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BLOOMINGTON, In. – It’s a bit of an old adage that as businesses age adaption to changing times can determine continued success. No one can accuse Indiana’s oldest and biggest winery of resting on it’s size or laurels.

Great Indiana limestone, landscaping which leads to tasting room.

Oliver Winery’s name is synonymous with Indiana wine. IU Law Professor Dr. Bill Oliver is one of the “fathers” of the Indiana wine industry. In a certain age bracket, author included, many probably remember Camelot Mead as one of their first ever tastes of wine.

After four years of wine writing I finally made my way to Oliver winery Friday to interview Bill Oliver, the founder’s son, for a story on Indiana wine I’m doing for Palate Press.

Too many Hoosiers only know Oliver for its sales powerhouse Oliver Soft Red and Soft White. Indeed, you can go in many supermarkets, Wal-Marts, and other such places and find pallets or stacks of their famous sweet wines.

But Oliver has always had a lot more to offer. Now they have an entire line of very well made traditional varieties under the Creekbend label. They’ve also jumped into the cider craze with delightfully refreshing fruit-flavored ciders.

Oh, and Camelot Mead – or honey wine – is still around. It’s clean and crisp and they’ve added a flavored line of honey wines as well. I was anticipating not liking those because of a pre-conceived notion of sweetness and Oliver. I loved the honey wines and the cider. They were some of the most refereshing beverages I’ve tasted in a long time.

Bill Oliver during our walk/ride through the vineyards.

My time with Bill Oliver was very productive. And I’ll save most of that material for the Palate Press story or other writing efforts afterwards. I’ve toured a lot of wineries in recent years but was really impressed with Oliver’s state of the art winery capable of producing more than 400,000 cases annually.

A real treat for me – educationally and as a wine enthusiast, was hopping in the car and driving over to the Oliver Vineyards. Bill and I jumped into a golf cart and rode around the 50 acres of vineyard. He showed me how the weather has stressed some vines and not others, how some varieties like Traminette thrive in the dry and heat and how Chambourcin has struggled.

We tasted grapes! Verasion (or ripening) is not quite complete but close. The grapes are formed but a few weeks from full ripeness. The Pinot Grigo tasted absolutely awesome right off the vine.

I tell wine friends all of the time that a good winery tour will really aid your understanding of wine. A good vineyard tour takes the education to a master’s course. Wine makers love to tell you that great wine is made in the vineyard and not the winery.

A few quick notes on the wines I tasted. I started with a 2010 Viognier. I’m a so-so fan of the grape but liked Oliver’s interpretation that gets stainless steel fermentation. The wine was not as floral on the nose as many and lighter on the palate. It was delightful at $14 a bottle.

I also liked the Creekbend Chambourcin Rose. Indiana’s best Rose wines, to for my palate, come from the Cambourcin grape. This one has a few drops of traditional white wines but had the hint of strawberry that most good Rose wines show. For $12, it’s among the better choices in Indiana Rose.

The always-busy Oliver tasting room

For those who only think of Oliver’s sweet wines, the skeptics should get a taste of the 2009 Shiraz Reserve. I loved the oak-aged Syrah for its dark coffee, chocolate, and vanilla hints. It reminded me of a Rhone Syrah, done in a much lighter style than most traditional American Syrah wines. It sells for $22. Oliver is also one of those wineries really getting Chambourcin right. It’s light on the palate with some characteristics of Pinot Noir but a spicier finish. The 2010 Chambourcin sells for $22 and well worth trying.

I’m generally not a fan of things like cider and honey wine. But now I willingly admit tasting the honey wines and ciders might have been the best part of the tasting room visit.

I sampled the Camelot Mead and the Peach-flavored version. I just loved the peach. It tasted and smelled like a fresh peach off the tree. It was really refreshing.

I was “convinced” to try the ciders and just loved them. A local artist came up with great humorous art work for the aluminum bottles. I tried the raspberry Beanblossom hard cider and enjoyed the freshness and effervesence,

I think sometimes Oliver is overlooked because of its longevity and those grocery store sweet wines. If you’re one of those folks, you’re making a mistake. They really make something for everyone.You might not like Soft Red and Soft White but if you like well made reds, specialty wines, crisp and light white wines — take a drive to Bloomington.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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