James R. Pennell is a professor of sociology at the University of Indianapolis. He is also a lifelong musician and singer-songwriter who regularly performs in Central Indiana. He recently answered some questions about his book Local Vino: The Winery Boom in the Heartland.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
James Pennell: My band Acoustic Catfish started playing at wineries in 2003 after a few years of playing bars and pizza joints. I started booking more wineries because it was nice to play afternoons and early evenings, and the number of wineries started to grow and the gigs multiply. Plus the audience was laid back and a lot more fun than the usual bar audience. Mallow Run Winery opened in 2006 as part of the winery boom and we started playing there in 2007. The audiences kept getting bigger and the sociologist in me realized there was something going on that might be worth investigating. I study social and institutional change, and there was obviously a change going on. The wineries kept growing in number and the success of some of them was clearly evident, even during and after the 2008 recession. So when a proposed sabbatical project didn’t pan out in 2011, I thought I would try to understand the winery phenomenon by talking to winery owners and industry experts and learning as much as I could. The book reflects much of what I learned.
Q: What factors have influenced the proliferation of wineries in the Midwest in recent years?
Pennell: On the customer side, most of the wineries are inviting, convivial places where people can have mini-vacations basically. Wineries have become destinations and some people will spend a weekend or more on wine trails. The wine trails are marketing initiatives created by wineries and state industries to help attract customers. Also, as many winery owners noted, wine isn’t just a beverage, but an experience. It has a culture and a set of associated meanings—the latter partly a result of the marketing efforts of the California industry in the 1960s and 70s.
On the owner side, the success of the industry can be a lure. Some owners want to save the family farm, others have gotten to a point in wine making that they want to go beyond the hobby stage, and increasingly some have grown up in the industry and are carrying on the family tradition. One of the things I try to point out in the book is that ultimately wineries are a tremendous amount of work, especially if you want to have a working vineyard. It is important that people understand this before getting into such an expensive and time consuming endeavor.