Ohio’s wine industry is thriving. With more than 170 wineries, chances are, no matter where you live or travel in Ohio, you’re close to one. Most are relatively new, but Ohio has six wineries that are at least three generations strong.
If you haven’t visited a heritage winery for a while, visit one this summer. You may be surprised that Pink Catawba and Concord are no longer your only choices. Yes, those wines are still offered – an homage to Ohio’s winemaking past – but you’ll find today’s more popular hybrids and viniferas as well. A tasting room at a heritage winery, in fact, is a glimpse into all that Ohio winemaking has been, is now and is likely to be in the future.
Breitenbach Wine Cellars
“We really haven’t changed that much,” says Jennifer Kohler, daughter of the winery’s founders, Cynthia and Dalton “Duke” Bixler. “Our winery looks much the same as when Dad started it. But back then, he used an old-fashioned basket-press to make the wines. We have newer equipment today,” she says. “And the quality of our wines has improved.”
Breitenbach lies in the heart of Amish country, and while the winery may be best known for its fruit wines, it also produces a range of vinifera wines from Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer to Merlot and Pinot Noir. In the spring, the winery also produces a Dandelion Wine, around which an entire festival has grown.
A year ago, the winery bottled a very special dry vinifera blend that third-generation winemaker Zack Davis had been working on before he suddenly passed away. “It sat around until dad said, ‘I’m going to bottle it,’” says Kohler. A special label was prepared, and 1,000 cases were produced, with the proceeds going to charity.
Chalet Debonne Vineyards
Debonne Vineyards began as a fruit farm owned by Anton Debevc, who made wine as a hobby. Not until third-generation Tony P. Debevc graduated from the Ohio State University and envisioned a family-owned winery did today’s Chalet Debonne come into being.
Chalet Debonne still produces the kinds of wines made by Anton Debevc –Delaware, Pink Catawba and other fruity wines – under the Chalet Debonne label. But it also produces vinifera wines under its Debonne Vineyards label.
“Each of the wines we produce is different and unique,” says Debevc. “Our Riesling is probably our best wine.” But there are also Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. “We know we can do white wines well. But we want to be able to compete on the red side now,” says Debevc.
Tony’s son, Tony Jr., is continuing the family legacy into its fourth generation as the winery’s vice president of operations. But he’s also taken off in his own direction, creating Cellar Rats Brewery. “He’s producing products we’re all proud of,” says his father.
Ferrante Winery & Ristorante
Like most of Ohio’s heritage wineries, Ferrante began as a farm that grew wine grapes. “We planted hybrids in the ‘60s,” says third-generation winemaker Nick Ferrante, but the vineyard also had its share of the Niagara and Catawba that grow well in the area. By the late ‘80s, the Ferrantes had added a restaurant to the winery, but in 1994, an arson fire “made us change direction,” Ferrante says. That’s because the winery was suddenly in the media spotlight. “It brought us a lot of attention,” he says, so wine production had to be stepped up.
Ferrante has grown from a 20,000-gallon winery in 1995 to a 200,000-gallon winery. Jester’s Blush, a White Zinfandel-style wine, is still the winery’s best seller, but Ferrante points to his Golden Bunches Dry Riesling and Pinot Grigio, both award-winners, as examples of the kinds of premium wine they also produce. Ferrante has recently introduced its new fruit-infused wine and this summer will debut a sparkling wine.
“We try to keep things fresh here,” says Ferrante.
Heineman’s has long been famous for its Pink Catawba, but the winery has changed, says Michael Bianchi, Heineman’s assistant manager and nephew of third-generation winery owner Louis Heineman. “We’ve gone from a winery that produced mostly Catawba to wines that are more sophisticated,” he says. Edward Heineman, fourth generation and Louis’s son, is now chief winemaker, and is raising the quality of Heineman wines, says Bianchi. He has also added new varieties to the mix.
You’ll still find the wines made from the island’s native grapes – Catawba, Concord, Delaware, and Niagara – “they’re still good sellers for us,” says Bianchi. But now grapes are brought over from Isle St. George (North Bass) to create Chardonnay, Merlot, Gerwurtztraminer and a new Chambourcin Rosé.
The winery is now entering its fifth-generation, as Ed’s son Dustin takes over some of the winemaking duties. “We’re the oldest family winery in the state,” says Bianchi. www.heinemanswinery.com
“When my grandfather started the business, this was a farming community,” says winemaker Lee Klingshirn. Anton Klingshirn, Lee’s grandfather, planted a vineyard, but it was his son Albert who started making wine and who broke ground for the winery itself in 1940. Since then, Albert’s son, Allan, has taken over the business, and his brother Lee has come aboard as winemaker after earning degrees in both viticulture and enology from OSU.
“My father made a commitment to improve the quality of Ohio wine,” says Lee Klingshirn – and the winery has lived up to that commitment.
The winery still produces wines from labrusca varieties – Pink Catawba, for example, and Sweet Concord – but new hybrids and varietals are gaining strength. “Our Riesling has a consistent customer base,” says Klingshirn, and as customers’ palates become more sophisticated, premium wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Gris are becoming more popular in the tasting room. “Overall,” says Klingshirn, “our wines have become smoother and more consistent with time.”
Locals know Valley Vineyards for its popular summer cookouts, but wine lovers much farther afield appreciate the wines, which range from sweet blends to Syrah, Chardonnay and an award-winning Cabernet Franc.
“We made the first commercial ice wine produced in the area,” says Joe Schuchter, a fourth-generation family member and currently the winery’s marketing manager.
“We started out making simple, sweet wine,” says Kenneth G. Schuchter, Joe’s grandfather. But the winery produced the first vinifera wines in the late ‘90s, and that began a shift toward a drier style.
The winery is currently focusing on expanding its distribution. “We’re seeing a lot of growth in this area,” says Joe, noting that the winery will soon expand into Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Meanwhile, Valley Vineyards will add a wine garden to its landscape this summer – all the better to serve those cookout guests and other winery visitors.