When Kevin Tonne of Fort Wayne was looking into getting involved in a franchise business, his brother-in-law gave him a surprising suggestion.
“He came out of the blue and said, 'What about starting a winery?'”
Larry Simmons' suggestion wasn't too far-fetched. His cousin has owned Simmons Winery near Columbus, Ind., for the last 15 years.
“We talked it over with our wives and decided we're not getting any younger,” Tonne said.
By combining Simmons' horticulture background and Tonne's in food science, the two created Tonne Winery, which will be part of the year-round W.I.N.E. (Wineries of Indiana's Northeast) Tour, set to start July 13.
The two did plenty of research before getting started.
“We went around to visit wineries,” Simmons said, “and everyone said, 'Build a little bigger than you think.'”
They opened next door to Simmons' garden center in Muncie in December 2009 with a 1,500-square-foot tasting room and a 3,500-square-foot cellar. Already it feels tight.
“We're cramped on space in here,” said Tonne, whose work background includes quality control at Peter Eckrich, getting into and selling his father's business, and performing quality control at General Motors' Marion plant. Luckily, the winery has more land to expand into. Ball State students created a patio area on the side of the winery as part of a school project, which provides more seating.
They have grown from five wines to bottling 17 varieties, including Granny's Red Rockett, a Port-style wine; various fruit-based wines including blueberry, red raspberry and cranberry; and their Traminette, “Indiana's signature wine” created from a hybrid grape made to withstand the state's harsh winters.
Tonne Winery gets its grapes from vineyards in Indiana, Michigan, New York and Washington that grow specifically for wineries. Had they planted their own vineyard, they might have lost their crop because of last year's drought, Simmons said.
They bottled 4,800 gallons last year, up from 2,000 gallons their first. And they must have the right formula. Their Dry Traminette earned double gold medals at the 2011 and 2012 Indy International Wine Competition, which describes itself as “the largest scientifically organized and independent wine competition in the United States, the world's largest wine market.” The competition, now held at Purdue University, draws nearly 2,500 entries from 40 states and 15 countries.
Though the winery sits on land a few miles from Interstate 69, more people are finding their way there. They're also getting their name out through sales at the Fort Wayne's Farmers Market, which was open monthly at Parkview Field during the winter and now sets up weekly across from the Barr Street Market, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays.