By Gary Twining
The Ohio wine industry lost a pioneer and winemaking legend in October 2020 when Markko Vineyard co-founder Arnulf “Arnie” Esterer passed away.
But Arnie’s trailblazing legacy will live on. His adult children say they are fully committed to continuing their patriarch’s vision and commitment to quality, and they are busy cultivating and planning for Markko Vineyard’s 2021 harvest. That’s great news for wine lovers as well as for the Ohio wine industry that Arnie Esterer helped shape.
As a collaborator with, and protégé of, the vinifera evangelist Dr. Konstantin Frank, Arnie followed his mentor’s cool-climate viticultural practices, bought vines from him and planted vineyards in Conneaut in northeast Ohio.
Along with business partner Tim Hubbard, Esterer founded Markko Vineyard in 1968, focusing on quality estate-grown wines made from five European Vitis vinifera grapes; Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Special attention was given to maximizing winter survival and obtaining ripe fruit in our capricious climate.
In 1979, on behalf of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, Arnie led the charge for local wineries to obtain the Lake Erie Appellation of Origin, a 40,000-acre district encompassing three states, which was formally approved in 1983.
I first met Arnie in a local retail shop where he was making a delivery of his wines. On that particular day, the retailer was aggressively challenging Arnie’s prices. Arnie just quietly stood there, in silent persistence. The retailer finally pulled out his checkbook and paid, knowing full well the quality of Arnie’s wines, as well as the demand for them.
Being invited to Markko during harvest time opened my eyes to the hard work and challenges he faced. Arnie’s assistant at the time, the late Linda Frisbie, gave me a pair of overalls and a rain slicker “so I would look like a real vintner.”
First they had me punching down the cap of grape skins in a vat of Pinot Noir until I was sweating profusely and gasping for air. Then we racked Chardonnay off the lees, with Arnie deftly hopping among the two-tiered barrels with the dexterity of a teenager.
We prepared for the pickers by Arnie driving a tractor through the vine rows while I staggered on the pitching, rolling trailer, dropping lug boxes. Lunch was Arnie’s homemade soup. We picked a trailer-load of Chardonnay and finally hand-carried many five-gallon buckets of Pinot Noir juice up the hill to the press. I was 20 years his junior, but it was a two-Excedrin day for me, and simply routine for him.
Arnie was sure of his goals but quiet and humble, being most comfortable among the vats and vines. He made some exceptional wines but would be the first to tell you he was not infallible. His wines were almost always on point, stunning examples of the complexity and uniqueness that the Lake Erie Appellation could produce.
At Arnie’s request, I traveled to Markko to collaborate in selecting specific barrels of the 2012 Cabernet for the initial release. That afternoon was a wonderful event, as we evaluated and discussed the wines and made decisions as colleagues on what would be the final blend. The result was the first release of the 2012 Markko Cabernet Sauvignon, a great wine from a phenomenal vintage.
With Arnie in failing health, the 2020 harvest was accomplished with the help of Larry Laurello of Laurello Vineyards and his crew, who shared in the Markko vineyard/harvest work and winemaking so the Esterer family could focus on the final months of Arnie’s life, organize a winery crew and plan for the future.
The second generation of the close-knit Esterer family has taken over Arnie’s quality vision. Sharing the leadership are Andrew, Paul, Katherine and David, with Paul directing winemaking, and David’s wife Lisa overseeing sales and operations.
For their first vintage of 2020, the family members made no drastic changes to Markko’s production techniques. They did expend great efforts, however, in updating and upgrading the vineyards, the winery and the main house and improving all aspects of operations. Lauren Fiala has been appointed to lead winemaker/winegrower, and Todd Stevenson has been named vineyard manager and winegrower.
It is the family’s hope to continue Arnie’s work in quality vinifera wine production, offer guidance to and work with the cooperating wineries of Dr. Konstantin Frank, champion Arnie’s dream of establishing a new American Viticultural Area (AVA) for the Conneaut Creek region and support the Conneaut and Ashtabula County area in leisure/tourism activities.
Esterer family members say they are overwhelmed with gratitude at the tremendous outpouring of respect, love and condolences following their father’s passing, and of the support for his vision of Ohio vinifera wines.
Arnie’s quality vision for the Lake Erie Appellation and championing of Dr. Frank’s cooperating wineries will continue, even though Arnie is no longer with us. Without his fervent vision and leadership, the quality of Lake Erie’s wine regions and the complexity of the region’s wines would be unrealized dreams.