News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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April 27, 2014

From the Ground Up: Idea takes root as Cayuga family grows a vineyard and winery

CAYUGA — Russell McLain poured a sample of sweet red wine, called Splish Splash, into a glass atop a counter inside a cozy tasting room with trophy animals and a widescreen TV perched on its walls.

Rolling hills and one corner of the McLains’ six acres of grape vines fill the scene in the window over his shoulder.

The family grows the fruit and turns it into wine. Just a few years ago, the concept of Windy Ridge Vineyard and Winery was nothing more than an idea posed by Justin McLain to his dad, Russell. Justin and his wife, Linda, returned from visiting her parents in South Bend, a trek that included a tour of Michigan wineries. “I told my dad, kind of dreaming, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to start our own winery?’” Justin said, recalling that conversation.

Windy Ridge is now in its 20th month of operation at the McLain farm, two miles west of Cayuga on Indiana 234. The McLains entered their 10 wines — named for songs on Russell’s home jukebox and Hoosier wildlife — in this weekend’s Indiana Wine Fair at Brown County.

“We never in our wildest dreams planned to have done what we’ve done,” said 63-year-old Russell.

They are, as Justin put it, “self-taught by research and reading.” Leaning on the counter, Russell described their progression as “kind of one step at a time, and just piddlin’.”

Plus, a lot of hard work.

The McLains tend to 5,000 grape plants of seven varieties — Concord, Cayuga, Seneca, Niagara, Muscat, Marechal Foch and Traminette. The only outside grapes used to make their wines are Buffalo, which are blended into their sweet red (Pass The Buck) and dry red (Wooly Bully). Otherwise, they produce from vine to wine, literally building the business from the ground up.

They bought the grape plants in upstate New York, a renowned wine region. Caring for them, and the fruit, takes time. Lots of time. Every two weeks, they spray the plants to prevent fungus and repel Japanese beetles and other damaging insects. “And then there’s the mowing and the pruning. There’s no end to it,” Russell said, with a chuckle. They also maintain nets as a barrier to starlings. The family quickly learned the extent of those tiny birds’ appetite for grapes in their first season. “The day [the grapes] were ripe, it was like a dinner bell — the birds were just on them,” said Jason McLain, Russell’s oldest son.

The winemaking trio keep day jobs, too. Russell, a former teacher, runs an insurance and real estate business in downtown Cayuga, a northern Vermillion County town with a population of 1,150 people. Justin, 34, works in Danville at a heavy-equipment parts company. Jason, 39, works at International Paper in Cayuga. All three graduated from Indiana State University. None had experience in wine production.

The stories behind the operators of each of Indiana’s 73 wineries differ. “Most people come with some sort of knowledge about agriculture or tourism or business planning,” said Jeanne Merritt, marketing director for the Indiana Wine Grape Council, based in the horticulture and food science departments at Purdue University. “And we can help them with the wine-related issues.”

The Indiana General Assembly established the Grape Council in 1989, funding it through an excise tax of 5 cents on every gallon of wine sold in Indiana. The program provides Purdue Extension specialists to promote Indiana wine and assist winemakers and growers. Since 2004, the number of Hoosier wineries has grown to 73 from 32. Two-thirds of those wineries grow their own grapes, just as the McLains do, while others buy fruits or juices to craft their vino, Merritt explained.

Russell, who has 30 head of cattle on his farm, “never thought about just going and buying juice. I just figured [growing grapes] is what you’ve got to do.”

Most Indiana vineyards are small, just two to four acres, Merritt said. At 6 acres, Windy Ridge — the only winery in west-central Indiana — is a bit larger than most. Six-hundred and 50 acres of grapes grow in the state, producing 1.5 million gallons of wine a year.

The Indiana climate has quirks that vineyard farmers face. The growing season runs shorter than California, where temperatures are warmer year-round. Harsh winters, such as the most recent, can kill vines. Vineyards in Indiana often border conventional row crops, and chemicals sprayed by farmers of corn and soybeans can inadvertently drift onto the neighboring grape plants, harming the fruit, Merritt said. Education and awareness efforts help address the drift problem.

Some grape varieties thrive in Hoosierland by varying degrees, depending on whether the vineyard lies in northern or southern Indiana. Traminette fares well throughout. Thus, it serves as the official state grape and Indiana’s “signature wine.” It’s a hybrid white, bred to handle the rough Midwestern winters. “Traminette is something that’s very acclimated to all parts of the state,” Merritt said, “and people appreciate the wine.”

At Windy Ridge, the McLains gave the name Suey to their Traminette, a dry white wine. Their sweet wines — Desperado (a white blend of Niagara and Seneca), Splish Splash (a red and white grape blend inspired by Justin’s wife, Linda) and Pass The Buck — remain popular. That’s typically the case in Indiana, Russell said. Justin added, “Sweet wine pays the bills, but you’ve got your dry wine drinkers, too.” So, Windy Ridge offers dry, semi-dry and semi-sweet varieties, as well as Cayuga White, a popular dessert wine. The latter wine is named for the Cayuga White grape hybrid developed in Geneva, N.Y., rather than the small Indiana town bearing the same name.

The coincidence works well for Windy Ridge, though.

When they started, the McLains drove to Michigan, bought a load of Concord grapes, came back and began experimenting. “When we started making [wine], we started just giving it away,” Justin said, aiming to get people’s reactions. They continued once the plants began bearing grapes, before going into business almost two years ago.

Since then, Justin — who guides the winemaking process — has been able to “sharpen my skills, as far as what I’m looking for. I’m usually the guy who tastes it and says, ‘That’s good. That’ll sell. Let’s make that.’”

And they do.

Within two to three years, the McLains hope to build a new, larger winery and tasting room. Some day, it might become their full-time job. “That’s kind of the dream,” Justin said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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