Tempted by the Fruit of Another

Rust Belt wines are calling out the pride of Napa Valley...and winning.

Nick Ferrante Ferrante Winery and Ristorante
In late summer 2005, Nick Ferrante knew he was onto something big.

The past six months had been kind to the third-generation winemaker. Little rain and lots of long, hot days made for healthy, vibrant fruit in Ashtabula County, where Ferrante Winery and Ristorante is a tourist destination. On the vines, the small, greenish-yellow riesling grapes looked like translucent pearls. Their skin was as tender and delicate as a tulip petal. They tasted sweet, with hints of apricot and peach.

For one month, Ferrante let the grapes' juice ferment in a large, cylindrical steel tank in his cellar. A short, elfin man with blue eyes, thinning hair, and an end-of-summer tan, Ferrante closely monitored the sweetness and acidity of the mix as the sugar turned into alcohol. In November, he declared the wine finished. He named the dry riesling "Golden Bunches" -- an homage to the appearance of the grapes.

A few months later, Ferrante submitted Golden Bunches to the Riverside International Wine Competition in Riverside, California. The festival, one of the nation's premier wine-judging events, attracts more than 2,500 submissions each year, from countries as far away as Italy, France, and Germany. In his wildest dreams, Ferrante dared to hope that his riesling might take a silver in its category.

On a Sunday night in May, Ferrante was driving home from a meeting with a few fellow Ohio winemakers when his cell phone rang. It was Donnie Winchell, the head of the Ohio Wine Growers Association, and she had an announcement that would turn the wine world upside down.

"Guess what, Nick!" she exclaimed, barely able to contain her excitement. "You just took best white wine in the Riverside competition!"

Not only had Ferrante won his category, he had won best in show, beating out well-known wineries from New Zealand and Napa Valley.

"I knew I had a good wine," Ferrante says. "I didn't realize how good."

Most people didn't. But if Rust Belt winemakers have anything to say about it, that's going to change.

In 2002, John Winthrop Haeger, a former columnist for Wine & Spirits magazine, set out to find the best place in America to grow pinot noir grapes.

At the time, the Pacific Coast region accounted for 90 percent of North America's pinot noir output. Yet Haeger suspected that fertile territory might exist elsewhere in the country.

Haeger had heard from a fellow wine aficionado that Ohio's Lake Erie region produced a good pinot. So Haeger arranged a blind taste test of a wine from St. Joseph, a vineyard in the Grand River Valley, about 45 miles east of Cleveland.

The aroma was a complex avalanche of raspberry and blackberry. The texture was rich and velvety against his tongue. It tasted both earthy and fruity, as if the wine had just been picked from the vine.

"This is a pinot of more than routine interest," Haeger recalls thinking. "There's something about the climate or soil in the Grand River Valley to produce some pretty suggestive results."

Much of the wine's final quality is based on elements that man can't control, such as soil conditions, weather, and climate. Though you wouldn't guess by looking at it, northern Ohio provides excellent conditions for grape-growing. Tougher-skinned grapes like rieslings and chardonnays thrive in climates like ours, with our warm days and cool nights.

Three hundred thousand years ago (or so), glaciers covered much of the Lake Erie region. When they receded, they left behind a complex array of soils, from sludgy clay to light limestone. When it comes to wine, that translates into a distinct, earthy taste, with undertones of cantaloupe. It's unlike anything found anywhere else.

Slowly, the wine community has begun to take note of Haeger's discovery. In a blind taste test this summer, Ohio wines were pitted against better-known, more expensive counterparts from other regions of the world. To the surprise of many, Ohio's entries more than held their own. A $21 bottle of Central Ohio's Busch-Harris cabernet sauvignon from 2001 beat out a $51 bottle of 2003 cabernet sauvignon from Stags' Leap Winery in Napa Valley. And Ferrante's award-winning 2005 Golden Bunches dry riesling trounced Germany's most notable wine: A 2004 Lietz Dragonstone riesling.

"I was surprised," admits Jerald O'Kennard, a judge of the contest and the director of Chicago's Beverage Testing Institute. "I really thought the modestly priced Ohio wines were quite fancy wines. Based on a couple of tastings, I think they can compare to wines in other countries."

In the 1860s, the Ohio region was the biggest producer of wines anywhere in the country. Farmers here harvested Concord and Catawba grapes, which are cheap to produce and resistant to cold climates.

But these grapes produce wines as syrupy and sweet as jelly. Critics consider them to be about as sophisticated as Welch's grape juice. And that's what Ohio wine became known for.

When farmers tried to grow different types of grapes, they met with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: the weather. Most varieties of grapes could handle mild falls and cool nights, but fell victim to Northeast Ohio's famously unpredictable weather swings. Early frosts caused the vines to crack and peel like dry skin.

Enter Arnie Esterer.

With his yellow slicker, weatherworn face, and scruffy gray beard, Esterer looks like a retired fisherman, not the father of Ohio wine. But in 1967, Esterer, an industrial engineer by trade, was bored. He needed a career change. So he directed his scientific and logical mind toward his hobby: wine.

One morning in 1967, Esterer showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Dr. Konstantin Frank's winery in upstate New York. For months, Esterer had been reading about the eccentric farmer's successes as an experimental winemaker. Esterer brought with him a simple proposition: his labor for Frank's advice.

Dr. Frank took one look at Esterer and asked, "Are you a somebody or a nobody?"

"I'm a nobody," Esterer replied.

"Good," said Dr. Frank. "Let's get to work."

From Dr. Frank, Esterer learned that the only way Ohio could improve its reputation was to grow the kind of first-rate grapes that made award-winning wines: pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris, and cabernet sauvignon. Frank insisted that these grapes could grow in cold climates.

A week of labor later, Esterer arrived home with a headful of ideas and a trunk full of pinot gris. He and a partner bought 100 acres of land. They planted 500 chardonnay and riesling vines.

Meanwhile, neighboring farmers "sat back and watched," Esterer recalls.

When Esterer bottled his first batch of riesling, it tasted as crisp and brisk as a fall day. It was characterized by staunch apricot and peach aromas, backed by a citrus taste.

Seeing his success, neighboring farmers journeyed to Esterer's vineyard to learn his secrets. And there were many. Esterer explained that grapes like pinot gris and chardonnay, which were native to Europe, were vulnerable to diseases found in North America. To inoculate them against such hazards, growers had to cut off the grape branches at their root and bind them to native root stocks. Esterer also taught the winemakers to start growing their vines higher, so that the plants would get the most of the limited sunlight.

But the most important lesson of all emphasized the need for cultivation: "Your job," Esterer told the winemakers, "is to keep all the good qualities that the grapes already have."

In the beginning, the farmers made mistakes. They planted up and down hills, instead of across, and lost crops to erosion. They allowed too many grapes to grow on each vine, which diluted the quality and sweetness of the harvest.

But gradually, they mastered the secrets of growing wine in Ohio, and the industry flourished. In 1978, there were just 13 wineries in Ohio. Today, there are more than 80. Combined, they produce 700,000 gallons of wine each year, accounting for more than $85 million in sales.

Says Michelle Widner, program manager for the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, a state agency: "What's going on today is a renaissance."

At first blush, the wine industry would seem an odd fit for Northeast Ohio, a region hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs and possessing one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

But over the past three decades, the wine industry has experienced a radical shift toward egalitarianism, a shift reflected in Ohio winemaking.

As recently as 1975, the only wines that were considered worth drinking were those made in Europe. Of those, French wines were considered the crème de la crème.

All that changed in 1976, when Steven Spurrier, a Parisian wine seller, arranged a blind taste test pitting French wines against their California counterparts. The deck was stacked against the Americans -- eight of the nine judges were France's top wine-tasting experts.

But to everyone's surprise, the California wines killed their French competition, placing first in both the white and red categories. One wine, which a French judge said spoke to "the magnificence of France," turned out to be from Napa Valley.

The victory became known as the Judgment of Paris, and it turned the wine world on its head. Time magazine proclaimed that the "unthinkable" had occurred; "California defeated all Gaul." Napa Valley immediately vaulted into contention as a major wine-producing region. And it didn't stop there. After that, people began to realize that great wine wasn't exclusively the province of France. It could come from California, Greece -- even Oregon. Now, every state in America produces wine.

"People don't expect that good or great wines only come from California and France now," says Tara Thomas, managing editor of Wine & Spirits magazine. "We've even gotten wines from Japan, which has no history of winemaking."

Yet Northeast Ohio still faces an imposing hurdle: image. Cleveland has been ranked repeatedly as the poorest city in the nation. In the wine business, an aura of wealth and sophistication counts almost as much as the taste.

"When you think about what Ohio produces . . . well, wine is not something that comes to mind," Thomas says. "Steel? Yes. Wine? Not so much."

In an effort to counter that attitude, the Ohio Grape Industries Committee recently launched a program to certify the quality of state wines. In the next 12 months, judges will taste a wide range of local wines and evaluate their chemical properties, flavors, aromas, and consistency. If a wine conforms to state standards, judges will award it a gold seal, which can be displayed on the bottle, proclaiming it one of Ohio's premier wines.

"This way, consumers will know they're buying a quality wine," says Widner, of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee. "They have assurance that the winemaker knows what he's doing."

And Cleveland-area winemakers are looking for ways to add a touch of class to the city. At Debonné Vineyards, Tony Debevc Jr., a 25-year-old third-generation winemaker, teamed up with Cleveland artist Hector Vega to create six city-themed labels that depict scenes of the Warehouse District, University Circle, Tremont, Little Italy, Ohio City, and East 4th Street.

"The only problem," Debevc laughs, "is now people keep asking why their restaurant wasn't included on the label."

There are signs that Ohio has already turned the corner. This summer, USA Today ran a feature on overlooked wines, declaring that the vineyards in the northeastern part of Ohio "offer a smorgasbord of wines and tourism experiences that represent the leading edge of what's happening elsewhere."

Wine tourism in the state is up, with vineyards attracting up to 12,000 people each weekend. Says Widner: "By 2015, we want Ohio to be known worldwide as a unique winegrowing region that's known everywhere for high-quality wines."

Every Friday in the summer months, Brecksville resident Harry van Keulen heads east to Harpersfield Vineyard in Geneva to prune grapevines.

A native of the Netherlands, Van Keulen is not much for putting on airs. He favors tattered jeans, old flannel shirts, and rough, unshaven cheeks. His hands are calloused, his nails permanently stained with dirt.

One day, a fellow fieldworker asked winemaker Wes Gerlosky, "Does that guy live in his car?"

"I beg your pardon," Gerlosky replied indignantly. "That's Dr. Henry van Keulen. He holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology."

Seven years ago, van Keulen attended a state-sponsored conference on biotechnology. One of the issues that came up was the problem Ohio grape farmers were having in the winter months. The frigid weather was killing the vines.

Van Keulen, a wine-lover, perked up. Recently, he'd begun studying the DNA of sunflowers. He thought the same research protocols could be used to study grape genes. That year, he asked for and received a $50,000 grant to study grape DNA.

Since then, van Keulen has been growing and harvesting grapes on a spot of land at Harpersfield Vineyard. And he's come up with some insights into the problem. He coined the term "sudden-death syndrome" to describe the process by which unprotected vines, exposed to freezing temperatures, immediately stop growing. He's now on the long path toward bioengineering the cold-resistant genes that will protect the region's harvests.

If this happens, fewer plants will die and have to be replaced, and "It will be of economic benefit" to the region, van Keulen says.

But Ohio's best hope for a future in winemaking may be the pinot noir grape. As Paul Giamatti's character explained in the movie Sideways, pinot noir is like an infant. The delicate, thin-skinned fruit is easily susceptible to disease and requires vigilant care. But it's a fruit that grows well in our region of rich soils and cool weather. And when bottled, it produces a taste more complex than any other: Cherry, plum, and berry collide with an underlying hint of leather. A famous wine connoisseur once called pinot noir "sex in a glass."

"Our grapes here could produce pinot noir with a capital P," says Gerlosky as he walks through the great expanse of his grape fields. Recently he planted two more acres of pinot noir, which will be ready for bottling in 2008. He pops a grape in his mouth, biting into its sweet flesh. "Soon, others will see."

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