YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When the Ohio Wine Producers Association started putting together wine trails 15 years ago, there were only 40 wineries in the state. Six trails were all that was needed.
Now there are over 300 wineries in Ohio, and the group is finding it necessary to restructure the existing trails and create a bunch of new ones.
The first of the new trails is the Route 11-Lake Wine Country Trail, which comprises four wineries in northern Trumbull and southern Ashtabula counties.
The members are Greene Eagle Winery, in Greene Township; Country Porch Winery, Bazetta Township; Emerine Estates, south of Jefferson; and The Stable Winery, near Andover. All are between Mosquito and Pymatuning lakes and not far from state Route 11.
The area where they are located is too far from the well known Grand River Valley winery area to be part of that wine trail. It’s remote, rural and very scenic.
Wine trails are loose confederations of wineries that are geographically close to each other. They team up on marketing efforts to appeal to customers who like to go winery hopping in an effort to boost business for all of them.
Wine trails serve more than one purposes. Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Geneva-based Ohio Wine Producers Association, says they are increasingly popular in the post-COVID era as a way to stay safe, local and socially distanced.
“Given the pandemic and the preference to travel local – and the reality that local people don’t even know about the wineries in their own back yard – we began to create these trails,” Winchell says.
Residents often take family members and friends who are visiting for weddings or other events to nearby wineries. Having several to choose from is key.
“An individual winery is not a destination [as much as] a cluster is,” she says. “Maybe you can go to one or two wineries and then some antique shops.”
According to statistics provided by the Ohio wine producers, 25% of regular patrons are loyal to one winery but 75% prefer hopping around and making a day of it.
To help the trail members foster a wine scene in their area, the Ohio Wine Producers provides rack cards at each spot to steer visitors to the other wineries. It also disseminates information on social media, holds raffles and promotes other attractions.
Winchell suggests that a leisurely afternoon on the Route 11-Lake Wine Trail could include stops at Just Pizzelles or The Galleria of Arts and Antiques in Cortland “for a little shopping and to collect some mementos of your excursion.”
Dale Bliss is the co-owner of Greene Eagle Winery, along with his brother, Keith. The two came up with the idea of starting the new Route 11-Lake wine trail.
“We’ve [collaborated] with Country Porch and Emerine Estates before,” Bliss says. “Now, with The Stable coming in, we have a fourth. We said ‘Let’s create this new wine trail.’ ”
Bliss contacted Winchell, who loved the idea and set the gears in motion.
Originally, Greene Eagle was in the Canal Country Trail, which is centered in the Akron area.
“We were the farthest north on that trail and it hardly did anything for us,” Bliss says.
The Bliss brothers started Greene Eagle in 2009. Located in a rural and agricultural area along Davis Peck Road, the winery has a colonial theme and a rustic look.
During a recent interview with a reporter, Bliss paused for a moment of silence during which all that could be heard was birdsong, and the occasional braying of a donkey from a far-away field.
There are no man-made sounds to disturb the peace, he says. Similarly, at night the skies are vivid with stars because of the lack of pollution light in the area.
“The stars are amazing at night,” Bliss says.
Greene Eagle’s main hall uses early American architecture with post and beam construction. It features colonial-era furniture and decor. Nearby, a heavy stone building, which Keith constructed but looks like it’s a couple of hundred years old, is used for special events.
Every Halloween season, the winery stages a re-enactment of the Headless Horseman scene from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman chases a frightened Ichabod Crane from the stone building.
The winery grounds also boast a large wooden deck, fire pit, outdoor stage for live music, and a cedar cabin that can be rented for overnight stays.
For atmosphere, the Bliss brothers have planted rows of grapevines along the long driveway that leads to the main hall. They make their wine in the hall basement room with juice shipped in from California.
Greene Eagle also brews its own beer on the premises.
The Bliss brothers decided to open the winery a little over a decade ago on property that Keith owns. They had both worked for Delphi Packard, but were forced to start anew after the company filed bankruptcy in 2006.
“I said, ‘I’m too young to retire and too old to get another job,” Bliss recalls. “We had always gone to Geneva for years and brought back wines and sat [here] and watched the sunsets. So we said ‘maybe we should start a winery.’
“It took us a few years of planning. We opened in 2009 and we’re still here.”
The owners of The Stable Winery – the newest in the region – are happy to be part of the Route 11-Lake Wine Trail.
The Stable was opened in January on state Route 7 near Andover by co-owners Troy and wife Tricia Litwiler, and Ted and Kathy Litwiler. Ted is Troy’s father.
There is little in the way of wine competition in their corner of Ashtabula County. But The Stable is close to Pymatuning State Park, which is a popular area for vacationers in campers and RVs.
Many of those visitors visit Grand River Valley wineries, Troy says, but now they have a closer option.
His winery is on a 125-acre tract with a pond and several century-old horse barns. The equine theme extends to the wines, which use the sport’s nomenclature.
The owners have planted concord, Niagara and vidal grapes. They hope to use their harvest in three to five years, Troy says. For now, they are buying most of their grape juice from DeBonne Winery in Madison.
The Litwilers plan to convert another barn on their property to an events center for wedding receptions and other celebrations. Long-term, they’d like to see a hotel built in the Pymatuning Lake area to further cement the area’s reputation as a tourism destination.
Winchell, of the Wine Producers Association, says the growth of the wine industry is good for the state.
“Wineries appeal to attractive demographics and we hope they will come once, perhaps again, and perhaps spend the night, order meals, fill up their gas tanks and leave some dollars in the county,” she says.
The wineries and the Wine Producers Association, she says, are “creating a wine culture among people who never heard the phrase ‘cabernet sauvignon.’
“Just being in proximity to wineries is all it takes – that and a love for wine,” she says.
She cites an example that drives home the point.
“I was at my son’s high school baseball game one day. It was a cold and miserable day. I was sitting near three women who were bundled up and I overheard them talking about the differences between three blush wines they had tried. If they were in Armani suits and in San Francisco, it would have been an appropriate setting.
“We are building a wine culture here.”
Now that the Route 11-Lake wine trail is up and running, Winchell is setting her sights on the Lake Milton area for the next one.
The area already has several wineries, including Lil Paws, Halliday’s and Mastropietro. Several others are not far away in Mahoning, Portage and Geauga counties.
Pictured at top: Dale Bliss co-owns Greene Eagle Winery, one of the stops on the Route 11 trail.