Airline Wines: Service is good and the price is right

On my way back from Indiana, American Airlines was kind enough to provide tastings of a few onboard wines. The Callaway California Merlot, Cellar Selection Vintage 2006, 13.5% alcohol, proved much more drinkable than the aroma first emanating from that teensy apĂ©ritif glass which the airline uses. Grapes sourced from Monterey and Lodi are aged in French and American oak for between 3-6 months, says the back label. Chilled by airline storage, it took a while to open up (as much as a red will open up with a 2" glass aperature…). Yes, there is a bit of vanilla in this wine per the label and it is wonderfully clean with moderate tannin. Nice selection. I really enjoyed the label notes too, good job Callaway! They give kudos to their guiding winemaker Robert Pepi, noting that he pioneered the "Two Heart Canopy" trellising system. It's good to see vineyard practices like this noted; having sat in on two horticultural congresses recently (Kentucky and Indiana), I know these guys are unsung heros all too frequently. The flight attendant pointed out the saying printed on the cork (which almost obscured the fact that they are using a less expensive 1+1 instead of a full cork…) and that was "Water separates the people of the world, wine unites them". A comment particularly appropro of the coming water wars as California faces a HUGE drought this next season. Price: two upgrade coupons IND to DFW.

Indiana Wines make Going Back-Home-Again a Real Treat

I'll be posting lots more about the Indiana wine industry, but here's a start. There was much to learn about wines from my home state, and the wine industry that's building as fast as Obama shoots hoops (after all, basketball is the official religion in the Hoosier State...)

At Butler Winery, a few miles east of Oliver, I spent a pleasant hour visiting with winemaker Jim Butler and his wife Susie in their tasting room. Jim spent 5 years as the winemaker at Oliver before establishing his own vineyard in 1982. Along with oldest son John, he's the author of the book "Indiana Wines". I tasted their Chambourcin 2005, which won a silver medal at the 2007 Indy International Competition. This is a popular grape for Midwestern wines; it ripens in late September which provides some protection from the hot humid sun of Central Indiana summers and allows winemakers to harvest before too much predation from deer takes place. This lovely wine is barrel aged for six months in American oak barrels, and is light and refreshing. $15.95. Their Chambourcin 2006, Jim believes, has excellent aging potential and tasting notes indicate aroma of pear and spice with tones of dark cherry and raspberry. He suggests pairing with lamb, beef and game. $17.95.

The Butler wine which I took home to my brother's table in Indianapolis was their Indiana White, a superb value of a versatile table wine, comprised of Indiana Uplands Vignoles fruit (25%) and Cardonnel (75%). Tasting notes indicate flavor and aroma of peach and nectarine, but those are faint enough to not overwhelm a clean tasting table white. $11.95. The Butler Indiana Red is made from Indiana Uplands Chambourcin grapes from the 2007 harvest, which Jim describes as a "wonderful Chambourcin harvest." At 10.5% alcohol, this red has aroma and taste of cherry that is not overwhelming, and makes a very presentable table red. $11.95

If you don't wind through the back roads from Oliver to Butler Winery, don't fret. You can visit one of their satellite tasting rooms in Bloomington (where Indiana University is located) or Chesterton, Indiana. Butler Winery is a family enterprise through-and-through, so you'd meet more of the family at these tasting rooms too.

When I drove up north from Kentucky, the first winery I visited in my home state of Indiana was Oliver Winery, located in Bloomington, Indiana, just a few miles north of Indiana University's campus. This is the oldest and biggest winery in Indiana. Featuring a tasting room and shop with food-for-picnic items and wine-related merchandise, this tasting room can accommodate a large crowd. I enjoyed their Marechal Foch Nouveau 2008, which is an estate bottled wine from their own Creekbend Vineyard. On the nose, it has a strong berry, and upon tasting, a hint of cranberry. 10% alcohol. Tasting notes describe it as "fresh, fragrant and flavorful. Everything a nouveau should be. A delicious match with pork." $12/bottle

Kentucky Wines running a Great Race!

It's not just all about bourbon in Kentucky -- there is more and more buzz about the fine wines that come from this growing region. That was part of what I learned from sitting in on several sessions at the 2009 Fruit and Vegetable Conference and Trade Show held in early January in Lexington Kentucky. (My thanks to my industry friends who tipped me off to this event... because, yes, wines are a fruit-based product, but who woulda thunk there'd be so much great info on Kentucky wines at this event! Hats off to the organizers!)

First, you should know that there is a wonderful map that will guide you to 34 Kentucky wineries that's available from ; I particularly liked the fold-out pocket size format, and the grid that shows distances between wineries which helps you plan your travel quite efficiently . The website has several useful features too, including some historical background. Here's a bit:

"Kentucky has ideal temperatures and climate for growing well-balanced grapes like those grown in the noble regions of France and Italy. The region's early settlers knew this. In 1798, a European settler named Jean Jacques du Four planted the first Kentucky Vineyard. Many European immigrants planted extensive vineyards in Kentucky. In fact, the first commercial vineyard was started in Kentucky, and backed by money from several prominent statesmen, including Henry Clay. By 1870, Kentucky was a leading wine producer, producing more than half the nation's output at that time."

The website talks about wandering through vineyards .... but in early January, you'd better have winter coats and cozy boots on! Still, visiting the wineries is fun. I visited Wight-Meyer, a bit south of Louisville, and I had a warm welcome from winemaker Jim Wight.

Wight-Meyer's wines were among those presented at the Kentucky wine tasting part of the convension, and Jim Wight is justly proud of the medals his wines have won at the 2008 and 2007 Indy Commercial Wine Competitions. We had a few bottles of our favorites shipped to us after visiting his fastidious and growing facility. Jim's personal favorite is the Kentucky Norton Reserve, which uses only Kentucky grown Norton grapes, and is barrel aged for 27 months. $18.99 at the vineyard. I agree, it's a terrific wine, with nice hint of cherries and a tone of vanilla.

To finish off a dining experience, it would be hard to equal the taste pleasureof the Wight-Miller semi-sweet wine, Vingoles, which won a Silver 2008 medal in the Indy competition. Jim's tasting notes just about wrap it up: tastes of apricot and pear with a clean citrus finish, with 2% residiual sugar. $12.99 at the vineyard.

Sadly, Wight-Miller is sold out of their Winter Solstice dessert wine. It was made from concentrated Diamond grapes from his vineyard, and fermented it super-sweet. It won a Gold at the 2008 KY competition. Try to get the next year's before it sells out. At $30 per bottle, the 2008 was no doubt worth every penny.

In talking about packaging and production (my professional interest), Jim is a big believer in using hybrid barrers, which feature American oak stays (sides) and French oak heads (top,bottom). The American oak stretches the phenols out, he believes, and the French oak contributes a great oakiness that's hard to beat. They source attractive labels from Innovative Label Solutions. Jim pays close attention to sanitation and to the technical aspects of his winemaking, as behooves a fellow with an electrical engineering degree; his day job is working in the missile systems division of Raytheon. For more info, see

I didn't get to Elk Creek Vineyards for an on-site tasting of wines and crushpad tour at this biggest winery in Kentucky. Owner Curtis Sigretto is known for his hospitality, and he's built a beautiful facility including a lodge with spa treatments available, and a world class tasting room. Their first estate wines are an Estate Cabernet Franc and and Estate Chardonnel -- both grapes that do very well in the Kentucky terrior of the northern Kentucky river region where Elk Creek is located. The winery has an upcoming "Cooking with the Stars" event, so be on the lookout for it. For more info, see