This is Wine Country

When Southern Indiana residents Kim and John Doty scouted locations for a winery, they settled on French Lick, Ind. The town was a half-hour’s drive from their home in Jasper, Ind., and the landmark that once attracted national politicians and sports stars, the grand West Baden Springs Hotel, had fallen into disrepair. The plans that would revitalize the area — including massive renovations and a casino resort — were years from being finalized. Still, the couple believed in French Lick’s potential to be a thriving tourist destination. “With a winery,” Kim Doty says, “you need a lot of tourist traffic.”

Today, French Lick’s two elegant hotels, casino, trains, and other attractions boast plenty of visitors. So does the 15-year-old French Lick Winery, which offers tastings, tours, and an on-site Italian restaurant. It’s one of 54 Indiana wineries riding a crest in the state’s wine industry, a modern renaissance that will be showcased on May 21 at the sixth annual Historic Newburgh and Evansville Living Wine, Art & Jazz Festival.

The seeds of success were planted — literally — in 1796, when a Swiss immigrant arrived in the United States and eventually settled in the newly surveyed Indiana Territory. He planted a hardy grape variety in present-day Vevay, Ind., and the crop flourished through the hot summers and chilly winters.

By the early 20th century, wineries prospered in rural hamlets across Indiana. Then came Prohibition. The effects far outlasted the repeal: It wasn’t until 1971, when the Small Winery Act allowed wineries to sell directly to the public rather than working through distributors, that Hoosier wineries once again began to thrive.

Now, the wine craze is nationwide. In 2010, the United States overtook France as the world’s top wine-consuming nation. In spite of (or maybe because of) the economic recession, the California-based Wine Institute notes that wine consumption in the U.S. hit an all-time high in 2009, showing a 25 percent increase in the last decade alone. 

Indiana’s wine industry, too, is growing faster than ever. “People want to enjoy ‘local,’” says Jeanette Merritt, marketing director for the Indiana Wine Grape Council. “As more and more things fight for disposable income dollars, consumers have to figure out what is the value in their spending. Many seem to be choosing to keep their money in local communities.” Ten wineries opened in 2010, and Merritt predicts another 10 may open this year. (The IWGC, based at Purdue University in West Lafayette, aims to boost economic development by providing research and marketing to the wine industry.) 

Another boon to the industry are collaborative efforts such as the state’s first wine trail, the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail in Southern Indiana. The trail includes Best Vineyards (Elizabeth), Brown County (Nashville), Butler (Bloomington), Carousel (Bedford), Huber (Starlight), Oliver (Bloomington), Turtle Run (Corydon), and Winzerwald (Bristow) wineries.

The trail, of which French Lick Winery owner Kim Doty is president, began in 2003 after a fateful car ride to Indianapolis. As Doty, Ted Huber of Huber Winery, and Dan Adams of Winzerwald Winery drove together to the Indy International Wine Competition, Doty recalls Huber musing, “You know, you look on the map, and there are a bunch of quality wineries right here in this section of the state.” 

The comment inspired the birth of a wine trail: Visitors pick up a free “passport” at any member winery, and if they complete the trail by visiting each of the nine wineries, they receive a prize (this year, an insulated wine carrier sporting the trail’s logo). Plus, they’re entered into drawings for prizes such as weekend getaways at wineries and bed-and-breakfasts. Member wineries also team up to present events such as Toast to Spring (April 9-10), which features free wine and cheese pairings. “Working on the wine trail together,” Doty says, “the nine of us know each other well, get along well, and are very supportive of each other.”

That camaraderie is evident at the Historic Newburgh and Evansville Living Wine, Art & Jazz Festival, a showcase of regional vintners, restaurants, artists, and musicians along the banks of the Ohio River. As of press time, participating wineries were Best Vineyards (Elizabeth), Blue Heron (Cannelton), Buck Creek (Indianapolis), Carousel (Bedford), Easley (Indianapolis), French Lick (West Baden Springs), Huber (Starlight), Indian Creek (Georgetown), Oliver (Bloomington), Scout Mountain (Corydon), Turtle Run (Corydon), and Windy Knoll (Vincennes) wineries. 

Carol Hicks Schaefer, executive director of Historic Newburgh, says that one change to this year’s festival is the addition of a third large tent dedicated to music performances. (Vintners, food vendors, and artists will share the other two tents.)  The festival hours also have been extended until 10 p.m. “Last year, 9 p.m. rolled around, and people didn’t want to leave,” Schaefer says. “The party was just getting started.”

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