by Joanne Nesbit
of Possum Trot
You’ve heard of them in Italy, France, upstate New York and in California; maybe even seen them. But did you know there were vineyards in Brown County?
The Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau acknowledges there are now two wineries in the areaThe Brown County Winery and Chateau Thomas Winery. But for more than a decade there were vineyards as well as a winery on Possum Trot Road.
Possum Vineyards was the brainchild of Ben and Lee Sparks of Possum Trot Road in the northwest corner of the county. As a retired U.S. Navy family having lived in Hawaii and Iceland among other places, the Sparks chose Brown County for their new home in 1968. Once settled in their modest farmhouse, Ben planted some French-American hybrid grapes. Lee says this was the beginning of learning and experimentation.
By 1970 the couple was enrolled as full-time students for an 8-week agricultural course at Purdue University, and in 1973 they established a more substantial vineyard on a high piece of land on their property. There they planted another 500 vines. They put in posts and trellis wires and started shopping for even more land to plant more vines. They found another 60 acres on nearby Slippery Elm Shoot Road, laid out the vineyard and finally had a total of 6,000 vines planted.
In 1978 their application to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) was approved and they were officially a bonded winery. But just as the licensing came through so did some bad news. A couple of severe winters meant only a modest harvest. More grapes were needed.
Ben and Lee found that some of their fellow members of the Indiana Winegrower’s Guild in the northern part of Indiana had not suffered the winter damage and had grapes to sell. But these vineyard operators had no pickers. So, Ben and Lee traveled north, picked grapes for two days, and hauled them back to Brown County where they began the process of turning the grapes into wine. While the fermenting process was taking place the couple began designing a label which had to be proofed by the BATF.
“We had only two wines,” Lee says. “Our white wine was made from Ravat 51 and was named ‘Vignoles.’ Our red wine was ‘Marechal Foch.’ These were both very dry table wines.”
Both of these wines took blue ribbons at the Indiana State Fair.
A sales/tasting room was added to an existing barn on the Possum Trot property. More and larger equipment was procured and the list of wines coming from the Possum Trot Vineyards increased from two to seven. Four were dry table wines and three were semi-sweet, anytime-sipping wines. Repeat customers soon became friends.
Ben and Lee closed their winery in 1991, donating all their equipment to Purdue University. But Lee still remembers the familiar questions customers and visitors asked about the winery. To “How did you get the name Possum Trot Vineyards?” Lee says they answered, “The name was here when we bought the real estate. This is known as Possum Trot Hollow; Possum Trot Stream winds through out land; and we are on North Possum Trot Road.”
Another familiar question was why they decided to go into the vineyard and wine business. The answer was, “We like wine.”
And when asked how many gallons of wine they produced, the couple answered, “About seven thousand bottles.” That answer always sounds like a lot more, says Lee.
Ben Sparks died last month, but the memory of the winemaker meandering though Brown County and its environs in his lederhosen is one folks will hold fondly.