Exit Plan

Madison Vineyard owners
ready to sell, retire

Palmers have listed the property and B&B to be sold

(September 2015) – Since the first time they met more than 44 years ago, Sandy and Steve Palmer have shared a love for wine. Shortly after they married, they joined a wine club in their hometown of Indianapolis, learning to appreciate the nuances of fine wines from near and far. They traveled extensively to taste everything the world had to offer.

Photo by Phyllis McLaughlin

Sandy and Steve Palmer pose inside their tasting room at Madison Vineyards. The couple has operated the winery since 1994.

Steve began making his own wines in their basement and later bought a small farm near the state capital, where he grew grapes and sold them to other winemakers.
But in 1994, the couple followed their dream to Jefferson County, Ind., where they bought an almost 40-acre farm about five miles north of downtown Madison. There they planted rows and rows of grapevines and began making their own estate wines. They named their winery Madison Vineyards.
The term “estate wine” means the grapes used to make wines were grown on the winery property. Sometimes, Sandy says, it’s a term that throws people off – they often assume it’s just to make the place sound fancy.
But the place is, actually, pretty fancy. The tasting room offers inside seating but also tables on a two-tier deck with a grand view of the vineyard, where wine lovers can watch the clouds roll by and hear the calls of bob white quail and other birds. On the other side of the building is the shop where the vineyard’s popular wines are bottled after reaching perfection in several steel and restaurant-grade plastic tanks.

Photo by Phyllis McLaughlin

Steve and Sandy Palmer have operated Madison Vineyards on the Madison, Ind., hilltop for 20 years.

In 2005, the Palmers built a stunning six-bedroom home with six-and-a-half bathrooms and a full, finished basement. It is their residence, but they also operate it as a bed and breakfast. Sandy says the B&B is booked solid most of the year and is only closed from about Christmas to Valentine’s Day.
Surprisingly, Thanksgiving is one of their most popular weekends, she said. Often people will book all six rooms for family holiday get-togethers. But the Palmers draw the line at Christmas, even though people have tried to make reservations for that holiday, too. 
For 17 years, the winery has played host to special events, including the Harvest Hoot, a celebration of the grape harvest in the fall, and Twilight Tastings several times a year. The tastings began with finger foods for guests but evolved into full-course dinners that Sandy made herself, on site. “We always try to use local ingredients.”
The winery still holds the tasting events, but Sandy has begun to hire caterers to make the meals. They are unsure if there will be a Harvest Hoot this year, simply because they are trying to slow down a bit.
After 20 years of hard work, the couple is planning to retire soon, which will involve selling the entire operation – the home, land, vineyards, winery and all. They listed the property on the market about a year ago, hoping to attract a buyer who shares their love of winemaking – and business acumen.
“We’re hoping to sell it as a working winery and bed and breakfast, but we know it could take years to find someone as crazy as we are,” Sandy admits.
Though the idea of owning and operating an estate winery may sound romantic to most people, “it’s a lot to do,” she said, adding one thing she will miss is her “tractor therapy” – the hours spent mowing between the rows of vines. “It’s a seven-day-a-week job, but at the end of the day here, you know why you’re tired.”
So far, they haven’t had any offers. But they have a lot of advice for anyone who is serious about making such an investment.
Steve says that the old saying, “To make a small fortune in the restaurant business, you have to start with a large fortune,” also applies to operating a winery. Prospective buyers “have to be passionate about wine. If they think they are going to make a bunch of money, they should forget it.”
And it requires a lot of knowledge, Steve advises. “They should know wine and not just homemade wine. They should know commercial quality wines and have tasted wines from all around the world.
It takes creativity and a solid knowledge of science to make a good wine, Steve said. “You have to cater to the public,” offering sweet wines, dry wines and something in between, he said.
“Over the years, customers’ tastes change,” Sandy said.
Beginning wine drinkers usually start out enjoying the sweet wines, like Madison Vineyard’s Black Dog, Vidal Blanc, Mystique and Sweet Ra”Z”pberry. In time, however, enthusiasts will graduate to the less sugary-tasting, off-dry offerings, such as their German-style Kleineweiss and Edelzwicker, and finally going for the dry wines, like their Ba-Da-Bing! “Bianco” and Seyval Blanc.
A prospective buyer also must be experienced with growing and maintaining a vineyard, which can be a very tricky business. For example, the Palmers spent seven years tending to their pinot grigio vines, which finally were harvested and made into a fine dry white wine and bottled last year.
That vintage proved to be their first and last. A severe winter took the pinot vines in 2013. Because it takes so many years for pinot grigio vines to mature for harvest, they decided to plant another variety, instead.
“It was devastating,” Sandy said.
Despite its bucolic scenery, she said, there’s still the bees, bugs and weeds to deal with, along with the weather. “But there’s something very gratifying when you work a vineyard and make a good wine,” she said. “Working the land – I always have enjoyed it.”
• For more information about the vineyard, its wines, or to book a room at the bed and breakfast, call (812) 273-6500.

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