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LAKE EFFECT IN A BOTTLE

Ohio wines are unlike any in the world

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Napa Valley wines don't taste like Columbia Valley wines. Willamette Valley wines don't taste like Cumberland Valley wines. And Lake Erie wines don't taste like Finger Lakes wines. So to ask whether an Ohio-grown chardonnay tastes as good as one from Washington State completely misses the point, explains Arnie Esterer of Conneaut's Markko Vineyard. "We make wines here different from every other place in the world."

The singular combination of soil, climate, vine and winemaker guarantees that every wine will be different from all others, even those grown down the street. Just as no two poodles are the same, no two pinots are identical. This is precisely what makes wine tasting so interesting.

Fortunately for us Clevelanders, we don't have to travel too far to sample interesting wines. Hugging the shoreline between Sandusky and the Pennsylvania border are scores of quality wineries, each with its own roster of distinctive wines. Most have public tasting rooms, and many boast full-service restaurants, making it easy to turn a quick jaunt into a full-fledged outing.

The local wine community owes a huge debt of gratitude to Arnie Esterer. When he set up shop 41 years ago, the best wines growing were catawba and concord. With help from famed viticulturist Dr. Konstantin Frank, who pioneered the use of cold-resistant root stock, Esterer proved that Europe's classic wine grapes could prosper here, thanks to the region's distinctive micro-climate.

To protect their vines from a devastating late-spring frost, winemakers employ the use of massive propane-powered fans to expel the cold air. Here, however, chilly Lake Erie pushes back the date of springtime bud growth, all but eliminating the risk of frost damage. In autumn, the lake's accumulated summer heat extends the growing season, giving the grapes plenty of time to fully ripen.

Markko Vineyard (4500 S. Ridge Rd., Conneaut, 800.252.3197, markko.com) is set deep in the woods, just down the road from its 14-acre vineyard. The tasting room is dated and musty — a far cry from the more commercial wineries in the area — and you won't find any gourmet munchies. What you will find is a wide array of excellent wines and vintages, all grown, produced and bottled onsite.

"A wine drinker will never fully understand the variability of wine until they taste a number of different vintages side by side," says Esterer. By sampling a 2005 cabernet sauvignon alongside a 2006, for example, a taster can appreciate how climate shapes flavor. "We are not trying to make our wine taste like Burgundy," he says. "We are trying to capture the natural character of each variety and vintage."

In addition to cabernet, Markko crafts first-class chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir.

As good as the wine is at Markko, it can't supplant a proper meal. For that, visitors should make the short trip to Tarsitano Winery and Café (4871 Hatches Corners Rd., Conneaut, 440.224.2444,tarsitanowinery.com), which takes them over a covered bridge and past acres of sun-dappled vineyards.

Ken Tarsitano describes his and his wife's winery as a labor of love. In addition to farming the land and crafting the wines, Tarsitano cooks the food and schmoozes the guests. The relaxed restaurant is set in a contemporary barn, where guests sit on mix-and-match furniture and watch the action in the wide-open kitchen.

What's nice about dining at a winery is being able to sample wines before investing in a bottle. We tried three whites and three reds ($1 per sample) before settling on a 2004 cabernet franc ($17). Tarsitano makes its pastas in-house, and the cheese-stuffed ravioli ($21) with grilled chicken is a hearty and delicious affair. Steaks ($24) too are done right; one is gilded with a rich and salty prosciutto cream sauce. Starters include a cheese and bread board ($10) and a roasted veggie-topped bruschetta ($8).

On a picture-perfect summer evening, it's tough to beat a patio seat at Harpersfield Winery (6387 N. River Rd., Geneva, 440.466.4739, harpersfield.com). Tucked alongside the apple trees and grape vines are picnic tables, where guests sip recent vintages of estate-bottled chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir. A light menu of cheese boards, sandwiches and savory flatbreads is available, and on weekends, live bands perform on the deck.

If you are serious about tasting Harpersfield's offerings, it's wise to come well before the evening rush, when staffers will have more time to discuss the wines.

There has been a serious and ongoing attempt to change the perception of Ohio wines, which for far too long have been inexorably linked to sickly sweet varieties. But old habits die hard.

"People still come in here asking for concord wine," says Linda Frisbie, Markko's vineyard manager. "Around here, that's a swear word."

dining@clevescene.com

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