The last thing I expected, relaxing on the breezy patio at J & J Winery in Richmond, Indiana, was a mad scientist at my table. It had been a long day of winery- and brewery-hopping and I needed food.
“Taste these,” he instructed, setting four small glasses of red blend in front of me. “Tell me which you like best, and which you think will sell best.” Since so many Midwesterners prefer a little sweetness in their wines, my top seller guesses were different from my favorites; I like mine cottonmouth-dry. Then he placed more glasses on our now-cluttered table and started again with the samples, this time adding sugar as we sipped.
The scientist turned out to be winemaker Jeff Haist, who with his wife Melody owns J & J. Melody served up what might be the best pasta salad I’ve ever eaten while I tried Jeff’s good Cabernet Sauvignon and even better Syrah.
But the tableside experiments were hardly the only surprise of my getaway. I was exploring the new Heartland Wine & Ale Trail, straddling the Ohio-Indiana border west of Columbus. I had no idea what I’d find out there.
My first stop was Norris English Pub in Liberty, Indiana, owned by Wayne Norris, an ex-commercial pilot, and his wife, Kathy. Norris serves authentic pub food because, he says, “I didn’t want to get into burgers and pizza.” The place is so authentic, in fact, that they make their own mustard: “We don’t even have a microwave in our kitchen,” he says. I ate my first Scottish egg at the bar, washed with Norris’s Raspberry Wheat beer, made with locally grown strawberries. It had a big, creamy mouthfeel – velvety, I thought – but the real treat was his prizewinning beet beer, the color of cranberry juice.
We moved on to Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room, located in a former cobbler’s shop in Richmond. (“I have lots of little black shoes in my basement,” says co-owner Jared Ward.) The setting is warm, with exposed brick and lots of seating. Combining a high-end coffee bar with a wine and craft beer tap room and sandwich shop might seem unusual, but Ward wanted to offer an inclusive spot where everyone feels comfortable. “We’re an educational facility, really,” he says. “It’s not a place to slam back beers – but sip and appreciate its complexity.” His lineup is diverse and usually includes a mead and sour beer on tap.
Around the corner, his friend Adam Melton just opened a wine bar at Melton Renzulli Wines. Melton takes his wine seriously; he’s studying for his sommelier certification and currently carries 24 different wines, all handcrafted by him. He imports grapes because he knows, “if you come to Indiana, you’re not going to get a California Cab.” One standout is “Rude Barb,” a refreshing rhubarb-and-grape concoction named after a former neighbor who lacked good manners. His standout, though, is his “679,” a delicious Cabernet/Shiraz blend – I brought home a bottle. He named it 679, he says, “because that’s the number of days of red tape I went through before my business was legal.”
Another winemaker on the trail who knows his grapes is Mark Zdobinski, co-owner of Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery in Eaton, Ohio – Preble County’s first winery. This season he’s growing Marquette and La Crescent grapes, both Minnesota-hardy varieties, and purchasing other varieties. “When you start with good grapes, you’re two steps ahead,” he says.
Zdobinski started making wine at age 13, “in a neighbor’s basement so my parents wouldn’t find out,” he says. And it’s not his only skill; he singlehandedly renovated the circa-1894 schoolhouse where his winery is located. After the school closed in 1929, the brick building housed a seed company. (Notice the small grain elevator in the tasting room.)
Like most wineries on the trail, Olde Schoolhouse carries a range of dry-to-sweet wines. “What’s very important to me is balance,” Zdobinski says. “With the wines, there are choices to be made – do I keep messing with it? You get to the point where you’re finished.”
We stopped for a light lunch and yet another glass at The Winery at Versailles, but there were more wineries and breweries we couldn’t get to: Wilson Wines and New Boswell Brewery & Tap Room in Indiana; and A.R. Winery and Kennedy Vineyard on the Ohio side of the border. And a food-and-drink tour means there’s no time to explore the region’s other highlights:
- For Louis Comfort Tiffany fans, the Indiana Glass Trail – four churches and libraries in a five-block area of Richmond, sporting Tiffany windows.
- Antique Alley, two trails of antique shops.
- The KitchenAid shop in downtown Greenville, Ohio or you can tour the factory, also in Greenville.
- Earlham College, a high-ranking liberal arts school in Richmond, established in 1847 by the Religious Society of Friends. Today, about 12 percent of students and 11 percent of faculty still identify themselves as Quakers.
- US Route 40, The National Road, authorized in 1806 by Thomas Jefferson, cuts through Heartland Trail territory. Plan your getaway for the last weekend in May/first of June, when the Historic National Road Yard Sale happens – 824 miles of roadside treasures, stretching from Baltimore to St. Louis. That much shopping would drive anyone to drink. Fortunately, we know of some terrific wineries and breweries along the way.