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Conversations in Winemaking: Jim Graves

Jim Graves in the Oliver Winery Cellar

Introducing, Jim Graves!

Jim's career at Oliver started on the bottling line and has grown tandem with the winery since 2008. Here's a little backstory on how he got here...

Oliver Winery Cellar Master, Jim Graves
Oliver Winery

Want to know what it's like to manage the Oliver cellar? Read on to learn about Jim Graves career growth alongside Oliver's growth since 2008.

How long have you been at Oliver?

Jim Graves: I've been at Oliver Winery for over eight years. But I started in early 2008 and worked here for a little over three years and then I moved to Canada for almost five years. I came back in 2016 and I've been here since.

My wife's family lives in Canada and they needed someone to take over the family business, which was an inn. When my wife was finished with graduate school, we were looking for sort of what was next and it didn't take long to realize that we really missed Bloomington. We came back the first chance we really had.

What made you decide to come back to work for Oliver?

Jim: I can't imagine working anywhere else. It didn't cross my mind to not try and come back to Oliver when I moved back to Bloomington. I really loved working here and I love the team, which really hadn't changed that much in five years. I just really, I loved working here, right from the get go. I've had lots of different roles here. And sort of learned a ton and just really, really enjoy it.

What was the Oliver Winery like when you started?

Jim: I was hired to work on the bottling line. But my first week here Dennis decided to cross train me as the cellar assistant. I was working the cellar and the bottling line, and we didn't have a lab manager or lab assistants back then, so I spent a lot of time working in the lab with the old Assistant Winemaker and I basically learned every facet of winemaking.

It was pretty small at Oliver back then. There were no outside tanks and we bottled maybe two days each week. There were only five of us who did all the winemaking and bottling. I think we had maybe one part-time person on the bottling line. But, as a result of only having five people doing everything, it was hard work. Things have sort of changed. As everyone's gotten older and had families, there's a little more emphasis on balance.

We got here in the morning and you never knew when you were going to get out of work because you had to leave when everything was done. And there were some crazy times but it was fun at the same time. It was a tight knit group, working really hard together to achieve something. Yeah, that I enjoyed. It's not for everyone, but yeah, I enjoyed it.

What is it like being a Cellar Master for Oliver Winery?

Jim: Our winemaking team will decide direction and approve a blend and Alison will make a batch with pipettes and get everything perfect. Part of my job is to translate that into an industrial scale and figure out how we are going to move 75,000 gallons of one wine to blend with another and then get it portioned off into smaller tanks in order to bottle. It’s definitely not a small challenge.

My favorite part is the variety of things that I get to do. I never get bored. There are always things popping up and I deal well with things being in flux and change. A lot of people don't, so part of my job is to keep people calm and deal with things as they come.

I oversee all the aspects of production from the time the grapes or juice gets to the winery to the time it's ready to bottle. I’m involved in all the cellar activities, all the training, making sure people are doing things the right way. We spent years writing and developing our standard operating procedures, which were never written down before. That took a long time to write down step-by-step everything we do. There's hundreds of separate procedures for all the different stuff that we do and sometimes there are things we only do once a year, so it has to be tracked and written down. A big part of my job is developing training programs to get all the cellar staff trained on how to do everything.

What is the work environment like at Oliver?

Jim: The work environment is great! I’ve always loved it. Oliver has a knack for hiring really competent, smart people. I've always really appreciated working with a group of people that are all on the same page. We know what get needs to get done and everyone's a hard worker. I love the team that I get to work with every day.

I think everyone in the cellar has a direct impact on the quality of our wine. What we do or don't do, the choices that we make when moving wine, filtering wine, clarifying wine, all has an impact on what goes into the bottle. There's definitely a sense of pride. I can go into Kroger and see a giant display of Moscato and know that, wow, I made all that. It's cool working for a place that I can go out somewhere after work with my shirt on and somebody will see it and comment and it's always something positive. To work someplace that you can be really proud of, that's a real part of this community, is a really cool thing that not a lot of people get to experience.

Which Oliver Wine is the most challenging to make?

Jim: The most challenging wine to make is undoubtedly Apple Pie. Cramming all those pies into a tank of hard cider is a Herculean task that requires many years of combined winemaking skill and a significant amount of brute force!

All jokes aside, our dry red wines are definitely the most fun to make – there are so many variables and processes that go into converting clusters of grapes into a finished cases of wine. I really enjoy seeing these wines take shape over the 18-20 months they spend in the cellar.

What is your favorite Oliver wine to drink?

Jim: I really have two favorites: Creekbend Vignoles and Shiraz Reserve. I love the tropical fruit flavors in Vignoles and the perfect amount of residual sugar. Shiraz Reserve is great because it is a quintessential “big red”, with lots of great fruit flavors to stand up to the oak and tannins.

Oliver Winery Cellar Master
Oliver Barrels being filled
To work someplace that you can be really proud of, that's a real part of this community, is a really cool thing that not a lot of people get to experience.

— Jim Graves

Laura Cleary at Creekbend Vineyard

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Allison sitting on the porch with her two pups.

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