Giving New Life to Rural Indiana

This series provides insight about the economic and social issues affecting rural Indiana and highlights the public-private partnerships that are helping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.

River City Rescue

Winery Breathes Life Into Dying Downtown

By Olivia Maddox

Gary Humphrey displays the trophy for Wine of the Year at the 2012 Indy International Wine Competition.Gary Humphrey, winemaker and owner of River City Winery in New Albany, Ind., displays the trophy for Wine of the Year at the 2012 Indy International Wine Competition. River City's entry, a 2011 Vignoles, beat out 2,400 other entries from around the world and marked the first time a Midwest winery took top honors in the annual competition.

When Gary Humphrey grew up in New Albany, Ind., during the 1970s, the historic port town on the Ohio River was already in decline. With the exception of a few stores that had been around for more than a century, the downtown was mostly vacant. Humphrey's parents, who grew up in the 1940s to early 1950s, often told him stories about the once-thriving center of commerce.

"My mom was very supportive of the downtown merchants, even when stores were closing," Humphrey says. "She would always shop there first."

His parents' support for the waning downtown stayed with Humphrey. He left home to serve in the U.S. Army and was stationed in California, where he developed an interest in the wines and wineries so plentiful in the state. With military service behind him, he returned to his hometown and joined the New Albany Police Department.

Then, two things from his past converged to influence his future: his continued interest in wineries and the further decline of New Albany's downtown. Vacations were scheduled around visits to wineries, particularly in states where the industry was up and coming. "I would drive 100 miles out of the way to see small wineries and what they were capable of doing," he says. And on the job as an undercover narcotics officer, he witnessed the toll the decay was having on the town and its residents. "People would slam the city and say the downtown is dead," he says.

Catalyst for Change

Reminiscent of his mother's stalwart support of local businesses, Humphrey believed people would patronize downtown again, given the opportunity. "I needed to put my money where my mouth was," he says.

He thought a winery was just the enterprise that could lead the way back. "You can put a winery in the middle of nowhere, and people will flock to it," Humphrey says from his own personal experience. "It doesn't matter if it's located downtown or in a cornfield."

He had his pick of buildings, eventually choosing a two-story neoclassic built in 1900 for Baer's Dry Goods & Department Store, located a couple of blocks from the riverfront. A two-year restoration/preservation commenced in 2007; he gutted the building and restored its original features. Vacations and off hours were spent working on the building.

While the renovation progressed, Humphrey was also boning up on winemaking. "I still didn't know much about the wine industry," he says, "so I did research and asked a lot of questions." He purchased processing equipment that hopefully would meet the winery's production needs five years down the road.

After several years of planning, searching for and renovating a building, and starting up production, River City Winery opened in May 2009.

Humphrey worked with a vintner in Michigan in the beginning but soon took over as head winemaker. "Nothing is secret," he says about winemaking. "I wasn't reinventing the wheel. People will tell you all the choices you could make, but it's really up to you to pick the one you think will be best for your particular situation and style. There are so many variables."

He continued to learn from his very first batch, which was a peach wine. "We would make wine from whatever juice or grapes we could get our hands on," Humphrey says. With 12 tanks—eight 540 gallon and four 335 gallons—he continues to experiment with wines. "We have small tanks and work with small batches. We can make a batch as small as 110 gallons and still have complete control over the fermentation process. As a boutique winery, we can do those things. If it doesn't work, we blend it into something else."

Once he wondered if this economy of scale might price him out of the market. "I had to ask myself how I could complete with the big California wineries that can make some very good wines for $14 a bottle," he says. "I couldn't stay in business at that price. I asked myself if people would be willing to pay more. The answer turned out to be "yes," Humphrey says. "Local people will pay more to support a local winery."

River City Winery currently has exclusive contracts with two Kentucky growers and buys juice and grapes from California, Indiana and Michigan, as well. Last year, he acquired one of his former suppliers, Eagle Crest Vineyard, near Martinsburg, Ind. With help from a college student, he does all the work at the vineyard, too, where he grows mainly Chambourcin, Traminette and Vignoles.

At the annual Indiana Horticultural Congress, Humphrey connected with members of the Purdue Wine Grape Team, who serve as a resource for the state's vintners and growers—people to ask questions of or bounce off ideas.

Visits to wineries again became working vacations as Humphrey and other Indiana wine industry professionals toured wineries and vineyards in Argentina and Chile during 2012. The Wine Grape Team arranged the trip through Purdue International Extension. This month (March) Humphrey will again be among wine industry professionals on another Purdue Extension wine industry tour, this time to New Zealand.

"You learn as much from each other as you do the places you visit," Humphrey says of the tours. During the 2012 trip, he became better acquainted with the Purdue team and also developed close friendships with the owners of Huber's Winery and the vineyard manager of Oliver Winery's Creekbend Vineyard.

All-Around Winner

In the past five years, Humphrey has found success as a vintner, entrepreneur and historic preservationist. His 2011 Vignoles became the first Midwest wine to be named Wine of the Year at the 2012 Indy International Wine Competition. His wines have medaled at the annual event since 2009, winning a total of 40 medals.

River City Winery building exteriorRiver City Winery kicked off a downtown revitalization and preserved a century-old building in New Albany's historic riverfront.

He recently bought the building adjoining the winery, and a renovation that will increase kitchen space, indoor/outdoor dining and production facilities is underway.

River City Winery, which received an award in 2009 from the Indiana Landmarks Foundation for historic renovation, kicked off a downtown renaissance. Downtown New Albany is now a vibrant entertainment district, with pizzerias, Cuban and French restaurants, cafes, breweries and boutiques reducing the number of vacant storefronts. These entrepreneurs have a model for success. "It was important to me to do it the right way and set the example," Humphrey says.

Though his parents did not live to see River City Winery and the revival of their cherished downtown, their friends say how much the couple would have loved it.

More than anything, he takes satisfaction that his instincts were right and that the result adds to Indiana's growing reputation in the wine industry. "Midwest wineries are on par with any in the nation," he says.

Humphrey still works full time with the NAPD as assistant chief of detectives, in addition to responsibilities at the vineyard and winery. It all started with a serviceman's appreciation for fine wine. Humphrey says simply, "It's what one small guy with a dream can do."

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