By the time the Civil War began, Ohio led the new nation in wine production, and Cincinnati was a major player in the national wine trade. Circumstances plagued this industry after the war, but Ohio has still emerged as one of the top 10 producers in the United States.
According to Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, there are now 174 registered commercial wineries in the state - one within 35 miles of every Ohioan. Most of them are family-run and produce hand-crafted wines. OWPA statistics say that 30 percent of these growers began making wine as a hobby; 30 percent owned grape farms; 30 percent decided to buy a winery as a second career; 10 percent took over the family business.
"The one thing that pulls them all together is passion," she adds. Two local wine producers recently shared thoughts on what they do and the "passion" that keeps them going.
T-L Photos/GLYNIS VALENTI
Part of the estate vines grown at Georgetown Vineyards. Wineries position vines in regards to the potential elements: sun, wind, rain and frost.
First, some background on Ohio's wine industry.
A Cincinnati attorney named Nicholas Longworth thought the Ohio Valley was primed for the industry and planted his first Catawba grapes in 1825. The wine was so popular that others followed suit over the next 20 years.
Southern Ohio viticulture was decimated in the 1860's, however. Black rot and mildew struck the vines, wiping out hundreds of acres of vineyards. The war then sapped most of the labor force, and farmers struggled to save their businesses.
As German immigrants settled in the Great Lakes region, they began planting other varietals of grapes. Wineries in northern Ohio and on the islands in Lake Erie re-established the state's commercial wine industry and developed the "Lake Erie Grape Belt."
Prohibition put an end to this growth. When it was repealed in 1933, the damage had been done, and Ohio growers had to start from scratch.
In the 1960's, with assistance from The Ohio State University's Agricultural Research and Development Center, a new generation of winemakers in southern Ohio began planting hardier, disease-resistant, French-American grapes. Over the next 30 years, state investments in tax credits, incentives, grants and research brought the Ohio wine industry back. Emphasis on creating quality wines from quality grapes is paying off in an increasing number of awards in national and international wine competitions.
Twenty years ago, John Nicolozakes, owner of Georgetown Vineyards in Cambridge, was a beer drinker. He hadn't been interested in wine, nor did he have an agricultural background. His interest was piqued when he started considering food and wine pairings.
"In the old country, Greece, people make wine as an annual ritual," says Nicolozakes. "I gravitated to it here because of its complement to food."
He read books and articles on wine and winemaking, then tried making his own. A few years later in 1999, he went commercial with his hobby. Nicolozakes took courses from the University of California/Davis, one of the premier viticulture programs in the United States, as well as from the OSU Agricultural Research and Development Center. He says he continues to read and take classes.
Georgetown Vineyards grows Concord, Fredonia and Niagara grapes on four acres of the estate. Nicolozakes purchases juice from buyers that he trusts and prefers buying a high quality juice rather than importing grapes. Some comes from Ohio and some from California. When purchasing, Nicolozakes decides what varietal he'd like to use, looks at its availability and determines how easy it will be to acquire it.
After that, his process and philosophy center around keeping it simple: using the best quality grapes and juice and not manipulating them too much. "Tasting wine is like smelling perfume," he explains. "It expands the experience to expand the profiles. While the palate can't always absorb all of the flavors, wine and food complement each other."
What made Nicolozakes move from hobbyist to producing for sale? "I reached a point where I really enjoyed the process. I've worked in business all my life, so I wasn't intimidated by that part of it," he says. "I found I'd developed a real passion for it - the smells, the process - and there's an artistic gratification that comes with it, too."
John and Rebecca Black, of Black Sheep Vineyard near Adena, admittedly weren't "wine people" to begin with. "Our friends liked wine, and we grew to appreciate it," says John. "We toured the wine trails with them in Illinois and then moved here." John worked in the coal industry, and his job brought him to the Ohio Valley. They purchased a former sheep farm on a ridge along Route 250, and, walking the hills a couple of years later, Becky said only half-jokingly that it would be a good place to plant grape vines. She decided to do her thesis on the wine business, and Black Sheep was born.
They opened for business in November 2008 and now grow native grapes like Catawba and Niagara, as well as European hybrids like Foch, Cabernet Franc, DeChaunac and Seyval among others. They blend their grapes with other high quality Ohio grapes. "We know what we want, but it's about availability," John says. "We knew we wanted to do a Cabernet, but Cabernet Sauvignon grapes don't grow here, so we went with Cabernet Franc."
In the seven years that they've been making wine, the Blacks say their wines and business have evolved. They read and talk to people in the wine industry. "Every year we've looked into new things," notes Becky. "Yeasts, nutrients, enzymes - we're always trying to improve."
John adds, "I don't know that we have one certain philosophy. We're open to trying new things, but not just for the sake of trying them. If you take it too seriously, you'll drive yourself crazy."
Becky says that "every year is a different challenge." For instance, one year a hail storm destroyed the crop just before harvest. Another year, birds were the problem. "You treat these things as learning experiences."
Both she and John agree that one of the most satisfying aspects of the business is hearing customers say how much they like the wines.
"It's a lot of work," John continues. "But at one point, I tasted something and thought, 'this is a good wine,' and I realized we were making wines we could be proud of. Plus you meet really nice, nice people."
How did John and Becky finally decide to embark on this new career? They had decided that they wanted something different from shift work, but John says a mentor at another Ohio winery gave them the best advice: put their time, energy and money into their own business; invest in themselves.
Winchell says that the growing interest in wine is a product of the growing wine industry. "Having wineries creates a culture for wine. Wine is interesting, and there are lots of choices. The more wine you drink, the more interested you become in it. Wine drinkers are explorers."
And some wine drinkers journey a bit farther.