When I was growing up in this little corner of Northeastern Ohio, I knew there were plenty of vineyards south of town. My classmates and buddies had last names like Kohli and Debevc and something about their Slovenian roots drew their parents and grandparents here to establish vineyards and farms. As kids, our friends grew up helping with grape harvests and pruning and other mysterious grape-focused labors.
In those days, the grapes were mostly sold to the huge Welch’s conglomerate. Pretty much the only wine-making was done privately for consumption by friends and family. While I don’t wish to offend, I have to say that the emphasis seemed to be on creating wine with the highest-possible alcohol content rather than attempting to cultivate any particular flavor. Forget finesse, notes of pear or pansies, or any of that other fancy-pants wine stuff you hear about now. If that wine had “legs,” those legs were wobbling and weaving and ready to go down for the count after one glass.
One of my younger sister’s best friends was a guy whose home-brew was affectionately labeled “Funderosa.” The plucky teens were not only welcome to sample the house wine, but were frequently drunk under the table by the boy’s mother. Good times.
Anyway, my sister Penny and her husband Dick are currently in town visiting the family (they live in the alcohol-challenged state of Utah, but do enjoy the year round golf in St. George). And since those vineyards we remember from childhood have not only greatly multiplied, but also have been transformed to become bona fide wine grapes, this past beautiful Sunday seemed like a great day to take them on a tour to just a few of the 25+ wineries that have sprouted up here over the years.
But wine for WUSSIES?
If you are a serious oenophile, this story is not for you. Besides, you can find articles galore about which wines are good, bad or mediocre all over the place. No, this is a story for people like Penny and me who kind of like wine, but have never gotten beyond appreciating anything much more complex than Boone’s Farm or Lambrusco. If you think a wine described as tasting like a grape Jolly Rancher is a good thing (try the Concord Ice Wine at South River Vineyards), this story is for YOU.
For instance, last Friday night I was Penny’s designated driver to meet some of her old girlfriends for dinner at Deer’s Leap Winery in Geneva. Penny liked the Deer’s Leap Berry Blast so much, she about killed a whole bottle. The taste is reminiscent of Cotton Club Raspberry soda, but with a little kick. I recommended it to her, since it’s one of my favorites and I’m only semi-embarrassed to admit it.
So I offered to be the DD again on Sunday to take my mother (only drinks Chardonnay – no oak, please), Penny (of the immature palate, like her sister) and Dick (strictly Budweiser and Bourbon for this dude) for what I hope will be the First Annual Wine Crawl for Wussies.
We could not begin to cover all the wineries listed in the Lake Erie Vines and Wines Trail brochure (that’s my ‘hood), but we gave it our best shot. We also added a quick detour to a bourbon distillery that recently popped up in the midst of the wineries dotting picturesque River Road. We relied on Dicks’ discerning palate to evaluate the boutique bourbon. Penny was crowned Wussie Wine Queen for a Day.
First stop, Harpersfield Vineyard. Though the closest thing to Wussie Wine was the Cuvee d’Alsace, it may have been a little too sophisticated to fit into the category. However – this was my favorite winery for ambiance. You almost have to know where you’re going to find this place because the sign is subtle (no neon out in these parts) and you can’t see the buildings from the main road, Route 307.
But it’s well worth keeping your eyes peeled for it; take the gravel road curving through the vines to reach this winery and its enchanting grounds. The old building is trimmed in purple and green and gussied up with a painter’s box of colorful flower beds. After you stop inside to choose your wine, step out into the back garden to sip and relax at picnic tables or little round tables with umbrellas. On a sunny day, it’s a little bit of heaven and it’s easy to imagine that there’s nothing for miles but trees and vines and flowers.
The winery also is popular with locals for the good bands that play outside on balmy evenings. In winter, enjoy wine and bread and cheese in front of the huge stone fireplace inside. I do wish they had more Wussie Wines, but I will return first for the atmosphere and second for the sweet and smooth Cuvee d’Alsace, which is a Kerner Riesling and Muscat Ottonell blend.
From Harpersfield, the next stop down 307 (heading east) is Ferrante Winery. This very large and popular winery also has an excellent restaurant. Of the places we visited, it had the most reasonably priced and extensive tasting trays. We opted for the sampler of Specialty & Seasonal Wines and tried six different wines in tiny plastic cups.
This was Penny’s first time trying ice wine, which is exceptionally sweet – maybe even too sweet for me, which is saying a lot. If you’re not familiar with ice wine, the grapes are picked at night when they are frozen and are then distilled to become an almost syrupy, super-sweet wine. Around here, when the wineries are ready to harvest there are sometimes notices in the newspaper inviting people to come out on a winter’s night to help out and share the experience with the vintners. I think that might be fun, don’t you? Cold, though. Really, really COLD.
Anyway, at Ferrante’s we tried Raspberry Blanc (Penny: num num), Blueberry Blanc (ditto) and Cranberry Blanc (we decided they all tasted pretty much the same with a general consensus agreeing to num num).
Next was the Holiday Red, which was not so well-received. It was a little heavy and one of us thought we detected an essence of Santa’s boot. Celebration Spice wasn’t a favorite either. Penny thought it tasted like potpourri, but I could picture it served as mulled wine with a cinnamon stick.
The last was Penny’s introduction to ice wine and she happily described Ferrante’s version as “candy in a glass.”
We sat in the quiet inner courtyard off Ferrante’s shop and wine sampling bar, but the photo here shows those who came to savor lunch and to enjoy the band on the restaurant’s terrace. There’s plenty of seating inside, too, and Ferrante’s is a great spot for Italian food and wine year ‘round.
From Ferrante’s we headed south on Route 534, then turned onto west River Road, which is home to maybe half a dozen more wineries between Geneva and Madison.
I’d always been curious about South River Vineyards, but had never visited until Sunday. It’s set back from the road in such a way that you just get a glimpse of an old church if you’re zipping past on your way to someplace else. The “church winery” was opened in 2002 after owner Gene Sigel dismantled, then reassembled an old Methodist church among his vines. Built in 1892 in Shalersville, Ohio, the church went through many changes over the years. For its new home, Sigel kept the original pews, interior door, flooring and some of the stained glass windows and later added a veranda overlooking the vineyard and beautiful pavilions for more seating.
South River Vineyards calls itself the “quiet winery.” There are no weekly bands or special entertainment, but people are attracted to the peaceful beauty of the property and are welcome to bring their own picnics and snacks while they enjoy South River’s wines and boutique beers. A father and son flying a kite in the fields beyond the picnic pavilions was a happy sight last Sunday.
I already mentioned their delicious Concord ice Wine. We also tried the Blush Ice, which Dick said was “sweeter than Thunderbird” and for some odd reason tasted like candied black olives to me – but in a good way, if you can imagine it. We liked the semi-sweet Temptation wine and Mom thought the Riesling was smooth and pleasant with a hint of apricots (this is as close as we’re coming to popular wine-speak). I can’t wait to return with friends for a picnic at this serene oasis so close to my home.
Across the street we popped into the upscale M Cellars, which I believe just opened last year. This lovely winery’s structure reminded us of a place you might find on Cape Cod. There was plenty of room inside with a stone fireplace and comfy couches near the bar and additional seating on two higher levels. The deck out back looks out over the vines and every table was filled on this beautiful summer afternoon.
M Cellars is making a name for itself with more serious, dry wines, but we enjoyed the sweet blush named after the owner’s daughter, Amelia. Their Vidal Blanc ice wine passed Penny’s Kool-Aid wine test, as well.
Back across the street, we made a quick stop at the new Red Eagle Distillery for my patient brother-in-law, Dick. He good-naturedly hauled us around all afternoon (I didn’t have to DD after all), even though he’s not a wine drinker – at all. But bourbon and rye whiskey? Now you’re talking, he said!
Red Eagle’s boutique bourbon is copper pot-distilled and uses multiple mash bills, which include chocolate, caramel malt and locally grown corn. I learned from their website that rye whiskey is the most popular type of whiskey in this part of the U.S. and must contain 51% rye. Red Eagle’s rye comes from its own and a neighboring farm.
In addition, the distillery is one of the few producers of vodka made from grapes! I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it makes sense here in grape-growing country. While Dick enjoyed the whiskies, Penny tried a strawberry lemonade with vodka that more than passed the delicious-sweet-booze test, and capped off a pretty full afternoon.
By this time, my poor mother was waiting in the car, having refused to drag herself up yet one more set of stairs to explore the distillery. We could probably have continued the Wine Wussies tour to Virant’s and Chalet Debonne, but we were all fine with calling it a day by then.
There are so many more wineries out this way, I hope you have a chance to experience some of them yourself. Whether you’re a Wine Wussie or a more discriminating wine drinker, you would be pleasantly surprised, I’m pretty sure.
To find a list of many of the wineries here in Northeastern Ohio, visit the Ohio Wine Producers Association website. Not all wineries are members. I didn’t find the South River Vineyards listed in their “Vine and Wines Trail” brochure. But it’s a good place to start.
Hope you’re having a great summer so far!