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Science and art behind Ohio's grape and wine industry growth

By TAMI MOSSER Staff Writer Published: June 3, 2017 5:00 AM
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WOOSTER -- There was a time in American history when Ohio produced more grapes than any other state in the union.

Then came two events that very nearly cleared out the state's vineyards: the Civil War and Prohibition.

Nicholas Longworth planted the state's first vineyards in the early 19th century in the hills outside his Cincinnati home and his Catawba sparkling wines were an international sensation, spurring the first wave of Ohio wineries.

But when the Civil War began, the state's vineyards went untended and succumbed to disease and neglect, according to Dave Scurlock, who recently retired from his position as viticulture outreach specialist at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

There was a slight resurgence, then Prohibition came.

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By the mid-20th century, vineyards were being planted again in the Lake Erie region, but it wasn't until the last 20 years that the grape and wine culture exploded onto the scene and continues to grow, creating an economic boomlet in both Wayne and Holmes counties and across the state.

There are currently 267 wineries in the state, according to the Ohio Department of Liquor Control, and applications for licenses for another 26 are pending. In Wayne County, Bent Ladder Cider and Wine is expected to start selling its wines this summer. By next year, Lincoln Way Vineyards will follow suit. And in Holmes County, less than a mile from the Ashland County line, Marsh Vineyards at Mohican will begin selling its wines under the Ugly Bunny label this summer. Those wines will be available at about the same time as Sunny Slope General Store on Ohio 39 in western Holmes County begins bottling its own.

Those new operations join the growing number of wineries in a two-county area: Silver Run Vineyard and Winery in Doylestown, Troutman Vineyards and Blue Barn Winery south of Wooster, French Ridge Vineyards outside Killbuck and the Doughty Glen Winery at the Guggisberg Swiss Inn just west of Berlin.

There are a few reasons for that growth in the vine-and-wine industry, said Todd Steiner, the OARDC's enology program management and outreach specialist. "I think the locavore thing is a good thing," he said, as consumers who already populate local farmers' markets are doing the same with local wineries.

In addition, research at places like Cornell University and the University of Minnesota is resulting in the creation of grape varieties that are more cold-hearty and disease resistant than ever. And because vines do not rely on the greatest, most fertile soils, they can be started and grown practically anywhere in the state.

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"Some European soils are not that great," Steiner said. "They're dry; they're limestone-y" and yet for centuries they have produced grapes that were used in some of the continent's best wines. What they do have is good drainage, which is why the oldest vineyards are typically found on a hill. Now, Scurlock said, tiling can be put into fields to increase drainage, though higher locations with good air flows are optimal.

While finding a location for a vineyard may not be all that difficult in Ohio, tending a vineyard is, Steiner said, "challenging."

Grapes are an agricultural product, though different from corn, wheat or soybeans. As a perennial crop, Scurlock said, "we don't rotate our vineyards out. It takes three years to grow a crop and (the vines) are out there all year." That means through the polar vortex of 2014, which killed buds before they even appeared and, in many cases, killed entire vines. Couple the ever-changing Ohio weather conditions with the grape-loving bird and deer and the burrowing groundhogs, and it's easy to understand why grape growers spend practically every month of the year among the vines -- netting, training, pruning, watching.

It's important, Scurlock said, because while good grapes on occasion still result in bad wine, bad grapes will always result in a poor product. Increasingly in Ohio, growers are choosing to grow wine grapes, in which a smaller crop can still result in a decent income. And most often, it is the higher-maintenance grapes that bring the highest price.

So, what are the choices for Ohio's grape producers? Typically, there are three, in varying degrees:

■ American -- Concord, Catawba, Delaware, Norton and Niagara. According to Scurlock, these would fetch the lowest price per ton and in the past have been sold for grape juice as well.

■ Vinifera -- the European varieties, including Merlot, Pinot gris, Pinot noir, Riesling, Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These are the most challenging for growers, but they also bring some of the highest prices. According to Steiner, Pinot noir grapes may fetch $1,800-$2,100 per ton, while an acre of Riesling may bring in $1,600. These are varieties that can be grown locally, but do better in Ohio's Region 3, the warmest areas along the Lake Erie shores and the Ohio River Valley.

■ Hybrids -- More cold hearty and disease resistant than vinifera, these varieties can sell for $600 to $1,000 per ton, Steiner said, and include Chambourcin, Chardonel, Frontenac, Traminette and Vidal. Grown more and more in this area, acreage given over to hybrids is quickly increasing.

"It would be good to have even more (Ohio farmers) growing grapes," Steiner said, because a wine must contain at least 90 percent Ohio grapes to be considered an Ohio wine.

And the wine, Steiner and Scurlock agreed, is where the money is. To both grow grapes and manufacture wine, they said, is a full-time job.

In its mission to increase the quality of both Ohio grapes and wines, the OARDC's Viticulture and Enology Outreach Program provides assistance to the industry in the form of services that include varietal and vineyard site selection, lab analyses and taste training, as well as presenting the Ohio Wine Competition and the Ohio Grape Wine Conference.

"We're recognizing there's quite a bit of science in wine-making," said Steiner, who will take a product and run it through the lab to determine its chemistry and what might have gone right or wrong in the process. "But there is that art in finding that new blend that is a winery's persona."

"I don't think you can separate the science from the art," Scurlock added.

The science goes back to the vineyards. Four acres of grapes grow at the OARDC's Wooster campus, another four acres in Ashtabula and two acres in Piketon in southern Ohio. While hybrids are not created at those sites, they are grown there and evaluated. "If they can grow well," Steiner said. "I'll follow it through with wine quality."

"Todd makes an awesome rose," Scurlock said, "and also some cryogenic wines."

And while there is competition in the industry, it is friendly. "It's a little unlike a private business, where they're competitors," Steiner said, because there also is a common goal. "We need more wineries to drive tourism." And locally, he said, "I hope we'll start to see more of a wine trail."

Reporter Tami Mosser can be reached at tmosser@the-daily-record.com or 330-287-1655. She is @tamimosser on Twitter.


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