Oliver Winery’s Journey to Become Midwest’s Largest Winery
During the early ’80s, Oliver Winery resembled a rustic farmstand by the side of Highway 37 in Bloomington, Indiana. Today, Oliver is the largest winery in the Midwest with production estimated to be over one million gallons a year. During February, Bill Oliver spoke at the Michigan Grape and Wine Conference about how he grew his father’s winery and what he sees for the future.
It all started when Bill’s father, William, moved to Bloomington in 1959 to join the Indiana University law faculty. William graduated from home winemaker to winery owner in 1972 when Oliver Winery opened.
Bill said that his father was caught in the same Catch-22 situation that many Midwestern winery owners face today: unable to leave his job for economic reasons, the winery languished for years. “We were growing primarily Aurora and Cascade in the early days, Dad was tied up in law school and there was not much money back then,” Oliver said.
“I was 23 years old with five employees, all older than me and they all hated me,”
Graduating from Indiana University in 1982 with a business degree, Oliver asked himself, “Do I want to work in an office building the rest of my life or do I make a go of it at my dad’s winery? So at age 23, Bill Oliver took over Oliver Winery.
“I was 23 years old with five employees, all older than me and they all hated me,” Oliver said. At the outset, the youthful Oliver had a simple pitch for his skeptical employees: “Just follow common sense wine making best practices and we can make this into something special,” he told his staff. “If we can make Oliver Winery attractive and make good wine, we will be successful.”
Projecting a professional appearance has always been important to Oliver. One of the first things he did as the new owner was to clean up the ramshackle winery. “Right away, I put up a couple of decent signs, hid an old, non-operational van behind the winery and sprayed weed killer on the parking lot.”
During 1997, Oliver decided to take on debt and build the landscaped grounds and tasting room that stand today. That investment paid off handsomely as Oliver now sells 30,000 cases a year from its tasting room.
Erecting the massive stacked limestone sculptures, gardens and fountains was expensive. So are the four full-time landscaping employees Oliver retains. “The tasting room and gardens have been a big draw for winery; we can’t quantify it, but I know it works,” Oliver told the gathering.
While great expense has been taken with the winery facilities, Oliver emphasizes winemaking as his calling card. “We are a wine making operation first, not a tourist destination.” In fact, there was a long period under Oliver’s leadership when the winery concentrated only on making wine and did not grow grapes.
“We are a wine making operation first, not a tourist destination.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, Oliver said the winery was focused primarily on making Camelot Mead. “This is what kept the winery going for many years; by ’78 we were selling 10,000 cases of Camelot Mead a year,” Oliver said.
“Camelot Mead has evolved into a much better wine and I claim we are now the world’s largest producer of mead, but I have no evidence to support that,” Oliver told the Michigan audience with his characteristic laugh and smile. Today, mead production is 40,000 cases a year.
Oliver Mead is sourced from local and regional apiarists. In the early days, Bill’s father relied upon Concord grapes grown by residents of the Madison State Mental Hospital. “They (the hospital residents) would grow the grapes and we would return some of the wine as payment,” Oliver said. But the mental hospital only had an acre of grapes so Oliver knew that they had to find other growers.
“Some of the first fruit we bought was Vidal Blanc from Lemon Creek (in Southwest Michigan); it made a beautiful wine,” Oliver recalled.
Years later, Bill and his wife Kathleen were at a grape growing seminar sponsored by Tom Zabadal of Michigan State University where they tasted Chardonnel for the first time. This experience was the catalyst that got Oliver back into grape growing. “By ’94, we had a little cash in the bank and we started our own Creekbend Vineyards,” he said.
See related story: Reds a “Natural” at Indiana’s Oliver Winery
“Deep tilling prior to planting is one way to get vine size up quickly,” Oliver said. “All our rows are perfectly straight too. We hope to become entirely mechanized at some point.”
About a quarter of the Oliver vineyard is devoted to Catawba, a decision that Oliver said met with some skepticism. “When I started Creekbend my wine buddies said, ‘Why are you planting Catawba, what’s up with that?'”
“But I really like Catawba. I think when it’s really ripe it makes a beautiful wine. So we’re going to treat Catawba like a wine grape, we’re going to shoot position and leaf pull, we’re going to put it in a French bottle and sell it for $13. I want everyone to find a wine they like here, I don’t want to pigeon-hole us as a dry winery.”
In 2011, Oliver told Midwest Wine Press that Labrusca wines account for about half the sales of the winery with Catawba as the biggest seller. At the Michigan Conference, Oliver divulged just how much Labrusca wine Oliver sells: “Now we’re selling about 190,000 cases of Soft Red (Concord) and 230,000 cases of Soft Rose (Catawba) a year,” he said.
“Now the wine trade is talking about this new phenomena called ‘sweet red wine,'” Oliver told the audience laughing again at his good fortune.
Although Oliver has been successful, he does not take the future for granted. “In ’83 when I started, my five employees were all older than me, now they’re all younger. It’s a different deal with managing younger people. We set high expectations, we set goals, and give people the tools they need to be successful.”
Oliver has also expanded with a new tasting room in downtown Bloomington. “Downtown Bloomington is vibrant and we opened a new tasting room there in November 2012. The revenue is twice what we projected, but the expenses are more than projected too,” Oliver said. At the new tasting room, Oliver is stepping gradually into food production with his first small plate offerings.
Oliver told the audience that he does not see the competitive landscape becoming any easier. “Looking forward, the consolidation of buyers tilts the playing field towards the really big guys. They are coming into our sandbox now,” Oliver said.
However, Oliver feels that regional producers have a built in competitive advantage over global brands. “We’re real and you’re real and I think the consumers get that, they can figure out what’s genuine and what’s not.”
Oliver told the audience that it is important to constantly innovate. He gave several examples of new procedures at Oliver including alternative wine closures, using centrifuges to stop fermentation and new analyzers that give wine parameters like volatile acidity and sugar in 30 seconds.
But, according to Oliver, the purpose of the entire enterprise is to make quality wine. “We love to make wine, that’s where our passion is. Steve Jobs said all he ever wanted to do was make a great product and that’s where we are today. We just want to make great product.”