Purdue: Wine Capital of Indiana
Homepage Photo: The Richard P. Vine Enology Library at Purdue University.
State supported agriculture schools are a big reason for the growth of the Midwest wine industry. And perhaps no Midwestern university supports a wider range of efforts to promote local wine than Purdue University in West Lafayette. In many respects, the face of the Indiana wine is Purdue.
From small offices in the University’s Nelson Hall Food Science Building, a staff of four- the so-called Wine Grape Team- conducts a myriad of activities, all related to keeping Indiana wine production growing. Since 1989, the number of wineries in Indiana has grown from 9 to over 70 with new wineries set to open both this month and during January 2014.
Purdue manages two large wine events each year. During the summer, the Purdue team produces both the Indy International Wine Competition with over 3,000 entries and Vintage Indiana, Indiana’s largest wine festival. Both Vintage Indiana and the Indy International Competition are financed entirely by event revenues.
Other programs managed by the Purdue Wine Grape team fall under the Indiana Wine Grape Wine Council (IWGC) umbrella. The IWGC was established in 1989 and is funded by a five cent per gallon tax on all wine sold in Indiana.
“Since we are literally operating on pennies, we’ve learned to make our dollars stretch,” says Jeanette Merritt, marketing director of the IWGC.
Through the IWGC, the Purdue Wine Grape Team manages three websites- Wineries Indiana, Try on Traminette , and the Vintage Indiana domain.
While no Midwestern University, including Purdue, currently has a degree program in viticulture or enology, the Wine Grape Team places a special emphasis on undergraduate wine education.
The University’s 400 level Wine Appreciation class was ranked one of the most popular classes on campus by The Exponent, Purdue’s student newspaper. This class, taught by Wine Grape Team member Dr. Christian Butzke, attracts 250-300 students each semester. (Purdue was granted a special state license to serve wine on campus and participants must be 21 years of age.)
“Wine Appreciation is not an easy “A” like some students expect,” says Merritt. “We hope we’re raising the next generation of wine consumers; we want our students to be comfortable and responsible around wine in business and social situations.”
According to Purdue student Tera Fair who took the Wine Appreciation class, “When I start my public relations career, my education will help me chose wines for clients and business associates. I always thought the most expensive wine would be the best, but I learned that isn’t necessarily true.”
During September, I had the opportunity to sit in on Commercial Grape and Wine Production, a graduate level class taught by Dr. Butzke, Dr. Bruce Bordelon and enology specialist Jill Blume.
On this warm September morning, instructors and students were busy crushing Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Frontenac grapes at Purdue’s modern grape processing facility. The grapes all came from Purdue’s experimental vineyard near campus where 80 varieties are grown.
According to Blume, the purpose of the Grape and Wine Production class is to provide students with direct exposure to the sticky business of making wine. Lugging heavy grape bins and getting doused with grape juice in a controlled environment allows students to learn if the wine business is for them.
“Our department is more about applying knowledge than research. We know most of the people who work at Indiana wineries by their first names,” says Blume.
Participating in the Wine Production class on this day are Nyssa Boyd and Rick Black from nearby Wildcat Creek Winery. Nyssa graduated from Purdue with a degree in Food Science last year and she’s now the assistant winemaker. (Please see the sidebar for other Purdue grads who now work in the wine industry.)
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New Day Meadery owners Brett Canaday and Tia Agnew.
John Richardson and Bill Richardson of Mallow Run
John and Kim Doty of French Lick Winery
Tammy Hagemeier at Lanthier Winery
Nancie Corum Oxley, St. Julian Winery (MI)
Allyssa Beatty, St. James Winery (MO)
Dr. Amanda Stewart of Virginia Tech
Black, the owner and founder of Wildcat Creek, has leaned heavily on Purdue to help get his five year old winery started. ‘It’s been a long time since I was in school and it’s great to attend classes like this,” he says.
After the students have had the opportunity to work with the commercial grape press and crusher destemmer for a while, Dr. Bordelon asks, “Are you excited about your winemaking projects now?” The students answer is simultaneous and enthusiastic ‘yes!”
Not all the instruction in the Wine Production class occurs while standing up however.
In the classroom, Dr. Butzke relates his experience as a winemaker in Rhode Island and as a researcher at UC Davis. Dr. Butzke tells his students that if they want to make a technological breakthrough, they should consider Purdue’s acclaimed engineering school instead of being winemakers.
“Some people try to reinvent the wheel with wine,” Dr. Butzke explains to his students. ‘While it’s good to experiment, after 7,000 years of winemaking it’s unlikely that some genius is going to come up with something completely new.”
Learning about wine and its connection to history requires tasting lots of different wines. That’s where Purdue’s Richard P. Vine Enology Library and its collection of 2,000 wines plays a vital role.
The wine library was built in the basement of the Food Science building in 1999 using a donation from Fred Franzia, founder of Bronco Wines. In addition to the wine collection, there are more than one thousand books about winemaking and grape growing in the wine library, including a 1829 edition of The Vine Dresser by James Dufour, the first commercial grape grower in the U.S.
Purdue’s wine collection was amassed by Dr. Vine, retired professor emeritus of enology, while working as a consultant for American Airlines. (Dr. Vine retired from Purdue in 2004.)
During my class visit, students were asked to each take a bottle from the wall racks to taste. All of the wines the students selected were at least 15 years old. Some had aged better than others.
An ’85 Brunello had complex character as a result of decades in the bottle, but a 17-year-old Chablis was far past its prime. The over the hill Chablis may have been hard to swallow, but it provided an opportunity for Dr. Butzke to explain to students why white wines decline more quickly than reds.
Studying wine in college may be unusual in the Midwest, but passing wine knowledge to a new generation of wine drinkers is working at Purdue.