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WOOSTER -- For Andy Troutman, it all started with a 4-H project.
Scott Buente came to it young as well, growing up working in a vineyard in his hometown of Lewiston, New York, north of Niagara Falls.
The two came away with very different plans. After growing his own vines while still in high school and working at a 4-H camp on Kelley's Island, Troutman decided to change his career path from engineering to grape growing and winemaking.
"I knew I wanted to make things," said Troutman, "so I decided to make wine."
When Buente left New York, he said, "I swore I'd never see another grapevine after I left that vineyard."
He was wrong.
Buente and his wife, Kathy, came across some land for sale outside Killbuck, bought it and in the spring of 2001 opened French Ridge Vineyards, the oldest winery in Holmes County.
And Troutman, who had planned to head west to California, instead met the owners of Wolf Creek Winery, where he started working in 1996, "probably one of the worst growing seasons ever," he said. Two years later, he started to plant Troutman Vineyards south of Wooster on property that had once been home to a chicken farmer, who also raised vegetables and sold cut flowers. By 2000, Troutman had a small grape crop and opened the winery the next year.
Troutman has come a long way from his first attempt at winemaking, when he was barely in high school. "It was not wine," he said. "It was vinegar, basically. Salad dressing."
Now the owner of both Troutman Vineyards and the Winery at Wolf Creek, Troutman also played a role in the genesis of two other local wineries, one of which is marking its second full year of operation and the other set to open next year.
Blue Barn Winery is located on the property just south of Troutman on state Route 3. But it had a very different beginning. A barn wall had collapsed, owner Brett Urian said, and the best solution required lowering the floor in one section.
It was also an expensive solution.
While the project was underway, Urian got a visit from his neighbor. "You should turn this into a vineyard," Troutman said. "That," Urian said, "was the last thing on my mind." Besides, he asked, why would Troutman want a winery right next door to his own?
"You won't be a competitor," he said was told. "You'll help bring people out here."
Urian agreed to think about it.
Blue Barn Winery is now in its second full year of operation. "I think it turned out to be a good decision," said Urian, who makes the wine but credits his wife, Marcia, with the blending and fine-tuning. "But it still was a lot of work."
The work already is well underway at Lincoln Way Vineyards, though owners Jim and Sherri Borton won't be open until early next year. Still, local wine enthusiasts have already tasted some of the fruits of their labor, as the vineyards the Bortons have been tending for the past several years have produced fruit that has been sold to Troutman.
One day, Troutman told them, they'd want their own winery.
Initially, that was sort of a retirement plan, said Jim Borton. The couple started small, planting two-thirds of an acre in vines right outside their house in 2006. That way, he said, they could see what was going on "so you can sort of transition yourself" to a larger operation. With more land available for purchase, they increased to more than three acres and are in the process of planting another two acres.
Jim Borton comes from a farm family, but it was Sherri Borton who brought the wine knowledge to the operation. An international studies major at Miami University, she had a concentration in French and European studies and had taken a class in the geography of wines. A term abroad in Luxembourg helped steer her even more toward the wine industry, and she ended up with a job working with Bauer & Foss International Wine Merchants in Columbus.
As they work to expand the vineyards, the Bortons have found how difficult being grape farmers can sometimes be. The 2014 polar vortex wiped out part of their crop. It wasn't even so much the cold that was a factor, Jim Borton said, as how fast it got cold, dropping from the 50s to minus 15 in just a few hours. It's one thing for the buds to freeze, Jim Borton said, but "this time, the trunks froze and the vines were dead from the ground up." To this day, some of the damage from that weather is just being seen, as other vines just weakened at first, then died.
At the same time, the wines the Bortons have been making for the past few years are getting better and better feedback, including from fellow winemakers at the Ohio Grape and Wine Conference. "That enticed us," Jim Borton said, "to working toward (a winery) more aggressively." Still, they will have to supplement for the first year or so with grapes, including those from Amaethon Vineyards in Red Haw, until their own crop grows larger and more diverse.
Though the vineyards at Doughty Glen Winery at Swiss Valley Inn west of Berlin were started in 2000, selling the wine from those fruits did not immediately follow. "It took us a long time to get licensed," said owner Julia Guggisberg, "because we're in a dry district. But once we did (in 2013), it really took off." Now sold on site and at Swissters in Sugar Creek and Rodhe's IGA in Millersburg, Doughty Glen Winery varieties have caught not only the eye of shoppers, but wine competition judges as well. Its raspberry wine won Best of Show in the fruit wine division in last year's state competition, while its strawberry and Gerwurztramier received unanimous golds from all the judges.
"We had some pretty stiff competition," Guggisberg said. "We're pretty proud of that." There have been other awards as well, a testament to the Doughty Glen vintner, who Guggisberg said uses family recipes that have been passed down for generations. The same man also tends the vineyards.
Other local winemakers are creating their own family recipes. Ed Sunkin of Silver Run Vineyard & Winery near Doylestown had been making wines for friends and family at his home for more than a dozen years when he and his wife, Christine Sabo, purchased a former Christmas tree farm on Eastern Road in 2003. They continued the tree sales for a few years while also attending classes and workshops at the OARDC and planted their first wines in 2005.
Christine, who had traveled the world over through her job with the Newspaper Publishers Association, had always made it a point to learn a little history, try some local food and learn about local culture where ever she went. She found all three in wineries.
Silver Run is a lot like that, with bits of local history inside, right down to the wines that have names like Rogues Hollow Red and Chippewa Crossings. Every label has a local photo, including one with the entire family decked out in period clothing. But it's not just a gimmick, Silver Run's wines have been award winners at the national and state levels, the latter of which afforded the couple a chance to pour their wines at the Ohio Statehouse.
Sunkin and Sabo supplement their wines with grapes from other Ohio growers, as well as the fruits of local orchards, such as the apples from Bauman Orchards. At Silver Run, the couple hand-pick their grapes and their four children get to help with the winemaking, which is still a labor-intensive, time-consuming process.
The grapes are cleaned, racked, pressed and crushed using equipment that winemakers have used for generations. "We're a boutique winery," Sabo said. "We're handcrafted."
So, too, are the wines that will soon come from the Sunny Slope General Store and Marsh Vineyards, both on state Route 39 in western Holmes County. Like Sunkin, Chad Marsh and Sunny Slope's Tom Bright have been making wines for friends and family for years. Marsh, who started his career at the OARDC in soybean breeding, planted 50 vines in 1985 on his mother's property in Wooster.
Like so many others, he said, those fell victim to the polar vortex in 2014. But he also bought grapes from his vineyard's previous owner and then bought the property nearly two years ago. In addition to the four acres of vines, Marsh Vineyards at Mohican also has a 40-tree apple orchard, two pear trees four peach trees and a few hives of honeybees.
It also has an ugly bunny, appropriately named Ugly Bunny and the mascot for the Ugly Bunny line of wines that Marsh and his wife, Sandy, hope to begin selling when the winery opens in July. While they plan to supplement with other grapes and juice the first year, Chad Marsh said, "We would love to just have wine from everything that grows here."
The property came complete with a house and another building that a previous owner put up in 2000. "It seemed," Chad Marsh said, "like he was intending for it to be a tasting room at some point."
And now it will be. Hoping to attract tourists visiting both Holmes County and the Mohican wildlife area, the Marshes also want to explore environmentally friendly packaging and hope someday to leave their day jobs for full-time winery work. In the meantime, the two crush and press, with a little help from friends and family.
Sunny Slope already is a family affair, with Bright and his wife, Tara, taking over the store from Tom Bright's parents. And making wine is a family affair, in which the couple and their three children visit other operations to pick not only grapes, but other fruits as well.
Grapes came from the Marsh Vineyards when it was under previous ownership, but Tara Bright said the family has been known to take road trips to Maine in search of blueberries, and she doubts those trips will be discontinued. "We like to use local stuff," she said. "But it's also fun to be adventuresome, too."
The Brights, who are expecting their fourth child, plan to invite friends and family to their expanded operation in June 22, their wedding anniversary, and then open the winery the first of July.
They plan to offer six varieties for sale. And, Tara Bright said, "we saved the porch from the old original store. We'll use that porch as a stage" for local music and put out tables and chairs for customers to use as they sit and enjoy the local wine.
As Marsh and Sunny Slope begin to build their businesses, Buente has expanded French Ridge, which offers cabins for overnight stays and where patrons can sit on the patio overlooking a portion of the 23 acres on which he grows 12 varieties of grapes. Of the 17 wines he sells, 16 are made from the fruit of those wines, as well as of other fruit grown on the property. The only non-local selection is Lemon Ridge, which is made from lemons shipped from Arizona.
Over the years, Buente said, he learned -- sometimes the hard way -- what works in the vineyard and what doesn't. He sells not only to the public but also sells wine in bulk. As for himself, Buente said, "I have no favorite wine." He pointed to a shelf behind the bar: "I have 17 kids up there."
It's not always been easy, said Buente, who has been known to cook up 50 meals on a Saturday for those who make their way up the gravel drive to French Ridge. But he's not complaining.
"I'm outside. I'm doing what I love. I grow things. I'm meeting people," he said. "I make alcohol legally and I make 11,000 gallons a year.
"I have," he said, "the best job in the world."
Reporter Tami Mosser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-287-1655. She is @tamimosser on Twitter.