Most of Ohio's 70-some registered wineries are open year-round, but it's always right about now that we tell you to get in the car and go see what you're missing. That's because August is when the scenery in Ohio wine country takes over. The vines fill out and the grapes transform from tart, green pellets to rich red, purple and black clusters. It's an amazing sight whether you're a wine lover, a beer drinker or a teetotaler with a romantic side.
But a few recent trips to some of Ohio's wineries made us realize that it's not just the scenery that keeps these businesses breathing, but also the personalities behind the tasting bar. Page through a few winery guest books, and you'll notice that most of the messages address the owners by their first name, saying things like "we come every year" or "thanks again." People may enter as strangers, but they leave as friends.
It makes sense. Most of Ohio's wineries are small and family owned, and the tasting rooms are often adjacent to the owner's house. Stop in at almost any of them and you're likely to meet the owners, the kids, even the dog. Unless you visit Ferrante Winery in Geneva on the Lake, where like any proper Italian family unit, you'll meet the brothers, sisters and cousins, too.
This year, we profile two new and two veteran spots where the people are just as memorable as the wines and the vines. And if four wineries aren't enough for your cellar, this month is loaded with opportunities to taste Ohio wines, including Vintage Ohio in Kirtland on August 4â€“5 and the Toast of Ohio Wine Festival in Sandusky on August 26. For details, visit the Ohio Grape Industries web site, www.tasteohiowines.com, or contact the Ohio Wine Producers Association, www.ohiowines.org or 800/227-6972.
Valley Vineyards, Morrow
If you've seen the new Ohio wine commercials on TV, then you've already had a helicopter's view of Valley Vineyards' 60 acres of vines planted along the gentle hills of the Little Miami River. Couple this with the winery's cameo appearance in a USA Today article about ice wine last November, and we're thinking Valley may need to hire an agent. But despite the recent media attention, Valley's winemaker of 22 years, Greg Pollman, is forever modest. And focused. "There's not too much going on around here," he says. "I suppose I planted three new clones of cabernet franc, but that's about it."
Considering that Valley, established in 1970, is one of Ohio's largest and longest-running estate wineries, Pollman's position is definitely understated. With a yearly production that has climbed to 10,000 cases, he oversees the making of the 18 wines available by the taste, glass or bottle in the tasting room. In some cases, the supply can barely keep up with the demand. "We made 100 cases of our '01 reserve cabernet [the wine was released for sale in 2005], and we completely sold out," says Pollman. Impressive, considering that the wine retails for $40, while most of Valley's selections are under $10 per bottle.
The tasting room is a smart Tudor building big enough to accommodate a serious crowd, which is what the winery attracts on the weekends. "A lot of our business is local, some regulars ... but we get a lot of people who are just passing through," says Pollman. "Some people, when they take their vacations, try to stop at as many wineries as they can."
Valley makes it easy for the just-passing-through crowd, whether they're driving, peddling or paddling. "We have a sign for the winery on the Little Miami Bike Trail and the Little Miami River," says Gail Haines, the sales manager for the winery and 17-year veteran at Valley. "People can bike 10 miles, then come in and relax with some wine, bread and cheese," she says. Like most Ohio wineries, Valley's selection accommodates a range of palates with wines like its soft, fruity pink Catawba, complex syrah, and super-sweet ice wine.
But it's not just the activity in the barrel room or at the tasting bar that keeps this place hopping. During the summer, the winery fires up 32 feet of grills on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for its ever-popular grill-your-own cookouts. Fifty bucks buys a couple their choice of steak or salmon, salad, sides, dessert and a bottle of wine (singles pay $25 and get a half bottle of wine). For just $10 more, you can upgrade to the new release of the winery's 2002 reserve cabernet ($40 retail) - a heavenly match with grilled meat.
Next month (September 28â€“30) marks the winery's 36th annual Wine Festival. It's a popular event, with live music, carts of food, free camping and enough wine to necessitate 18 wheels. "We load a tractor trailer full for just the chilled wines," says Haines. This year, an expected 30,000 to 40,000 people will head to the valley for the festival. "We couldn't cancel it if we wanted to," she laughs.
Valley Vineyards, 2276 E. St. Rte. 22 (at Montgomery Road), Morrow, 513/899-2485. www.valley-vineyards.com
Candlelight Winery, Garrettsville
"Nice" may not be the most dynamic adjective, but if there's a better way to describe Amanda and Chris Conkol, owners of Candlelight Winery in Garrettsville, we'd like to hear it.
The Conkols opened Candlelight Winery in 2004. According to Amanda, it was a classic case of a home winemaking hobby gone out of control. "Chris spent seven months living in Italy with his [architectural] program at Kent State," she says. "He was supposed to be studying buildings, but I think he spent just as much time studying the wine." Amanda says that when he returned, she set him up with a class on home winemaking as a gift. It wasn't long before she had 100 gallons of wine to contend with in their small, one-bedroom apartment. "That's when I knew this was serious," she jokes.
The winery sits back a few hundred feet from the road at the end of a curving gravel driveway, set off from the couple's home where they live with their 2-year-old twin daughters. "Chris is an architect, so he designed the winery, and we built a lot of it ourselves," says Amanda. The tasting room is simple and cozy; an enclosed back deck offers a peaceful view of Tinker's Creek and a mammoth oak tree with candelabra-like branches.
During the summer, Candlelight has live music every Saturday. Since the winery doesn't have a food license, it offers a small selection of prepackaged foods and welcomes guests to bring their own. "We'll fire up the grill at 6 p.m. on weekends and grill hot dogs for sale, but people can bring their own picnic," says Amanda.
The wines have names such as Candlelight White (a semi-sweet blend of vidal blanc and Delaware) and Afterglow (made from sweet Concord grapes), although those made from vinifera grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are labeled by the grape variety.
The winery's labels are an extension of the candle theme (Amanda says it all started one night when she casually mentioned that "wine tastes so much better by candlelight") and each features a candle character intended to tell you something about the wine inside. "My favorite characters are Candelina and Candela, " says Amanda. "They're twin tealight candles and they represent our two sweetest wines."
Having toured quite a few wineries, we're used to the standard machinery most have - a tractor, a crusher/destemmer, some steel tanks - which is why Candlelight's smoothie machine behind the tasting bar was a bit of a shock. A fruit wine smoothie made from any of Candlelight's fruit wines (blueberry, peach, cherry or cranberry) may not be for everyone, but according to Amanda, on a hot summer day some guests love it.
On August 12, Candlelight celebrates its two-year anniversary with a full day of events, music and food. Two years is significant, but it's clear that the Conkles have big plans for the future. "We'd like to add about 2,100 square feet to the building, build three-tiered amphitheater-type seating outside with fire pits and tables and do 'fireside chats,' and change the front entrance into an Italian garden theme with roses overhead," says Amanda. Considering that at 28, Chris is one of the youngest guys on the Ohio winemaking block, we don't expect their ambition to burn out anytime soon.
Candlelight Winery, 11325 Center St., Garrettsville, 330/527-4118 www.candlelightwinery.com
Quarry Hill Orchards & Winery, Berlin Heights
Quarry Hill Orchards has been a destination for fresh-fruit seekers in Berlin Heights for decades, but it wasn't until last year that the "& Winery" was added to the venue. "My wife grew up two miles from this place," says Mac McLelland, Quarry Hill's winemaker and the man responsible for the appendage. "We live five minutes down the road, and we would come here to buy fresh cider from the farm in the fall."
Countless trips to the 100-acre fruit farm got the wheels turning, and soon the veteran winemaker (most recently at John Christ Winery in Avon Lake) recognized an opportunity to grow with an already successful business.
"I wanted a chance to make wines my way," says McLelland. Since wine can be made from anything that contains sugar, Quarry Hill's literal fruit bowl of plantings - 37 varieties of apples, plus blueberries, raspberries, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries and nectarines - seemed like a good place to start.
The result is an agricultural jackpot of a destination. About 100 acres of mature orchards, visible from the road, line the property behind the wooden marketplace, which is open seven days a week during the summer. McLelland added two acres of grapes - riesling, cabernet franc, pinot noir, vidal blanc and pinot grigio - in May. In season, you can try everything before you buy. "We have free samples of everything we sell-peaches, apples, melons - plus samples of all of our wines for a quarter [Ohio requires a tasting fee for wine]," says McLelland. Stop in and take advantage of the chance to taste a selection of what we think are the best fruit and grape wines McLelland has ever bottled (and if you don't believe us, the judges at the annual Ohio Wine Competition sent him home with 10 medals this year).
The tasting bar is just for tasting, and the winery doesn't offer seating or picnicking. But that doesn't mean you can't take your time and sink into your surroundings. Quarry Hill is one of the few wineries without mature vines that delivers this level of scenery, something of which McLelland is very proud. "Berlin Heights wasn't leveled by the glacier, so we have elevated ground. You can see Lake Erie from here on a clear day," he says.
Quarry Hill Orchards & Winery, 8403 Mason Rd., Berlin Heights, 419/706-8005.
Rainbow Hills, Newcomerstown
Discovering an unexpected, magnificent place is the ultimate reward for road trippers. Rainbow Hills Vineyards is just such a spot. Hidden in a pipeline of township roads just west of I-77, travelers exiting at U.S. Rte. 36 might think this area won't offer much beyond a McDonald's or Wendy's.
That hasn't been the case since 1989, when Joy and Lee Wyse opened their winery in this unlikely area of Appalachia. "We knew what we wanted, " says Lee. "To be in the hills, away from a big town. We found this old, deserted farm, bought it, and started planting grapes on our hands and knees."
At the time, the couple had recently returned to the States after living and working at a research station 350 miles west of Sydney, Australia (Lee is a biologist by training). Initially, they planted test plots of 22 grape varieties, which they whittled down to nine based on which fared the best in Rainbow's microclimate. Now the winery pours 11 different, mostly hybrid, grapes such as traminette and chardonel, with some native varieties including Catawba and Niagra, plus a Riesling and a dessert-style sassafras wine that has a bit of a cult following. "We had [the sassafras wine] on the market for eight years, took it off, but so many people wanted it, we had to put it back on again," shrugs Lee.
Place a winery on a well-chosen site, and it inevitably will attract as many people with its scenery as it does with its wine and cheese. That's clearly the case with Rainbow, which is a stop on the Coshocton County fall foliage tour this October thanks to the 51 acres of woods that surround the property. Even the parking lot is gorgeous. A stone fountain shoots 15 feet into the air before falling back into a pond surrounded by 400 perennials. There's seating in three shelters and two decks, all with a view of Rainbow's five acres of landscaped lawn, which, like the slopes of the vineyards, can be explored by guests.
Rainbow hosts steak and chicken cookouts ($26 per person) on Fridays and Saturdays from the first weekend in June through the last weekend in September. But don't expect a loud band to provide dinner music. "We don't have music," says Lee. "Well, it's a surprise if we do, I should say," he corrects himself. "It's not standard. We've had dulcimer and guitar music, and a bagpiper. The night of the bagpiper, it was a misty evening, and he came out of the hills playing. It was something."
The latest item on the Wyses' project list is the addition of a bed and breakfast, set to open "sometime in 2006," says Lee. The winery property housed an 1831 log home, which the couple partially salvaged, adding a combined 3,400 square feet of kitchen facilities and bedrooms. "I'll be 70 years old in a few years," says Lee. "But we keep coming up with ideas."
It's a testament to the couple's 17 years of entrepreneurial spirit. "â€˜They're either millionaires or they're crazy'-I'm sure that's what people said when we started," laughs Lee. "Back then, we were the only winery in a 12-county area. Now there are six. Lee says that in 1989, their goal was to have 600 visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day; last year they had more than 300 per day on Saturdays.
"Not in our wildest dreams did we ever figure we could get to this level," he says.
Rainbow Hills Vineyards, 26349 Twp. Rd. 251, Newcomerstown, 740/545-9305.