Interview: Kevin Geeting of Country Heritage Winery
Just about 40 miles south of the Michigan state line sits Country Heritage Winery. Northeastern Indiana isn’t exactly known for its viticulture, but Country Heritage Winery is growing and making some fantastic wine, proving there is more than corn in Indiana. It is also providing a blueprint for other marginal regions on how to punch above your weight. Varietal selection, winemaking skill, and a scrappy attitude are vital when the deck is stacked against you, and this winery has it in spades. Check out our previous reviews of their La Crescent here and their Marquette here.
We recently sat down with Kevin Geeting, the winemaker at Country Heritage to discuss the winery and the state and future of Indiana wine. Kevin grew up in nearby Auburn, Indiana, and after graduating college with a degree in Mathematical Science, he joined the corporate world. A company steakhouse dinner led to him tasting the 1998 Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. It was that moment the wine bug bit, and Kevin went from home winemaking to becoming a weekend cellar rat at Stoney Ridge Winery just across the Ohio border to a stint as winemaker at Wolf Gap Winery in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Then, friends Jennifer and Jeremy Lutter told him they were starting a winery and asked him to come home to become their winemaker.
Ten years later, Country Heritage has an expansive lineup of vinifera, hybrid, and fruit wines. It has won many accolades, including the 2019 award for best Indiana Winery at the Indiana State Fair. Like many wineries in non-traditional areas, Country Heritage has become an agritourism destination and a cultural hotspot for nearby residents. Most summer and fall weekends, the winery is filled with hundreds of guests ready to take advantage of the live music coming from the outdoor amphitheater. The vineyards have greatly expanded as well, with seventy-one acres of grapes containing fourteen varietals, another thirty acres soon to be planted, and forty employees.
Our interview is long, but Kevin was a great conversationalist and we think you will enjoy all of it.
What goes into being a winemaker at Country Heritage besides making the wine?
Well, you help out wherever needs helping out. That means working in the vineyard as needed or doing anything else that needs done. Jeremy and I also worked together at the beginning picking the varietals and got everyone else involved in that as well, because the number one thing we want to do is make wine from the things we grow. It is easier when the team is on board with that.
Tell me someone who helped you on your wine journey that deserves a shout out?
Pamela Ledyard at Stoney Ridge Winery was good enough to hire me as a part-timer. She needed help in the vineyard and took a chance on someone who really didn’t know anything about growing grapes. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is a pretty dry and mountainous AVA. How was the adjustment coming back to Indiana and making wine here again?
There, wine was really establishing a foothold. The public was paying attention, they were growing vinifera and other varietals, and were taking it very seriously. They liked to think they were the Napa Valley of the East Coast. In the northern part of Indiana, we just didn’t have any wineries outside of Satek. I knew it was going to be tough because we were really going to have to educate our customer base since this was not a natural wine country.
If there was something you could magically take from Virginia and bring to Indiana, what would it be?
If I could take the ability to grow Cab Franc and bring it here, I would in a heartbeat. I wish we could grow vinifera, but our growing season is just too short.
The recent winter storm reminded us that every five to seven years a polar vortex is coming. What are you worried about in the vineyard come bud break?
This year I think we are ok. The coldest we got was -6°F, and everything here is good to -15°F or -20°F. A few years ago we did have to replace some varietals. We tore out the Cayuga White and replaced it with Frontenac Gris because we just kept losing it every three years or so. Vignoles is a good varietal for us, but we have lost some due to harsh winters in the past.
Your wine list is expansive. How do you manage a product line like that while maintaining quality?
It is difficult. When we first started out, we wanted to make an array of wine to get to everyone. You make a variety of styles and sweetness levels hoping you can get everyone to purchase something. But over time, our offerings expanded, and it becomes like having a bunch of children, harder and harder the more you have. Honestly, we could perhaps bump up quality a bit if we cut back our offerings. I couldn’t do what I do without our team, as the pace during harvest season can be backbreaking.
I think at some point the list will shorten, and we will likely do it by making less single varietal bottlings and focus on blends.
You source a lot of vinifera from out West. How do you manage the logistics of ensuring you get quality fruit?
It was a challenge in our early days. Finding sources as a new winery is hard. We had some tough batches that came in, grapes with mold on it, and it was just so discouraging. Once we found quality sources we could trust, it became much easier. We are now at the point with our sources that if they won’t make wine from their fruit, they won’t send it to us.
What is easy and what is difficult when it comes to selling your wine?
It is easy to sell the public Cabernet Sauvignon. It is much harder to sell them Marquette and La Crescent because they just don’t know those names. It is also harder to sell blends, and with something like hybrid reds especially, blending is very important. It is tough to make a dry red hybrid single varietal here, but you can improve the wine substantially by blending. That education is our responsibility, but it is a learning curve for our customers.
Is there a heartbreak grape for you? One you wanted so badly to make work and just couldn’t?
Traminette. We tried to grow it, and actually won Traminette of the Year in 2012 at the Indy International Wine Competition, but we were tearing those grapes out two years later because it just didn’t work on our property. We have managed to find a source an hour away that grows it very well, but it just didn’t work in our site.
Let’s talk more about Traminette, which has been designated as Indiana’s “Signature Grape.” Should Indiana even have a signature grape, and does the focus on Traminette stifle other varietals?
Traminette probably should not be our signature grape. That is not a knock on Traminette, because when you taste a really good one, it is fantastic. I think our 2020 is going to be fantastic. The problem is getting that quality across the board and across the state. I could taste a flight of La Crescent or Brianna from around the state, and every one of them could be good wines. You don’t get disappointed with their uneven quality like you do Traminette. Traminette is not forgiving, it can punish you in the vineyard and it can punish you in the cellar if you aren’t careful. It seemed the logical choice because it had done well in the vineyards it had already been planted but it just doesn’t work everywhere, and a lot of people who did plant it after it being named the state grape tore it out. It is a tough thing to call it a signature grape when it is just so picky about where it is planted. That being said, I do have a soft spot for it and don’t want it to die out here.
I just don’t understand why more vineyards here don’t try La Crescent, Brianna, or Frontenac Gris. They are good down to -35°F and they don’t really show any winter damage. They are high acid, so they require some work in the vineyards and again in the cellar, but they are versatile. I don’t have to have a perfect growing season for those, but it has to be much closer to perfect for Traminette. For every good Traminette I have tasted, I have had a dozen that were average at best.
Tell me about the challenges of making fruit wines as opposed to grape wines?
We make our fruit wines from 100% fruit. We don’t use concentrate at all. It is very labor intensive. You are dealing with high acid and low pH, and preserving flavor and color can be a challenge. I would argue it is harder to make a great fruit wine than it is a great grape wine. Grapes want and are destined to be wine. Some of these fruits resist it mightily. But you want to make fruit wines up here so you can have something for everyone. Our blackberry and our cranberry are very popular, and I just don’t see us dropping those off our list.
I noticed there was only one fortified wine on your list, a raspberry. Are there plans to make more?
We actually have a Marquette Port-style and a Petit Verdot in a Port-Style in barrel now and we are really looking forward to those.
What do you think about the ageability of Indiana wines?
Most are to be drunk young obviously. As for our reds, I think our Marquette peaks at around five years. You are never going to have hybrids aging for twenty or thirty years, as the tannins and complexity just aren’t there. We have been lucky with our Marquette, and we have a great site for it, but I think anytime past five years is just pushing it.
How supportive has the local community been? You hear horror stories about NIMBYism when people hear a winery is moving in.
Wonderful. Early on, there definitely was a “what in the world is a winery coming to LaOtto for? That will never work.” I wish I had a dime for every time I heard that. But it was never hostile, and the attitude quickly changed. Just come out on a Saturday night in July and you will see how much support we get.
Where do you see Country Heritage in five years?
Hopefully continuing our growth. If we can get to a point where we become a destination, that would be great. We hired a chef this year, and are upping our game with the food we are offering. We are hoping to have a restaurant one day as well, and maybe an upscale wine label.
Where do you see Indiana wines in five years?
Hopefully getting better. We are still learning as a state what works for us. Obviously, the folks downstate had a head start, but we are working hard at closing the gap as we figure out what we can do. It also makes it nicer for folks in a big metro area like Indy because they can go to wineries in two directions now.
I think we are getting better. I hope we are getting better, but it is hard to make wine here. It was easier in Virginia. The climate makes it tough, and hybrids are not always easy to work with. If someone gives you good Cabernet Sauvignon, you have a really good chance of making good wine…but it takes a much more skilled hand to do that with hybrids.
Purdue is the Indiana agriculture school. How do they help Indiana wineries?
They have been very helpful to us, and I think every winery in the state. You can send samples to them for testing, they help with marketing, vineyard seminars, varietal and site selection, and they really work hard to help everyone get to where they want to be. We really need everyone making good wine here. We can’t survive on just a few making good wine. That is how you get attention, especially out of state. Purdue is really helpful with that.
I will say we don’t always listen to them. They advised us not to plant our acre of Norton this far north, since it doesn’t ripen until the first week of October, but we still have it and it is a big seller for us.
How did COVID change how you do things?
We have obviously had to make great concessions to be open when they allowed us to be open. No tastings at the tasting bar really hurt us, but we adjusted with reserved tastings where we could bring a wine flight to you. We are now at 50% capacity, but we are just waiting for nicer weather since our outdoor area lets us host a lot of people. A lot of our wines require hand-selling, especially the hybrids, and being able to convince people to buy without a sample is a challenge. The upside to being a new wine region is that people who come in tend to be gutsy and will try it, but without a sample, like in a retail store, it is a challenge.
How is the regulatory and legal environment in Indiana, and is there anything you would like to see change?
Not letting small wineries self-distribute puts us at such a disadvantage. Making us go through a wholesaler is just so cumbersome, especially when other states around us can do it. If that was changed, I think a lot of smaller wineries would survive.
It also is a struggle when state and federal laws are not the same. Container sizes is a good example, with the feds telling us we can use a certain size of container and the state saying we can’t. Syncing those up would be helpful. Right now, we are not supposed to be putting wine in a can, but out of state wineries can do that and can sell it right on the shelf here in Indiana. Cider can go in a can, but not wine. There is no logic behind that.
What also hurt us during COVID was not being able to sell wine outside, even on our grounds. If you have a detached building, you can’t sell it from there, customers have to come inside the winery to purchase. They just don’t understand why they can buy food one place but not the wine.
The laws, or rather the interpretation, change all the time. There is so much uncertainty when they tell us one time we can do it, then the next time we can’t. Or when the rules change based on something like whether we serve food. Some consistency would be great.
Are there any varietals you think are perfect for Indiana and you want to plant, but haven’t got around to yet? And what is in the vineyard now that you haven’t made yet?
They are constantly coming up with new hybrids all the time, and I would like to think the perfect varietal for Indiana hasn’t even hit the market yet, but we will see.
We have Itasca, St. Pepin, Frontenac Blanc, and Petit Pearl in the vineyard now but haven’t had a chance to harvest any yet.
Was there a vintage you had where everything was going perfect in the vineyard and it just fell apart?
2018 was one. We actually didn’t make a dry Marquette that year, the only time that has happened. The fruit was looking really good and then all of the sudden it just fell apart, the skins got soft and it was just falling on the ground. The best we could do was make rosé.
Was there a year when it was June or July and you thought “this is not going to be good” and you actually surprised yourself with how things turned out?
This last year, 2020, being as dry as it was, I had a suspicion we were going to make good dry reds, but I did not think our whites were going to make it. Usually when it is that hot and dry, all the character and freshness is baked out of the grapes. But that didn’t happen, and they turned out amazing. I think it is the strongest catalog of white wines we have made. The berries were small, but they came along just great. The quality across the board was just amazing.
Editors Note: After above average rain totals in May, June and July, Indiana experienced a drought from early August to Mid-October. September received just .1 inch of rain all month. Around Mid-October, the drought broke, with flooding broke out in many places due to the unusual volume of rain.
If you could meet the Kevin who is going to the winery asking to work weekends, knowing what you know now, what do you tell him?
Well, I really wish I knew this is what I was going to do before that, and I would have changed my major in college. Starting at 28 when I did, I do wonder where I would be if I started sooner. But I would also say be a sponge. Go talk to people and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I have people come to me all the time and I always try to be available, always try to return calls and emails because I remember that I was once a home winemaker with a passion to do this and somebody gave me a chance, so I feel obligated to give them a chance as well.
Speaking of that, there just seems to be such a sense of collegiality in the wine industry. Why do you think that is?
Because we need each other. If you want to go to wineries outside your core area, you want to see more than one winery. No one really wants to travel to see one winery. But put four to six good wineries together, and you will draw people from far away.
What do you drink at night when you go home? You're not allowed to say wines you make!
Bordeaux blends, specifically Cabernet Franc forward ones.
Is there a question no one ever asks you but you wish they would?
No one ever asks me just how difficult the job is. I think a lot of people think we sit around and drink wine all day. This is a tough business. It is grape farming. The hours are long in the spring and fall. You are at the mercy of the weather. All your personal plans take a backseat to making wine because you have such a short window to harvest and that is when you make your money. If you aren’t prepared for that, this isn’t the business for you.