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Summer Road Trip: 36 Hours in Ashtabula 

click to enlarge Your weekend will include plenty of wine.

Photo by Douglas Trattner

Your weekend will include plenty of wine.

Like many wine lovers, my wife and I have been making habitual trips to the Grand River Valley, Ohio's largest wine region that straddles the Grand River just south of Lake Erie. But over the past handful of years, we've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of progress and growth taking place in the area. Recently, anchor destinations like Ferrante, Debonné and Harpersfield have been joined by forward-looking wineries like M Cellars, Laurentia and Kosicek, where the focus continues to shift away from sweet native grapes to classic European varietals.

But it isn't just the grape scene that is enjoying steady change as more and more new dining, drinking, lodging and even eco-friendly recreational activities all continue to come online. If your familiarity with the region starts and stops with Geneva-on-the-Lake or South River Vineyard, there's plenty for you discover on your next road trip.

"It all started 30 years ago with the wineries, but now people are starting to recognize that there are two or three days' worth of activities," says Scott Runyon, a member of this newer generation of local stakeholders. "You look at what's happened to Hocking Hills over the past 25 years. That place was a day-trip destination and now there are 100 cabins. I think tourism is one of those industries that just takes time for local people to embrace it."

Like many before them, Runyon and his wife would visit the region, drink some wine, and wish there were more lodging options so that they wouldn't have to cut their fun short and drive home. They spent five years tracking down the perfect piece of property and decided to build it themselves. Vineyard Woods is just one year old but it's already largely booked 12 months out of the year. Guests pull off the main road, drive past 10 acres of vineyards, and into the woods, where a handful of private cottages dot the hillside. Each is well equipped with a kitchen, spa-like bath, veranda and fire pit.

There are now two dozen wineries scattered around the Grand River Valley, an American Viticultural Area (AVA) blessed with ideal grape-growing conditions. Despite Ohio's reputation for producing barrel upon barrel of sickly sweet wine, vintners in the area have been producing stellar vinifera varieties like chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc for decades. Of course, you'd never know that from dining in Cleveland restaurants, where it's rare to find Ohio wines on the menu. But stop by places like M Cellars, Laurentia, Laurello, Markko and others and prepare to have your preconceptions crushed.

Tony Kosicek never planned to open a winery, but he grew tired of growing Concord grapes for Welch's at the measly rate of $220 a ton. After inheriting the family farm, he began ripping out the hardy juice grapes and replacing them with chardonnay, riesling and other European varietals. Like any farmer worth his salt, Kosicek knows that the real work takes place in the field rather than the cellar, as evidenced by an award-winning sparkling wine made from a blend of estate-grown pinot noir and riesling.

Like many operators in the area, Kosicek sees to it that visitors follow an area-wide code of conduct so the tourist destination doesn't descend into a swamp of rowdy bachelorette parties leaving behind a trail of penis straws. Some wineries don't allow bus visits, and those that do confer with drivers to ban boozing en route. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy an ice-cold wine slushie on Kosicek's back patio that overlooks the vineyard or while tossing a few frames of cornhole.

Kim Laurello and her family have been making wine in the region since 2002, when they transformed a farmer's market into a winery. On an average year they'll bottle around 15,000 gallons of wine, almost all of which is made from locally grown fruit. The winery's spacious patio overlooking a 100-year-old barn is a fantastic place to sample them, but before the end of summer the family intends to open a tasting room in the heart of Geneva-on-the-Lake. That's another sign of the slowly shifting tides in that area, long known as a summer-only attraction filled with hot dogs, Harleys and soft-serve.

"There are a lot of new and young business owners who don't carry the weight of history with them, so they can leave all that baggage behind," says Sam Fagnilli of the Lakehouse Inn and Winery. "You can't start a new business and survive on 12 weeks a year."

Fagnilli says that he still makes 75 percent of his money in 90 days, but the season seems to be stretching by the year. For decades, the schedule has pretty much been set by the comings and goings of Eddie's Grill, a rightly famous hamburger stand that opens for weekends only in May, then daily through June and July, and then weekends only again until it rolls down the shutters come Labor Day. Bucking that trend is GOTL Brewing Company, a year-old brewery and restaurant that operates year-round in Geneva-on-the-Lake.

As much fun as wine, beer and booze tasting can be, to truly become a world-class travel destination, the area needed more family friendly recreational activities — and not just bumper cars and bowling. That's exactly what new outfitters like Harbor Yak and North Coast Outpost provide. The first offers kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals as well as the very popular sunset tours. North Coast Outpost offers standup paddleboard, kayak and surfboard rentals and something called the Megalodon, a giant paddleboard that can accommodate five people at a time.

By far the splashiest attraction to join the scene of late is Lake Erie Canopy Tours, which opened last fall at The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake. Participants work their way along a network of ziplines, slicing through the treetops at speeds of up to 30 mph while enjoying lake views. Two challenge courses — one for adults, another for kids — offer a series of suspended wood and rope obstacles that test one's endurance, balance and bravery.

Back when Ashtabula Harbor was one of the busiest ports on Lake Erie, Bridge Street was lined with saloons, brothels and undertakers — and those were the good old days. After decades of decline and decay, the area recently earned national recognition as a winner in the America's Main Streets contest. Today, there are almost no vacancies in the regal brick buildings that line the blocks leading up to the water, where a mesmerizing bascule bridge rises to let marine traffic flow through. Dining options in the area range from the uber-casual Hil-Mak Seafood, a fish market that prepares heavenly fried perch sandwiches, to Bascule Bridge Grill, a seasonal, chef-owned bistro with an amazing wine list featuring many local names. That same owner also operates Briquettes Smokehouse, a damn fine barbecue joint with amazing ribs and a great craft beer list. As a bonus, seats at the bar come with harbor views.

Any day now, Provisions will join the Bridge Street scene. Owned by the folks who run the exceptional restaurant Rennick Meat Market, the gourmet Italian market will sell soups, panini, dried pastas, fresh-made sauces and spices. The old-school gold lettering on the door and windows harkens back to the days when this space might have been occupied by a barbershop or feed shop. Soon after it opens, it will be joined by Cloven Hoof Brewing, a microbrewery, a new boutique hotel and high-end townhomes, further proof that the region's best days are yet to come.

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