Indiana may not be the first state to come to mind when discussing the nation’s most popular wines. But Oliver Winery, which produces over 800,000 cases of wine per year, is a modern Midwestern success story.
Founded in 1972 by Indiana University law professor William Oliver, Oliver Winery operates with the guiding philosophy that “wine is for everyone,” and specializes in sweet wines ranging from reds made with Concord grapes to fruit-flavored Moscatos. Bill Oliver, William’s son, took over in 1983 and now serves as co-founder and a member of the board of directors.
Now that you know the basics, here are seven more things you should know about Oliver Winery.
The winery started as nothing more than a basement hobby.
While Oliver Winery itself was not established until 1972, the foundations of the operation were conceived in the 1960s when William started making wine in his home’s basement in Bloomington, Ind. As Bill told Inside INdiana Business, some of his earliest memories are of helping his father make small batches of wine under their family home. A few years after William picked up the hobby, he established a vineyard on the outskirts of Bloomington to have more fruit to pull from.
William Oliver was a crucial figure in passing legislation that legalized wineries in Indiana.
Commercial wineries weren’t legal in the days William was tinkering around in his basement, and he knew a change needed to be made. And as an active scholar in tax planning and reform, he knew exactly how to go about it. In 1971, he penned the Indiana Small Winery Act, which allowed for the establishment of small wineries and allowed for these wineries to produce wine for both wholesale and retail purposes. Additionally, the act allowed for the sale of wine directly to consumers (DTC) rather than through traditional distribution channels. Shortly after the legislation was passed, William opened Oliver Winery, Indiana’s first winery, in what is now the Indiana Uplands AVA. While the new law allowed for wineries to legally operate and distribute their products commercially, Oliver remained a small personal project for William, who retained his position at Indiana University until his retirement in 1991. According to Bill, if William sold enough wine to pay the bills, it “was a successful year.”
While wineries are no longer able to sell directly to consumers, the Indiana Small Winery Act was instrumental in establishing the state as a wine-producing region, and today, there are over 100 operational wineries in the state, all thanks to William.
Hot air balloons are a central aspect of the brand’s marketing.
While Bill was working part-time at Oliver Winery in high school and college, he found that he still needed a bit of spare change to supplement his earnings. He picked up work as a commercial hot air balloon pilot, and quickly fell in love with aviation. As Bill now says, “Hot air balloons are completely pointless, except for pure joy. A beautiful, singular experience — very much like wine.” The two are now inextricably linked in Oliver Winery’s branding. According to the brand, its wine labels were redesigned in September 2023, and now fruit-shaped hot air balloons are depicted front and center, serving as a symbol of Oliver’s rising future while honoring its past. The hot air balloon motif also extends off the label: The winery has several branded balloons that have flown above local Indiana fairgrounds in recent years.
The winery was employee-owned for 15 years.
When Bill took over the winery in 1983, his main focuses were on enhancing guest experiences, increasing the quality and variety of its wines, and maintaining the winery as a great place to work. Ten years later, his wife Kathleen joined the team as a general manager, and the two continued to focus on taking care of the company’s staff. They launched an employee stock ownership plan, enabling employees to acquire stock in the winery on an annual basis without any cost barriers. By 2006, Oliver Winery was entirely employee-owned. While the winery was sold in 2021 to New York-based investment firm NexPhase Capital, it’s likely that the sale allowed for the 60-plus employees who formerly owned the winery to earn a sizable sum.
At Oliver, sweet wines are the sweet spot…
After releasing its flagship Sweet Red, Oliver Winery quickly became synonymous with sweet wine production. Today, the brand has five collections: Real Fruit Moscatos, the Soft Wine Collection, the Bakery Series, the Pilot Project Series, and the Creekbend Collection, each of which carries dessert-like qualities. The Bakery Series even includes wines inspired by key lime pie, peach pie, and apple pie. The winery’s most popular line is its fruit-flavored Moscatos, which originally started out as experiments to offer in the tasting room. After witnessing the success of the product in-house, Oliver Winery released its Cherry Moscato commercially in 2018, followed by its blueberry, lemon, and melon mint Moscatos. The winery also produces two low-ABV botanical fizzes as well as single-varietal dry reds and whites.
…though they also dabble in hard cider production.
In 2014, the brand launched Beanblossom, a line of hard dry ciders made from the same fruit used to produce its classic sweet wines. Made from apples sourced in Michigan, the hard cider was originally only available in its flagship expression, but has since expanded to include Peach Hard Cider and Bourbon Barrel Hard Cider.
Oliver Winery produces the official wine of the Indianapolis Colts.
As Indiana’s first winery, Oliver Winery played an important role in establishing the state as a wine-producing region. So in 2020, the winery entered into a three-year partnership with the Indianapolis Colts to become the official wine of the NFL team. During the partnership, Oliver Winery produced several exclusive wines under the Colts Collection label, beginning with a dry red blend and a semi-sweet rosé. Glasses of Oliver Winery Pinot Grigio, Blueberry Moscato, and Sweet Red were also available for sale at the team’s home arena. It remains to be seen whether Oliver Winery and the Colts will renew their partnership now that the 2023 season has come to a close.