Interview: Purdue Enologist Jill Blume
The history of Indiana wine predates statehood. In the early 1800s, Swiss immigrants settled near Vevay, along the Ohio River in the Southeast Indiana, and planted Alexander grapes. Then, Nicholas Longworth’s nearby Cincinnati wine empire (based on the Catawba grape) expanded to Indiana in the 1820s until disease wiped out the vineyards at the end of the century. What few wineries remained did not survive Prohibition, but a few enterprising souls convinced the 1971 Indiana General Assembly to pass the nation’s second Farm Winery Act (the main author of the legislation was Indiana University law professor William Oliver, founder of Oliver Winery, now the largest winery in the Midwest).
Fast-forward twenty years, and the late 1980s Indiana wine scene consists of a dozen or so wineries with a growing following but no cohesive mission. In 1989, the Indiana Wine Grape Council and Indiana Wine Grape Team were established, administered by Purdue University, one of the nation’s top agricultural schools. This seminal moment in Indiana wine history also dedicated one penny of every bottle of wine sold in Indiana towards the Council for research, lab testing, and the general advancement of the industry.
The fruits of that labor have certainly blossomed, but Indiana is still a young wine state. Only thirteen wineries are over twenty years old, with half under ten years of age. But wineries now exist in sixty-two of ninety-two counties, and growth has especially taken off in the northern half of the state, along with an emerging cider and mead scene. The industry also employs over 4,000, and Hoosier wineries log more than 600,000 annual visitors.
Purdue’s role in Indiana wine cannot be understated, so we sat down with Jill Blume, Purdue’s Enology Specialist, to discuss the relationship of Purdue to Indiana wine, and what the future may hold. Please note the interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us how you got into wine.
I grew up around five miles west of Purdue, just outside a little town called Montmorenci. There are lots of corn and bean fields around there, but I grew up in an old oak forest with a creek running through it, where my parents still live to this day.
I went to Purdue, majoring in psychology and I loved the classes and teachers and learning how people think. But after I graduated, I just didn’t feel it was the right path for me. My love has always been agriculture, but I never considered it while at Purdue. I just thought it was for country kids going back to their farm. But I went back to Purdue after I graduated and took classes in agriculture. This got me thinking more about agriculture in a scientific way.
The Purdue Wine Grape Team started around 1991, and I started with them in 1996 as a viticulture research technician. I then moved over to the enology side of it, taking the place of Ellie Butz (Harkness), under the direction of Dr. Richard Vine.
Tell us someone who helped you on your wine journey that deserves a shout out.
I always say the diva of Indiana wine was my predecessor, Ellie Butz (Harkness). She taught me so much about sensory evaluation, winemaking, and formulating wine additions. She is in Iowa now, mostly retired, but she just has such a passion for wine that made my studies so enjoyable.
What are some services Purdue provides winemakers and grape growers?
Purdue assists winemakers and grape growers before they even start. If someone is just kicking around the idea of starting a winery, we will advise them on everything from designing their building to what grapes to plant. We are always trying out new varietals, and our trial vineyards keep wineries from having to test every new varietal that comes out. We offer free analysis to Indiana wineries, and by that, I mean sensory analysis, pH, sulfites, residual sugar, all that.
I don’t think people realize just how hands on we are. We have been doing this for thirty years. There is no reason to re-invent the wheel, and Purdue has done a lot of the heavy lifting so the wineries don’t have to.
We also help market the industry. Purdue has brought a lot of attention to the wine and grape industry. We’ve brought the education with our conferences and seminars. We also do a really good job of just connecting people with similar issues. We are there from beginning to end.
What is something a winery thinks Purdue can do for them, but they can’t for whatever reason?
We don’t specialize in interpretation of government regulations. We direct wineries to the Indiana Wine and Vineyard Association, since they have a lobbyist who keeps up on that. The laws always seem to be changing, and wineries have lots of questions about them, but it is just not our area of expertise.
What is your average day like at work?
That depends on the season. We have a four-part year. Starting in the fall, we harvest the grapes at our Purdue vineyards and make wine, and I hire three to four students to assist in that. These are batches made from our experimental grapes out of our research plots. We are also teaching classes at Purdue on wine appreciation and wine production. Around January, we have our big annual winter conference for the whole industry. I am also doing a lot of winery visits and lab analysis at this time. Another big project is Purdue now has a fermentation minor, which is about to change to a major. Lots of students are getting involved in fermentation, which is great fun for me, but it’s a lot of work.
In the spring and summer, we gear up for the Indy International Wine Competition. All throughout that, we have year-round educational opportunities for wineries. And I am always getting emails from wineries asking questions, and answering their questions is a big part of my job, and a part I really enjoy.
Note this passage from Lucie Morton’s 1985 classic, Winegrowing in Eastern America, discussing the state of winemaking in Indiana just before the Wine Grape Team formed.
“While grape growing is still a challenge, modern viticulture and farm winery legislation (passed in 1971) have brought winegrowing back to life here. From the sand dunes of Lake Michigan to the banks of the Ohio River, wine-grape vineyards are appearing. The region’s warm summers and average 180-day growing season allow good ripening of the fruit. Cold winters (except in favorable sites along the Ohio in the south) tend to limit the choice to the hardier varieties. The majority of the five hundred acres are planted in French-American wine grapes, Labrusca accounts for almost all the rest. There is very small acreage of vinifera. Production is limited to 100,000 gallons. Per capita consumption is well below average.”
When you read that passage, what is still the same and what is different?
Well, talking about the acreage and gallons we make, Indiana is now 15th in the nation as far as wine production, making around 2.4 million gallons. We have around 700 acres of vines, which doesn’t seem that many until you consider grape growing is intense hand labor. The vines are perennial vines, so once you get them established, they will provide you decades of grapes. Once that acre of grapes is established, it is worth around $70,000 annually in wine production, so the value of that acre is worth a lot more than corn or beans.
We still mostly plant the French-American grapes, but now we just call them hybrids. Labrusca, those old American varieties, like Concord and Catawba, are still around, mostly in the northern part of the state. But you just don’t see them planted as often anymore, because their value compared to hybrids grapes is much less. There is still a relatively small percentage of vinifera, mostly in the south with producers like Huber.
Our production limits have certainly increased, and our biggest producer is Oliver Winery, and they make over one million gallons now. And we are just around the national average for wine consumption now.
Can you name some moments that really moved the industry forward in a big way?
We had a setback a while back when it comes to wine shipping, but that has been fixed, and a lot of our wineries have greatly benefited from being able to ship directly to consumers.
Around ten years, the Traminette campaign was a real benefit. It brought a lot of attention not only to Traminette the grape, but just the fact we grow grapes in Indiana. We received a grant for that, and we tried to look for a grape varietal that grew north to south, and there just aren’t a lot of varietals that do. We have since learned with our extreme winters in the northern part of the state that Traminette just can’t survive up there. A lot of our Traminette now comes from Michigan and New York.
Let’s talk more about Indiana’s signature grape, Traminette. What led to that designation? Is it too early to declare a signature grape for Indiana? Will Traminette still be our signature grape 20 years from now? Why don’t we have a red signature grape?
Traminette was actually first bred in Illinois, so the climate is a good fit. It can be made in many styles, from dry to sweet, to sparkling, grappa, and dessert, and thus appeals to a lot of people. Its parent is Gewurztraminer, so it is spicy and floral. A more practical aspect is it’s an easy grape name to say. Many of our grape varieties are hard to pronounce, and if you don’t know how to say it, you’re going to feel intimidated, and you’re not going to ask for it.
It really was the right time to declare a signature grape. But we have found that original plantings of Traminette are actually hardier than more recently planted vines. Whether it happened because of changes to the new cuttings or what, we aren’t sure, but we have noticed the difference in hardiness. But we didn’t know that when the campaign started. It is still asked for a lot, and I would say at least 75% of our wineries have a Traminette, and it is here to stay.
I think we are always going to have Traminette as our signature grape, but I also don’t think we have to have a signature grape. It is going to be interesting to see what happens in 20 years. With Indiana, you start to notice a real difference in climate from north of Indianapolis to south of Indy. There’s a lot of talk about Marquette, but Marquette does well in the northern part of the state and not so well in the southern half. I just don’t know if we are ever going to find one grape that grows great all over the state. What is more likely is we will find a style that could become our signature wine style.
We did consider a red signature grape, and that probably would have been Chambourcin at the time, and very well still could be. Chambourcin when done right can be big in the nose and big in the finish, and it has wonderful cherry and strawberry notes that just fly out of the glass. But we decided to just focus on one grape, and it was Traminette because of all it offered.
Does vinifera have a future in Indiana? Which ones?
Not in most of the state. In the extreme regions, that being the very southern part of the state, vinifera like Cab Franc and Tannat can do well. Huber Winery shows this, but they are in a unique position geographically. They are on a knob with unique geography and it’s just warmer there while at the same time avoiding the climate extremes that plague the other parts of the state. Just north of us, Michigan can grow vinifera, but they have the lakes to guard against the extremes. We are just a big prairie with big winter winds and not a lot of snow to insulate the vines. We deal with many of the challenges Nebraska, Minnesota and a lot of other states face.
What about the aging ability of Indiana wines?
I just talked to a winemaker about the aging ability of Marquette, and it can certainly still be great at five years. Marquette really seems to have potential, and it is going to be fun to follow it and see what it can do over time. I’ve had some Norton that still taste great after four to five years thanks to their tannins. Beyond that, there’s not a lot of aging ability with our hybrids, but most wines sold anywhere in the world are meant to be drunk now or at least in a year or two.
An institution like Purdue can provide valuable help, but many institutions can become set in their ways and unable to see a changing landscape around them. How do you avoid that?
Sometimes I do feel like we can get set in our ways, but I think when we have new personnel come on board it really reinvigorates everyone. We have had some changes in our department and that keeps us fresh. Social media is huge, and whether it is something like pathogens in grapes or government regulations, you must get information out quickly and the younger generation really knows how to do it.
Purdue has a lot of resources, and they offer a lot of training, which really helps. The social media and computers don’t come naturally to me, but the training helps. Going to conferences is also a huge help. Just seeing what other people elsewhere are doing and getting recharged by that is so important.
Indiana seems like a small state, unless you drive it north to south. The extremes are very different, in geography and winters. Wineries are popping up all over Northern Indiana, and it almost seems like you are now responsible for two separate states.
We just traveled to the northeast part of the state, and they are booming. But what is great about them is how well they work together. Each is unique and has a different style, but they are very respectful of each other, very progressive, and are concerned about growing great grapes and making the best wines.
When I started 25 years ago, there were about fifteen wineries. Now we have 120. The Michigan City and Terre Haute areas are seeing a boom, as are the Indy suburbs. Cideries and meaderies are also under our purview, and those are exciting as well. They tend to attract the more hip crowd, but they are made so much like wine there is a natural cross-over.
Are there any new grapes you are really excited about?
There’s a series of grapes coming out of the Nebraska and Minnesota area like Petit Pearl, Petit Amie, and Prairie Star we have high hopes for. Petit Pearl is particularly exciting, and it is starting to make its way to our wineries. Marquette[MR1] is another varietal that has a great future here. We are still searching for that great red that grows well here, makes great wine and can survive -20°.
You visit a lot of wineries. What is something you immediately look for that tells you the winery is doing it right or it might be in trouble?
The smell. A winery needs to smell clean when you walk in. That, and being greeted appropriately, just really sets how the experience is going to go. A winery tasting is all about the experience. You don’t have to be a huge educator at the bar, but you need to give your customers the experience, and that will help your sales.
My pet peeve is sitting at the tasting bar and you’re looking at a blank wall. So many wineries have beautiful surroundings, but you walk in and you’re looking at the ice machine or the bathroom door while you taste. More places need to turn the bar around to face the windows. It is so important when you are tasting wine to be able to see the vineyards and the grapes growing.
Suppose I just bought a winery. What rookie mistakes are you going to advise me against?
Well, we are really good at discouraging you from starting a winery (laughs). So many people think “we love wine and we love to travel, so we are going to retire and start a winery.” And I say to them, “Well, I hope you don’t mind working every single weekend for the next ten years, because that is what you will be doing. There is no traveling to other wineries, instead you will be at your place tending to people who may be so truthful it hurts.” I hate telling people that, but they need to hear it.
Also, make wine at home first! I can’t tell you how many people have never made wine at home and then they jump into opening a winery.
I tell students winemaking is rarely about blending or spending time with customers. It is more about cleaning the drains, mopping the floors, picking seeds out of the baskets, all while being sticky and sometimes stinky. It’s not for everyone. This business requires patience and a lot of advance homework.
Where do you see Indiana wine in 10 years?
Well, we kept hearing for years, “the market is saturated” and I don’t think it is yet. There’s still a lot of rooms for wineries. People in Indy now have the option of traveling north to visit wineries, for example. There are still plenty of acres for more grape growing, and it’s something I really want to see. People understand wine comes from grapes, and when you travel to wine regions, you want to look at the grapevines. When you can see the grapes that come from the vineyard into your bottle it makes it personal to you.
We are also seeing our wineries becoming part of the local music scene and culture. It becomes the place everyone who lives in the area comes to hang out.
I believe for the central and northern part of the state, we just aren’t going to have the big bold reds. But we can make an excellent rosé in those regions, using our cooler growing season to an advantage, and I think we will see a lot more of them.
Tell us about the collegiality of the Indiana wine industry.
I just sent an email to someone who was wanting to start a winery, and I said the first thing you need to do is reach out to other wineries and ask questions. I know they will receive a positive reception, because our wineries want to see other wineries do well, because we really are in this together. Our wineries here don’t have secrets about how they are making their wine, where they are getting their barrels, or how they are aging wine. They love to talk about their process and their methods and share information with others, and all you have to do is ask.
Our wineries tend to be very humble. Ultimately, everyone in the industry is a farmer, whether it is a farmer in the vineyard, or a farmer in the winery. We are a tight-knit group.
You oversee the Indy International Wine Competition, one of the largest and most prestigious wine competitions in the country. How important are competitions like this for wineries?
I have actually thought about this a lot over the last several years. When I work on the competition, I always try and think “if I had a winery, why would I want to enter this competition?” We haven’t done a lot of changes with the competition in the 25 years I have been here. Going through the pandemic, I took time and thought a lot about what changes we could make, and there weren’t a lot besides the health and distancing ones.
I do wonder how long competitions will survive in this day and age, but they are a great tool for blind tastings, especially for new wineries and amateur folks who may see a future for themselves commercially, or new or possible releases. If you are a home winemaker and share your wine with your friends and neighbors, they of course are going to tell you it’s great. They won’t tell you it tastes of fingernail polish remover. But competitions will. We do a really great job of giving comments back to anyone who wants them, and it often means more than the medals themselves. And, more important than a gold or silver here or there is that your wines consistently medal year after year. When that happens, you can hang them proudly, because that shows you are making wines consumers will want year after year.
You assist wineries with “winery visitation and safety issues.” Boy, did that job change in 2020. Tell us how Indiana wineries coped with COVID.
It hit us hard and quick. I didn’t know how fast wineries were getting the information they needed, and it concerned me. Things were changing so fast, so I just got everyone together on Zoom to talk about what we were all doing, gauge their feelings, and talk out the issues. I did a presentation online on putting up signage, sanitation, spacing, how to prep your restrooms, dealing with county health department directives, all that. The information was changing constantly, but we kept up on it.
The issues with how many people wineries could have for tastings, and the requirements of outdoor tasting and events, it was so challenging to adjust to. They had to transition in the tasting room from tasting at a bar to ordering wine flights from your table or just buying a bottle. Another transition was curbside selling. It mostly worked out.
The wineries with large outdoor spaces who could have music and such, once summer hit, many of those wineries had tremendous sales in the summer and fall. The same with the wineries who had their distribution already set up, or who could quickly adapt to curbside.
The mom and pops, the smaller wineries, the ones who aren’t as tech or social media savvy, or the ones without ample outdoor spaces, those are the ones that were really hurt and the ones I am worried about.
You’ve been doing this for 25 years. What effects of climate change are you noticing?
We see a lot more extremes. If we are going to have a dry season, it is going to be really dry, and wet seasons are really wet. As a kid, we had constant snow days during the winter, and now, before this last storm, I hadn’t used my snow blower for four years, and there is no longer a nice constant snow cover for the vines. Also, it is usually the extreme spring weather that really gets us. It will be fine and then we will have an Easter frost.
Were you ever tempted to start a winery?
My husband is more than I am (laughs). I like the concept of making wine and maybe private tastings or selling to restaurants, but the big tasting bar, a winery with weddings and music, no, I wouldn’t like that.
Jill Blume is starting her first day at Purdue. Knowing what you know now, what advice do you give your younger self?
Wear comfortable shoes because you are going to be doing a lot of walking. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out and ask questions if you don’t know the answer. Ellie taught me that, and the friendships I made doing that still exist. There is a lot of science to winemaking, but there is also a lot of trial and error. Don’t ever be afraid to experiment. I also wished I would have worked in a winery before joining the team, and worked a crush.
What advice do you give to a woman wanting a role in the wine industry?
I think the industry is welcoming to women. But be prepared to get in there, put your boots on, and get sticky. It is just very labor intensive. I also think it is a great industry for an older woman who is working part-time in retirement, since it will keep you fit lifting hoses and boxes.
When you come home in the evening and have a glass of wine, what are you drinking? You are not allowed to say anything from Indiana!
If it is winter, it is normally a dry red, maybe a touch of sweetness. At Christmas, I always have a raspberry wine available for the guests. Summer, I like a semi-dry rose, and I often put an ice cube in it, because I do like it chilled. Vignoles, unoaked chardonnay, something like that. (Editor’s note: even a wine professional puts an ice cube in her wine sometimes! Drink your wine however you want.)