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Winemaking in Ohio

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | July 01, 2011

Winemaking in Ohio has a somewhat colorful and yet tragic history. Turbulent times in the Ohio winemaking industry have led to periods of prosperity and recession. At one point Ohio was known as the number one wine producing State in the United States. The fluctuating nature of the Ohio wine industry caused this title to be lost, eventually regained and then lost again. Only recently have there been signs of resurgence with winemaking in Ohio. Perhaps the latest winemaking resurgence will return Ohio to its former winemaking glory days.

Ohio winemaking traces its roots to the early 1800s. It was during this time that vines were introduced to the Cincinnati area, with vineyards being planted on the riverbanks of the Ohio River. While these plantings show the introduction of the vine to Ohio, the process of serious winemaking actually began several years later. The man credited with the start of Ohio's serious winemaking efforts was Nicholas Longworth. Longworth came to Ohio from New Jersey in 1803 and set-up a prosperous legal practice. It was during this time that Longworth recognized the potential for winemaking within the Ohio River Valley. As winemaking was Longworth's hobby, Longworth established a vineyard at Tusculum in 1823. Longworth's vineyard was located near the Ohio River on a hill known as Bald Hill. Various European varieties were imported and planted but the harshness of the local climate led to the demise of these plantings. Longworth's first wines were made from the native Alexander and Isabella varieties.

In 1825 Longworth heard news of a grape known as the Catawba being successfully grown in Georgetown. Longworth obtained cuttings and planted Catawba in his vineyard. After several years of growth Longworth was able to produce wine using the Catawba variety. After tasting wines produced from the Catawba grape, Longworth quit his legal practice and devoted himself exclusively to his winery. Within 15 years Longworth had expanded his vineyards to 1,200 acres and had developed many different varieties of wine including the first domestic Champagne. Longworth's white wines and Champagnes produced from the Catawba grape were so successful that Ohio became known as the premier wine state. It was during this time that Longworth's wines garnered international fame with praise coming from England. By 1859 Ohio was producing 570,000 gallons of wine annually, twice as much as California. Winemaking in Cincinnati was big business, roughly 3,000 acres of vines were planted. As prosperous as Longworth had become, several events would ultimately lead to the demise of his winemaking business. Black rot and oidium created a plague that destroyed many of the vines planted by Longworth. Time also began to catch up with Longworth as running the winery became increasingly difficult for Longworth in his old age. Nicholas Longworth died in 1863 and Longworth's winery was split between his heirs. This event combined with the black rot and oidium plague problem led to the winery being abandoned. These last events signaled the end of Cincinnati wines as well as the first collapse of Ohio's wine industry.

While winemaking was coming to an end in southern Ohio, northern Ohio was beginning to show signs of greatness concerning winemaking. It had been discovered that the climates of the Lake Erie Islands of northern Ohio provided an ideal environment for grape growing. This was due mostly to the lake moderated breezes that resulted in longer growing seasons and a natural defense against various diseases. In the 1870s many of the grape growers from Cincinnati migrated to northern Ohio and planted new vineyards. Over 7,000 acres of vines were planted and in 1870 a winery with a million-gallon capacity was established on Middle Bass Island. Statistics concerning wine production showed that the Lenk winery of Toledo was producing 400,000 gallons of wine per year. The rebirth of Ohio as the premier wine state was complete by 1900. During this time several Sandusky based wineries attained international success as their wines won medals in both Paris and Rome. However, much like Ohio's first wine collapse dark waters loomed on the horizon in the form of Prohibition.

Like every other wine producing state in the Union, Ohio's wine industry suffered badly during the years of Prohibition. Some of the vintners continued to produce wines legally for sacramental and medicinal purposes while others took a less than honest approach to winemaking. Stories of shotgun blasts being offered up against Federal food and drug inspectors were common during this era. Even with the damaging effects of Prohibition, grape acreage did increase due to a demand caused by home winemakers and bootleggers. However, many vineyards began to replant their vineyards with Concord grapes as the grape juice market was expanding.

Wineries around the Sandusky area maintained their Catawba vineyards with high hopes of recapturing a new wine market at Repeal. These Sandusky vintners had the best opportunity for success. They had a climate more favorable than most east coast regions, wines that were distinctly different than those of California and a rich and historic background in winemaking. However, the Sandusky vintners let opportunity pass them by. The Sandusky vintners focused on producing wine in volume rather than focusing on quality wines and Champagne. The end result was that New York captured the Champagne market with Finger Lakes Champagnes dominating the sparkling wine market.

Winemaking and grape growing began to slide further downhill in Ohio. In 1937 there were 161 wineries and yet by 1967 there were only 25 left. Out of these 25 wineries, only 15 were producing wine from Ohio grown grapes. Things began to change during the late 1960s. It was during this time that new French-American hybrid vines were introduced to Southern Ohio. These hardy and disease resistant varieties responded favorably to local growing conditions and produced wines similar to old world vinifera varieties. With the success attained in Southern Ohio, the hybrid vines were planted in the Lake Erie Islands with great success. Due to the positive response of the French-American hybrids, new wineries began to spring up during the late 1960s.

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Additional positive developments have stimulated the Ohio wine industry. In 1975 the Ohio Wine Produces Association formed with the goal of providing members a method of staying up to date on technical advances, governmental advances and research & development programs. In 1981 another program--the Ohio Grape Industries Program--was developed. The Ohio Grape Industries Program is responsible for creating programs to stimulate and expand the both the fresh and wine grape industries.

Today Ohio's wine industry is still showing signs of recovering from the damaging effects caused by Prohibition. This can be seen in the increased number of new wineries founded since Repeal. And as growth has continued, the Ohio wine industry has faced new challenges. In the mid 1990s a new crisis was realized in that wineries faced a shortage of Ohio grown grapes. A goal of increasing the acreage of Ohio's vineyards was deemed the solution. Ultimately the crisis was dealt with in that the State government provided tax credits as well as vineyard planting grants. Despite these new challenges found in the 1990s, recent events have cast a favorable light on Ohio wines. After an Ohio Riesling won Best of Show at the San Francisco State Wine Fair, many Ohio wines finally received the recognition and respect that they deserve. It seems clear that Ohio is once again on track to become a truly exceptional wine producing state.

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