Cleveland and the Ohio Wine Trails by Ron Kapon

Things have changed since 2006 when I was last in Cleveland, both for the city and for the 500,000 residents and more than 10 million visitors annually. The city has opened its arms to the art world in major fashion. Sports have taken on a new veneer with the Browns, Cavaliers and Indians all playing in new stadiums situated in the downtown area, almost touching Lake Erie and each accessible by public transportation. Take a train from the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to Tower City Center and shop, eat and walk through a skyway to Quicken Loans Arena (basketball & concerts) and Progressive Field (baseball). Browns Stadium (football) is but a few minutes away along Lake Erie and is also easily accessible by subway.

Cleveland is a city of neighborhoods. They have done more for art and culture than any other similarly sized city in the United States. It is a “happening” city with downtrodden buildings being renovated into apartments, especially near Lake Erie and along the river. This trip I explored Coventry Village with its clubs, street festivals and ethnic restaurants as well as the Larchmere area and it’s many antique shops. Little Italy is a blend of art galleries, shops and restaurants. The old Arcade, located downtown, was built in 1890 and now houses a Hyatt Regency Hotel and shops. Downtown Cleveland is centered on Public Square and is home to the traditional Financial district and Civic Center, as well as the distinct Theatre District which houses Playhouse Square, the second largest theater district in the U.S., second only to the Kennedy Center. Mixed-use neighborhoods such as the East Fourth Street Entertainment District and the Warehouse District are occupied by industrial and office buildings and also by restaurants and bars. Cleveland residents often define themselves in terms of whether they live on the east side or the west side of the Cuyahoga River.

My Continental Airlines flight arrived in just over one hour from New York, and Lexi Hotchkiss from Positively Cleveland (they have even rebranded their name) was there to bring me to breakfast at the Westside Market, the nation’s oldest indoor market (1912). Every Saturday during the summer, across the street, Market Square holds the only urban outdoor market in the city, which is worth a visit. I also enjoyed dining this trip at fire, food and drink in Shaker Square and meeting chef/owner Doug Katz who also presides over the organization that promotes Cleveland’s many independent owned restaurants. I returned for dinner to the Intercontinental Hotel, where I stayed in 2006, but this time the restaurant has been renamed Table 45 with sommelier Todd Thompson, who grew up working in Cleveland area vineyards. Chef Zack Bruell’s concept is called World Cuisine, a cross-cultural blend of cooking techniques. The hotel sits next to the world famous Cleveland Clinic, the number one employer in Cleveland. In 1921 the Cleveland Clinic, influenced by the Mayo Clinic, opened its doors and today their Heart Center is rated number one in the nation and number two for Urology and Digestive Disorders. If you knew that the 20th President of the United States was James Garfield you might enjoy visiting Lake View Cemetery where he is interned (I did not know but I did visit his monument).

Five miles east of downtown Cleveland is University Circle, 550-acres where more than 2 1/2 million people “find themselves in the circle.” It is one of the most concentrated square miles of art and culture in the US, home to more than 20 artistic and cultural venues. The Cleveland Museum of Art still has a free admission policy. The Cleveland Botanical Garden & Glasshouse recreates the Costa Rican & Madagascar flora and fauna. Severance Hall is where The Cleveland Orchestra performs. The Museum of Natural History features the cast of the original bones of Lucy, a 3.2 million year old remains of a human ancestor, and the Western Reserve Historical Society includes the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum with over 200 aircraft, bikes and automobiles.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, designed by I.M. Pei, is a 150,000 square foot building that opened in 1995 as the world’s first museum dedicated to the living heritage of rock and roll music. Famed disk jockey Alan Freed started his career there in the early 1950’s playing Rhythm and Blues while coining the term “Rock ‘n Roll.” This six-level building is easy to navigate. The lower floors being the widest, leading to the circular top floors where rotating exhibits are housed, including the Les Paul Guitar Collection together with The Life & Music of Bruce Springsteen temporary exhibit and photographs of Elvis, circa 1956. I watched the U2- 3D film because the co-producer, co-director is a friend. There are interactive screens and musical selections including the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n Roll” and biographical and historical information on more than 500 performers. The 50 Years of Rock & Roll exhibits includes artifacts from artists such as Madonna, Tina Turner and The Who. There is a recreation of Alan Freed’s radio studio where visiting DJ’s broadcast remote programs to their audiences. There are four theaters including The Hall of Fame, where a 50-minute multimedia production combines film footage, music interviews and photography to tell the stories of all the Hall of Fame inductees. Directly outside that venue is a 12-minute film with highlights of past induction ceremonies. A performer, by the way, is eligible for induction 25 years after the release of his, her or their first record. There are also categories for sidemen, early influence artists and non-performers (songwriters, producers, disk jockeys, record executives etc). Presently there are 605 performers/artists/contributors in the Hall of Fame. Outside the Johnny Cash Touring Bus is on exhibit.
The history of Ohio wine making can be traced back to the early 1800’s. Nicholas Longworth, a lawyer from the Cincinnati area, saw the potential of the Ohio River Valley to become a major producer of wine. In 1820 he planted the first Catawba grapes. This domestic variety was hearty enough to withstand Ohio winters. The light, semi-sweet wine was different from the other strong American wines of the day. By 1860, Ohio led the nation in the production of wine. Crop diseases, such as black rot and mildew, began to plague the grapes, and the Civil war left the grape growers with little manpower. This led to the demise of wine making in southern Ohio.

Soon 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 insulated the vines from spreading disease. German immigrants who brought the traditions of wine making with them settled the islands. By the turn of the century, thousands of gallons of wine were being produced by dozens of wineries on and near the islands. Vineyards were soon planted along the entire southern shore of Lake Erie. This narrow strip of shoreline soon became nicknamed the “Lake Erie Grape Belt.”

Prohibition struck the United States and brought disaster to the Ohio wine making traditions. Some family businesses turned to making wine for sacramental purposes, others produced juice, and still 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 their winemaking traditions, and the few lasting vines had been converted to produce juice grapes. Ohio’s one time status as the top wine producer was gone, and with it a long road to recovery.
The turning point for the Ohio Wine industry came in the early 1960’s with the planting of French-American varieties in southern Ohio. 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 Grape Belt. Since 1965, more than 40 new wineries have been established across the state. In 1975, a group of wine makers formed the Ohio Wine Producers Association. Through the efforts of the OWPA, individual members stay better informed on governmental action, technical advances, and research and development programs affecting the grape/wine industry.
Lake Erie Vines & Wines: Northeast Ohio–Along the south shore of Lake Erie, through the valley created by the Grand River, atop the ridges carved by ancient glaciers and in tiny microclimates nearby, northeast Ohio boasts more wineries per square mile than in any other region. The tiny parcel of land also is home to well over half of the wine grape acreage in the state. Hundreds of acres of vineyards produce wines like Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc as well as Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc.

Bob Ulas of the Lake County Visitors Bureau spent the better part of a day showing me six wineries. Bene Vino Urban Winery in Perry had great Malbecs made by Benny Bucci. It is Lake County’s newest boutique winery. I had lunch at Ferrante Winery on Geneva-on-the-lake and met winemaker Nick Ferrante. I visited three wineries in Madison. St. Joseph’s Winery opened in 2010, where owner Art Pietrzyk told me Dr. Konstantin Frank was the inspiration for his planting Pinot Noir on hillside vineyards. Debonne Vineyards and Chalet is Ohio’s largest estate winery with 130 cares of grapes. Co-owner Pat Debevc had a full house in their adjacent brew-pub and told me that Debonne is one of 5 wineries (out of 8) in Lake County that use a Grand River Valley AVA. Grand River Cellars, also in Madison, uses grapes from Debonne and was jammed on this Saturday afternoon. My last winery visit was South River Winery in Geneva housed in a church built in 1892. The church was sold in 1970 and moved to its present location by co-owner Gene Segal in 2000. Gene also manages Debonne’s vineyards. My long day ended at Quail Hollow Resort in Painesville where I spent the night. I wished I had time to visit the spa and two 18-hole golf courses. I did have dinner at their C.K’s Steakhouse.
Lake Erie Shores & Islands Wine Trail: Northwest Ohio–Lake breezes and the moderating influence of Lake Erie allow vintners to produce grapes and make wine amid some of the country’s most scenic vistas. Throughout this ‘cool climate’ growing district there are plantings of Rieslings and Chardonnays. Numerous soil types deposited by years of glacial movements provide fertile ground for great viticulture. The Lake Erie Shores & Islands wine trail boasts 15 wineries with two on the Lake Erie Islands, the remainder on the mainland. The region offers a myriad of other activities including Kalahari Water Park, the largest indoor water park in the US, and Cedar Point Amusement Park, the largest in the world with 17 roller coasters and 58 rides. All are in Sandusky, which also features three other indoor water parks.
Jill Bauer of Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center picked me up and brought me to my lodging, Captain Montague’s Bed & Breakfast in Huron. It was recently voted “Best in the Midwest” by Firelands Winery in Sandusky was a pioneer in vinifera grape varieties in the east. Claudio Salvador is also a wine importer and previously worked in the wine industry in Virginia. They have an excellent self-guided tour. At 75,000 case sales they are reputed to be the largest in Ohio. Hermes Vineyards & Winery in Sandusky has their tasting room in a restored 1800’s pioneer barn. Lunch was at Zinc Brasserie in Sandusky, serving French-inspired cuisine. Paper Moon Vineyards is in the historic harbor town of Vermilion. My last stop was in Berlin Heights at Quarry Hill Winery & Orchard where both grape and fruit wines are made. There is also a fruit and vegetable market on site.
Then it was time for my one-hour drive to the airport and my return flight to NYC. Both the city of Cleveland and the Ohio wines I tasted impressed me. It was amazing to see what the city has done in the four years since my previous visit.