There was a day when wine connoisseurs would just as soon have slit their wrists with Reidel shards as suffer through a bottle of Ohio's amateurish, off-balance wine, made from undistinguished native Niagaras, Concords, and Catawbas. Happily, that day is nearly gone, thanks primarily to the introduction of European-style vinifera grapes -- most notably, the Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris varieties -- to Ohio vineyards and the use of modern winemaking technologies. (On the other hand, those with Pepsi palates need not despair: Most of our wineries continue to crank out at least a few batches of Pink Catawba-style wines to satisfy more simple interests.) On the whole, however, the improvement has been dramatic: In the first half of this year already, several Ohio wineries have brought home the gold from important international competitions, edging out some of the country's best-known national labels as well as trendy boutique wineries from around the world.
While the state now has several scores of privately owned wineries, the largest concentration is right in Cleveland's backyard. Approximately a dozen operations are tucked in and around the rolling hills of Madison, in Lake County, and Geneva, just over the Ashtabula County line, each with its own unique products and personality. Almost all of them offer informal wine samplings and snacks; many of them feature live music, winery and vineyard tours, and substantial meals. We recently spent a sunny weekend eating and drinking our way through some of the higher-visibility spots and were more than a little impressed by all there is to see and do. (For a complete listing of Ohio wineries, visit www.ohiowines.org.)
A Perpetual Party
It's six o'clock on a sultry Saturday in the rolling hills of Ashtabula County, and the garden party at Ferrante's is finally getting up to speed. Guitar-wielding troubadours are crooning peppy pop-tune covers from a stage inside a little gazebo. Pretty servers are dodging old men who've suddenly developed an itch to dance. Kids are turning somersaults on the lawn or wistfully eyeing the pool surrounding an ornate fountain, while their parents gather in patches of shade to gossip and guffaw. Everywhere, the sense of bonhomie is thick enough to spread on bread, as revelers indulge themselves in mellow sunshine, soft country air, and most of all, endless bottles of wine.
Ferrante's is the largest and most commercial winery in Ashtabula County, and its current award-winners include a 2001 Grand River Ice Wine and a 2001 Vidal Blanc. But it's clear that family members haven't allowed the accolades to go to their heads: Everything about this sprawling compound is friendly and down-to-earth, without a hint of snobbery. No one snickers, for example, when a customer is heard ordering a bottle of "Rice-ling"; we watch in amazement while a server cheerfully fetches sample after sample of increasingly sweet wines, trying to help a confirmed beer drinker find a style that appeals to his uncalibrated palate.
A covered porch, two patios, three open-air pavilions, and 30 acres of vineyards surround the impressive main building, built from stone, glass, and wood. Inside is a well-appointed tasting room, a colorful wine and gift shop, and a 200-seat, full-service Italian restaurant serving lunch and dinner. (Lighter fare, such as appetizers and the ubiquitous cheese-and-cracker trays, can be ordered and eaten in the tasting room or carried out to the porch and patios.) Dinner selections include the sturdy, savory Pizza Della Casa -- a thick-crusted, cheese-laden beauty, handmade by a 76-year-old employee who has been with the Ferrante family since the 1960s -- as well as predictable but well-executed pasta dishes; a variety of steaks, chops, and veal; and a handful of daily specials. Entrées come with warm loaves of Orlando bread, butter, and a saucer of mellow imported olive oil for dipping, as well as a basic tossed salad, with tomato and pepperoncini -- best with the smooth housemade Cabernet Franc vinaigrette.
For a restaurant that serves as many as 600 meals on a Saturday night, the fare can be surprisingly refined. For instance, although our understated Pollo Carciofo (sautéed chicken breast with bits of prosciutto, artichoke hearts, diced tomato, and toasted pine nuts, on a bed of butter-and-wine-slicked linguine) didn't set off gustatory fireworks, we were blown away by the evening's special entrée: a tender double-boned behemoth of a pork chop, stuffed with homemade raisin-studded dressing and lacquered with a delicate Riesling-and-citrus glaze. Perfectly handled and lushly flavorful, the impressive chop was then settled onto a cloud of creamy mashed redskins and finished with a shower of crisp, savory fried onion chips, for a meal worthy of any serious gourmet's attention.
After sharing a goblet of airy, homemade bread pudding, we headed out to a patio with a bottle of Ice Wine ($24.99). Rich and golden, with aromas of apricots and orange blossoms, it was a refreshing finish to a delightful meal.
The House of Good Wine
Sitting on the shaded terrace at rustic Chalet Debonné, chatting with owner, winemaker, agriculturist, and pilot Tony Debevc, is almost as much fun as sampling the distinguished wines made from grapes grown exclusively on his 100-acre estate. Knowledgeable and insightful, Debevc -- a third-generation winemaker -- can discuss the evolution of the region's wine industry as easily as most folks comment on the weather, and it's clear that he is high on Ohio's potential to grow into a major force.
Considering that his family-run vineyard is Ohio's largest producer of estate-bottled wines (a list of its recent awards covers two printed pages), his optimism isn't surprising. Debevc is perhaps most proud of his Riesling Reserve ($9.99): a rich, well-balanced, fruit-forward wine that has been pulling down gold medals in West Coast competitions since 1993. "The switch to viniferous grape varieties put Ohio wines on equal footing with wines throughout the world," he says. "With better technologies, better root stock, and the ability to identify the ideal grapes to fit our microclimate, Ohio wines have improved immeasurably."
If the atmosphere at Ferrante Winery is festive, the feel at Chalet Debonné is more contemplative. Debevc thinks of his operation as a working farm, not an entertainment complex, and although he welcomes busloads of fun-loving wine drinkers -- who play bocce ball and Frisbee, and take part in family activities such as Crazy Hat Day and Pet Day -- he closes up shop each Saturday by 8 p.m. sharp.
During July and August, dining options include Friday- and Saturday-evening catered dinners, with a choice of entrée and a bottle of wine; reservations are required. The rest of the time, appetizers, snacks, and sandwiches are available.
Follow Your "Nose"
In contrast, they take their wine drinking pretty damn seriously at little Harpersfield Vineyards. Staffers toss around such terms as terroir and sur lie aging when describing their estate-bottled wines; visitors are far more likely to be debating qualities of "nose" and "finish" than wearing funny hats. Still, with its intimate, European-style tasting room and large stone fireplace; its picnic tables, tucked beneath the boughs of an old apple orchard; and its warm, fragrant flatbreads, fresh from a wood-fired oven, the 15-acre estate, like a little piece of Alsace dropped into Northeast Ohio, is a compelling spot to share a first-rate bottle of smoky Gewürztraminer ($19), complex Riesling ($18), or a barrel-aged Chardonnay ($21). And there's not a Niagara grape in sight.