Ohio Vintners Are Returning to Their Former Glory in the $34.6 Billion Winemaking Business

A century after Prohibition wiped out Ohio winemaking, lawmaker and agriculturists are trying to recultivate the state's vineyards. The industry is taking root again for a variety of reasons, including hybrid grapes that can withstand the region's winters and grow in our clay-heavy soil, locavore fever and growing consumer interest in wine. Established vintners also are encouraging industry newcomers to follow their passion and make wine in the Buckeye State.

Nationally, wine sales have been growing steadily for 19 years. The United States is the world's largest wine-consuming nation with more than 100 million people now drinking wine, according to Liz Thach, professor of management and wine business at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Total wine sales in the U.S. reached $34.6 billion in 2012, a 6 percent increase from 2011. Wine sales are greatest among baby boomers but millennials (ages 21 to 36) "continue to adopt wine in high numbers," Thach says.

Ohio wines have a venerable history. Commercial winemaking in the U.S. started in Cincinnati in the 1830s, when Nicholas Longworth began producing wines from the Catawba grape. Before long, the Catawba grape was growing plentifully along Ohio's northern counties bordering Lake Erie. By 1860, Ohio led all states in wine production.

The 18th Amendment stopped that growth in its tracks, however, and the end of Prohibition in 1933 did not see a return of winemaking to Ohio. By 1960, wine production in the state had virtually ceased.

But in 1963 the Ohio State Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster added a viticulturist-a grape cultivator- its staff and, soon after, an enologist, or wine making specialist. Research and development of grape hybrids suited to Ohio climates followed. In 1981, the Ohio legislature created the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, funded by an excise tax of five cents per gallon on wines sold in Ohio, to carry out market research and promote wines made in the state.

Since then, the number of wineries in Ohio has significantly increased. "The current renaissance began in the 1970's," says Doniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. "Growth has just exploded in the last decade and a half."

Ohio now ranks among the top ten states in numbers of wineries and in total production. Ohio ranked seventh in wine production in 2012, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Ohio has 1,600 acres of grapes producing more than a million gallons of wine each year and generating more than $580 million in economic activity, according to the Ohio State Agricultural Research and Development Center. Winchell says that Ohio currently has 174 wineries. Forty years ago there were 10.

The growth of wineries in Central Ohio has been dramatic as well. "When I graduated from Ohio State in the winter of 2004," notes Van Creasap, owner of Shamrock Winery in Waldo, "there were three wineries in central Ohio."

Less than 10 years later, there are eight times as many.

The Ohio Wine Producers Association has established six wine trails in the state. The Capital City wine trail includes wineries in Franklin County and its surrounding counties. They are all within a 45-minute drive of Columbus.

The central Ohio wineries are small operations and mostly family enterprises, producing from several thousand to 30,000 bottles a year from a few acres of grapevines. Wines are priced between $10 and $20 a bottle, with a few (like ice wines) reaching $30 or more.

Sweet wines-the kind many consumers think are the only ones Ohio vineyards produce-remain the most popular, but a whole range of wines having structure, complexity, and finesse are moving to the forefront. Creasap says that vintners should develop wines from grapes that can do well in Ohio, rather than competing with old-line cabernets and chardonnays. "Let's take grapes that aren't being grown elsewhere," he says, "and make the best damn wine from them."

Wineries tend to limit food menus to pizzas and cheeses, with many winemakers explaining that they don't want to turn their tasting room into restaurants. Many offer nights and weekends of live music. Many book wedding receptions and other events. Typically, they don't wholesale their products and sell their stock only on the premises, which become gathering places for locals and, to a growing extent, destinations for those in search of interesting new vintages.

Despite the natural appeal of the industry, though, starting a winery should not be considered impulsively. The capital investment is substantial-at least half a million dollars, "if you want to do things right," says Todd Steiner, Ohio Agricultural Research Development Center enologist

Creasap of Shamrock Winery points out that new grapevines take three to five years before they can be harvested and the wines you make from them need another one to two years to mature before you can sell them. That adds up to seven years before a vintner can expect a return on his investment. "It takes 15 to 20 years to break even in this industry," Creasap says.

Steiner adds, "I try to be cautious in advising people who want to start out."

Keith Pritchard has been at winemaking for nearly 30 years. He planted his first grapevines at Slate Run Winery in Canal Winchester in 1985 and now makes 16 proprietary wines from 58 varieties of grapes on four acres.

Calling himself a traditional-style winemaker, he selects grapes that can both survive our winters and produce a fruit that makes good wines-no easy thing. "There are some grapes that you just can't do," he says. For instance, sauvignon blanc: It's useless to grow here." His lengthy experience has taught him what is possible. "I've got my niche," Pritchard says. "I'm kind of the only one who does what I do."

Pritchard freely shares his knowledge with other winemakers. "Keith is like a winery elder," says Jenie McGrath, who started Manchester Hill Winery and B&B in Circleville a year and a half ago with her husband, Patrick. "He has been really helpful to us. He even gave us some of his old equipment."

The McGraths are hopeful and ambitious. With their two young children they are raising chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs, but, Jenie says, they want to make winemaking their primary activity. "The farm is so labor-intensive," she says. "Winemaking isn't."

Ron Rutter got his start in winemaking by helping Pritchard harvest his grapes. Less than two years ago, he and his wife, Lynn, opened Rockside Vineyards in Lancaster. Rutter, who has been a Navy pilot, manufacturing executive, and bank officer, considers winemaking his retirement occupation.

Rockside Vineyards is producing 4,000 gallons of wine a year from 4.5 acres of vines. Even though Rutter says that sales have been double what they anticipated, he has no intention of expanding operations. "You can go big," he says. "There are some 50 acre vineyards in Ohio. But if I plant more vines I'll have to get help. Our business plan is just me and my wife. I'm maxed out. I've found my end point. Beyond that, it isn't fun anymore."

Soine Vineyards in Powell runs on a similar scale, producing 2,000 gallons of wine a year from 3 acres of French-American hybrid grapes. Eric Sainey says that he, his wife and his father and mother got started in 2003. Five years later they began bottling and selling Soine Vineyard wines. Sainey says that they had to purchase the land with money from his parents' home equity line of credit because "banks are very reluctant to give money to start something like this." Several years later, they put together a 5-year business plan and secured financing for the winery.

"We started this with blinders on," Sainey says. "We didn't know what we didn't know. We learned that most people don't do this because it's hard work. And it's very cost-intensive. We're not losing money. We've effectively doubled our sales since we opened. But I still work a day job, and my dad still works a day job."

Sainey says that there's an educational aspect to their operation. "We're making wines from grapes that are not especially widely known but are better for our climate," he says. Among the 10 varietals having Soine Vineyards labels are chambourcin (which Sainey likens to merlot), Cayuga white (similar to pinot grigio) and traminette (similar to gewürztraminer). Convincing wine drinkers that these hybrids make fine wines takes some effort.

The Columbus area also has its share of urban wineries-vintners who buy juices from growers in Ohio, as well as from the major grape-growing regions in California, New York, and elsewhere. In France, such outfits are called négociants, and many of their wines have come to be regarded as equal to those from vineyards.

One such local vintner is Powell Village Winery, opened less than two years ago by Jeff and Gina Kirby. The young couple started their boutique winery with an investment of $75,000 and a lot of sweat equity. Last year they sold 15,000 bottles generating revenue of $270,000. This year, Jeff Kirby says, "we are on pace to double the number of bottles and exceed $300,000." He says that the business is already entirely free of debt.

Another urban winery, Camelot Cellars in the Short North of Columbus, won the Ohio Wine Competition Gold Medal for its 2012 Vidal Blanc ice wine. "The juice came from Geneva, Ohio," owner Janine Aquino says. "We're the only central Ohio winery to win a gold medal this year."

Winchell of the Ohio Wine Producers Association points out that the Ohio climate actually makes possible production of this dessert wine, made from grapes that have frozen on the vine. "The temperature has to drop below 17 degrees for 24 hours before the fruit is picked," she says. "That doesn't happen in California."

An urban winery with a heavy dose of the party spirit is Good Vibes Winery in downtown Westerville. The establishment opened in July 2012 and produces 24,000 bottles yearly. Owner Tony Klausing makes an extensive number of wines from Australian, Californian, German and Italian juices and gives them names culled from golden oldies song titles, among them "Time in a Bottle," "Satisfaction," and "Born to be Wild."

Reputedly the oldest winery in central Ohio is Wyandotte Winery in Columbus, established in 1977. Robin Coolidge bought it in November 2006 and last year made 6,000 gallons of wine, 80 percent of it from Ohio-grown grapes. He hopes to double production in five years.

Coolidge was instrumental in enlisting 23 central Ohio wineries in the Amazing Grape Race, a promotion to increase the traffic on the wine trail by rewarding patrons with a crystal wine glass for visiting five wineries. "It's a start to get us together," Coolidge says.

The Amazing Grape Race encourages an important aspect of the winemaking trade: making the winery a destination. Geographic groupings encourage more stops on the wine trails. A drive in the country becomes an opportunity to discover wine-tasting rooms nestled among rows of grapevines and to taste flights of vintages while listening to music and munching on cheese or flatbread

A yearly alternative is the North Market Food & Ohio Wine Festival, held over a mid-July weekend. Of the 21 Ohio wineries aboard last July (more than double the number when the festival started 12 years ago), four are from central Ohio. The festival attracted a crowd of 6,400 over its three days. Collin Castore, owner of The Barrel and Bottle in the North Market, says that wine buyers are increasingly becoming aware of the improved quality of Ohio wines.

Nobody is predicting that central Ohio will ever turn into Napa Valley. But local winery owners are hopeful that their future bodes increased prosperity. They all want more wineries to join their ranks.

"Wineries in the same region are helpful to each other," says Dave Crosby, owner of Plum Run Winery, which opened in Grove City a year ago. "We're not competitors. We're more like a family."

Steiner, the enologist, says that more professionally trained oenologists would boost both the quantity and quality of wines. Almost all the current central Ohio vintners are self-taught. Creasap of Shamrock Winery hopes that the numerous retirees who have started a winery will pass them on to a younger generation, insuring longevity in the burgeoning industry.

In the final analysis, the common incentive among this stubborn group is a strange pull of the heart. "You really can't go into this for the money," Sainey says. "You have to have some level of love for it. We took a soybean field and made it into something that brings people together. It's corny to say, but I'll say it anyway: We get to see the fruits of our labor in an amazing way. After this many years it's become our life style. It's what we do."

Dennis Read is a freelance writer.