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Ohio: The Birthplace of American Winemaking?

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Image from a pamphlet advertising Nicholas Longworth's wines, 1866.
Image from a pamphlet advertising Nicholas Longworth's wines, 1866.

Welcome to Vintage America, our new column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Ohio: home of the Rubber Capital of the World, the Great Serpent Mound, the buckeye tree, Arby's and ? the birthplace of American winemaking?

Those who hail from outside the Buckeye State likely have no idea that wine is even produced in Ohio. General reactions range from fear to disbelief to—in one case—tears. Not only is wine produced in Ohio, but—brace yourself—Ohio was once the most important winemaking state in the U.S.

As detailed in last week's introductory column, wine growing in this country dates all the way back to the mid 1500s, when the French Huguenots first cultivated vines in Jacksonville, Florida. From that moment on, wine growing would not cease, despite the fact that its pioneers enjoyed very limited commercial success. The European settlers, reared on wines produced from their native Vinifera vines, found that the American Labrusca vine stock yielded wines that were more reminiscent of farm animals than fruit. But their solution to import European rootstock failed miserably. Turns out that the Vinifera species of vine is not immune to phylloxera, the rapacious native American vineyard pest that would later hitchhike its way to Europe and destroy nearly all of the continent's vineyards. But the fits and starts characteristic of nearly every attempt at commercial winemaking in this country were not enough to convince an eccentric little giant from New Jersey that he couldn't make history in Ohio.

"Old Nick"

Nicholas Longworth came to Cincinnati, Ohio from Newark, New Jersey in 1803 when he was 21-years-old. In less than one year he studied law, set up a successful practice, and made a fortune. He stood 5'1", bore a striking resemblance to Steve Buscemi, and dressed like a 19th Century version of Andy Warhol. He was described by the townspeople as a shrewd businessman and a generous philanthropist, but no mention of "Old Nick" was replete without talk of his many idiosyncrasies.

It's no wonder then, that when he decided to plant vines outside of the city, many simply dismissed his project as yet another byproduct of his eccentricity. But Longworth paid little attention and began experimenting with plantings on the banks of the Ohio River as early as 1813. Despite low-level successes with the Alexander and Isabella grapes over the next 15 years, Longworth didn't find mass appeal for his wines until 1830, when his work with the native red Catawba grape—first introduced in the early 1800s by pioneering viticulturist John Adlum—found favor with Cincinnatians.

Franzia Before The Box?

Catawba, a native American variety with a "foxy" odor, still posed a bit of a problem for Longworth. But by crushing the grapes and removing the skins, he found that he could avoid the off odors. The resulting wine was semi-sweet (as was most American wine was at the time) and pink—a sort of godmother to the Franzia White Zinfandel many of us shot-gunned in college. The wine was an instant hit. However, less than 15 years later, an accident would change Longworth's production methods entirely.

American Bubbly

In the spring of 1842, a batch of pink Catawba wine accidentally underwent a second fermentation, producing America's very first sparkling wine. Longworth's imagination was captured. He loved it so much that he hired an expensive team of Frenchman from Champagne to oversee his production. Though they dealt with significant setbacks and financial losses, Longworth would not back down.

In the years to come his sparkling Catawba wine proved even more popular than his previous wines, receiving critical acclaim from California to France and inspiring a whole new crop of Ohioan winemakers. By 1860 the state of Ohio was supplying one-third of the nation's wine; Longworth alone had 2,000 acres under vine and was producing more than 100,000 bottles annually. By all accounts, Ohio was the epicenter of American winemaking.

However, by the late 1800s the wine culture that Longworth spent 50 years fashioning had begun to unravel. Advocates of temperance came to favor abolishment over moderation, and by 1920 the bustling Ohio wine industry was reduced to the production of table grapes and sacramental wine. It would be decades before the industry would recover.

The Modern Era

Now, 77 years after the repeal of Prohibition, Ohio boasts 143 wineries, five shiny AVAs (designated American Viticultural Areas), and a growing amount of international recognition.

Of the state's five AVAs, the Ohio River Valley in Southwestern Ohio and the Grand River Valley in the North have emerged as the state's top two growing regions. The Ohio River Valley, Longworth's former stomping ground, stretches along the banks of the Ohio River, creating a dividing line between the humid sub-tropical climate of the South and the humid continental climate of the North. As a result, warm and cool climate varieties—in this case a motley crew of French-American hybrids like Marechal Foch, Baco Noir, Seyval and Vidal Blanc, Catawba, and Chambourcin—can thrive here.

The Lake Effect

But Ohio's great potential seems to lie in the cool-climate growing region of the Grand River Valley, along the shores of Lake Erie. What makes this particular area special is that Erie—being the shallowest and thus the warmest of the Great Lakes—supplies a "lake effect" that elongates the growing season, allowing the grapes greater ripeness without compromising the brisk acidity characteristic of cool climate winemaking. Up here the most successful wines tend to be white, with Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer acting as standouts and hybrid grapes like Vidal Blanc and Traminette as understudies.

Longworth's Legacy

Ohio may never regain its place as the epicenter of American wine production. It will probably never produce wines that rival California, Oregon, or Washington, but its present virtue lies not in its ability to compete with the best wines in America, but in its wines being something of a living history. To this day, the native American varieties that grew wild in the state are still cultivated and Catawba à la Longworth remains a staple at many of the state's wineries. It's a rare thing to drink American wine and think beyond the last three decades, but perhaps that is, and always will be, Ohio's invaluable contribution to American wine culture.

For richest and best
Is the wine of the West,
That grows by the Beautiful River;
Whose sweet perfume
Fills all the room
With a benison on the giver...

"Ode to Catawba Wine" – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Wineries of note:

Markko Vineyard
Perhaps Ohio's finest white wine producer. Founded by Arnie Esterer in 1968 under the mentorship of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the famed Finger Lakes winemaker and viticulturalist. With Dr. Frank's guidance, Markko has pioneered the successful cultivation of Vinifera varieties. The estate's Riesling bottlings are not to be missed. Surprisingly mineral-driven and ageworthy.

Originally founded in 1937 near Cleveland (the winery is now in Geneva, near Lake Erie), Ferrante is known for their white wines vinified from both native American and European varieties. The Signature Series Grand River Valley Riesling is the most notable among them,

Firelands is currently the largest winery in Ohio, producing wines on Lake Erie's Isle St. George. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris top the list of the estate's best wines.

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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