Oliver Winery Grows Diverse Catalog By Letting Grapes Do The Talking

[This was the cover story in the July/August issue of Vintner Magazine]

A lot can happen in a half century.

For instance, it took about 60 years for humans to go from putting a flimsy airplane in the air to launching a space shuttle beyond earth’s orbit. 

It took 11 fewer years for a Midwest winery in Bloomington, Indiana to go from being a law professor’s pipe dream to one of the 30 biggest wineries in the United States with distribution in 40 states.

Forty-nine years ago, the doors to Oliver Winery opened, and since then, it’s evolved into an ever-expanding institution, with an elaborate tasting room and patio situated among 40 acres of estate vineyards and meticulous, well-developed flower gardens. A tour beyond the tasting room will take you through a wine cellar where Chambourcin, Cabernet Sauvignon and other traditional favorites are aging in oak and through several more buildings where soft reds, soft whites and sweeter wines. Other buildings contain bottling lines, laboratories, offices and even room to add more steel tanks for cold fermentation when the need for more production arrives.

If it sounds like a complex setup, it’s because it is. Oliver sells a total of about 50 SKUs that include easy-drinking sweet whites and reds, a line of moscatos, sparkling wines, an experimental collection, estate wines made with Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles grapes, traditional California varietals using grapes sourced from Paso Robles and even an Eiswein.

But the complex catalog of wines and ornate facility belies a simple credo at Oliver from which the staff did not deviate during Vintner Magazine’s two-hour appointment with CEO Julie Adams and DIrector of Winemaking Dennis Dunham.

“Everything we do is customer focused,” said Adams, who has been with Oliver for 12 years.  “We have a really nice product to share with family and friends. Our commitment to quality and people is across our business. We just make well-made products that people like to drink.”

Evolving Wine Country in Indiana

Oliver Winery started from modest roots back in the 1960s, as a hobby of Indiana University law professor William Oliver. His enthusiasm for the craft led him to establish a vineyard northwest of Bloomington, in the Indiana Uplands AVA. Soon, the vines produced grapes far beyond the needs of a hobby winemaker, so he began plans to open a commercial winery.

Oliver was instrumental in passing legislation allowing for the creation of small wineries in Indiana. The Indiana Small Winery Act passed in 1971, and Oliver Winery opened in 1972. Its first big seller was a mead, but over the years, that catalog has evolved.

Son Bill Oliver, who still serves on the winery’s board, took over the winery in 1983. He focused on enhancing the guest experience by increasing wine quality and variety, establishing the gardens, and emphasizing customer service. Sales grew steadily in the 80s, reaching 25,000 cases per year by 1990.

It kept growing through the 1990s and 2000s. Winemaking and viticulture evolved, with Creekbend Vineyard — which produces Oliver’s grapes for its estate wines —being planted in 1994. The tasting room opened in 1997, and major facility expansions occurred in 2002 and 2007, making Oliver one of the largest wineries in the Eastern United States.

Establishing an Identity

At the heart of any successful winery is its winemaker.

Dennis Dunham, the Director of Winemaking at Oliver Winery, was not originally looking to become a winemaker. He was just looking for a job and a way to pay the rent that didn’t involve waiting tables when he joined Oliver’s staff in 1996.

Dunham got his start in the tasting room, but it wasn’t long before he knew he’d found his passion.

“I started in 1996. I had a degree in chemistry, and I thought I was going to go to medical school. After I graduated, I didn’t want to go home, so I lived in an apartment in Bloomington with no furniture,” he said. “One night, after finishing a shift waiting tables, I sat down on the furniture I had and asked myself what I wanted to do to pay the rent for this place. I remembered driving by a small winery often, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to wait tables. I didn’t want to be a bartender.

“So I got a job in the tasting room working at the winery. I worked in the tasting room for eight months. Then they needed help in the cellar. Then, I was assistant winemaker, and now I’m the director of winemaking.

“What makes this place work is the people. It’s about the people. We all have that drive to figure out how to do things as well as we can, and we have the right kind of people who want to do this.”

Adams said Dunham’s story was not unusual for Oliver Winery.

“We were all hired with zero experience in wine,” she said. “There isn’t a big wine industry around here.”

While he’s largely spent his entire winemaking career and most of his adult life on Oliver’s payroll, Dunham said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If you’d thrown me into a classic ‘We-make-Cab-in-California-this-is-how-we-make-it’ situation, there are parts of that that would be appealing, but I wouldn’t get to do what we do here,” he said.

Developing a diverse catalog

The catalog is complex, but Oliver’s winemaking philosophy is simple.

“Take our Chambourcin,” Dunham said. “When we first started working with it, we said, ‘Let’s make it like a Cabernet. Let’s do a 14-day maceration and things like that. But, instead, and this extends into our sweeter wines, we ask what it is and what it wants to be. If it has an overpowering flavor, like some of them do, we dial back and go a little bit lighter in the French Oak. We do a little less extraction. And if it doesn’t have loads of tannin, we go with that. We don’t need loads of tannin.”

Patience is key, Dunham said, when you’re letting the grape tell you what kind of wine it wants to make.

“The first couple years of making Chambourcin is like the first couple years of making Cabernet Sauvignon,” Dunham said. “Fruit is different the first year from year two to year three. It takes a long time to figure out where a new varietal wants to be. 

“And that’s how it fits into what we want to do. It was 2007-2008 before our Chambourcin evolved into the style of what we are tasting today. Experiments in winemaking are long experiments.”

Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles and Pinot Gris are among the grapes that grow well at Creekbend Vineyards. While the relative elevation of the land helps create more favorable conditions than in some of the surrounding areas, Creekbend is limited by Indiana’s wetter summers.

“We get more moisture in the summer,” Dunham said. “We’re able to make wines very successfully from interspecific varietals. We’re super proud of our Chambourcin, which really expresses what that wine can be. It impresses many of the wine judges.

For “traditional” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Oliver maintains relationships with growers in Paso Robles, California.

“It’s a relationship and you’ve got to have respect on both sides,” Dunham said. “I’d love to have coffee with those guys everyday. But part of that relationship is showing them what we made from their grapes. 

“And they’re blown away. That’s an important part of it. Managing this part of it is choosing who you use to grow. You have to find someone who has the same growing philosophies as you, the same winemaking philosophies.”

Whether it’s estate grown or brought in from out of state, Dunham said the fruit remains the focus.

“A lot goes into it, and it’s about the fruit,” Dunham said. “But I think this is an example of how we can take these varietals and see what we can do. We don’t have a different team for Cab and a different team for Chambourcin and a different team for our sweet wines. Fruit is and should be a main characteristic, and we take it in the direction it wants to go.

“You have to pick it at the right time. Chemistry is important, but the chemistry is right when the flavor is right. “

Subjectivity definitely helps Oliver determine what they’re doing right and what needs improvement.

“We are getting more formal,” Dunham said about tasting panels. “We used to have people just come in and taste. They’d interview me and ask me what they’re tasting. Then, we evolved to where I didn’t give them as much information, because I needed them to give me information on the wine.

“Now we primarily bring people in who work here. We know we’ve got groups of people who are going to give us good feedback.”

Wine for all

“Wine can be for every type of palate,” Dunham said. “Not just for the palate that appreciates biting tannins. (Taste) is across the board.”

There are plenty of wines for the non-traditional wine drinker at Oliver WInery, which hangs its hat on its sweet red (formerly known as its “soft” red). The sweet red is a concord grape wine that is intentionally pure and one dimensional. It tastes like nothing more (and nothing less) than Concord grapes.

“We look for the wows,” Dunham said. “We could taste lots of Chardonnays and Cabs in California and say ‘This is good,’ but we have products where we have people who say ‘Oh my gosh. What is that? That is great.’ We’re looking for that kind of excitement over a large percentage of people. It’s not just ‘Hey, sweet wine drinker, what do you think about that?’ it’s about appealing to a broad range of people.”

The Sweet Red was the catalyst to Oliver’s evolution, Dunham said. 

“It serves as the role model for the other wines that came in later,” he explained. “We can surprise people with how good this wine can be.”

That kind of mindset led Oliver to produce unique varieties like its famous Apple Pie and Peach Pie wines, and a line of Moscatos that Adams said is rivaling their sweet red in terms of sales.

“Someone sent me a sample of cherry juice, and I didnt know I liked cherry juice, but it was one of the most spectacular flavors I ever tasted. We started looking at what we could do with it. We were not necessarily looking at a Moscato, but we were looking at where a cherry component could fit.”

The result was a success, leading to the creation of lemon and blueberry Moscatos.

“This is one where people would taste it, and there was a lot of cussing going on,” Dunham laughed. Tke expressions were quite colorful, and that’s a pretty good thing. So we established our pilot series, which lets us test things. They were 100 percent sold in our tasting room, but that allowed us to take a risk without investing a ton. Customers loved it, so we scaled it up to 750mL, started wholesaling it, and it’s highly popular.”

The sweet wines are cold fermented in stainless steel tanks and require a lot of precision to make. Attention to detail — like making sure the tanks and hoses are clean — is key.

“There are all kinds of ranges you can have from fermenting Concord, but you can end up with a consistent result,” he said. “That’s our philosophy. We are coaxing it to what we want it to be. It’s like raising children — you’re not trying to overly manage them, but you want them to make good decisions.”

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