Q & A with “Local Vino” Author James R. Pennell


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 IndianaHe 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.

Q: What role do local wineries play in the community?

Pennell: Wineries are gathering places. They can serve as community centers, bringing people together for entertainment or to entertain themselves in conversation. They also provide support for charitable organizations. They provide opportunities for exposure and income to musicians and artists. They also commonly use local businesses for construction, repairs, and food service. So they are economic engines that don’t outsource jobs or shut down when the economy declines. In some small towns, they can be the biggest business. They also are a source of pride for local people—a little culture amongst the chain stores and fast food joints.

Q: How have local wineries in the Midwest distinguished themselves from the global wine industry?

Pennell: Many have joined with the “local food” and “buy local” movements. Butler Winery, in Bloomington, Indiana, has a radio advertisement that emphasizes their use of locally grown grapes, and asks why people would want California wine at an Indiana winery. The owners of Famous Fossil, in northern Illinois, pride themselves on only using their grapes or ones purchased from local vineyards. These are businesses where you are commonly going to run into and have a conversation with the owner or owners. You aren’t going to get that from a Gallo-owned wine company. These are local places people can visit and enjoy, and the owners work to make them hospitable.

Q: What are the biggest challenges the Midwestern wine industry will face in the coming years?    

Pennell: I spend most of a chapter talking about two major challenges that are on the minds of winery owners: identity and quality. In terms of identity, Midwestern wineries have been labeled as sweet wine producers. They do produce a lot of sweet wine, but in reality they produce a wide range of wines. They want to have something for anyone who walks in their door to enjoy. A lot of the wines made from local grapes are made from hybrid grapes with names that aren’t familiar to many wine drinkers. So it is hard to say succinctly what you are likely to find in a Midwestern winery. Another problem is getting everyone up to speed on quality. One bad winery can ruin it for the whole industry in the state. On the other hand, I think the wines in the four states I studied (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio) have improved markedly in the last decade. There are industry experts helping out in each state, and a lot of sharing amongst owners that is improving quality rapidly. They are individually and collectively starting to figure out what to do with hybrid grapes that will make their wines more appealing. These are rather new state industries that have only taken off in the last two decades, so they are just starting to get to a place on the learning curve where quality and consistency can be expected.

I spend a good part of another chapter on the problem of state laws and how it affects distribution. The wineries have made some progress on this, and wholesale distributors are becoming a little more open to distributing local wines, but most wineries can’t afford to give wholesale distributors a cut of their income.  What would really benefit the wineries is friendlier shipping laws so they could more easily ship wines to customers in other states. Right now the state licensing requirements make it rather prohibitive for wineries to do this. But there have been some small steps in their favor in some states that have helped.

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