What's that? You say you didn't know there was much of a wine culture in Ohio?
The history of winemaking in Ohio can be traced back to the early 1800s when Nicholas Longworth, a lawyer from the Cincinnati area, saw the potential of the Ohio River Valley to become a major producer of wine.
In 1820, Longworth planted the first Catawba grapes in the state. This domestic variety was hardy enough to withstand Ohio winters, and the wine produced from it won quick consumer acceptance. The light, semi-sweet wine was different from the other strong American wines of the day.
Soon, there were many acres of vines growing in the greater Cincinnati area. By 1845, the annual production was more than 300,000 gallons. And by 1860, Ohio led the nation in the production of wine.
As crop diseases such as black rot and mildew began to plague the grapes, the Civil War left the grape growers with little manpower, leading to the demise of winemaking in southern Ohio.
While the southern vineyards wilted, a new Ohio growing area emerged in the Lake Erie Islands. The islands had a unique climate; the waters surrounding them provided a long growing season and insulated the vines from spreading disease.
German immigrants who brought the traditions of winemaking with them settled the islands. By the turn of the century, thousands of gallons of wine were being produced by dozens of wineries on and near the islands. Vineyards were soon planted along the entire southern shore of Lake Erie. This narrow strip of shoreline was nicknamed the "Lake Erie Grape Belt."
Then Prohibition struck the United States and brought disaster to the Ohio winemaking traditions. Some family businesses turned to making wine for sacramental purposes, others produced juice, but the majority of land was turned into industrial land and housing developments. The grape-oriented economy of the area collapsed.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, a few wineries reemerged, but they had a lot going against them: The majority of vineyards were in a state of disrepair, government restrictions hindered their winemaking traditions, and the few remaining vines had been converted to produce juice grapes.
Ohio's one-time status as the nation's top wine producer was gone, and with it came a long road to recovery.
The turning point for the Ohio wine industry came in the early 1960s with the planting of French-American varieties in southern Ohio, encouraged largely by The Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.
The hardy, disease-resistant grapes produced wines similar to the older European vinifera varieties. Their success in the south encouraged plantings in the Lake Erie Grape Belt. Since 1965, more than 40 new wineries have been established across the state, and each spring, growers continue to plant French-American hybrids and vinifera varieties.
In 1975, a group of innovative winemakers formed the Ohio Wine Producers Association. Their purpose was and still is to bring together the grape growers and the winemakers.
The Ohio General Assembly and Governors James Rhodes and Richard Celeste established another vital program in 1981. In cooperation with winemakers and grape growers, the Ohio Grape Industries Program was created and charged with the development of marketing and research programs to encourage the continuing revitalization of the fresh grape and winegrape industries.
In the decade of the 1990s, one of the significant threats facing the industry was a lack of quality Ohio-grown grapes. A major effort to increase acreage was initiated under the leadership of Governor George Voinovich. Tax credits, vineyard planting grants, and the hiring of a state extension viticulturist are having a positive impact on the total number of winegrape acres being planted.
The results can be seen through the continued success of Ohio wines in national competitions. In the early 1990s, an Ohio Riesling won Best of Show at the prestigious San Francisco Fair Wine Competition. That award provided a tremendous boost for the Ohio wine industry, and a new era of respect emerged.
Other gold medals in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and across the nation have reinforced Ohio's position as one of the major wine regions of the world.
In Ohio, there are five recognized viticultural appellations. The Lake Erie appellation includes grapes grown near the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. Two appellations within the Lake Erie appellation include Isle St. George and Grand River Valley.
The Ohio River Valley appellation borders the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.V., to Cincinnati, and continues on to Evansville, Ind. The Loramie Creek appellation is in Shelby County, bordered by Loramie and Tuttle Creeks and State Route 47. Unfortunately, the Loramie Creek appellation currently has no operating winery in its jurisdiction.
Many of the state's wineries host special events throughout the year, but the summer calendar is particularly abundant. Here are just a few of the events coming up this month...
- July 9: Musical entertainment by Reb Robinson at Breitenbach Wine Cellars in Dover.
- July 16: Steak fry at Buccia Vineyards in Conneaut.
- July 16: Steak or chicken fry at Biscotti Family Winery in Conneaut
- July 23: Natural Areas Wine Tours. This date features St. Joseph Vineyard in Madison. Includes a naturalist-led hike, followed by wine tasting and lunch. Info: www.cmnh.org
- July 29: Winey-Margarita Party. An evening of "wine margaritas" and Latin jazz music at Grand River Cellars & Restaurant in Madison.
For additional information on Ohio wine touring, including maps and suggested itineraries, visit: www.ohiowines.org