From vine to wine

A swath of northeast Ohio land only 88 square miles is responsible for 70 percent of the wine grapes grown in Ohio. The shape of the Grand River Valley protects the area from early frost in the spring, and its proximity to Lake Erie extends the growing season in the fall, because the summer months raise the lake’s temperature and that warm body of water takes the chill out of cool breezes as they blow over it.

Mark Winchell, executive director of Ashtabula County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said, ”Lake Erie is like a big bathtub. It restarts growth in the spring, and it’s the reason we’re able to grow grapes into fall.”

Even with the help of the lake, the Ohio growing season (about 180 days compared to 270 on the West Coast) isn’t long enough to produce bold, dry reds to match California’s best vintages, but local wineries say their Rieslings are unrivaled and their Chardonays and other white wines can compete with any other region in the U.S. For red wine fans, the state’s Pinot Noirs are impressive, and 2012 was a particularly good year. Those bottles are starting to hit the market now.

Alyssa Sekerak, marketing director for Ferrante Winery, said, ”Reds are extremely challenging. The ones we can grow we feel we do an exceptional job at. The reds are more challenging than the whites, but it’s a challenge we like to take.”

And there’s one area where Ohio is the clear favorite – the state’s wineries are a lot more fun than California’s.

”The average winery visit in California is about 30 minutes; it’s three and a half hours in Ohio,” Winchell said.

California law restricts wineries from selling food and even limits what kind of entertainment is available, Winchell said. In Ashtabula County, many of its 20 wineries (two more are slated to open in 2014) have restaurants and outdoor patios that encourage visitors to buy a bottle and linger, and live music is a staple at several locations in the summer.

”Adding food to the equation, that extension of stay increases dramatically,” Winchell said. ”And that extends the economic impact. They buy more when they stay more.”

From March to December, those wineries bring from 15,000 to 22,000 people to Ashtabula County each weekend, and tourism added nearly $400 million to the local economy in 2011, the most recent figures available.

Last week the Ashtabula County Convention & Visitors Bureau unveiled a new marketing/branding campaign to better identify and sell its assets. Different images are imposed over a bold “A” silhouette in a campaign created by LPK, a branding company that has worked for such major clients as Hallmark, Kellogg’s, Hershey’s and Gillette.

Not surprisingly, the county’s wineries are a key component of the campaign.

Those 20 wineries offer a variety of experiences, from large producers like Ferrante, a third generation of winemakers who bottle 110,000 gallons annually, to M Cellars, a newer winery started by Matt and Tara Meineke.

Matt was an auto mechanic and home winemaker who was encouraged to take the plunge after visits to wine country at Niagara-on-the-Lake. He owns a 12 1/2-acre vineyard in Geneva, and this year will release his first reds, a Pinot Noir and a Meritage, with estate-grown grapes. Earlier this month, M Cellars received a silver medal for its Dry Rose and a bronze medal for its Rkatsiteli at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Those awards can be important for a winery. Ferrante started selling its wines in Florida after its 2010 Pinot Grigio won best of show honors at a wine festival in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Carmel Ferrante said their wines may be available in the Chicago area before the end of the year.

Entering the winemaking business is not cheap. Winchell said it costs about $18,000 per acre to plant grapes and install the necessary tiling/drainage in the fields. And it will be about five years before harvestable grapes are produced (Meineke planted his first vines in 2008, and M Cellars released its first estate wines last year). Add in all of the other equipment necessary, and the startup costs for a 2,000-gallon-a-year winery are about $1 million.

And weather and other variables can change the output and the quality of those grapes.

”It’s the same grape but its taste is completely different year to year,” Sekerak said.

And Ferrante added, ”I always tell people we’re not Coca-Cola.”