Mark your calendar for big wine fests

The Story Inn, home to the Indiana Wine Fair.

The only way to appreciate wine is to actually taste wine - and that means tasting a variety of wines, pushing yourself to try new things.

And there's no better way to taste more wines than at wine festivals, which are exploding in popularity around Indiana and surrounding states. Two dominate the calendar: the Indiana Wine Fair in Story on April 26, and Vintage Indiana in Indianapolis on June 7.

Approaching its 12th year in quirky little Story, the Indiana Wine Fair has grown to be wildly successful. The town is best known for its Story Inn - "One inconvenient location since 1851" - and a world-class restaurant.

The wine fair, which also offers plenty of food options and entertainment, runs 12:30-7 p.m. on April 26. Admission is $30 with a Story Inn wine glass keepsake for the first 4,000 at the gate. Designated drivers are admitted for $10.

The fair offers shuttle buses from picturesque Nashville and Bloomington. Story is approximately half way between Columbus and Bloomington, about 10 miles south of Hwy. 46.

In its 14th year, Vintage Indiana, sponsored by the Indiana Wine and Grape Council, is the oldest of Indiana's mega-wine gatherings. The noon-6 p.m. event is held in Indianapolis' Military Park downtown. Admission is $25 in advance and $35 at the gate. The first 10,000 people receive a souvenir glass. A VIP program costs $50 in advance and gets you an hour of less-hectic tasting at 11 a.m.

Vintage includes entertainment, craft and food vendors, along with a Wine & Food pavilion featuring presentations from chefs and foodies.

Both wine festivals present a wide range of wines from many of Indiana's 80-some wineries. You can easily taste more than 100 wines at either event.

There are, of course, other good wine festivals. Vevay, along the Ohio river, hosts the Swiss Wine Festival August 21-24. Vevay claims to be the location of Indiana's first winery. At this time they have 12 wineries committed to pouring for the event. And then there are other festivals and art shows which may feature a winery or two.

But the two big ones come up early in the year. Each features a lot of wineries. It's not unusual to find 20-35 wineries at either event. Parking can be an issue at Story; a large abandoned field is used across from the Story Inn. Parking in Indianapolis is where it can be found but plentiful on the city's near west side.

Both festivals are great fun. But a word of warning: Story's Indiana Wine Fair is crowded into a small space. There are Hoosier winemakers who will whisper, off the record, the festival has grown beyond its footprint.

Vintage draws an even bigger crowd, but the venue is much more spacious. Both venues feature long lines and crowds. Obviously, people are consuming alcohol at these events. There are always a few who have bellied up to the tasting table a few times too many. The wineries are very careful with the one-ounce pour, but there is no policing how many pours anyone consumes.

A little advice for big wine events: Learn to spit. Some people are uncomfortable sloshing wine around in their mouth, then expelling it into a dump container at each winery's booth. The trick is to learn to move the wine around from the front of your mouth (or palate) to the back. If you're a little uncomfortable, remember this is a worldwide custom commonly seen in European and even Napa Valley tasting rooms. You can practice it at home.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes for more than 20 Midwestern newspapers on value wine every other week. Read his wine blog at: