Mead -- it was the drink of red-bearded Vikings and Chaucer's Wife of Bath; served to both the reclining Greek gods on Mt. Olympus and to King Arthur and the valiant Knights of the Round Table. But outside of literature and myth, how many people know about, or have actually tasted mead?
For the unenlightened, mead is an alcoholic beverage whose primary fermenting sugar source is honey. It predates the cultivation of grapes and grain; it even predates the development of agriculture. In fact, the practice of gathering honey from wild colonies of bees to make mead reaches back to the beginnings of civilization itself. (Our term "honeymoon" derives from the ancient custom of providing a month's supply of mead to newlyweds to insure a sweet and fruitful union.)
An intriguing set of political and economic factors during the Reformation contributed to the decline and almost total disappearance of mead from the tables of the European court and courtyard. It survived the centuries, however, due to the efforts of dedicated beekeepers, home winemakers and more than a few monks, and is now is making a slow but steady comeback.
There are a number of wineries in Ohio that offer this venerable beverage. Whether you prefer your mead mulled and spiced, light and unadorned, or infused with ginger and lemon grass, you're sure to find a mead to gladden your heart.
Dave Jilbert proudly points out his beehives that served as the motivation for his Medina County winery. "I've been a beekeeper most of my life," he says. "It began as a grade school project, and it became a lifelong interest."
These days, when Jilbert's own honey crop isn't enough to supply his winery, he purchases honey from his beekeeping neighbors. "Everything we serve here, both food and beverage, is raised or grown locally," he says. "People like to come here because it is like taking a walk back into the past."
The heart of Jilbert's winery is located in a picturesque, whitewashed 100-year-old barn, which houses a gift shop, tasting room and production area. By using an innovative filtration system, Jilbert is able to produce a pale, golden mead with a clean honey taste. The Summer Solstice Honey Wine thus produced is a delicious, all-occasion table wine.
Although, Jilbert says, most tastings begin with a dry wine and proceed to sweet, he opts to lead with honey wine -- exciting the taste buds, opening up the palate and making it more receptive for other flavors. But "because of this, you don't want to overwhelm your taste buds with highly spicy foods, like garlic or onions!" he warns, and recommends pairing his honey wine with vegetable dishes or plain food, cheese, fruit and crackers. 1496 Columbia Rd., Valley City, 216/781-4120, www.ohiohoneywine.com
; open weekends, March-December.
Woodstone Creek Winery
Woodstone Creek's Don Outterson began his meadmaking career as a young man growing up in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. "My uncle was a farmer, and he made all kinds of ‘country wines,'" says Outterson. "They were practical people, so they used whatever they had on hand to make wine -- like fruit, dandelions, and honey."
Outterson found that he particularly enjoyed making mead from local honey, and his award-winning beverage was the favorite of all his friends. "It was the thing I made that everyone wanted," he says.
His dedication to meadmaking is evident from Woodstone's impressive range of honey-based wines. The urban winery offers eight variations of mead -- from Taliesin, a light-bodied, lemon-ginger mead, to the astounding Crowne Amber, a full-bodied, brandy-fortified variety. Four of the meads are also kosher. "We do what we can to educate our customers," says Linda Outterson, Don's wife, who runs Woodstone's tasting room.
For the patrons who walk through the winery's intriguing, stenciled doors in search of something different, that education comes from sipping a drink that many of them have never heard of before. "I always tell them, ‘This mead, it's the real thing,'" says Linda. "‘Grape wine is just a cheap substitute!'" 3641 Newton Ave., Cincinnati, 513/569-0300, www.woodstonecreek.com
; tasting room open Saturdays, 1-5 p.m.
Single Tree Winery
"I learned from my grandfather, Reynold Roby, down here on the farm when I was about 8 years old," says Todd Roby of Single Tree Winery, on his early foray into the wine business.
As an adult, he enjoyed giving bottles of homemade wine and mead to all his friends and neighbors. "We would get together with a group of friends, and since all the guys liked to cook, we would be making food in the kitchen while the women sampled homemade wine. Then we'd all end up playing games around the fire. It was great."
When Roby's grandfather retired, he sold the 17-acre farm to Todd and gave all of his beehives to next-door neighbor Earl Winders. "Earl and I were out to dinner with our wives one night, and I said that when I retired, I'd like to try my hand at opening a winery," recalls Roby. "Then Earl says, ‘Well, I'm retired -- and I've got a barn.'"
Roby wrote up a business plan, hoping to make 500 gallons in the first year. "Well, we opened our doors for business in December of 2005," he says, "and in two weekends had sold 400 gallons — almost all of my stock for the year!"
So, what's the secret to Roby's success with mead? It's the passion for winemaking that started him on the path as a child. Not to mention, suggesting sumptuous meals that help bring out the taste of the beverage.
"I like to serve my ginger-spiced mead to folks with dessert," says Roby, "and it is also especially nice with Asian food, particularly if you sauté your shrimp in a reduction made from mead." 12488 Baumhart Rd., Amherst, 440/965-7777, www.singletreewine.com
; tasting room open daily except Sundays.
Mead might be a foreign word to many Ohioans, but for Joe Schuchter, the drink has always been a staple. "Growing up at the winery where we have made mead for 30 years, I just considered it to be an ordinary house wine," he says.
But Schuchter, the third generation to enter the family business, began to take note of the lack of awareness -- and intense interest -- surrounding mead when he started giving lectures to Valley Vineyards' visitors. "Whenever I gave a talk about one of our varietal wines, people would react with polite interest," he says. "But when I would start talking about our mead, made from local clover honey, I noticed they suddenly perked up, and I could see from their faces that this was something really special."
Valley Vineyards Honey Mead is a featured offering at the Renaissance Festival held in nearby Harveysburg. In addition to the costumed festival attendees who come to his tasting room to stock up on the beverage, Schuchter gets plenty of his share of adventurous types he calls "the ultimate foodies," who revel in unique foods and drinks.
Schuchter is certainly no stranger to unique fare: He loves to pair mead with honeydew melon wrapped in prosciutto ham. But he insists that Ohio wine lovers who try the centuries-old brew will, just like him, soon find themselves incorporating it into traditional family festivities. "We always have mead on the table at Thanksgiving," he says, "and serve it mulled and spiced for Christmas."2276 E. U.S. Rte. 22 and St. Rte. 3, Morrow, 513/899-2485, www.valley-vineyards.com
; tasting room open daily.