By Claudia J. Taller
Did you know Ohio was making about one-third of this country’s wine by the 1860s? And that one of the original Ohio River wineries is still in operation?
Ohio was “vinland” for travelers on the Ohio River in the mid-19th century. Folks marveled at the acres of Catawba grapes grown by Nicholas Longworth, the Father of American Winemaking, on the Mount Adams’ hillside in Cincinnati. Not far away, John Michael Meier, founder of Meier’s Wine Cellars, was growing grapes as early as 1856 on land now occupied by Kenwood Town Center. The wine industry thrived in Ohio at that time, and Meier was one of its pioneers.
Meier’s business became so successful, he needed to figure out how to distribute his products. His son, John Conrad Meier, invented a new bottling method, and Meier’s grape juice and wine became widely known. In 1895, the family business was incorporated as John C. Meier Grape Juice Company, Inc., which was later renamed Meier’s Wine Cellars, Inc. Prohibition threatened many wineries in the early 20th century, but Meier’s continued producing its sparkling grape juice until the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted in 1933.
Through most of its history, Meier’s grew its own grapes. In 1941, the company bought land on North Bass Island (Isle St. George sub-appellation) in the Lake Erie region. Lake Erie’s moderating waters and winds create a longer growing season and the soil, deposited during glacial movements, provides fertile ground for viticulture. The move to the Lake Erie Islands allowed the company to produce a larger variety of products, including vermouths. The grapes were crushed and processed on the shore in Sandusky.
Even so, the business, which has been owned by various owners, was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1974, and in 1976, Paramount Distillers purchased four historic Ohio wineries: Meier’s, Firelands (formerly Mantey), Lonz, and Mon Ami. Paramount invigorated the wineries, and many of the grapes were still grown on Isle St. George. When the State of Ohio took over the island to protect it from over-commercialization, many of the wineries had to find new sources for their grapes. Now Meier’s gets most of its juice from other viticultural areas, and does all its winemaking at the winery in Silverton.
Today, you can still taste sweet Catawba wine, the famous No. 44 Cream Sherry, and its timeless sparkling grape juice in the Bavarian-German style winetasting room. Other wines include fruit wines, ports, Riesling, Champagne, Vermouth, and native American Labrusca wines. Guests can sample flights of five wines for $5, taste one wine for $1, purchase glasses or wine, or buy bottles to eat with food brought in or delivered from across the street.
Half the bar is made from Isle St. George rocks, an interesting curiosity. Comfortable seating includes couches, so you can really settle in. Tours currently unavailable, but the museum shows off the winery’s history from 1890.
The gift shop sells custom wine gift baskets and other gift items. A wide variety of wines are available for purchase, including the German-imported Jakob Demmer wines and those sold under the Reiem label (“Reiem” is “Meier” spelled backwards). In addition, home winemaking equipment and instructions provide what is needed to make your own wines at home.
Meier’s production facility contains three separate bottling lines as well as a state-of-the-art quality control laboratory. The bottling plant has three modern bottling lines and the unique ability to carbonate and pasteurize sparkling flavored water and juice products. Rail siding handles rail cars to complement its bulk storage and warehouse facilities. As one of the largest wineries in Ohio, Meier’s consistently produces 90,000 to a million gallons of wine each year.
The winery was purchased by Vintage Wine Estates under Paul Lux’s leadership at beginning of 2022, but so far, that hasn’t changed the winery. John Michael Meier’s vision of producing wines and juices from Native American grapes continues at the winery, which is only a mile and a half from where its founder first planted grapes. Meier’s Wine Cellars is a worthy reason to make a road trip to southern Ohio.