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New Albany, In. – Indiana wine as a whole, and River City Winery in particular, made some real history last week. Gary Humphrey was the first-ever Hoosier winemaker to produce the Indianapolis International Wine Competition’s top wine.

River City 2011 Vignoles was judged the best glass of wine out of 2,600 entries from 41 states and 14 countries. Indiana has had a variety win before when Butler Winery claimed the top Rose, but never the best over-all wine in the competition.

For one thick-headed day I tried to figure out how to visit the winery and snatch a bottle of the prize winner. It took most of the day for the fog to clear and remember I had business in Kentucky Tuesday and could easily come back through New Albany to River City Winery and Restaurant.

Humprhey pouring his wines

I have to admit, though River City has been around for about three years, I had seen the name but knew little about it. Humphrey has a unique business model – his winery tasting room is also a full-service, chef-driven restaurant. He does not have any distribution though he does participate in some wine festivals. If you want a bottle of that award winner, you can only get it in New Albany.

That approach allows him to do a couple of things. First, he can charge a bit more per bottle in a restaurant setting than most wineries can charge in a tasting room. But he also doesn’t have any ambition to become a major player state wide, he just wants to make great wine.

Humphrey also honors the community’s history on his labels and in helping lead a downtown revival. I’m going to be writing my newspaper column about River City this week.

Chef Davis’ crabcakes! Yummy!

But the Vignoles was something really interesting. I tasted, tasted again and had a glass with some incredible crab cakes. It has a remarkable freshness you just seldom get from any wine. That had to catch the judges’ eyes. It also had this quirky little hint of banana – yes, banana – that really set it apart from other Vignoles. Now, it has 2.5 percent residual sugar. Some wine lovers will find it a tad on the sweet side. It’s not Frosted Flakes sweet, nor traditional Concord grape sweet, but it is sweeter than a lot of wines. But that said, it was a beautifully crafted wine.

The wine retails for $28 a bottle. Humprhey admitted he learned from others that such a win might be a once-in-a-life-time thing. So he did what almost every big winner always does, he bumped the price pretty good. Let’s just say the wine was under $20 before last week. I certainly can’t find anything wrong with that!

Gary, who maintains his job as a New Albany police officer, recently purchased an adjoining building and has started renovations to expand the kitchen, dining area and add private meeting rooms. The location is downtown with beautiful exposed brick walls and tremendous grub. The winery is in the basement.

Pizza like this Feta/Spinach one has become a signature dish

At one point, Gary disappeared and came back with Executive Chef Nick Davis. Davis is a local who graduated from Louisville’s Sullivan Culinary School. The 23-year-old head chef buys local ingredients and has all sorts of ideas he’d like to try when he gets a bigger kitchen.

I had the best crabcakes I’ve ever had in land-locked Indiana. Davis added a wonderful bed of corn, black-eyed peas, herbs, and a hint of cayenne for a real kick.

The Vignoles isn’t Gary’s only interesting wine by a long shot. He’s working to perfect Riesling he buys from Kentucky and admits his red wine “program” isn’t quite where he wants it yet. He did pour a traditional Bordeaux blend that was “okay” to my palate but showed tremendous potential if he can find a consistent source for Cab, Cab Franc, and Malbec.

As most wine folks know Hoosiers like sweet wines. There is hardly an Indiana winery that doesn’t make a sweet Concord wine. Gary makes one too but he takes the wine and ages it in Kentucky Bourbon barrels for a unique finish. It weighs in at 7.5 percent residual sugar but tastes like much less. It is truly unique.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I will get an update online in the next few days about all of Indiana’s winners from the Indy competition. Oliver Winery won the Governor’s Cup for most wins and title of Winery of the Year. We’ll break down the other awards soon.

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