BLOOMINGTON, In. – Every state has its wine pioneers, those brave souls who started turning grapes to wine when no one else would.

It’s easy to come up with California’s iconic brands like Gallo, Mondavi, Fetzer, and so many more. But can you name Indiana’s leaders? Names like Oliver, Thomas, Easley, Huber, and Butler are sure to be on just about anyone’s list.

Jim Butler, Butler Winery and Vineyards, got his start at Oliver in 1976 and then after about six years opened his own winery just north of Bloomington. Today, he has tasting rooms in downtown Bloomington and Chesterton. The third tasting room is at his vineyard and winery just a few miles north of Bloomington.

“Our focus has always been doing Indiana-grown grapes,” Butler said. “There are a lot of wineries that establish their name, but base things on California grapes. There are Indiana wineries that do that. But my philosophy has always been ‘as long as we’re bringing grapes in from California and using the names Cabernet and Chardonnay we’re promoting California not Indiana.’ ”

Butler has proven to the world he knows how to make fine wine equal to any California producer. He holds the honor of being the first Indiana winery to ever win one of the top five awards at the prestigious Indy International Wine Competition. Butler’s 2008 Chambourcin Rose’ was named best Rose’ in the 2009 international contest. The annual competition draws more than 3,000 wines from 10 different countries.

“We sold out of that one very quickly and we raised the price twice,” Butler laughed. “That just kind of established the fact it can be done. I don’t know how long the good will lasts but it definitely is good for credibility.”

Butler started at its downtown Bloomington location in 1983 and then expanded to its current winery/vineyard site in 1991. The Chesterton tasting room opened in June 2008. Butler produces more than 2,500 cases annually.

The grape varieties he grows and buys from other Indiana vineyards includes Cayuga, Vignoles, Chardonel, Chambourcin, Traminette, Catawba, and Concord. He also makes a few fruit wines from Indiana growers.

“I think clean and fresh (describe our wines),” he said. “We try to never put anything in the bottle we’re not proud of. No matter where you go, what state, you’re going to find wines and wonder why they bottled it. That’s something I’ve always tried not to do. We’ve always focused on good sound quality.”

Butler wants to increase his red wine lineup and he’s looking north for one of the possibilities. He recently planted Marquette, a grape developed by cool climate guru the late Elmer Swenson from the University of Minnesota.

“It’s an early grape, a cousin to Frontenac, but the Marquette has a better tannin structure,” Butler said. He hopes to make a 100 percent varietal bottling of Marquette. The wine is usually described as one with a cherry, berry, black pepper, and spice smell and flavor.

Howard’s Picks:
2009 Chambourcin Rose’, $13.95
– All of the 2008 top prize winner is gone but this remains a beautiful Rose’ wine. You get hints of cherry and even apple from Butler’s signature wine.

2009 Chambourcin, $18.95 – This really nice dry red wine, aged in French Oak, is at the top of Butler’s price point for grape varietal wines. But it’s worth every penny. I’ve tasted a lot of bad Indiana Chambourcin and a few pretty good ones. Butler’s Chambourcin ranks near the top.