August 2008 Issue
A new crop of wineries brings interesting vintages and more vines.
What is a winery? Ohio has 103 of them, many clustered in the best grape-growing spots along Lake Erie and the Ohio River, others tucked into downtown strips with nary a grapevine in sight. In fact, according to the Ohio Wine Producers Association, at any given point, you’re never more than an hour’s drive from a glass of locally produced wine.
Some wineries, such as Firelands in Sandusky and Kinkead Ridge in Ripley, grow acres of vineyards and spend countless hours pruning and picking before hauling the fruit to be processed, fermented and bottled on site. Others, such as Henke in Cincinnati, buy fruit from local growers and turn it into award-winning vintages. In some cases, Ohio wineries buy the juice pressed from grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay that were grown in vineyards as far away as California — then ferment that juice into the wine you’ll enjoy on your next visit.
As a consumer, it might not matter to you how what’s in your glass got there. But to Ohio winemakers, our state’s vineyards are the backbone of the industry. Christy Eckstein, the executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, says the current supply from the 2,200 acres of grapes planted in Ohio soil isn’t enough to meet the demand of local winemakers, forcing many of them to source grapes and juice from across state lines. Eckstein says her office is working to establish government incentives and small-business loans to help local growers get more grapes in the ground. It’s a step in the right direction, and one that has bolstered wine industries in states such as Michigan and Tennessee.
Still, growing grapes is an expensive, fickle and above all, labor-intensive process.
Which is why this year, we’re celebrating Ohio’s great grapes, and spotlighting three new wineries whose owners forfeit weekends off, family vacations and the possibility of a 40-hour workweek to grow their own grapes and transform them into an Ohio-made product that we all enjoy. To these hard-working individuals, we say, “Cheers!”
Given its status as one of the fastest-growing counties in Ohio (and the United States) you wouldn’t think Delaware County would offer much in the way of green space, let alone “grape space.” But don’t tell that to the Sainey family.
Eric Sainey, his wife, Cherie, and his parents, Tim and Sandy, have transformed six rural acres of land in this increasingly suburban part of the state into Soine Vineyards (pronounced SOY-knee, a Finnish derivation of the family name), an estate winery that opened in April. And while central Ohio might seem a surprising locale for a winery (just ask some of Eric and Cherie’s neighbors, who thought they were starting a Christmas tree farm when the first vines were planted in 2004), the Saineys are determined to show that grapes grown in the region’s seemingly inconsistent climate, when chosen properly, can produce some nice vintages.
“We had a very good idea right away of what we could do and what we couldn’t do,” says Tim, who, along with Eric, has a separate full-time job and a background in geology, the latter of which came in handy when surveying the lay of the land. “A lot of people want the California-type grape — the merlot, the shiraz — and we can’t grow that here. There’s no point in even trying it; our conditions here are much too harsh. We are in a continental climate versus a marine climate, which is what you have on the coast.”
What you will find on the Saineys’ six acres are nine cultivars of grapes that fall into three different categories: Vitis vinifera, Vitis labrusca and French-American hybrids.
“My dad oversaw the research of what we could grow, and I determined what wine style would be best for what we planned on growing,” Eric says. “We selected mostly French-American hybrids. Those are crosses between your classic European grape (chardonnay, merlot) and American varietals such as Catawba and Concord. You end up with a hybrid grape that can withstand the cold winters and hot summers.”
The Saineys have designated about 70 percent of their vineyards to hybrid grapes, which have produced such wines as Cayuga White, an off-dry white wine with strong citrus and floral flavors, and Chambourcin, a medium-bodied wine with juicy fruit flavors.
Although the actual vineyards were planted four years ago, the seeds for the winery were planted five years before that.
“We went to a winery in Michigan about nine years ago, and ... the weekend after we got back, we kind of reflected on [starting our own winery],” Eric says. “We thought it would be something fun to do. [From there], the four of us visited a few dozen wineries and vineyards throughout central, northeast and southern Ohio to see the differences between the wineries and what they had to offer, what size operation they had, what kind of clientele. It helped us get a feel for what our niche might be.”
Tim says trips to the other wineries also helped them know what wines were best sellers with customers. Knowing what had been a success at other wineries made it easier for the Saineys to determine what they would produce at Soine.
Currently, the Soine Vineyards wine list boasts six varieties (bottled with a So-Vi on the label): three whites, two reds and a blush. The wines are available to purchase and sample in their tasting room, which is part of the 3,200-square-foot building where the wine is produced and stored.
While all of the Saineys will tell you that the winery has been a labor of love for them, it’s hard to say whether they’d place the emphasis on “love” or “labor.”
“We didn’t know how labor intensive it really was,” Sandy says. “We made a lot of mistakes, and there’s a lot of advice I’d have for anyone wanting to start this,” says Tim. “But it’s worked out well, and there’s quite a sense of accomplishment. Now our challenge is educating people about what can be grown in Ohio.”
Currently, the tasting room is open only on Fridays, 3–7 p.m., and Saturdays, 1–7 p.m., or by appointment. The Saineys hope to gradually add special events to the calendar, including wine education sessions and fall harvest tours through the vineyard.
“We want to encourage people to take a glass of wine into the vineyards, and show them what it looks like and tell them about the process,” Tim says. In the meantime, the Saineys simply want their customers to have as much fun spending time at the winery as they do. “We just want it to be a place where people can come and visit,” Sandy says. “You can look at the vineyards and enjoy.”
In Ohio, it takes just a short drive for the city mouse to be transplanted to the country mouse’s turf. And a day in the country, on a family farm that’s been handed down from generation to generation, is one of the best ways to appreciate our agricultural heritage and take in some spectacular scenery at the same time.
Matus Winery in Wakeman is just such a place. “My grandfather started this farm 80 years ago,” says Bob Matus, who with the help of his wife, MaryBeth, dad, R.J., and two sons runs this family-owned winery in western Lorain County. “It started as a grain and cattle farm,” he says. “I always wanted to find a different way to make money, and I thought it would be cool to have a winery.”
The winery opened in 2006, but Matus, who began making wine in his basement, planted his grapes about 10 years ago. “We started with about 500 vines, and now we’re up to about 3,000,” he says. His spot near Lake Erie lets him grow some of the more challenging varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, which he ages in pricey French oak barrels to add complexity. In the tasting room, visitors find 12 different wines available by the glass, including a variety of dry and sweet wines made from native and French-American hybrid grapes, as well as fruit wines produced from pears and berries grown on local farms. Cheese trays or bread and olive oil trays are available during regular hours (Thursday and Friday evenings, and Saturdays from 1 p.m. until midnight), with expanded menus during special events.
Last spring, the Matuses transplanted an 1850 oak barn from a nearby farm to their property, part of a tasting room expansion that will bring the indoor seating capacity to more than 100. The barn, which formerly housed bulls, still has its original rafters, and Matus says they’ve added a see-through sandstone fireplace to make it a cozy spot for chilly evenings. The new tasting room is scheduled to open by next month — but don’t wait to plan your visit, since August’s calendar is packed with special events such as steak fries and chicken barbecues (see the Matus Web site for a schedule of events), plus live music every evening. Not to mention, the outdoor, lantern-lit patio is a much better venue this time of year for kicking back with a glass of wine and enjoying the magnificent night sky.
“People are always surprised by how many stars you can see out here,” says Matus. “I always tell them we don’t charge extra for those.”
15674 Gore Orphanage Rd., Wakeman, 44889. 440/774-9463. www.matuswinery.us
Lakeside Vineyard & Winery
There isn’t a lake, per se, but don’t let that stop you from taking advantage of the relaxing scenery and fun labels at this family-owned winery in rural Clermont County, about five miles north of the Ohio River.
Lakeside Vineyard and Winery in Felicity opened in the summer of 2007, but the seeds for the project were planted more than a decade ago. “Spring of 1997, I read an article from OSU saying that 34 wineries in Ohio had imported 1,000 tons of grapes for the ’96 crush,” says Tim Downey, who with his wife, Lynn, owns Lakeside. “It got me thinking grapes would be a good direction to go.”
The Downeys planted their first vines in 1999. According to Tim, their land sits on one of the highest points in Clermont County, which, along with the tempering effects of the river, helps their seven acres of vines combat harsh Ohio weather and get enough sunshine to ripen. The grapes are hand-harvested, and Downey doesn’t use pesticides. “We try to be minimalists in the vineyard,” he says, noting that a hands-off approach doesn’t necessarily equate to less work. Downey estimates that “it takes about 25 minutes per vine per year,” for cluster thinning, pruning, leaf pulling and harvesting. “I have 5,000 vines — do the math,” he laughs.
Initially, the couple intended only to sell grapes, but it wasn’t long before that goal was replaced with an ambitious, long-term agenda. “After a few years, I started thinking that maybe having a little winery wouldn’t be so bad,” says Tim, adding that a full-service restaurant, tasting-room café, banquet room, amphitheater, bed and breakfast and (of course), a lake, are all part of his plans for the property.
Currently, Lakeside is bottling about 1,000 cases made from 10 of the 17 different varieties of grapes they grow. Most of Downey’s grapes are French-American hybrids, such as Traminette, Vidal, Seyval and De Chaunac, which fare better in Ohio’s climate conditions than some European varietals.
This year, Lakeside debuted five new labels, giving tasters the chance to try 12 different wines. The winery is open only on Saturdays, and no food is served except during special events, but visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic and relax in the peaceful countryside scenery (the indoor tasting room is open, but still a work in progress). This fall, visitors can take in a little football action, too, since the Downeys have graciously allowed part of their land to be turned into a football field for local youth teams that needed a place to play.
By the end of this month, the tasting room won’t be the only place to sample Ohio grapes at Lakeside. “We grow some seedless varieties like Concord, Einset and Mars that are good for making jam and preserves,” says Tim. “So if you don’t want wine, you can still come here and buy fresh grapes.”
Lakeside Vineyard & Winery,
3324 St. Rte. 756, Felicity, 45120, 513/876-1810. www.lakesidevineyard.com