“This one’s delicious,” John says pulling a glass of red wine from his lips. “Do you want to try it?” he adds passing the glass.
It’s a very sweet, almost tart, batch of Soft Red, Oliver Winery’s number-one-selling product, and it’s about to be bottled.
John Metzcar’s job is one of few in which he’s permitted to drink at work—it’s actually a necessity.
The 32-year-old chemical engineer is an assistant wine maker at Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Ind., where he oversees a wide array of chemical and mechanical processes involved in the production of the company’s dozens of wines.
His job takes him from the Oliver wine cellar festooned with stacks of oaken barrels from which he pulls samples of aging wines, to the company laboratory, where analyzes samples for consistency, purity and taste.
But today is Thursday, and that means the winery manufacturing crew is manning the bottling line. Metzcar stops in to do some quality assurance checks on the operation.
Hooked up to a large filtration device, a long hose ushers wine from one of a dozen 8,200-gallon storage tanks looming over Metzcar in the dark, frosty fermentation facility. The sweet wine pushes through the filtration stage and into the clamorous bottling facility where it is shortly after quickly squirted into a parade of sanitized bottles that come whizzing down the bottling line.
While employees load the automated line with empty boxes and work on the corking and labeling stages of the process, Metzcar leans toward the line of filled bottles scooting by on a conveyor belt and grabs a couple to make sure the dates printed on the labels are correct. Then off they go further down the line where they’re boxed, sealed and stacked on pallets to be stored in one of the company’s large, chilly warehouses.
The process needed to transform a formative mix of crushed grapes and yeast into a final product is a delicate and calculated one, says Metzcar.
“It’s a matter of being diligent about how you treat the wine, making sure that you’re maintaining proper standards, both in terms of cleanliness and in terms of chemistry of the wine,” he says in Oliver’s long tube of a wine cellar just outside the tasting room.
“Is the wine fermenting and progressing the way it should be? Is it a sound fermentation?” Metzcar says. These are the basic questions that guide his relationship with the batches of libation chilling in the prodigious stainless steel tanks and oaken barrels peppering the production facilities across the property.
“We’re always trying to get the wine batches to mix correctly so that it is balanced,” he adds under bright fluorescent lights in the company’s laboratory. Here, he and his colleague Melanie Strong ply their knowledge of chemical engineering to run a battery of quantitative analyses to check the acidity, volatile acuity and microbial stability of wine samples.
“It’s to make sure it [the wine] won’t get funky,” he says. Indeed, much of Metzcar’s job boils down to sampling batches at regular intervals and checking them in the lab to make sure that they are on track to meet company standards.
Metzcar has immersed himself in the science of alcohol production since graduating from Purdue in 2004 with a major in chemical engineering. He worked stints at Brown County Winery and Upland Brewery before joining Oliver in the summer of 2005. So he’s got a solid grasp the chemistry needed to engineer top-notch wines.
“We’ve never had a batch turn out badly since I’ve been here,” he says proudly.
Depending on the type of wine, it takes between two and 18 months to ferment, distill, mix, age and bottle the product. Soft red wines and many of the company’s whites run on shorter aging schedules, while most of Oliver’s dry reds need more time to reach maturity.
The batches of wine Metzcar nurtures every week go into around 45 different makes that Oliver sells throughout Indiana and across the country. The company makes everything from dry whites like chardonnay and sweeter moscatos to heavy reds like shiraz and dessert port wines.
“We make a lot of wines that sell at really significant volumes. So in terms of popularity, we have several,” Metzcar says in the wine cellar. “And then there’s the Creekbend stuff. That’s really unique and interesting too.”
Due to the limitations of Indiana’s seasonal climate, most of the wines that Metzcar helps produce are made from grapes imported from other states. But Oliver does produce limited homegrown varieties from grapes cultivated at the company’s Creekbend Vineyard, a 50-acre plot of limestone soil located in northwest Monroe County near Bean Blossom.
It’s difficult for him to highlight his favorite Oliver wine. He leans against a barrel of carot noir and pauses for several moments “Oh, III—that’s my favorite, maybe my favorite right now,” Metzcar says laughing. A blend of barrel fermented vignoles and vidal franc, Creekbend III is a sweet white wine carrying flavors of apple and pear that the company produces in limited quantities from grapes harvested from Creekbend Vineyard.
With only 137 cases produced in its most recent batch, the production of Creekbend III falls far short of the Soft Red still being squirted into bottles and packaged into pallets in the bottling facility. He’ll spend the rest of his day checking production on the bottling line, sampling wines from stainless steel tanks and oak barrels and running analyses in the lab.
Asked to explain up his personal experiences working behind the scenes at the winery, Metzcar sums it up succinctly enough: “Awesome.”