Indiana Winemakers: Oliver Winery

By Elizabeth Granger

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It’s become an Ind. 37 staple, luring travelers off the highway for an oasis-like break from the traffic between Indianapolis and Bloomington. Welcome to Oliver Winery with not just a tasting room but also acres of luscious flower and sculpture gardens with plenty of outdoor seating.

Oliver is the state’s oldest and largest operating winery. It had its beginnings as a hobby of Indiana University law professor William Oliver in the 1960s.

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He helped create the Indiana Small Winery Act in 1971, which promoted the creation of small wineries. Now Oliver is one of the largest wineries in the eastern U.S.

In 1994 Dennis Dunham thought he was on his way to medical school with a new bachelor’s degree in chemistry. When he didn’t get in, he figured he’d re- apply and do a little teaching in the meantime. That didn’t work, either, so he sat himself down at his kitchen table to ponder his future when, seemingly out of nowhere, “this little winery popped into my head.”

Oliver Winery

That “little winery” he’d been driving past was Oliver. Before he knew it, he was working the tasting room. Then he went on to production. One thing led to another, including being “in the right place at the right time.”

“I really fell in love with the wine industry,” he says.

He became an assistant to Bill Oliver, and now he’s director of winemaking where “we continue to improve.” Perhaps because of his chemistry background, Dunham likes the problem- solving best. He characterizes the staff as “active learners.”

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He also likes “the whole magic of wine” which causes the experience, often a celebration, to become part of people’s memories.

While some grapes and other fruits do come from beyond Indiana, Oliver has a Monroe County vineyard with grapes and other fruits bottled in its Creekbend series.

“There’s a great relationship among most of the wineries in the state,” Dunham says. “That’s one thing about this industry – how collaborative everybody is in promoting the Indiana wine industry.”

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He says the entire industry, nationwide, is “a neat balance of hard work, craft and art. It’s a happy industry. People who are in it feel pretty good about being in it.”

Dunham says Oliver has honed in on people, product and place. “Customer interaction is absolutely critical,” he says. “We are truly passionate about making wine that our customers like to drink, and we want to meet them.”

Oliver Winery