Ironhand Vineyard: A matter of family, friends in St. Joe
The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.
Just last week, a friend asked me whether I heard about the new winery in Kosciusko County. I didn’t have a clue.
I decided to contact Jill Blume, the Purdue Grape Wine Team enology specialist. Among her duties, she frequently works with Indiana wineries as they develop business plans and begin operation.
She referred me to this map, which had recently been updated. Looking over northern Indiana, I spotted a winery located in South Bend named Ironhand Vineyard. Yes, it’s a property growing grapes for a commercial wine business!
The winery’s website invites people to make appointments for tours and tastings. I decided to drop-in the next time I was in South Bend, which happened to be a couple Fridays ago.
There is no signage identifying the winery, which is located on Brick Road, and I drove past the driveway on my first try. As I retraced my drive, I spotted the vineyard through a line of trees on the north side of the road, just east of Portage Road.
I met a young man leaving in a pickup truck as I turned onto the gravel drive. He didn’t know if anyone was available to speak with me, but he shared the cellphone number of his mother, Ann-Marie, and encouraged me to call her.
I learned that she’s the tasting room manager with marketing and special event responsibilities at Ironhand Vineyard. When I initially spoke with her, she was returning home from Bristol and agreed to meet me momentarily. I continued up the drive, which eventually forked right to the Thomas residence and left to the winery.
The winery is the brainchild of Ann-Marie and her husband, Scott Thomas, along with partners, David and Mitzi Sabato. The concept was inspired by an article Scott read in the Wall Street Journal which recounted the story of an Iowa farmer who successfully transitioned from growing alfalfa to wine grapes.
Ann-Marie admitted that as four acres of vines were planted in 2007 that “[we] didn’t know what we were doing. But knew we liked wine.”
That is an oversimplification, given the fact that they attended seminars on vineyard management and wine making through SW Michigan College, sought advice from Jim Lester at Wyncroft Winery and hired Mike DeSchaaf as their consulting winemaker.
She noted there has been a significant “learning curve” through the last nine years. The 2010 vintage was the first bottled. It resulted in 280 cases available for sale.
Grapes were harvested by hand by family and friends at that time, and their efforts have continued in subsequent grape harvests, and 2013 saw 650 cases produced. Similar to other Michiana vineyards, 2014 and 2015 grape production suffered due to late spring frost damage.
Apart from “word of mouth,” marketing began in earnest last fall when ads were placed in the South Bend Tribune. Tasting events have since been held in their Granny Shack, which is located on the Sabato’s neighboring property.
There was a farm to fork dinner at a downtown South Bend venue last year attended by 80 to 100 people. The event featured Ironhand Vineyard wines and was hosted to promote community gardens and farmers markets.
Their flagship wine is a red blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chambourcin given the proprietary name, “Henri.” The winery’s “Apres le Portage” is a white blend of Riesling, Traminette and Gewuztraminer.
A 2015 Grüner Veltliner was vinified from Berrien County fruit and sold out quickly and their first Pinot Noir will be released soon. At this point, customer response has led to a new problem — difficulty keeping up with demand.
I’ve read that chemistry, climate, agriculture and passion are essential elements of wine making. It’s apparent to me that the Thomas and Sabato families [along with their friends] certainly have that passion.
- One friend of Ironhand Vineyard is Dr. Holly Goodson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Notre Dame. She oversees lab work at the winery. Last year, she incorporated the chemistry of wine-making with experience at the winery into an undergraduate class.
- According to Jill Blume, there are currently in excess of 92 wineries operating in the state of Indiana. In 2010, there were 29 licensed wineries in the state. Michigan has grown from 45 to 123 wineries through the same six-year period.
- The 25th annual INDY International Wine Competition is being hosted at the Purdue University Lafayette campus from Aug 3 to 4. I will again be serving as one of the Pit Cru volunteers.