“There’s no place to eat on the water [Lake Erie] between Buffalo and Toledo,” notes Sam Fagnilli, co-owner of The Lakehouse Inn in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. That might be an exaggeration, but not by much. When visitors arrive at this water’s edge bed and breakfast just east of The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, they’re in for some pampering.
Owners Karen and Sam Fagnilli run the inn with their grown children. Son Nate is the chef at the Inn’s cozy Crosswinds Grille in the center of the property; daughter Andrea also works at the Inn. (Take note: Crosswinds Grille is one of the area’s best restaurants and draws lots of Lodge guests, so make dinner reservations in advance.)
Geneva and retro Geneva-on-the-Lake are in the heart of Ashtabula County, Ohio’s largest county. It’s home to two dozen wineries (some award-winning) and 19 covered bridges, including the shortest and longest ones in America. Ashtabula also has the most state-designated scenic rivers in Ohio. Among the beaches, covered bridges and brilliant foliage, summer and fall are popular times to visit. But the lake views, wining, dining and spa treatments are available year-round. So this reporter jumped at the chance to experience The Lakehouse Inn & Winery on a rainy November weekend.
I’d visited the Inn once before many years ago and enjoyed its rustic atmosphere. Since then the Fagnillis have developed the property, adding a new and expanded Crosswinds Grille with an open kitchen, wood-fired oven and a great bar for sampling the wines Sam is making. The wines have also improved. I was particularly smitten with the Double Wood Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged in barrels that once held whiskey, bourbon and even maple syrup! The result is a rich, supple Cab with hints of earthiness and a little smokiness.
It was way too chilly for dining al fresco, so we started in the restaurant with Lakehouse Inn Winery’s sparkling wine and some crispy wood-fired pizzas, then headed out for a tour of some wineries. The Lakehouse Inn used to offer its own van to take guests to wineries, but since the Lodge started transporting visitors twice a day, guests may hop on board for a fee.
A word about Ashtabula County-based wineries: It is the Napa Valley of Ohio. Indeed, modern vinifera variety grape-growing (think Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc. as opposed to labrusca such as Pink Catawba) started in Ashtabula County in the 1970s with Markko Vineyards in Conneaut (also in Ashtabula County even though it’s almost Pennsylvania!). The Grand River Valley appellation wineries have been perfecting these varieties ever since. This appellation now produces some wines that can compete with anyone.
Like many Ohio oenophiles, I have my favorite Grand River Valley wineries; a new one to add to my list, however, is Kosicek Vineyards. I fell in love with Kosicek’s Urban Cabernet Franc. Next up was M Cellars. I’ve visited the winery’s stunning tasting room, before so I crossed the road to Red Eagle Distillery to see what was happening with the local whiskey scene.
Red Eagle features Ohio bourbon, rye, vodka and brandy “sourced from the grains of farmers they know.” It’s located in a beautifully restored 19th century barn and seems like it could be command central for classic cocktails. Unfortunately, the Sunday afternoon we were there, they were out of most ingredients for my preferred elixirs such as sidecars and whiskey sours. Our tour finished at South River Vineyard, located in a church and famous for its neo-Classical covered patio. Afterwards, our well-sated group was ready for a nap before dinner.
Chef Nate served a hearty, multi-course dinner that paired well with Lakehouse Inn Winery selections. Chef honed his skills at the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking in Chesterland. A highlight was the shrimp and grits. “Grits is all about where the cornmeal is milled,” Chef Nate notes. No one cared where the shrimp came from, but all of us wanted to know where to get the grits. It comes from Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, Ohio. I have never liked grits. My mother’s from the South and served them occasionally for breakfast. We thought they tasted like paste. Shagbark’s version is chunky and flavorful and makes an ideal cradle for crustaceans. Shagbark products are distributed throughout Ohio, so check out their website to find the closest retailer.
The other stand-out was the Inn’s charcuterie plate. There’s no way to get that except by dining at Crosswinds Grille or by going to nearby Na*Kyrsie (the asterisk is part of the name), Chef Nate’s whole animal butchering operation where he sells meats, salami and sausages. Nate started the business because he couldn’t get the quality meats he wanted for the restaurant’s menu. Now consumers may purchase his locally raised products every Thursday afternoon.
The nonculinary highlight of our sojourn was getting treatments at the Inn’s spa just across the street. I opted for a Swedish massage and came out feeling like a wet noodle. I didn’t even want to carry my suitcase and reintroduce kinks to my amorphous condition. I’ve always loved Lake Erie, but I never knew what to do with it in the off-season beyond layering up like the Michelin tire man and walking my dog until the howling winds drove me back to my car. Now I know there’s an upscale option: Spend a few nights in a suite at The Lakehouse Inn & Winery; sip Grand River Valley wines and savor Chef Nate’s latest creations while planning my spa treatments.
No more surviving winter on Lake Erie. It’s time to thrive on our Great Lake.
For more information, please see www.thelakehouseinn.com