Winemakers, as prophets, apparently are not honored in their own states. Although Indiana winemaker Carl Banholzer has received national, even international, recognition for his wines, Hoosiers have snubbed his home-grown gleanings from the grape.
Banholzer is the only full-time professional enologist in Indiana to grow vinifera, the great grapes of Europe. Banholzer Winecellars have produced a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon acclaimed by the French newspaper Le Monde, as tres speciaux.
His fruity LaFleur (not the French wine of the same name), the largest Banholzer French hybrid production, was selected by Les Amis Du Vin as wine-of-the-month and offered of 360 affiliated wine stores nationwide. Recognized in his home state by those with wine knowledge, LaFleur has won three consecutive blue ribbons at the Indiana State Fair.
"When our cabernet was first harvested here in 1975, it was covered by the Chicago press with full color Sunday supplements and by a half-hour ABC-TV coverage. Here in Indiana, it was not noticed," Banholzer says with a trace of bitterness. "The New York Times recently stated that our reserve champagne was 'better than any produced in this country.'"
But back home again in Indiana, a wine distributor commented, "Yes, his wines are very good, but they are too expensive for an Indiana wine."
"I had much the same reaction from a retail customer [in Indiana], who was astonished at the $8-per-bottle price for our champagne. He exclaimed that 'it's absurd to pay that much for a local product,' " said Banholzer.
The lack of interest in Indiana will cost the state some revenue. Because of demand for his wines from outside the state, Banholzer is expanding his winery -- but not in Indiana. He is moving across the nearby state line and buying a winery in Michigan.
Banholzer had a background in wines before he came to LaPorte County, Ind., in early 1972. His father's family had been winemakers along the Rhine River in Germany since the 1400s. Banholzer's cousins still carry on the 500-year-old German business. His father -- also named Carl Banholzer -- left the family business after World War I and came to Chicago in 1929 as a tool and die maker. The family settled on Chicago's near Northside. Son Carl recalls the home winemaking tradition in his family home and he learned the skill.
Later, he began making wine at home and started to do intensive research on the wines of Europe. He would get vinifera grapes from California and followed the progress of experiments on growing vinifera being done in New York State.
"In 1966, I decided to give it a whirl," Banholzer said. Armed with the knowhow to correct the mistakes made by earlier experimentalists, Banholzer moved to Baroda, Mich., 30 miles north of his present Indiana location. His small, 12-acre winery -- dubbed Tabor Hill -- slowly dubbed into modest success. By the early 1970s, it was bottling 20,000 bottles a year. "For the first time we were turning out wines of European quality," he said.
Banholzer wanted more land to continue his experimentation. He bought 90 acres across the state line in northern Indiana, the site of his present winery, to expand his grape growing. By 1974, Banholzer Winecellars was established. The first wines were offered in 1975 under proprietary labels to distinguish Banholzer from lesser-quality French hybrids. LaFleur (then from Vignoles grapes), Vidalesque (vidal and Seyval Blanc) and Rosenthal (Baco Noir) were the labels introduced.
"1975-76 was an extremely exciting year for a great many reasons. In 1975, we harvested the first cabernet sauvignon . . . and we started the grape stomp that got national publicity," Banholzer says. "The grape stomp started as a fun thing, but really became a world's fair."
As many as 13,000 people descended upon the northern Indiana winery during the middle of September -- a week before harvest -- to pick 40 costumed contestants to stomp 100 pounds of grapes in each halved wine barrel within 2 minutes.
The stampede to the stomp continued for four years. Then the Banholzers decided to end the attention-getting gimmick so their quality product would not be associated with buffoonery.
It was replaced with the festive Wine Country Spring in 1979. Two thousand roses and carnations, fashion and kite shows, exhibitors and craftsmen, music and mirth, food and wine all filled the tented area in and around the impressive barn-style wine cellars, housed in a tastefully reconstructed 1898 barn. There are 18 refrigerated, stainless steel tanks, 1,000 to 1,500 gallons each. They are temperature-controlled and used for aging as well as fermenting the white wines. Reds are aged in French or American white oak in the underground cellar.
With his new Michigan winery, Banholzer predicts his production of popular LaFleur -- which he calls the Blue Nun of Indiana -- will soar to 100,000 gallons a year this year. That's the present production limit in Indiana.
"How pitifully small the 100,000-gallon limit is," he said. "That's only 40,000 cases. There are 75,000 cases of Blue Nun sold each year in Indiana. I have to fight the weather, the lack of customer knowledge. I'm not going to fight city hall, too.
"I can go to Michigan and have no concern with production limits. Michigan has unlimited production at 4 cents a gallon. The Indiana tax is 25 cents a gallon."