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A Wine Connoisseur Heads Home to Fly-Over Country

The first in a three-part series on wine culture in the Midwest today.

MANY YEARS AGO I attended a media luncheon in New York. I was a junior magazine editor; the other editors in attendance were much more senior and included the editor-in-chief of a travel magazine. “Where were you born?” asked the editor-in-chief. “Indiana,” I said. “Did you grow up in a trailer park?” he continued, clearly implying that he considered Midwesterners to be a bunch of badly housed rubes. It’s how some oenophiles on the East and West Coasts view wine drinkers from “fly-over country” as well.

Although I have lived in and around New York for nearly three decades, my life in wine began in the Midwest, specifically with a glass of Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink, consumed on my 18th birthday. Not a wine that would seem to presage a wine journalism career, but it was a start. (Tickle Pink wasn’t made from grapes, but, rather, apples; sadly, along with other Boone’s Farm labels, it no longer exists.)

I returned to Indiana a couple of months ago to see what kind of wines my fellow Hoosiers are drinking, and if those they favor are really so different from the wines regularly consumed in New York. I even hoped I might find the restaurant where I first tasted Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink, a place called Hoover’s Roost in Fairview, Ind.

The latter proved a bust: All that remained of the restaurant was its parking lot. According to

Katrina Myers,

office manager of Stu’s Garage on the opposite side of Highway 28, I’d just missed seeing the last remains. “They tore the building down two weeks ago. It was empty for a long time,” she said.

I explained that Hoover’s Roost was where I’d had my very first glass of wine. “Boone’s Farm is old school,” Ms. Myers said. Was that good or bad? I asked her what kind of wines she liked to drink. She said she was a fan of sparkling wines from a winery in Versailles, Ind., and strawberry wines. Her colleague Brett, on his way out the door, nodded. “In Indiana, people like sweet wine,” he said.

That’s also what

Kevin Tonne

of Tonne Winery told me when I stopped by his winery later that day. Mr. Tonne and his brother-in-law

Larry Simmons

founded their winery in 2009 just north of Muncie, Indiana—about 20 miles from where I once lived. Mr. Tonne had been in food science for years before turning to winemaking, and Mr. Simmons was in the horticulture business. Their winery was named Indiana Winery of the Year in 2014, and they developed an especially strong following for their semi-dry Traminette. Traminette is the signature grape of Indiana, a hybrid white grape known for its winter hardiness and exotic aromas.

I tasted a few whites and reds, a couple of them dry; most were fairly sweet, even the ones labeled semi-dry. “To you they’re sweet, to other people, semi-sweet,” Mr. Tonne said. “I’m sure that when you started out you didn’t like a dry Cabernet.” I bought a bottle of his semi-dry Traminette to take to dinner with some old Hoosier friends in Muncie that night, curious to see how far our palates diverged.

Not far at all, it turned out. I covered the Traminette bottle in a paper bag and poured everyone a taste. Too sweet, my friends declared—and opted to drink the Sancerre I ordered from the restaurant’s list. In other words, they like dry wines as much as I do.

The next day I drove down to Oliver Winery & Vineyards, Indiana’s largest winery, just outside Bloomington. With production close to 400,000 cases, Oliver wines are distributed to just about every grocery and package store in the state, and to 21 other states as well, according to CEO Bill Oliver, who was waiting in the winery’s stylish tasting room when I arrived. Did Indiana wine drinkers really prefer sweet wine to dry? I asked him. “One third of our wines are bone-dry,” Mr. Oliver said, though he acknowledged that their Soft Red Wine (a sweet red made from the Concord grape) was their best seller.

Mr. Oliver’s father, William Oliver, a law professor, started making wine in the 1960s as a hobby. Bill Oliver took over the winery in 1983 and expanded it to its current size. As he said, “We’re the biggest fish in a small pond.”

The Oliver range is considerable and includes many sweet and semi-sweet styles, and some non-grape fruit wines as well. Most Oliver wines are produced from Pennsylvania, New York and California fruit; some 3% of the grapes are grown in Indiana, on about 55 acres of vineyard. I found it a bit disheartening that the largest winery in Indiana relies primarily on fruit grown outside the state, but Mr. Oliver told me it was necessary in order to be competitive out of state. “I can’t take Indiana Sauvignon Blanc and market it in Chicago,” he said. He sells his wine under the Oliver and Creekbend Winery labels; the latter are made from Indiana grapes.

I found the (dry) California-grape wines we tasted to be well-made; Mr. Oliver’s team sources from esteemed vineyards such as Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, Calif. But I was more intrigued by his Indiana wines and found quite a few I liked. I was particularly charmed by his lively 2016 Chambourcin Rosé, a hardy red Midwestern hybrid with a piquant, tart red-cherry note. The Traminette was a touch too sweet for my palate, but I really liked the soft, approachable and, yes, dry 2015 Creekbend Crimson Cabernet, made from the Crimson Cabernet hybrid (a cross between the Cabernet and the Norton grape).

Although his best-selling wine was a sweet red, Mr. Oliver bristled at the cliché that Midwesterners like sweet wines or lack sophisticated palates. “It’s that attitude toward fly-over country,” he said. I told him my trailer park story and he just shook his head. Then he recommended that I check out a restaurant-wine shop in Bloomington named Feast Market & Cellar. The food was quite good, he said, and the wine selection included a wide array of interesting choices.

I found a few diners milling around the shelves, pulling out bottles and chatting with employees. It was certainly more fun to choose a wine by examining bottles than reading names on a list. And there were many good names to choose from (about 500 selections).

I chose a bottle of 2014 A. et P. de Villaine Bouzeron Blanc ($30), a white Burgundy produced by the great

Aubert de Villaine,

co-director of the vaunted grand cru Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The wine was not only a perfect companion to my very good dinner of locally sourced salad and house-made gnocchi, but also at least $35 less than I would have paid to drink it in a restaurant in New York.

I called Feast co-owner and wine director

Jennifer Burt

to talk about the wines she most often sold, and if there was such thing as “Midwestern” palate. White Burgundy and “high-end” Beaujolais (both quite dry) were big sellers, she said. She sold exactly one sweet red. With frequent tastings she’d turned her “beer-loving” staff into wine drinkers who, in turn, sold their customers on Chablis, Sangiovese and cru Beaujolais. It was the same story I’d heard many times from wine professionals in other parts of the world: It doesn’t matter where or how you begin; education and exposure are the keys to becoming an oenophile. It’s certainly been true for me—from that first glass of Tickle Pink to this column today.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing more about the wine culture I found during my recent travels in “fly-over country.” Today’s Midwesterners have access to more—and more interesting—wines than I did back in my Boone’s Farm days. And as I proud Hoosier I raise a glass in honor of my home state.

Email Lettie at wine@wsj.com.

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