Editor’s Note: This piece initially appeared in Madison Magazine, published quarterly in Anderson, ,In. It was recently sent out in a shorter version as my usual newspaper column. It appears here in its full length as written for the magazine.
Oliver Winery in Bloomington may be known as one of the country’s biggest producers of sweet wines. But a recent Pinot Noir project provides proof that winemaking skill is not limited to the United States’ west coast.
A mere 300 cases of a $45 Pinot Noir is just a smidgen of the Bloomington winery’s annual production. Oliver produced approximately 320,000 cases of wine in 2015. But for Bill Oliver and winemaker Dennis Dunham the Pinot project has shown what they can do with world-class fruit.
“We have the broadest range of business in our fan base,” Oliver explained. “Our bread and butter is sweeter wines. Those wines keep the lights on and that’s the reality of the world we live in. This project is about making wine for that part of our customer base who appreciates Pinot. It’s also an ability factor, it kind of shines a light on everything else we do. And, we like to drink it.”
That Pinot Noir is made of grapes from the much-respected Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley of California’s Central Coast. While the Oliver $45 price point might raise eyebrows in Indiana, a Bien Nacido wine in California consistently brings a much higher price.
How special is Bien Nacido? Price point explains much when it comes to wine grapes. Generally, good fruit can be purchased from the better California vineyards for $1,200-$2,000 a ton. At the other end of the spectrum is Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which commands a king’s ransom of $6,000-$10,000 a ton. The extreme is the famous To Kalon vineyard, of Robert Mondavi fame, which commands in the neighborhood of $20,000 a ton and a required minimum of $100 price per bottle.
Oliver admitted he’d never paid more $1,600 a ton prior to 2013. The five tons of Bien Nacido Pinot Noir grapes cost the winery $4,500 a ton. Oliver has acquired five tons a year for the past three years. The first Pinot, a 2013 vintage, was released this past summer. The 2014 will be released during spring 2016.
Now to understand the wine math, it takes a ton of grapes to produce about 70 cases of wine.
Bien Nacido fruit is highly desired by the best California Pinot producers. During a 2014 visit most wineries with a Bien Nacido Pinot were charging $60 and higher to much higher per bottle.
Oliver has had a long standing relationship with the Miller family which owns a large Paso Robles vineyard, French Camp. The Millers purchased Bien Nacido in 1969 with the idea it would be great for a number of agricultural products including grapes.
“We’ve bought fruit from them for probably 10 years,” Oliver said. “We’ve gotten to know them well. It’s been a fun and collaborative effort.”
Oliver has bought many of the standard California varietals from the Millers but became aware they owned the rock star vineyard as well. “They’re very protective of it,” he said. “They’re very concerned that every winery that buys fruit from Bien Nacido creates wine they can be proud of. They have a brand so selling their fruit is a big deal to them.”
Oliver and Dunham have visited the Millers in California and the vineyard owners have returned the visits. “They had been here and visited and over time as our relationship matured I think they became confident that we were the kind of winemakers they wanted making wine from Bien Nacido. They granted us the privilege to buy their grapes.”
Many Indiana wineries buy California fruit. Getting the grapes to Indiana requires significant cost as well. The freshly picked fruit is packed into cardboard boxes with dry ice and arrives in two days. “It takes a lot of coordination,” Oliver winemaker Dunham said. “I talk to them about when they’re going to pick. If they’re picking at night (when temperatures are cool), we have a truck there the next morning. It’s amazing if you look at the grapes, other than being in a cardboard box you wouldn’t know that the fruit didn’t come from our vineyard.”
Terroir, that over-used wine word, is what makes the Bien Nacido fruit so special. “When I was in Paso Robles at French Camp visiting it was 92 degrees,” Dunham said. “When I got back to the guest house at Bien Nacido it was 62 degrees. Bien Nacido is like just over the hill, not very far at all but it’s a magical place.”
Pinot Noir, a thin-skinned grape, likes day time heat and cool nights.
Oliver admitted to some trepidation about taking on the challenge. “Pinot is a wine that has a reputation as being challenging to make so we wanted to be thoughtful about it,” he said. “On a per gallon basis a lot more resources went into this than any other wine we’ve ever made.”
Oliver, who was primary winemaker in his early years, and Dunham have learned more about making Pinot each year. During a late October tasting at the winery, Oliver and Dunham sipped the 2013, the soon-to-be released 2014, and the new 2015 vintage in a vertical tasting.
The 2013 is a lean and austere Pinot. The distinctive Pinot fruit does comes through with balance. The unreleased 2014 is even better with more extracted fruit – or in less wine-geeky terms – more pure Pinot flavor. The 2015 was moving to new French Oak barrels at the time of the visit.
“One of the things in learning to make Pinot Noir is you can over-extract the grapes and get pepper and stuff,” Dunham said. “We started light on the first one and now we’re at the point we think we have changed our winemaking just a little bit to extract a little bit more.”
In some circles such an expensive exercise can be called a ‘vanity project.” In all probability, neither Oliver nor Dunham would argue.
“Sometimes you are there in the vineyard and it’s a magical place and being there the wine just tastes better,” Dunham said. “One of the things about Bien Nacido is it’s just a great place to grow Pinot Noir. But it’s hard not to be in that area and not love anything in your glass. But being here at our winery and having Pinot Noir in your glass of this quality … it’s really, really good fruit and great wine.”
Oliver said buying the top quality fruit and producing a great Pinot is good for business. “We’re at a pretty high confidence level with everything we’re making,” he said. “Those people in California don’t have anything on us in winemaking.”
The 2013 Oliver Bien Nacido Pinot Noir is available only at the Bloomington winery.