The Sweet Gift of Ohio’s Wine Country








Saying that one is living in any sort of area known as Wine Country has the potential to sound pompous and uppity, and perhaps it does.  But living in wine country is marvelous.  Actually, the fact that Ohio has a Wine Country, or really, more than one, is pretty damned sweet.

And sweet is indeed the order of the day with ice wines, one of the true gifts to the world from Ohio’s northeast portion of its wine country.  Country that Chris and I just happen to live in the heart of.

The past two Saturdays, and next Saturday too, is the annual Ice Wine Fest, where a half-dozen Grand River Valley Wineries offer up their latest silky sweet ice wines in an official and organized tour.  Fortunately, several other wineries not officially part of the tour also participate, and at least as fortunate is the participation of a distillery.  More on that later.

Each winery offers two samples of wine, at least one of them ice wine, and a food pairing.  The three samples are $6 in total, and if you donate a canned good, you get $1 off.  So, that 29 cent can of butter beans from Aldi that has a blanket of dust on top is actually worth a buck–good investment.

Chris and I split the samples since we were A) hitting several places each day and B) we needed to drive home safely and C) the food portions are about the size of the free samples the ladies in aprons give you near the baloney at the grocery store.

We enjoyed (mostly) each of the wineries for different reasons, and this Fest has given us a good sense of who among our friends and family we will take where in the future.

Grand River Cellars: we started at this winery last week.  It’s set far off of the highway (528 to be exact) and is quite large.  There’s a sizable restaurant with a wide ranging menu that we will return to try out.  They have a fireplace where you can toast your own $3 marshmallow.  It was crowded–this was the only place that had people directing car parking in the lot.  We were herded down to the cellar to sample the wine.  It was cool being in the cellar in every sense of the word.  Their ice wine was quite good–smooth, pear-y, highly golden in hue.  The food sample was a caramel pear tart and was our favorite of the foods.  A nice place to take visitors who like to shop of souvenirs and eat caesar salads.

St. Joseph Vineyard: The signs to this winery point you further south of 528 from Grand River Cellars, but when you wind past the residence to the small vineyard building there is a small sign that tells you they moved to route 307.  That sign needs to be at the road.  Anyway, we hit this winery on the second day, and its new location feels quite new, maybe too new at this point.  The ice wine was OK, a bit metallic, and the homemade strudel was pretty blah.  Chris got a shard of apple core in hers.  This was the only place where one of the ice wine pourers was questioning in tone and eyebrow about whether I was trying to get more samples than I was due for my $5 bucks.  Parking was also random.  Still, they have a national award winning Pinot Noir that we’ll have to check out sometime when a Pinot fan is visiting.

Debonne Vineyard: Certainly one of the two biggest success stories in the region from a sales and scale perspective.  They segmented the ice wine sampling away from their lively music-filled restaurant, which was a good idea.  As always, the place was packed.  They had sled dogs visiting that one could pet, which I did of course, though I am not a fan of forcing dogs to pull sleds in this day and age.  But, dogs suffer many worse fates every day; they seemed to enjoy the attention.  The ice wine at Debonne was one of our favorites–Chris especially liked the peachy 2013 vintage.  The grainy fudge, Ritz cracker, and dried apricot sample was silly and sad.  Good place to visit with a group who has varied interests and tastes since they have Cellar Rats brewery too.

Laurello Vineyard: This is the only one of the officially participating wineries that we did not stop at.  Both of our passes by were harrowing with the parking lot situation.  Not enough room for the many idiots trying to pull in and out.  And a limo driver standing in the road smoking a cigarette in a snowstorm is a Darwin award waiting to happen.  Still, we’ve been to Laurello before and know that it’s a good place for those who like leather couches and Jimmy Buffet.

Harpersfield Vineyard: We’d heard of Harpersfield from many people who never remember its name.  It’s typically described as the “French place with the dogs and the guy playing guitar.”  It’s well off of highway 307 and is indeed chateau-like.  And there are indeed two small dogs on constant pitter patter patrol, a Jack Russell and a slightly curlier cousin cur.  They were charming and confident, curling up by whomever they chose to near the enormous fireplace (when a man can stand inside of the fireplace to move a log, that counts as enormous in my book).  Anyway, this place did not have ice wine but they do have $1 samples every day from Noon-6p and that’s a happy thing for a swiller like me.  We had a rose, which I enjoyed and Chris found appalling.  Perhaps that’s a slightly strong word, but when one asks “do they store it in metal tanks so it then tastes like the metal tank?” it is clear that it’s not up there with hot cocoa and ginger peach tea.  Anyway, this is a great place for those who love dogs and fireplaces and wine, which is pretty much my entire side of the family.

Ferrante: Along with Debonne, Ferrante is one of the true giants in the Ohio wine industry.  You can buy their wine at Kmart here in Ashtabula, to give you a sense of ubiquity.  The Ferrante compound is immense–limos have their own parking section here.  They had the ice wine tasting in a large enclosed pavilion-like space with these remarkable heaters suspended from the straight-from-the-Amazon-rainforest beams.  They had crafters selling flattened wine bottle cheese trays.  They insisted we go in a certain order from table to table–when I created my own path, I was cattle-prodded back into compliance.  The wine was fine, though the samples were paltry indeed.  The butternut squash soup had marshmallows on top.  Ferrante doesn’t really have to try to please anymore–they are well past the tipping point of failure and likely have all of their processes documented in ISO fashion.  Not my kind of place.

Virant Family Winery: We’d seen the sign for this place many times on South River Road, but this was our fist ever stop in.  The neon OPEN sign and ratio of pickup trucks to BMWs were clear indicators of what was to come; we were not at Ferrante anymore, Toto.  The inside of the winery has a definite wedding reception/bingo hall kind of feel.  There were long folding tables with bottles of A1 sauce spaced every four chairs from one another.  A John Deere towel hung on the wall near the mounted deer head.  This was the only place that served its wine in plastic cups normally reserved for Jello shooters.  On the other hand, this was the only place that served us three samples of wine.  They also had great brownies.  It’s also the only winery we went to where you could also order onion rings and deep fried cheese sticks.  Great place to go with kids in tow and when you had a long day working outside and are still wearing your Coors cap and muddy work boots.

South River Winery: Our longstanding favorite and this Fest did not change that.  Situated in an old church on a hill, with a marvelous pavilion and dreamy outdoor fireplace, South River is a comfort zone for us.  Their blush ice wine is Chris’s favorite, and their elegant ice wine glasses with little stars, made just for the Fest I assume, were our favorites of this year’s collectibles.  The vibe here is always laid back, the people are typically happy and relaxed, and the wine is fabulous.  A place to take anyone you care about.

Red Eagle Distillery: Owned by the same guy who owns South River Winery, and just down the road, this is a fairly new place in a magnificently restored old barn.  We had an old fashioned that was perfectly boozy-sweet.  It had three muddled maraschino cherries at the bottom–three!  It was served in a perfectly heavy glass.  The inside of the place has to be seen–all dark wood and well-positioned ironwork stairways, a sunken bar below the old hay loft–it is a model for what Chris hopes her Studio Barn will feel like when completed.  And hey, not every place can boast an Winnebago-sized brick outhouse.  A great place to take those who love old barns, cocktails, and dark wood.

Life here in Ohio’s wine country, even in this seemingness endless winter, is a sweet gift indeed.



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