Wine Where You Least Expect It: Ohio’s Surprising Vintages

The verdant, rolling hills were lined with grapevines heavy with fruit. A fierce sun was making me look forward to a bit of shade al fresco where I could savor a cool glass or two of nature’s finest fermented beverage. This wasn’t Tuscany. Not even Bordeaux. I was in Geneva. Ohio, that is. Who knew the Buckeye State had such a burgeoning wine industry?

Originally, I came down to Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which was stupendous (the I.M. Pei pyramid-shaped treasure trove is scheduled to get even greater after it goes through an exhibit re-design next year). After I marveled at James Brown’s capes, Steve Tyler’s spandex pants and Johnny Cash’s tour bus, I found I had worked up quite a thirst. A tourism rep piqued my curiosity when he told me just 30 minutes outside Cleveland were lovely wineries with terraces that featured live entertainment and award-winning wines. Lake County, or Lake Erie East, is home to Ohio’s largest winery district and as luck had it, he was taking a group out to the area and asked me to join them.

Ferrante Winery, shown above, was our first stop. The parking lot was packed. Outside the sprawling structure that housed the restaurant, gift shop and winery, was exactly what I had been hoping for. A patio dotted with café-style tables, sun umbrellas and a gazebo where a band was playing light, breezy tunes. I ordered a glass of Golden Bunches Dry Riesling – one of the award winners Ferrante is famous for. Drops of condensation rolled down the slightly chilled glass when it arrived and as I savored its contents I was reminded of apricots and peaches with a twist of lemon. Hungry, I opted for the Romano Crusted chicken salad. Perfect for the warm weather, it was a delicately breaded chicken breast rolled in Romano cheese crumbs. Baked to a golden brown, its coating had a sublime crunch and the bed of mixed greens it sat on offered a cool, crisp contrast. Dessert was a nip of Grand River Valley Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. How to describe it? A heavenly blend of honey and citrus.

Next was Chalet Debonné, as different to Ferrante as Chardonnay is to Chianti. While Ferrante had a sophisticated European flavor, Debonné, which is the oldest and largest Ohio winery, was hopping with down-home country fun. Picnic tables jammed with families surrounded an outdoor stage where smiling musicians were cranking out upbeat tunes. Tapping our feet to the beats, we sampled a number of wines, including a tantalizing Lake Erie Riesling and a fine Cabernet Franc.

What a surprise. I knew Cleveland rocked, but now I knew Lake Erie East positively rolled.

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