Here in Cleveland, most of us don't pay much attention to that great body of water to our north. But to wine growers out east, Lake Erie makes possible an entire industry by creating a climate so favorable to grape growing that the area boasts more wineries per square mile than any other region in the state. That's saying something considering that Ohio is home to 160 wineries that pump out one million gallons of wine each year.
Lake Erie benefits the vines growing in the Grand River Valley, as the appellation is known, in two distinct ways: In spring, the still-cold lake delays early bud growth, which helps to eliminate the risk of a damaging frost. In fall, the lake's accumulated warmth extends the growing season, giving the grapes more time to fully ripen.
Wine snobs can (and do, believe me) grumble about the quality of Ohio wines. In many cases they have a point; but in many others, they are dead wrong. Truth is, that little corner of Ohio (given favorable weather conditions) produces some high quality cool-climate varietals like riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot noir and cabernet franc. And one of the most enjoyable ways to sample them is to plan a little wine-country road trip.
The Lake Erie Vines and Wines Trail stretches from Painesville to Conneaut, and it boasts two dozen wineries. Some are tiny operations with not so much as a sign swinging in the breeze. Others are full-on compounds with restaurants, tasting rooms, gift shops and acres of vineyard. Ferrante Winery (5585 State Rt. 307, 440-466-8466, ferrantewinery.com) in Harpersfield Township is one of the latter. This massive year-round attraction has a large full-service restaurant, lovely grounds, live music performances and a 65-acre vineyard. What it lacks in homespun charm it makes up for in liquid assets; the winery's dry riesling, cab franc and ice wine all are award winners.
On the other end of the spectrum is Markko Vineyard (4500 S. Ridge Rd., 800-252-3197, markko.com) in Conneaut. Arnie Esterer produces some of the state's best wine, but his tasting room is more like a dated family den. Set deep in the woods, the low-profile setup works just fine for wine fans who care more about the juice (and conversation) than the color of the drapes. On tap is a wide selection of excellent wines and vintages, all grown, produced and bottled on site. Markko crafts first-class chardonnay, reisling and pinot noir.
Comfortably in the middle is Harpersfield Winery (6387 State Rt. 307, 440-466-4739, harpersfield.com) in Geneva, a popular spot to spend an evening outdoors among fruit trees and vines sampling wine, listening to live music and snacking on light wine-friendly food. Picnic tables fill up fast here, with locals (dogs in tow) chasing bites of flatbread with recent vintages of estate-bottled chardonnay, reisling and pinot noir.
Tarsitano Winery (4871 Hatches Corners Rd., 440-224-2444, tarsitanowinery.com) in Conneaut wins the award for most interesting dining room—and it doesn't hurt that guests must traverse a covered bridge to get there. Diners grab seats at mix-and-match tables and chairs inside an airy barn-like outbuilding, where chef and winemaker Ken Tarsitano prepares the night's specials from an open kitchen. Unlike typical restaurants, Tarsitano sells samples of its various house reds and whites, giving guests peace of mind before investing in an entire bottle.
Other worthwhile stops on the wine trail include Laurello Vineyards (4573 State Rt. 307, Geneva, 440-415-0661, laurellovineyards.com), which offers really cozy digs to sample their non-vintage cabernets, chardonnay blends, and easy-drinking blushes. A wood-burning oven turns out pizzas and other wine-friendly snacks.
Get loaded in a church? Yes, please. That's what visitors to South River Vineyard (6062 S. River Rd., 440-466-6676, southrivervineyard.com) can do at this winery's tasting room, a 120-year-old church that was relocated to the site in pieces. Fans of this Geneva winery preach the gospel of Trinity, a festive house blend of cabernet franc, chambourcin and pinot noir.
Winemakers Art and Doreen Pietrzyk of St. Joseph Vineyard (6060 Rt. 528, 440-298-3709, saintjosephvineyard.com) open up their tasting room in Thompson each weekend to share their award-winning pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
In addition to roaming the fertile countryside in search of Northeast Ohio's best wines, consider attending Vintage Ohio (visitvintageohio.com), an annual celebration of Ohio wine. Held August 2-3 at Lake Metroparks Farmpark (8800 Chardon Rd., Kirtland), the festival will feature more than 20 Ohio wineries, plus food, music, cooking demos and entertainment. Tickets are $25, $30 day of, or $45 for a two-day pass.