The Soul of an Ohio Wine Maker

‘This Business Has Made Me Happy,’ Arnie Esterer says

On a winter afternoon at Markko Vineyard, Arnie Esterer apologizes as he arrives in the tasting room. The white-haired owner of the “experimental” winery in Conneaut wears the same fresh, enthusiastic smile I encountered 20 years ago when he came in from the vineyards in overalls and field boots. His handshake is still firm, his flannel shirt is still loose, and his gait is still steady.

He and a business partner, the late Tim Hubbard, bought the countryside property in 1968. Back then, plenty of people were making wine in that corner of northeast Ohio, but from native or French-American hybrid grapes. Arnie’s wife Katie suggested he work in a vineyard, and he found his way to Dr. Konstantin Frank in the Finger Lakes, who taught him the grafting methods that allow European-style vinifera wine grapes to be planted in Ohio vineyards.

It has been his life’s work to make exceptional wine from vinifera grapes such as Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, often using unconventional (some might say risky) methods such as spontaneous fermentation and sur lie barrel aging. He loves the idea that if you allow wine to express itself, it becomes what it was meant to be without interference from the winemaker.

It’s an art form, and Arnie is still searching for excellence. It’s what keeps him going.

“This business has made me happy,” he says.

He doesn’t get into the vineyards as much as he used to, but his Conneaut crew has been with him for more than two decades, and, “now the kids are coming along,” Arnie says. The families that work with him know how and when to prune the vines because they’ve worked with Arnie for so long. For him, a knowledgeable workforce is priceless. He loves that the winemaking business is a family business and likes to talk to people about wine, and about life.

Arnie’s parents were both teachers. “They always said the most important thing is to ask questions,” Arnie says, the look in his eye revealing it’s a core philosophy of his own as well. In 1954, they bought an island up in Canada’s Georgian Bay. When he and his sister fought about installing electric power on the island (she wanted it, he did not), the family ended up with two islands. And now, when Arnie wants to get away, he travels 300 miles into Canada to the small two-and-a-half-acre island that’s close to his heart.

To stay young, Arnie says, “I drink wine. … Wine is good food.” It’s obvious that exercise is also a big part of how he keeps in shape. He likes to cook curries and avoids eating four-legged animals.

Arnie is concerned that Ohio’s other winemakers would rather grow hybrid than vinifera grapes. Dr. Frank told him that if the region grows hybrids, it would be known for second-rate wine and be no different from anywhere else. But he also sees new vinifera vineyards being planted and new winemakers who are eager to work with the grapes. And he believes that Ohio is establishing its own wine identity that will put it on the map as a great wine region.

Arnie Esterer embraces a life of living well. For him, growing grapes and making wine has been a big, fun experiment. The soul of this winemaker is alive with new ideas and a passion to carry on. For him, winemaking is an art over which he doesn’t always have control.

And he finds that magical.

Photo by Phil Masturzo.

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