Bill Oliver is leading a sweet life. His family’s namesake winery is known primarily for sweet wines Oliver Soft Red and White.
He jokes about world domination when asked about his expansion plans. While world domination might be out of reach, many might be surprised to learn dominating 47 states isn’t out of the question. He’d easily achieve that milestone if he reaches his longer-term goal of one million cases of Oliver wine produced annually.
Few wineries outside of California, Washington state or Oregon produce more than 250,000 cases. St. James Winery in Missouri produces over 200,000 cases annually. Leelanau Cellars and Chateau Grand Traverse in upper-state Michigan are both well over 100,000 and pushing 200,000 cases. Texas has the Ste. Genevieve winery and 200-acre Mesa Vineyard, which produces about 600,000 cases each year.
Oliver Tasting Room north of Bloomington
Oliver is positioning his Bloomington operation to become the biggest winery in the U.S. not located in California, Washington or Oregon. Wine production reached 400,000 in 2016, and Oliver expects to hit the half-million case mark in 2018.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying we want to be a one million case winery,” Oliver said, after being reminded he shied away from sharing that number publicly two years ago. “It might be eight years or so to get there.
“We don’t know what the competition is going to do. We don’t know what the economy is going to do, so we set our sights on that and go for it. All I can ask is we put our best foot forward today, and whatever numbers happen, happen. It’s how we operate I’m concerned about. I judge success by how much we’re trying.”
Longtime Oliver staples Soft Red and White still drive sales. But new products like cherry Moscato and even newer Blueberry create growth. Last year, Oliver introduced Apple Pie wine made from apples and with a distinctive taste of – you guessed it, apple pie. The 10,000 cases made all sold and led production to ramp up to 25,000 cases in 2017.
Those wines accounted for 10 percent of Oliver’s growth last year. Oliver has products most Hoosiers never see. He added a line called Porch Swing that he offers exclusivity to large supermarket chains as his sales force goes state to state. He describes Porch Swing as similar to the Soft wines but with a bit of effervescence. HEB, the largest grocery chain in Texas, was the first to snap up Porch Swing.
According to Oliver, sales were brisk. Oliver has had his entire line of sweet wines repackaged for the modern consumer’s eye. Even the landmark Camelot Mead has a funky new label. Mead started Oliver’s success in the 1970s.
“That goes way back for us,” Oliver said. “At first we were making that wine in volume, and it really kept the doors open. It was well before this craft mead phenomenon we see now. Back then we were the only ones doing it.
“We made it 45 years ago before it was cool. We’ve gotten good at it. It’s tricky, and we’ve figured a lot of the pitfalls out. We make this really clean, really fresh aromatic pure kind of mead from orange blossom honey.”
Additionally, the winery has four new secret wines in test production. He believes a couple of those wines have potential for huge sales. He’s quick to add that growth is not about ego, it’s about sales. “We’d like to be a lot bigger than we are, but I think we’ll get there,” Oliver said. “It’s more challenging than it once was. There’s a lot more players in the market we play in, which is sweet wine, and a lot more players in grocery stores. Groceries would rather deal with fewer suppliers; it’s just easier for them.”
A new 30,000-square-foot Oliver production facility is the first step in ramping up production and sales. That building has a bottling line and considerable warehouse space for mountains of sweet wines. A second production building of similar size is planned.
Oliver’s wines reach 22 states. The company’s sales focus has been the Southeast, with strong markets in Texas, Florida and Tennessee. Oliver said the sales staff is concentrating now on Georgia and the Carolinas. It could take up to eight years to reach one million cases, Oliver said.
He admits it doesn’t really matter whether they hit it, as long as they’re developing new products, maintaining quality and giving it all a good effort. He denies that distribution in all 50 states is a goal. But if Oliver was the biggest wine producer in 47 of those 50, he’d consider it one sweet deal.