the first place. It’s clean, modern and the focus is definitely on the wine. Which is also delicious, with a range of whites and reds (plus fruit wines) that honor their varietals. From round and fruity to crisp and tart, Two EE’s wines are clearly a craft that vintner Eric takes very seriously. It’s a family affair as well, as Emily’s dad, Dennis Hart, is that man responsible for Eric’s interest in wine. When Eric and Emily started dating as students at Homestead High School, Emily’s dad was a basement winemaker, and Emily jokes that Eric spent more time with Dennis than with her.

“They went down to the basement and never came back up,” she said. All that experimentation led Eric to work at Satek Winery for three years, learning the ins and outs of the business and the winemaking process. Meanwhile, Emily was representing Indiana in the 2013 Miss USA pageant. On May 25, 2013, a few weeks before the pageant, Two EE’s opened, capping a five-year journey from planning to opening day.

“We wanted it to be a representation of us,” Emily said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”

Emily and Eric echoed other area vintners’ oft-repeated statement, that what’s good for them is good for all the other wineries in the region and the state.

“It’s not competitive,” she said. “The great thing about wineries working together” is that if one winery has a setback, the others help them recover. For example, a labeler broke unexpectedly, and Emily said Country Heritage helped them get back into production.

 

SATEK
6208 N. Van Guilder Road, Fremont, IN 46737  •  (260) 495-9463 

In 1915, Pam Satek’s great-grandfather bought some land on the north end of Lake James for use as an apple orchard. Nearly a century later, Pam and her husband Larry decided to use it to start a vineyard. When they cleared the land in 1992, it had grown wild but, undaunted, the couple planted grape vines. Success followed, and in 1999, the family broke ground for a winery, which opened June 30, 2001. Since then, Satek wines have won medal after medal, and production has grown exponentially.

“Even I who had told Pam early on that it was going to be bigger than we thought, I did not envision it getting quite this size,” Larry said. “It got a little bit out of control.”

Larry’s background as a chemical researcher and college professor certainly helped as the pair crafted their wines. Satek’s 101 Lakes red is extremely popular, and Larry said he’s always looking at new varietals and blends. The growth has meant the winery brings in grapes from other areas of the country, most notably New York and Pennsylvania, but also from other vineyards in Indiana, as all local wineries do.

The Sateks are grateful for the support they’ve received from both customers and from other winemakers.

“I think we do appreciate that we were the ones who opened up the winemaking business in Northeast Indiana,” Pam said. “The wine business as we know it in Indiana is a very supportive business.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by owners of the four other wineries in the region.

 

COUNTRY HERITAGE
185 County Road 68, Laotto, IN 46763  •  (260) 637-2980 

Just a short drive north of Fort Wayne sits Country Heritage Winery & Vineyard. Owners Jeremy and Jennifer Lutter opened the winery in April 2011 and have already expanded the winery’s seating area.

Built on land that’s been in the Lutter family for more than a century, Country Heritage creates more than two dozen award-winning wines, including Indiana’s Traminette of the Year. The winery is built to feel like home, crafted of ash trees from the Lutters’ homestead. Complete with stuffed, life-sized bears, the winery has a lodge-like feel.

Open seven days a week, with tours available noon-6 p.m. Saturdays, the winery is a great place to relax, whether on the spacious wraparound porch or in the gazebo, where you’ll be surrounded by eight acres of gorgeous vineyards. Live music and special events occur throughout the year, and tastings are available for all the winery’s creations (including yummy homemade fudge).

Be sure to try the wine slushy on tap during your visit. Cool and refreshing, a wine slushy is perfect for a summer evening. Country Heritage produces red, white and fruit wines, made from grapes from their own vineyard and from family farms in Michigan, New York and California. Produce from the Lutter farm is also available in season, including blueberries, sweet corn and melons.

This spring, Country Heritage debuted two new hard apple ciders that are crisp and refreshing. Kevin Geeting, Country Heritage’s winemaker, said the two hard ciders – one apple and the other cherry-flavored – are made from a blend of apples from Orchard Hill’s groves in nearby Kendallville.

“We inject the CO2 bubbles (which make it) kind of like a beer in a way,” Geeting said. “The hard ciders are getting really popular. With a blend of different apples, you have more complexity that way. The same is true with wines: sometimes blends are just better.”

The initial sale of the hard cider will be by the glass at the winery’s bar. If they prove popular, Geeting said Country Heritage will consider bottling the drinks in the future.

 

TONNE
101 E. Royerton Road, Muncie, IN 47303  •  (765) 896-9821 

If you’re planning a trip down to Indianapolis, you should take the time to detour off I-69’s exit 245 (Muncie exit) and head nine miles east to Royerton Road. There, you find Tonne (rhymes with sunny) Winery. Don’t let the winery’s plain exterior fool you: it was named Indiana’s 2014 Winery of the Year and inside, you’ll find Indiana’s Wine of the Year for 2014, plus a bar full of other award-winning vintages. And if you’re really lucky, you can chat with co-owners (and brothers-in-law) Kevin Tonne and Larry Simmons.

Larry Simmons comes from a winemaking family: his cousin, David Simmons, has run Simmons Winery in Columbus, Ind., for about two decades. Larry Simmons and his wife have been involved in horticulture for many years and had bought the Royerton Road property in 2000, with plans to expand a garden center. When expected housing developments didn’t pan out, he called Tonne to see if he’d be interested in opening their own winery.

Both men researched the wine industry for a year, traveling to other wineries, making a lot of  “cold-call visits” and thought long and hard about the business before popping their first cork, so to speak. They sold their first bottle Dec. 28, 2009, just in time to take a tax deduction, the men joke.

“We knew we could make wine, but we hoped we could make good wine,” Kevin said.

They carefully crafted their wines, and that care has paid off in numerous awards, not the least of which is their Semi-Dry Traminette, the aforementioned Indiana Wine of the Year for 2014. Indeed, in that Indy International Wine Competition, which calls itself the “largest scientifically organized and independent wine competition in the United States,” 11 out of the 12 wines Tonne submitted for judging won medals. They competed against wines from over 40 states and a dozen countries.

“We don’t have a clue. We’re just lucky,” Kevin said. We do a lot of tasting. We know what we like. We call it ‘pleasant’ to our taste, to our palates. We work hard to get it to our taste and our spouse’s (tastes). They’re definitely part of the final judging.”

The pair doesn’t grow any of their own grapes, due to the weather issues we’ve seen recently, but they do source as many of their grapes from Indiana vineyards as possible. They’ve considered adding in a few vines for aesthetic reasons, to enhance the winery’s outdoor patio area, where live music is offered during the summer.

Their Traminette and their Sweet Red have been the winery’s most consistent medal winners and the most popular with customers, the pair said.

And rest assured, you don’t have to drive down to Muncie to get a bottle of Indiana’s best wine: Kevin sells Tonne’s wines at the Fort Wayne Farmer’s Market every other Saturday.

 

BRIALI
102 IN 120, Fremont, IN 46737  •  (260) 316-5156 

Just down the road from Satek Winery in Fremont, Briali Vineyard, owned by Brian Moeller and his former wife Alicia Moeller, has developed a line of wines that are as good for the earth as they are delicious in taste. Brian Moeller, who spent time in college in California’s wine country, said the pair saw the success of Satek Winery and decided that the time had come to open their own winery.

“I brought what I liked about (California wines) to the home turf,” he said. “It was a right place, right time thing. The family had a property and the infrastructure was already there not being used, so it gave me a place to start.”

Moeller sees himself as more of a “boutique” vintner, as his winery produced about 8,000 gallons of wine last year. But that’s up from 3,000 gallons in the vineyard’s first year in 2012, so the increase is substantial. The vines were planted 11 years ago, but last year’s polar vortex wiped out a third of his plants.

“I’m trying new varietals. Every harvest is different,” he said. Briali Vineyards’s wines include Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cab Franc, Rose, Dragon’s Red, Niagara and Bada Bing Cherry Wine (aged in bourbon barrels).

Moeller also would like to have at least some of his vines certified organic, but the overuse of pesticides in the areas around his vineyards makes that goal questionable.

“If you can make a few bottles of wine where the grapes are as eco-friendly as possible, I’ll do it. You can get clean fruit and not completely screw up your ecosystem,” he said.

Moeller is working on his plans for marketing and distribution, but he’s not trying to produce the quantities that distributors want – yet.

“We’d like to increase the value slowly,” he said. “I want to stay the small winery that does more boutiquey small batches that are off the wall and odd. Stuff people don’t see around here, a lot of bourbon-barrel (aging) stuff, maybe agave wines. Maybe age some wine in tequila barrels – do something a little off the wall. Our whole point is to give somebody a new experience.”

Meanwhile, his best customers are those who stop while traveling on the Indiana Toll Road. People from Chicago who are driving to New York don’t blink an eye at paying $20 for a bottle, Moeller said.

 

Grape Expectations
By the numbers

The number of wineries in Indiana has exploded in the past 10 years, said Jeanette Merritt, marketing director for Indiana Wines and a member of Purdue University’s Grape Team.

“As a state we produced an estimate of 1.5 million gallons of wines from all wineries,” Merritt said. “We have 77 licensed farm wineries open and roughly five to seven talking about opening across the state before the end of the summer.”

Merritt said when she started in her current position 10 years ago, there were just 27 wineries. The explosion in wineries – particularly, she noted, in Northeast Indiana – has come about from people looking for ways to save their family farms as well as the interest in locally produced foods.

“There’s a demand for local wine, for something grown here, crafted here (that) you can drink here,” she said. “People aren’t going for a party experience. They’re learning how grapes are grown and how the wine is crafted.”

Wineries provide a place for people to gather with their friends and enjoy the overall experience. Northeast Indiana has a WINE Tour (Wineries of Indiana’s NorthEast) that includes Briali, Country Heritage, Fruit Hills (in Bristol), McClure’s (in Peru), Satek, Tonne and Two EE’s.

First appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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