Beyond the vines: A behind-the-scenes look at Northeast Indiana wineries

When you think of the origins of quality wine, California’s Napa Valley might come to mind. But if you ask regional winemakers, they’ll tell you that’s antiquated thinking. The reality is that Northeast Indiana has “arrived” when it comes to winemaking, producing award-winning varieties that appeal to a variety of palates.

People like Shane Christ in Steuben County are trying to educate consumers about all that the state has to offer in terms of its viticulture scene. 

Winemaker Kirk Etheridge enjoys a Gabby Tabby Blush wine at Hartland Winery.
Now as the owner of Hartland Winery, Christ’s informal wine education informs his approach to the business. He says he owes Fremont-based Satek Winery’s Larry Satek a debt of gratitude for helping him learn the ins and outs of winery operations. 

As a recent college graduate, Christ first met the veteran winemaker in 2001. It was a challenging time to break into the job market, but a chance encounter proved to be a boon to his career. 

“Across the lake from where I grew up, there was a small vineyard that was planted,” he says. “I was very curious about what that was all about. I had an opportunity to stop at a winery where I met Larry Satek.”

Christ says Satek asked if he was looking for a job. He was, but he admitted he wasn’t sure what work he could do at a winery.

Owner Shane Christ looks at the Seyval Blanc grapes at Hartland Winery.“I started taking care of grapevines, pruning them, and learning about how they grow,” Christ says. “At that time, Satek was only maybe the 20th winery in the state.”

Fast-forward to today, there are about 100 wineries in Indiana and Christ now has over two decades of experience in the industry. He took over Hartland Winery in June 2022, and after taking the helm, one of his first moves was to find experts who shared the same brand of passion. 

Among those who share that passion is Kirk Etheridge, Hartland’s resident winemaker. Etheridge was first introduced to all things fermented as an amateur beermaker and eventually transitioned to winemaking. 

Owner Shane Christ, left, and Winemaker Kirk Etheridge at Hartland Winery in Ashley, IN.Today, the two work intimately together and combine their breadth and depth of knowledge to form a power team that has resulted in several industry awards. Christ says they’re aligned philosophically about the winery’s direction. They both agree there’s plenty of room for competition, as evidenced by the dozens of northern Indiana wineries alone.

“A winery can have a three-way license,” Christ says. “They’re adding slushie machines. They could be a restaurant, music or concert hall, too. You have all these other components that smart business people are bringing into the equation. Sometimes that can blur the lines as to what a winery really is.”

If you ask three proprietors to define a winery, you could get three different answers. In other words, it’s really a matter of opinion. Christ says he prefers to not be a gatekeeper and supports his industry colleagues and their sometimes creative approaches. Adding food, entertainment, and hosting events means additional revenue sources that can supplement wine sales. At the same time, these elements can help winery owners reach consumers who might not otherwise try Indiana wines.   

Two-EEs WineryTwo-EEs Winery in Huntington is among those venues that fits the business model Christ describes. The destination, which opened a decade ago, invites guests to taste wines in their active production space. Their inviting outdoor environment — equipped with an outdoor bar — hosts live entertainers and even provides a backdrop for yoga classes and other events.

Winemaker Eric Harris, half of the namesake two E’s, got his start as a hobbyist winemaker. His future father-in-law introduced him to the craft and eventually, the passion project formalized into a business when they had the means to do so. On the aesthetic side, his now-wife Emily completed the winery design as her capstone project for her undergraduate program in interior design at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Two-EE's Emily and Eric HarrisWith accolades such as “America’s Best Tasting Room” under their belt, the husband and wife team has earned credibility from locals and out-of-town visitors alike. Still, like their peers at other wineries, Eric says the pandemic challenged them to redefine and refine their brand.

“It gave us opportunities to pivot and try a lot of different things,” he says. “And I feel like now more than ever, we're hitting our stride. We know more about ourselves and the type of winery we want to be. We want to talk about our wines. And we focus on wine-centered experiences so that customers get an actual winery experience rather than maybe a bar scene or concert venue experience that they could really get anywhere. So I look at it as a lot of positive changes from that.”

Some establishments had programming that helped them weather the COVID-19 storm better than others. In the case of Hartland, Christ says the wine club helped them stay afloat when a lot of tourist destinations were closed or had limited hours. 

Wine glasses on the counter at Hartland Winery.Wine clubs also help introduce wines to consumers who might not otherwise try them, thus fostering brand loyalty. Whether guests prefer dry or sweet wines, Etheridge says it’s important to keep an open mind. 

That said, he has advice for wine drinkers looking to broaden their horizons: “Don't be afraid to try new things. Try some sweeter fruit wines, but don't be afraid to try dry ones. And if you don't like it now, try it again in a year.”

Personal taste varies, but Christ says there’s no need to complicate matters either. In his words, “The foundation of wine, to me, is growing grapes and making wine.” 

Wine barrels at Hartland Winery.The production process can take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the variety. That means the financial fruits of their labor can take several months or even years to reap. According to Christ, they make considerable investments in the fall and then the winters are pretty slow. 

Like most Midwest wineries, the summer months are when they report the most foot traffic. This is the occasion to engage with wine drinkers and aspiring ones — and champion the cause of the regional winery at the same time. 

In turn, they might be more inclined to buy from Indiana wineries because they feel more empowered when sifting through all of the labels at the store. As past president of the Indiana Winery and Vineyard Association, Christ says there’s plenty of the market share pie to go around. Etheridge adds that the strength of Indiana’s wineries lies in its unity. 

“You know, our competition is the $10 bottle from California at the grocery store, not each other.”

Estate grown Vignoles wine at Hartland Winery.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.