Markko Vineyard’s Owner Sets Ohio’s Quality Bar High

By Gary Twining

Disgorging a Champagne-method sparkling wine is not unlike the birth of a child; by the time of the event, much of the development has already taken place and the spirit of both the beverage and the human are ready to be enjoyed.

TheWineBuzz celebrated the birth of Markko Vineyard’s latest cuvée of sparkling Riesling by visiting owner Arnie Esterer on the coldest day of the year, while he demonstrated disgorging of this exceptional sparkler.

Disgorging is the removal of the spent yeast from the bottle to prevent cloudiness in the wine. After the yeast has eaten all the available sugar during the bottle fermentation, created its effervescence and offered creamy, toasty nuances to the wine, it dies, becoming sediment. The sediment is moved to the crown cap (the bottle closure) and pushed out of the bottle when the cap is opened, leaving a clear sparkler.

Esterer is a hearty soul, having sustained a winery in the challenging climate near Lake Erie since 1968 – especially in the face of both this winter and the last, when many vineyards didn’t harvest any grapes at all. He has been the “Johnny Appleseed” of Ohio vinifera grape production, utilizing advice from the late Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Russian vineyard expert who believed cool-climate regions around large bodies of water could produce fine wine grapes.

Esterer related how Dr. Frank would not sell him any vines until Esterer had prepared the vineyard and let it rest over the winter. The good doctor also believed that the classic varietals would be leaders in the short, cool Ohio climate. The evidence of his vision is being proven daily by some of Ohio’s top producers in their constant quality improvements.

Dr. Frank believed that each of the classic grapes had reached their apex in specific global districts: Cabernet in Bordeaux, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Burgundy and Riesling in Germany. However, he also felt, as does Esterer, that the perfect style or home has not been established for Pinot Gris. The Lake Erie District could be the region that brings the grape to prominence and esteem.

Esterer believes his winery’s mission is demonstration and research. He feels a responsibility to investigate biology and botany, to figure out which grapes do best in the Lake Erie environment, to stay small and find what works, without, as he added, going broke. Every vineyard and grape trial then becomes an extended trial in the cellar, with all of the variables of production, to reach the region’s quality potential.

The challenge is that this process takes at least a generation. For example, experiences like the back-to-back winters with bud- and vine-killing low temperatures have been a unique occurrence in Esterer’s lifetime. Esterer tended his vines for nearly 50 years before he encountered this situation that will forever influence the industry in the future, and allow the vintners to learn the outcome of its impact.

Esterer took a phone call from another vintner during our visit. He has become both the source for guidance and an inspiration to Lake Erie Region vintners who want to make world-class wine from top vinifera grapes. After the call ended he remarked, “It is important to share information, to taste others’ wines so that all the producers get to understand the region better.”

Few winemakers are so proud of what they have accomplished while also being openly willing to share their learning with others. Add to that the passion in his eyes and the humbleness Esterer possesses and it is easy to see why so many Ohioans adore him – wine lovers and winemakers alike.

Esterer also is Ohio proud. He uses American Oak in his Chardonnay. “It’s an Ohio product and I use Ohio barrels to make it!” he exclaims. He still uses American Oak but now sources three-year air-dried staves and French coopered barrels, which add subtlety to his bottlings.

Some notes on the wines tasted during our visit:

Markko Riesling Champagne – Straw gold hue with persistent bead, a delicate nose with complex scents of bright fruit on the palate with texture and mouth-watering acidity.

Markko Brut Rose Champagne – Champagne method, 10 percent Cabernet added for color and complexity. Rich flavors with berry notes, firm acidity and a hint of tannin.

Markko 2012 Reserve Chardonnay – An elegant and exceptionally balanced wine. Bright gold hue with oak, fruit, delicate butter flavors and firm acidity.

Markko 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Barrel Sample) – Dark ruby hue with a lovely nose of tart blackberry and vanilla. Good structure and texture, even in its youth.

Markko 2012 Cabernet Reserve – Dark hue, ripe dark fruit with vanilla/oak notes. Well-knit and balanced, marked with acidity though pleasantly ripe.

Esterer is also known for his Pinot Noir and Riesling, though he is currently sold out of the Riesling.

Learn more about Markko Vineyard at

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