September 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Vive la Vinifera

Two Ohio wineries gain acclaim from special sites

by Mark Fisher
Two Ohio wineries gain acclaim from special sites
PHOTO: Phil Masturzo

  • Hermes Vineyard and Kinkead Ridge, at different ends of the Buckeye state, are cultivating European vines in Ohio's climate.
  • The moderating influence of Lake Erie, means Hermes Vineyard can allow its red winegrapes to mature until November.
  • Kinkead Ridge's 2004 Cabernet Franc won a double-gold medal in the American Wine Society's 2006 wine competition.
They grow their winegrapes at opposite ends of the state, but Ohio winemakers David Kraus and Ron Barrett share a common goal: to help put Ohio on the map as a high-quality wine producer. In this case, that means vinifera, and both producers are flouting conventional wisdom and proving the doubters wrong by successfully cultivating European vines in Ohio's climate--and making acclaimed wines from those grapes. Of the two, Kraus has the longer commute.

Hermes Vineyard, Sandusky, Ohio

Dr. David Kraus has a "day job" as a psychiatrist with a private practice in Greenwich Village in New York City. But he was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, and when he got the itch to own a vineyard (after an initial attempt to buy one on Long Island fell through), he began looking into the possibility of planting vines on land in and around his family homestead back in North-Central Ohio, just five miles from Lake Erie.

Two Ohio wineries gain acclaim from special sites
What he discovered in his research astonished him: The region has a 200-day growing season, 32 inches of precipitation a year, limestone-rich soil and accumulated degree-days of about 2,900, similar to Northern Italy and Southern France. Why not plant a vineyard?

So in 2002 and 2003, he did--two vineyards, in fact, each about 15 acres. He named the operation Hermes Vineyard and Sand Hill Winery (top photo). He planted vinifera. And more vinifera. About two dozen varieties, most of them associated with Italy and France: Chardonnay, Viognier, Sémillon, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese (Brunello, Romagna and Chianti clones), Tempranillo, Aglianico, Mourvèdre, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Blanc, Petit Verdot--and Touriga Nacional. Among others.

"And they're all doing well," Kraus says. So, are these test plots? Not exactly. "Everything we grow here makes excellent wine," Kraus says. "I don't want to narrow it down. I like them all."

The moderating influence of Lake Erie, well-known in the area's long-established wine industry, means Kraus can allow his red winegrapes to mature until November, and his microclimate's wintertime lows have so far not killed his vines, although he acknowledges, "That's still a danger."

Kraus says he has chosen clones carefully for both quality and hardiness--Clone 337 of Cabernet Sauvignon, which Kraus says is not grown extensively in the East; Clone 181 of Merlot; the 470 clone of Syrah; the Brunello clone of Sangiovese and a Grenache clone obtained from Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Calif. Barbera and Riesling have proven most hardy, while Grenache and Malbec are a bit tender. "I bury the Grenache canes in winter," he says. "I bought a wind-moving fan for $20,000 and haven't had to use it. My biggest problem isn't the cold, it's birds."His vineyard practices include dense plantings of 1,600 vines per acre, trellised in a vertical shoot position, Kraus says. He describes his 15-acre State Rte. 4 vineyard, planted in 2002, this way: "It's located on a sandy ridge with deep sandy loam over limestone bedrock. The soil is dry with excellent drainage and moderate fertility; the roots of the vines are not overly vigorous and grow to a depth of 3 feet until they reach limestone."

Two Ohio wineries gain acclaim from special sites
David Kraus oversees harvest of his vinifera grapes.
PHOTO: Phil Masturzo
The second 15-acre vineyard on Mason Rd., planted in 2003, is situated on a limestone ridge three miles west of the Rte. 4 vineyard. The soil is shallow, with 2-3 feet of clay over fissured limestone, and there are soft chalky limestone rocks and pebbles throughout the vineyard, with good drainage--"a thriving environment for vines, but difficult to cultivate," Kraus says.

Wine production takes place at a building on an adjacent farm that has a ­Willmes press and Italian stainless steel fermentation equipment. Grapes are placed in a low 150-gallon fermentation bin. White grapes maintain skin contact for several hours, while red grapes undergo a 24-hour cold maceration. Then the grapes are fermented to a high temperature to extract color, with a month-long maceration to maximize flavors. Kraus uses virtually no oak barrels, oak chips or oak flavoring. The wines vary in price from $7 to $32.

In vintage 2006, when winemakers elsewhere across Ohio were exasperated with a cold, damp autumn, Hermes Vineyard produced some flavorful, deeply colored wines, including a fragrant, well-balanced Viognier and a complex Syrah.

None of this surprises Kraus, who is convinced his plot of Northern Ohio land is special. "I'm confident that this location can grow any grape variety," he says.

Kinkead Ridge, Ripley, Ohio

More than 200 miles to the south, Ron Barrett and his wife, Nancy Bentley, found their plot of vineyard land east of Cincinnati, near Ripley along the Ohio River.

"The world-class, unglaciated limestone terroir of Southern Ohio was irresistible," says Bentley, who with her husband had grown Pinot Noir in Oregon for more than 10 years before looking for a new challenge. They considered Paso Robles, Southern Oregon and Eastern Washington before settling on Ohio.

Two Ohio wineries gain acclaim from special sites
A classic farmhouse overlooks thriving vineyards at Kinkead Ridge.
They planted the vineyard in 1999 in two sections: an experimental block, which tested various varieties and rootstock combinations, and a main block. They focused the main block on varieties that ripen more slowly in the fall, producing wines they felt had greater depth and complexity.

Their experience so far with varietals? "In general, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Roussanne have been very successful," Bentley says. "The Sauvignon Blanc has not been, as it is very susceptible to winter damage. Syrah and Riesling can have rot problems in a wet year."

Both partners took on work burdens that richer folk might hire out; Barrett planted the vineyard himself, grafted plants, pounded posts, strung wire and except for an occasional part-time laborer and a harvest crew, virtually lives in the vineyard. Bentley designed the wine labels, runs the website, does all the accounting and brochure creation, and runs the household. Bentley also self-distributes the wine, which means many hours on the road all over the state of Ohio, offering tastes and delivering wines, she says.

Kinkead Ridge's wines have earned acclaim. Its 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18) captured a gold medal at the 2007 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in April, and its 2004 Cabernet Franc was awarded a coveted double-gold medal in the American Wine Society's 2006 wine competition--one of only three wines out of more than 1,000 entered to receive that distinction.

But there have been challenges. For starters, there's the weather. "We have harvested grapes in torrential rain, snow flurries, lost 80% of the crop to a frost in 2002, and luckily have not had the Asian lady beetle problems that some vineyards of the north have dealt with," Bentley says. "Every year, some vines die from winter damage, so replanting is an annual affair."

Two Ohio wineries gain acclaim from special sites
Nancy Bentley and husband Ron Barrett at Kinkead Ridge.
Then there are the image challenges. "Ohio's historical production of sweet wine, and hybrid and native American varieties, has made it difficult for vinifera growers to be taken seriously," Bentley acknowledges.

Still, the husband-and-wife team is optimistic about Ohio wines, and they challenge others to take up the cause. "Our hand-intensive viticultural practices are paying off … but international respect will come only when people with sites suitable for vinifera plant vinifera, and are passionate about quality practices to make fine wine...not just to make money."

No.1 Long Ago, Ohio Wine Is Resurging
With California's dominance of the U.S. wine industry so well entrenched since the end of Prohibition, it's easy to overlook that Ohio was once the top wine-producing state in America. But Ohio wine producers know their state's heritage--and they're taking aggressive steps to try to reclaim it, planting acres of new vinifera vineyards and ratcheting up the quality of what goes into the bottle. While no one would suggest that California's hearing footsteps, it's increasingly clear that something special is going on in the Buckeye state.

"We have an aggressive planting program not only along Lake Erie, but all over the state," said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. "And the varieties we're planting are varieties that 10 years ago we never thought would survive."

Survival is a key word in Ohio's wine history. The 570,000 gallons Ohio vineyards produced in 1859 amounted to more than one-third of the country's total production, and twice as much as California's. Led by Nicholas Longworth, an attorney and winegrape grower who pioneered the Catawba grape variety in and around Cincinnati, and a thriving grapegrowing region 200 miles north of Cincinnati near Sandusky and the Lake Erie islands, Ohio's wine-producing future appeared bright.

But black rot and powdery mildew decimated the Ohio River vineyards, and Prohibition delivered a second blow--a one-two punch from which Ohio's wine industry has never fully recovered.

The current surge in interest, and in quality, is attracting renewed interest--and new blood. "We're seeing a lot more people looking to get into the wine industry as a serious business--not just hobbyists looking to retire," Winchell said.

The Ohio Grape Industries Committee reports that the number of wineries in Ohio has jumped from 56 in 2000 to 92 in 2007. Production is swelling, from 579,000 gallons in fiscal year 2001 to 696,000 gallons in 2006, and is on pace to hit 750,000 gallons in 2007, said Michelle Widner, spokeswoman for the committee. "That's a big jump, in a short period of time," Widner said. "It's clear that demand for Ohio wine has gone up."

Getting noticed in large-scale wine competitions doesn't hurt, either. The 2005 Grand River Valley Golden Bunches Riesling produced by Ferrante Winery in Northeast Ohio was chosen as the Sweepstakes Best White Wine at the 2006 Riverside, Calif., International Wine Competition, which drew 3,000 entries. It was the only non-California wine to earn such a "sweepstakes-best" designation.

Such results are opening some eyes, industry officials say. "Ohio is developing a reputation for producing high-quality vinifera wines," Widner said. "People are trying Ohio wines where they used to turn their backs on them."


Mark Fisher is the food and dining reporter for the Dayton Daily News and is the author of the wine blog Uncorked at To comment on this story, e-mail
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