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Southern Indiana Vintners Revive industry along the Ohio River

winemaker pours Indiana wineKim and Keith Tate nibble cheese and sip Blue River Blush at a corner table, a romantic interlude on a weekday afternoon. They’re taking one of their favorite breaks at Scout Mountain Winery in Corydon, Ind., a stop along the Hoosier Wine Trail.

“We’ve been coming from Ohio to try Indiana wines for five or six years,” Kim said. Now the couple has moved nearby, to southeast Indiana near Corydon, the heart of a burgeoning wine scene in Harrison County.

“I think Indiana is more wine-friendly than Ohio,” Keith asserted.

Indiana now has five wine trails crisscrossing the state, promoting many of its 74 wineries. Keith Tate has watched Indiana’s modern wine industry grow for 35 years. “When I went to IU,” said the 1980 grad, “Oliver near Bloomington was the only winery in the state.”

Indiana wines have a long and storied history.

Indiana wines have a long and storied history.

A Historic Tradition
The Hoosier State has a much older wine heritage, of course, back to Swiss immigrant Jean Jacques Defour, who planted and harvested grapes in Switzerland County in the early 1800s. The Ohio Valley is rightfully called the birthplace of the American wine industry.

Today, Margaret and Mike Schad at Scout Mountain are just two of the self-taught vintners creating their own wine histories in this rural area of southeastern Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. “We came here to grow apple and pear trees,” recalls Mike, a tool maker for 23 years. “We made wine on our own for more than 20 years.”

“We had no plans on opening a winery,” added Margaret, a former nurse. “But our daughter and I pressured him into it.”

“Like a river,” Mike muses philosophically of the five-year project, “we change directions.”

The family retains one acre in apples, adding five acres of vines on the old Boy Scout camp site: Chambourcin, Vidal, Catawba, Noiret and Traminette, the Indiana state wine grape.

Quibble Hill winery wine pour

At Quibble hill, vintner Jamie Kraft pours a sample.

The Schads blend their own apples into one of their most popular wines, a light, fruity Apple Cherry. They crush Honey Crisp, Jonagold, Gala and Red and Golden Delicious apples for the dessert wine. “If you taste it with chocolate,” Margaret urged, “it’s like a chocolate-covered cherry.”

The Tates’ favorite that afternoon, Blue River Blush, combines Chambourcin Blush, Catawba and apricot juice. “You taste the fruit at the front of the mouth,” Mike said, “then acidity on the finish. It’s one of my porch wines, for a hot summer day when we’re having people over for fruit and cheese.”

Scout Mountain wines veer to the sweet side, following Hoosier tastes. “In the Midwest, people tend to like fruity, sweet wines,” Mike said. “Wines are just developing in the Midwest. It takes you a few years to go from sweet to dry, especially when you start having wine with food.”

“We have people here from California who say they like the sweet wines,” Margaret added, “but can’t get them at home.”

“Eighty percent of Indiana wine drinkers want sweet wine,” Jamie Kraft concurred. “We knew that going in.”

Learning By Doing
Jamie and her husband Steve opened their Quibble Hill Winery in Depauw in 2014. “We learned a lot of what to do and what not to do again. We lost about half our vines, because they weren’t the right types, and we’ve now planted 100 Niagara vines. We should have our first estate wine in three years.

“We went to all the wineries before we opened, and everyone was so helpful. We don’t really look at each other as competition—I always tell people about the other wineries not to miss.”

The Krafts use local grapes in their Sweet Vidal and bring in their other juices from New York’s Finger Lakes. The couple has begun working with the Delaware grape from Delaware, Ohio, to create a dry white.

The Krafts name their wines for beloved “mutts”: Lacy’s Ledge Sweet, their bestseller, is a Concord red named for a Golden Retriever mix. Stonewall Jaxun, an oaked Syrah, memorializes a faithful bird dog.

Sports fans from Indiana and nearby Louisville uncork their favorites like Wildcat Blue and Cardinal Red at Indian Creek.

Sports fans from Indiana and nearby Louisville uncork their favorites like Wildcat Blue and Cardinal Red at Indian Creek.

“Our goal was for people to be comfortable and relax,” Jamie said. “One couple comes out every Sunday and gets unsweetened Concord and sits on the porch, rocking away. An hour might go by without them saying a word, just reading the paper or relaxing.”

At Indian Creek Winery in Georgetown, Mark Kendall is expanding his tasting area to create more relaxing spots. He and his family planted their first vines in spring ’07, opened the winery that fall and “it’s still a work in progress” on the Hoosier Wine Trail.

Morning Star, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend, is the signature wine, along with Sweet Creek Rose´ from Catawba grapes and Lilly White from Niagara grapes.

Here, sports fans from Indiana and nearby Louisville uncork their favorites. “The Wildcat fans [of the University of Kentucky] forced me to create a wine for them.” The tri-berry blend of blueberry, raspberry and blackberry sips easily with cheese, chocolate and fruit.

And then there’s Cardinal Red, a straight Concord destined to accompany pizza or barbecue. “I named it for the state bird of several Midwest states, but I let everybody think what they want.” Ball State, the University of Louisville and Evansville—Cardinals all—claim the wine for their favorite home teams.

Best vineyards wine tasting

Julie Cunning ham offers a taste to customers at Best Vineyards.

East across Harrison County, along the Ohio River, Best Vineyards and Turtle Run claim spots on the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail, the state’s first. Best grows Chambourcin and Chardonel grapes for its own vintages. Wilbert Best and his sisters Rachel and Berretta are adventurous vintners, branching out to Spiced Apple, Peach, Illudium Q-36 tangerine and a Mango wine that’s so popular in the summer it stays on the menu all year.

Nearby at Turtle Run, Jim Pfeiffer plants more than a dozen types of grapes, from the Midwestern standbys Catawba and Chambourcin to grapes with much deeper European roots: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Vignoles. As the first farmstead vintner in Harrison County, Pfeiffer planted Traminette even before it was crowned the state wine grape.

His grapes, thriving on severely karst limestone soil, produce wines “that compete with the best in the world,” Pfeiffer proclaimed.

Empty boast? No. Turtle Run won Indiana Farm Winery of the Year 2014, Under 50,000 Gallons, in the Indy International Wine Competition.

For Pfeiffer, it’s all about soil and technique. After taking the legendary wine course at Miami University with the late John Dome, he zeroed in on viticulture as the avocation that would one day grow into his life’s work.

Turtle in concrete at Turtle Hill Winery

Turtles are the signature at Turtle Run Winery.

“Professor Dome taught the nuances of wine, and the terroir. There are 1,500 natural chemical compounds in a bottle of wine. One of the hardest parts was finding where to grow the grapes with the right terroir.”

After a four-year search, he and his wife Laura debated between Harrison County, Ind., and Huntsville, Ala. Fearing Southern insects, they chose 88 acres outside Corydon in 1987 and created the first winery in Harrison County.

Turtle Run’s two main categories are dry reds and sweeter wines. “Color doesn’t matter, if you hit their taste buds right,” Pfeiffer said. “We pay close attention to what consumers want and do it very scientifically.”

The Pfeiffers follow European techniques, eschewing irrigation and added sugars. “Ours are naturally sweet, because we use extreme cold fermentation and filter when the alcohol and sugar levels are right. Our sweet wines don’t coat the tongue like wines with added sugar.”

Turtle Run Winery owner and wine

Jim Pfeiffer shows off Labyrinth at Turtle Run Winery.

Each Pfeiffer child has his and her own wine, in separate, non-competing categories: Catherine’s Blend in whites, Max’s Small Batch Red in a dry red, and Joe’s Jammin’ Red in sweet reds. “Catherine has been designing labels,” her proud father said, “since she was 5.”

Like all five farm wineries in Harrison County, Turtle Run moves forward with family teamwork and personal stories to share, offering travelers a leisurely glass of wine along their way.– Story and photos by Betsa Marsh, RFT Contributor

If You Go
Indiana promotes five wine trails: Uplands, Indy, Indiana, Hoosier Wine Trails, and the Wineries of Indiana’s North east Tour.

Traminette, the Indiana state wine grape, was developed to withstand harsh Hoosier winters.

Historic Indiana first state house in Corydon

Along Indiana’s wine trails, you’ll see historic sites like the state’s first state house in Corydon.

Can’t make it to every winery? Red White & Blush in downtown Corydon carries vintages from 14 local wineries.

Corydon, founded in 1808, was Indiana’s first capital, from early statehood until Indianapolis claimed the honor in 1835. It’s also the site of Indiana’s only Civil War battle, on July 9, 1863.

Mark Kendell
Indian Creek Winery
6491 County Line Road
Georgetown, IN 47122
(502) 396-6209

Jamie and Steve Kraft
Quibble Hill Winery
338 Gowers Ln NW
Depauw, IN 47115

Mike and Margaret Schad
Scout Mountain Winery
2145 Scout Mountain Rd.
Corydon, IN 47112

Wilbert Best

Scout Mountain Winery pour

Mole Schad at Sout Mountain pours one of their reds.

Best Vineyards
8373 Morgan’s Lane SE
Elizabeth, Ind. 47117
Jim and Laura Pfeiffer

Turtle Run Winery
940 St. Peters Church Road, NE Corydon, IN 47112

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Betsa Marsh

Betsa Marsh, a SATW Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner, is a writer/photographer who’s reported from 100 countries on seven continents. Her work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Islands, American Way, Endless Vacation, Midwest Living, Ohio Magazine and Indianapolis Monthly, plus USA TODAY, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Cincinnati Enquirer. Marsh is the creator of “Cincinnati Essentials” travel app for iTunes and androids and author of The Eccentric Traveler: A World of Curious Adventures. She’s past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.