My friend, Steve Somermeyer, is a retired chemical engineer from the Eli Lilly Company in Indianapolis. His passion in life is fine wine. He now works as a winemaker at the in Plainfield, IN and long ago extended to me a standing invite to come out and see the operation when I go to Indianapolis. I was in Indy recently and took Steve up on his offer.
Surprisingly, Indiana has over 30 wineries across the state. Wineries began to flourish in the early 70's when William Oliver, a law professor at Indiana University, wrote a law that allowed small Indiana wineries to produce up to 100,000 gallons of wine annually. That law was passed by the Indiana state legislature and has been amended to allow for even more production of wine (thanks to a 1 percent tax on all wine sold in the state of Indiana).
Oliver, who was making wine in his home, opened the Oliver Winery in 1972. The winery, located outside of Bloomington, IL (see map), is the largest in Indiana and now makes upwards of 500,000 gallons, or 210,000 cases, of wine annually.
Conversely, the Chateau Thomas winery makes about 40,000 cases of wine a year. But, it's the 4th largest winery in Indiana.
The winery was started in 1984 by Dr. Charles Thomas, an Indianapolis Obstetrician/Gynocologist. Dr. Thomas was making wine in his home and then moved his operation to a small building not far from his hospital. Steve joked (or maybe it wasn't a joke) that Dr. Thomas used to go to the winery to work on his wines in between delivering babies.
Dr. Thomas retired from medical service about 10 or 11 years ago and put all his time and effort into the winery. The winery moved to its present location in Plainfield (see map) in 1997. According to Steve, they've run out of room to expand the winery. After a quick look through the operation, I can see why.
Like many other Indiana wineries, Chateau Thomas doesn't actually have a vineyard where they grow their own grapes. Due to Indiana's harsh winters, the grapes don't grow as well as the varietals found in California, Oregon or Washington. And that's where Chateau Thomas - and other wineries in Indiana - get their grapes.
I've been to wineries before, but I was never afforded the in-depth look into the wine making process. Steve took me back into the wine making area and introduced me to Michael, his winemaking partner, and Adam, their assistant. The area was a cramped area of barrels, fermenting tanks, grape tanks and inventories of bottled wine. To say that they were bursting at the seams would be an understatement.
Steve gave me a great little tour and talked about the operation. Here's a picture of Steve stamping down the wine in a container (right) . He also offered some samples of wine directly out of the barrels. That was a first for me.
Now, I'm used to these Midwestern wineries that make the sweet, syrupy wine that I just can't stand. The wine that Steve and Michael make for Chateau Thomas is far from that.
Well, it is and it isn't.
They do make the sweet wine - in fact, their top seven best selling wines are the sweet wine variety. After trying about six or seven wines, Steve said, "You haven't even tried our best selling wines." I just shuddered when Steve told me that and he sort of shuddered back.
Steve is into what I'm into - stout, dry reds; and full, fruity whites. And that's what he let me try - both directly out of the barrel and in their wine tasting area. But he said that the sweet wines pay the bills and allows them to play around with some of the full-bodied blends they have to offer.
In fact, he showed me a large file that was full of tasting notes from different varietal mixings they've played with over the past few years. He said that it's really fun after the day of work is over to sit back and play around with some of the wines. Steve said, "Even if we're having a tough day, there's always wine at the end."
Steve knows that I'm a big meat eater and one of the first wines that he had me try was a 2003 Malbec, a hearty red with a smooth finish. I liked it immediately. He also had me try one of the 2003 Petit Verdot, a lighter wine with a hint of cherrys and blackberrys. Another one I tried was the 2001 Cabernet. It was very good. I inquired about the 1991 Cabernet they had on the shelf and Steve steered me away from that. "Those have run their course."
Actually, I must have tried about 15 different wines both in the tasting area and out of the barrels. It was a great experience. And I got a nice little buzz out of the thing, too.
I bought four bottles of wine - I took one of the 2001 Cabernet, one the 2003 Petite Verdot, and I thought I was grabbing two bottles of the 2003 Malbec, but I accidentially grabbed one of the Merlots instead of getting a second Malbec. That's OK - it's not like I won't be back there.
I've been to wineries before, but never had the upclose experience that Steve gave me that afternoon. It was fun and I felt like I was given the V.I.P. treatment by Steve. The Chateau Thomas winery does conduct tours, but I don't think you'll get the same tour - and tastings - that I had.
A special thanx to Steve Somermeyer (who's becoming somewhat of a regular contributor to my wine category) for sending along this little ditty from Canadian author and wine columnist Natalie MacLean.
Years ago, one of my former employers taught me a lot about wine. He also taught me that it's OK to drink red wine with fish, white wine with steak and that many low priced wines are pretty damn good. And he also told me that many "high-brow" wine enthusiasts are usually phonies.
Keeping his words in mind for nearly 20 years, this piece hit home for me...
The wine snob is a rare bird. His natural habitat is marked with mature Bordeaux and Burgundy. He is best approached from a distance, lest you disturb his decanting ritual. Note the way he holds his glass at the base while swirling the wine to the top rim. See how he displays his verbal plumage in the presence of cult cabernet.
Not all wine snobs are alike; there are several subspecies. Consider borus nonshutuputus. After listening to the dinner conversation for a few minutes, he will establish territory by contradicting the next-most-knowledgeable person present. When nosing the wine, he will scent not only the region and winery, but also what the vintner and his wife were arguing about on the day the grapes were harvested.
Borus technotalkatus is a related species, but note the difference in vocabulary. Just as mating calls distinguish many bird species, technotalkatus emits at regular intervals sounds such as "malolactic fermentation," "carbonic masceration" and "light carbonation."
Collectorosa completeca owns every great bottle from every great vintage. His most frequently heard call is, "I own that wine too." Any reference to France will cause him to pounce on the opportunity of telling his château story, including the nickname of the winemaker. Do not get excited if you're invited to his home: his wines are purely for display, and will not be consumed in his lifetime.
Finally there's healthus maniacutus, who doesn't necessarily like wine but takes it as medicine. Instead of a vintage chart, he keeps a list of various wines' resveratrol levels in his breast pocket. He's recalculated his expected lifespan based on his reduced risk of heart disease from drinking 1.5 glasses of wine daily. His favourite book is The French Paradox.
If you suddenly encounter any of these wine snobs at close range, retreat slowly to the beer cooler—they will not follow you there. Regroup and go in again with a few all-purpose adjectives such as "backward," "meaty" and "barnyard"; and some bon mots that hint at your world citizenship, such as "formidable" and "pas mal." (Be sure to say them with the right amount of nonchalance.) Let your listeners know that it causes you great personal pain to drink white zinfandel, the equivalent of an industrial pre-mix solution.
Much status can be gained from referring to your palate as though it were a protected archeological site—distinguishing between the forward, middle and back grids. This seriousness should be carried over to the restaurant wine list, which you can analyze like a Talmudic scholar poring over the sacred texts.
But be kind. Wine snobs are not only rare birds, they are also an endangered species. They are aesthetically assaulted by bladder boxes; systematically shocked by provincials who know nothing about terroir. Increasingly, they stay in their lair rather than venturing out into the open fields of social groupings, where they have become an easy target.
(To read the full article that this piece came from, visit Natalie MacLean's web site here.)
Part three of Steve Somermeyer's overview of the results of the 2006 Indy International Wine Competition held recently in Indianapolis. Here he looks at the top performing wineries in terms of medals won, and offers some "best buys" of the wines submitted at the competition.
For background information on the competition, see my earlier blog entry.
Top Performing Wineries:
This is the second segment of three parts of Steve Somermeyer's summary of the 2006 Indy International Wine Competition recently held in Indianapolis. For the first part of the summary, including the background on the competition, see my earlier post here.
In this part, Steve takes a look at the winners in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot, Zinfadel and other wine categories.
Cabernet Sauvignon: A very strong class this year with 8 concordance golds, 22 golds, 81 silvers and 77 bronzes. The best-in-class cab was Alexander Valley Vineyards '02 Cyrus. One surprise was a cab from Isreal winning a CG but the entry list doesn't give any information other than '04 Reserve. All of the other concordance golds were from California: Geyser Peak '03 Block Kuimelis Vineyard, Kenwood '03 Jack London Vineyard Sonoma Valley, Silver Ridge Vineyards '02 Barrel Select, Trinchero '02 Estate Bottled - Main Street, V. Sattui '03 Morisoli Vineyard Napa Valley, and Will Hill Estates '02 Reserve.
We used to drink a lot of Australian wines - that is, until the rest of the world found out the wine was very good at a cheap price and the demand went up. And as the demand went up, so did the price.
I'm always in the market for a good tasting low-priced wine. About three years ago on the recommendation of a friend in Omaha, he told me to check out Chilean wines. Most notably the wines from the Santa Rita vineyards.
Santa Rita wines are some of the best values I've found for a good wine at a low price. The Santa Rita vineyards date back to the 1880's when French grapevines were planted on the grounds. The combination of the rich Chilean soil and the mild year round weather contribute to great taste of the Santa Rita cabernet's.
The Santa Rita Reserva Cabernet is one of my favorites. It has a great flavor to it, fruity and full in taste, but the body is not too heavy. I've had people tell me that it has a little bit of a spicy aftertaste, but I'm not certian I get that from it.
The Santa Rita Reserva Cabernet is much lighter than their Merlot that has a much heavier body to it. I like a heavy red from time to time and Santa Rita Reserva Merlot is a good one to try.
Santa Rita's white Reservas are very good, too. Their Chardonnay is light and fruity, and has a hint of vanilla in its aftertaste. It's wonderful with fish and chicken. Their Sauvignon Blanc is drier than the Chard and not as flavorful. Still, it's a great value as you can usually find bottles of the Sauvignon's under $10 bucks.
If you want to go up in price and flavor, Santa Rita makes a wine that is absolutely spectacular - one that I'd put up against any good California or French moderately priced cabernet. Their Medalla Real Cabernet is robust, full bodied, and has a pleasantly lingering after taste. We had their 1999 Medalla Real Cab a year ago and even though it could have used a couple more years of aging, it was still outstanding.
Santa Rita also makes a cheap "table wine" called 120. The grapes for Santa Rita's 120 series of wines are grown in the central Chilean valleys, versus the lush and temperate Maipo Valley area for the rest of the finer wines. The 120's are OK, they're a little more bitter and they don't have the smooth taste and the pleasant after taste of the Medalla Real's or the Reserva's. Still, for around $6 bucks a bottle, it's a good table wine.
I like the Santa Rita wines, especially their Reserva Cab, an awful lot. They're a great bargain with great taste.
Some of our favorite white wines are the ones from Chalk Hill from Sonoma County. Owned by noted lawyer, avaitor and vintner Fred Furth and his wife, Peggy, Chalk Hill has turned out some great wines for a number of years.
We're partial to Chalk Hills Chardonnay's and their Sauvignon Blanc's, especially when we eat seafood dishes. Their Sauvignon's are dry, but not too dry where you can't taste the fruit. And their Chard's are smooth without the sour aftertaste that some Chardonnay's can have.
Chalk Hill Winery is in a hilly section of Sonoma County where the Furth's have used contour farming to use large amounts of their acreage for the grapevines. Cindy and I tried to visit the Chalk Hill Winery on our trip to California a few years ago, but they weren't set up for visitors at that time. It now appears that you can make reservations to go to Chalk Hill for tours, tastings and even a culinary tour and tasting.
Chalk Hill wines are tough to find in the Midwest, but you can order directly from Chalk Hill on line.
One of our favorite wines for special occasions is Judd's Hill from just outside St. Helena, CA in Napa Valley. They made a great cabernet sauvignon in 2001 that is rich and robust. But, then again, I've never had a Judd's Hill wine that was that way.
We were first introduced to Judd's Hill when one of my manufacturers took Cindy and I out for dinner at The Captain's Table restaurant along the river in Moline, IL. He had been to the winery before and ordered a couple bottles of wine. It was great, to say the least.
When Cindy and I made our trip out to California's wine region in 1999, we stopped outside St. Helena and called up the Judd's Hill winery. Bunnie Finkelstein - seriously, that's her name - answered the phone and we told her we were from Iowa and asked if we could possibly stop by the winery. She told me, "Oh, goodness. It's just me and a couple of our workers here today and we're out in the fields tending to the vines." She said that any other day, we'd be welcome, but today was not good.
She asked where in Iowa we were from and how we ended up hearing about Judd's Hill as it was not available in Iowa. I told her that we were from Davenport and she immediately said, "Oh, you get your wine at Gendler's!"
I said, "Yes! Do you know about Gendler's?"
She then told me that her husband, Art (at right, picture by Bill Hunter), grew up in Rock Island and moved to Los Angeles after college to become an architect. She said that they both had a love for making wine and they decided about 25 years prior to move to Napa Valley.
It turns out that Art was also instrumental in developing the Whitehall Lane winery with his brother. Whitehall Lane is also one of our favorite wineries, too. Art did some consulting work on the side and worked at the winery when time allowed.
They sold it in 1988 and Art ended up buying 14 acres near St. Helena to start up Judd's Hill. Whitehall Lane was producing about 30,000 cases a year, Art wanted to produce only about a tenth of that annually.
Judd's Hill is named after their only child, Judd (left), and at the time we were there they were only producing 400 to 500 cases of wine a year. It think their ouput is now close to the 3000 cases Art was looking to produce each year.