The Media School

Jim Butler is a winemaker and policy changer

April 2nd, 2019 by

Jim Butler used a worn cutter to slit into the hazel Chardonel branch. The 68-year-old spotted a bright green spot in the branch. The spot proved tree wasn’t a

Photograph by Caleb Yarling

Jim Butler is the head winemaker for the fourth oldest winery in Indiana. His accomplishments include a published book on the history of Indiana wine and former freshwater scientist.

victim to the harsh winter. The official prune lasted the first two weeks of every March. Butler’s excited to get started on another batch of wine.

“You can make bread in three of four hours and know what you did,” he said. “Wine takes much longer than that, three to four years sometimes.”

Wine is just one of Butler’s interests. Since 1983, he is head winemaker for the family-owned and operated Butler Winery.

Once Butler completed the University of Minnesota graduate program (U of M), he returned to his undergraduate home of Bloomington in 1976. He wanted to obtain a Ph.D. However, the professor didn’t have the funds for Butler’s program.

Butler’s first wine job was at Oliver Winery in 1977. His tasks included lab and cellar work. An opportunity at Oliver Winery changed his life.

“After a year the head winemaker left,” he said. “I took his job.”

Butler used the experience to open Butler Winery.

“It’s a slow learning process,” he said. “There is a lot of regulation.”

Butler helped Indiana wine become recognized by the wine community. In 2006, Butler lobbied to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and United States Department of the Treasury. The two departments had to agree for south-central Indiana to receive the designation, Indiana Uplands, an American Viticultural Area.

Perks included the ability to label wines “estate-bottled” The designation marked the wine was grown and produced at the same winery and AVA listed.

Photograph by Caleb Yarling

Jim Butler (left) and Eric Sundin (right) prune the vineyard on a sunny February day.

“Certain privileges come with being a viticultural area,” Butler said.

The Indiana Uplands were designated in 2013, seven years after Butler’s appeal. The Indiana Uplands joined the other 244 AVA regions in the U.S.

“You gotta know paperwork,” he said.

Butler began policy involvement in 1998. He was president of the Indiana Wine Grape Council at Purdue University from 1998-2008. He was also president of the Indiana Winery and Vineyard Association (IWVA). He continues to act as treasurer for IWVA.

Prior to his career in wine, Butler graduated from Indiana University and U of M. He obtained a bachelor’s in Biology from IU. He graduated with a master’s in Ecology and Behavior Biology from U of M. While Butler was a graduate student at U of M, he worked with the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute at Lake Minnetonka. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and met his wife Susan at IU in 1969.

With his son John, Butler co-authored the book on Indiana wine. He uncovered stories from the 1800s, included with a story of the first Indiana wine crop.

“It was harvested by Swiss settlers of Switzerland County, Indiana, in the early 1800s,” he said. “Indiana was the first state in the union to be a successful wine producer.”

Butler’s book didn’t make headlines that week, an American tragedy did.

“You can make bread in three of four hours and know what you did. Wine takes much longer than that, three to four years sometimes.” – Jim Butler, Head winemaker, Butler Winery

“Well, it came out the week of 9/11,” he said. “It didn’t get much play in the newspapers, and it pretty much passed into obscurity without really much press at all.”

The book was another one of Butler’s side ventures. His primary focus is the family business. Butler surrounded himself with family.

Since 2009, Butler worked with his nephew, Eric Sundin, throughout the winery. The jobs together spanned from the prune of the vines, the cork machine, to lab work.

“Once I started getting acclimated into the wine industry,” Sundin said. “I learned a lot from Jim (Butler) and he took me under his wing.”

Butler’s current goal is to prune seven acres. His upcoming objective is the harvest, 5 months from now.

“We get into 60- or 70-hour work weeks during harvest,” he said. “Which takes all of our time.”