While we love taking daytrips out to Geneva and the Grand River Valley, we get a little bored hitting the same old spots summer in and summer out. Which is why we're pleased to report that a few new and/or improved attractions have given wine, beer, booze and food fans all the motivation they need to plan another trip to Northeast Ohio wine country.
If you're lucky, when you visit Geneva's Red Eagle Distillery (6202 South River Rd., 440-466-6604, redeaglespirits.com) owner Gene Sigel will be on hand to show you around his small-batch distillery, housed in a shiny red aluminum-clad century barn. Downstairs is where the hardware is — a towering copper potstill that turns out bourbon, rye and brandy. There are barrels too, of course, filled with gently resting spirits waiting for their time to rise and shine.
While Red Eagle's early bourbons were being sold at ages shy of two years — thus labeled "Ohio bourbon" as opposed to "Ohio straight bourbon" — Sigel has been able to build up stores so that current releases will be older, smoother and more complex. But man, that brandy is something else. Distilled from 100-percent Concord grapes, grown next door on Sigel's own 70-acre South River Vineyard, and aged for two years in used bourbon barrels, the brandy has a boozy but fruity character that's just right for nipping.
All of Red Eagle's hooch can be purchased right at the bar in handy-dandy half-bottles (some wryly emblazoned with the words "Jobs Ohio," which appropriates almost half of Sigel's take on every bottle). The bar in a barn also is just a great place to kick back with a beer (10 rotating craft drafts), a cocktail or a booze sampler.
Directly across the street from Red Eagle is M Cellars (6193 South River Rd., 440-361-4104, mcellars.com), a winery that isn't much like its brethren in the region. For one thing, the small but stylish tasting room shuns tour buses, party vans and any other vehicle crammed full of day-trippers drunk on sweet wine, which the winery also snubs. Instead, owner and winemaker Matt Meineke quietly focuses on growing and crafting the sorts of high-end, European-style wines that would appeal to true oenophiles.
To get there, Meineke first ripped out every last vine of native Niagara — Concord's pale sibling — on his 12.6-acre plot and replaced them with vinifera grapes like riesling, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, gruner veltliner and chardonnay. If you think those varietals can't succeed here, taste some of M Cellar's wines. To protect his investments through harsh winters, Meineke goes to extreme measures like burying (not simply hilling) the new growth from each and every vine beneath a foot and a half of soil. Earth does the rest.
On the tasting sheet, Meineke goes so far as to list the RS, or residual sugar, of each of his wines. Most are in the 0- to .7-percent range, compared to a native Catawba that would clock in around 6 or 7 percent. Those whites that do have a wee bit of RS have the proper acidity to balance it out, like the spectacular dry riesling or the cuvee, a crisp blend of riesling, pinot gris and gruner. The plummy, smoky Meritage is a red blend of estate-grown cabernet, merlot, cab franc and petit verdot.
Bring some friends, let Matt or wife Tara walk you through a tasting, and then grab a glass or bottle to enjoy out back on the patio, where the view of Meineke's meticulously tended vineyard is picture-perfect.
Despite being surrounded by farms, the restaurants in and around Geneva tend to be less farm-to-table and more fall-under-the-table. Don't get us wrong: We love getting shitfaced with strangers, but we'd rather have a nice meal first. Thanks to Crosswinds Grille, located at the Lakehouse Inn and Winery (5653 Lake Rd. E., 440-466-8668, crosswindsgrille.com) in Geneva-on-the-Lake, that's now possible.
Over the past couple years, chef Nate Fagnilli has upped his farm-to-table game from picking up a couple dozen local eggs per week to literally going whole hog. He practices whole-animal butchery, purchasing pork, lamb and beef directly from farms like Miller Livestock and New Creation. Much of his produce comes from the immediate region as well.
Start with a charcuterie board ($18), loaded with house-cured meats, local cheeses, grilled crostini, jam and mustard. An open kitchen affords views of the wood-fired oven, from which amazing thin-crust pizzas emerge. Ours ($18) had bacon, eggs and local goat cheese.
Entrees are unfussy but high-quality, like an expertly grilled hand-cut strip steak ($34) with mashers and sautéed sugar snap peas. Or try rosy-red seared duck breast ($24) with an Asian rice and vegetable stir-fry. A burger ($15), made from a half-pound of grass-fed beef trimmings, also is available.
For drinks there's a great roster of cocktails featuring local booze. When it comes to wine, Crosswinds acts more like a winery than a restaurant, meaning there's just one brand available: theirs.