Oh yes, dear readers – there is nationally award winning wine in Ohio, and it all started in 1802, when Jean Jacques Defour successfully planted vines in the Ohio River Valley. Nicholas Longworth, a lawyer from the Cincinnati area, saw the potential of the Ohio River Valley to become a major producer of wine and relocated to the area from New Jersey in 1804.
He first produced a wine similar to Madeira, and continued to plant vines, and produce wine until the 1840′s. Around 1825 he was gifted a cutting of catawba, from the mountains of North Carolina, by John Adlum. This domestic variety was hearty enough to withstand Ohio winters and the wine produced from it won quick consumer acceptance. By 1842 he had 1200 acres under vine and had made the country’s first sparkling wine, to accolades across the US and Europe. With the surge of German immigrants into Ohio, and encouraged by the success of Longworth, the annual production in the Ohio River Valley was over 300,000 gallons in 1845. By 1860, Ohio led the nation in the production of wine. The light, semi-sweet wine from the catawba grape was different from the other strong American wines of the day, mostly native grapes to the United States (Vitis Labrusca) (muscadine, norton and scuppernong were prominent). As crop diseases, like phylloxera, devastated the trial plantings of European varietals in the region, black rot and mildew began to plague those and the native grapes alike. Adding insult to injury, the growing American Civil War encroached on the area and left the grape growers with little manpower. This led to the demise of wine making in southern Ohio.
As the southern vineyards failed, a new Ohio growing area emerged in the Lake Erie Islands. The islands had a unique climate; the waters surrounding them provided a long growing season and breezes insulated the vines from spreading disease.
“Grapes are fastidious in their choice of a home; here they will and there they will not grow. One side of a field they accept, and the other side they reject, and in many localities they refuse to show even a leaf on the trellis. If the soil is unfavorable for the vine, no art can render it favorable. But here on this southern shore of Lake Erie, and upon its islands, the grape flourishes in unrivaled luxuriance, and even the banks of the Ohio, the first stronghold of the Catawba, have been forced to yield a precedence in many points to the northern rival.”
As of 1873, the number of acres under vine in Ottawa County and the islands was 2,082, and there were 312,134 gallons produced in the region.
~from The Wine Islands of Lake Erie. Constance F. Woolson, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Volume 47, Number 277, June 1873
As in the rest of the US, Prohibition struck in 1920 and brought disaster to the Ohio wine making traditions. Some family businesses turned to making wine for sacramental purposes, others produced grape juice for a growing jam and jelly industry, but the majority of land was turned into industrial land and housing developments. The general grape-oriented economy of the area collapsed.
When prohibition was repealed in 1933, a few wineries reemerged, but the majority of vineyards were in a state of disrepair. Government restrictions hindered any broad sale of wine, and the few lasting vines were more profitable and less troublesome producing juice grapes. Ohio’s one time status as the top wine producer was gone.
The turning point for the Ohio Wine industry came in the early 1960′s with the planting of French-American varieties in southern Ohio, encouraged largely by The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. The hardy, disease-resistant grapes produced wines similar to the older European vinifera varieties. Their success in the south encouraged plantings in the Lake Erie era, and the vineyards have expanded to encompass almost any corner of the state.
In the decade of the nineties, one of the significant threats facing the industry was a lack of quality Ohio grown wine grapes. A major effort to increase acreage was initiated under Governor George Voinovich. Tax credits, vineyard planting grants, a state extension viticulturist have had a positive impact on the total number of wine grape acres being planted, and there is room for expansion.
There are 150 licensed wineries in the state of Ohio and as of 2009, Ohio winemakers produced more than 1.1 million gallons of wine. The largest number of wineries are located in Lake, Geauga, and Ashtabula counties, along the eastern shores of Lake Erie.
Ohio is the ninth largest wine producing state behind California, New York, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida.
In Ohio, there are five recognized viticultural appellations. The Lake Erie Appellation includes the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania. Two smaller appellations within Lake Erie are Isle St. George, near Sandusky and Grand River Valley east of Cleveland. The next is the Ohio River Valley Appellation, bordering the Ohio River. The fifth is the Loramie Creek Appellation in Shelby County (it has no active wineries).
So you see, there is much ado about wine in Ohio. Many are growing vitis vinifera, the wines many of us are used to drinking, and yet others are successfully growing native grapes, or making fruit wines. Grab a map, and picnic lunch, and head out. You don’t have to drive far to find good Ohio wine.
If you want help in planning your Ohio wine trip, there’s more information here. We’ll be happy to give you some suggestions. You will also see a growing list of winery reviews here on Miss WineOH.
Ohio Wine Resources:
Some images and information obtained from:
Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft967nb63q/
Latimer, Patricia. Ohio Wine Country Excursions Ringtaw Books: University of Akron Press. 2011