Ohio Wineries Look for a Better Crop

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Randy Wyand has just planted 100 more vines at Hartford Hill Winery, the winery in Fowler he and his wife, Carolyn, own.

The Wyands opened Hartford Hill in February 2015, inspired during an October 2014 motorcycle ride as they stopped at several wineries, he recalls. They disassembled a pair of old barns – one dating from the mid-1800s – and reconstructed them on their property.

Saturday nights at the winery are packed, regardless of the weather, Wyand reports. Six of the past nine drew standing-room-only crowds.

Hartford Hill eventually plans to offer wines produced from its own grapes. Today the winery ships in the juices it uses to make the 11 varieties it offers.

“We get a lot out of Washington state and northern California,” Wyand says, and has regional suppliers to furnish others, such as Niagara and Concord grapes plus peaches, blackberries and blueberries.

“It takes three to five years to get a crop growing,” Wyand says.

The first batch of vines the Wyands planted “kind of got destroyed” during construction, and whatever was left fell victim to last year’s bitterly cold winter, the second of two consecutive such winters.

This year’s harvest should be of good quality, forecasts Christy Eckstein, executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, part of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The state has some 2,000 acres of grapes in the ground, she says.

Because many vineyards had to replant after the winters of 2014-15 and 2015-16, combined with the time those new vines need before grapes can be harvested, the availability of Ohio-grown grapes will be “very limited,” Eckstein warns.

In addition, the shortage of vines is nationwide, not limited just to Ohio, she points out.

According to a study the committee commissioned in 2012, the annual economic impact of wineries in the state was $786 million and accounted for more than 5,300 jobs, Eckstein says. She also points to the more than two million people each year who visit Ohio wineries.

Economic impact figures should be higher when an updated study is released in 2017.

When the previous study was conducted, Ohio had 175 wineries. Today there are 249, and another 34 applications are pending.

“We’ve exploded,” remarks Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association in Geneva. “Growth of the industry has been so rapid that it has been difficult to keep up with the need for fruit.”

Roughly a third of Ohio wineries grow most of their own grapes, another third purchase the fruit or juice they use, and the rest grow their own and bring in raw materials, she says. Because of the moderate temperatures large bodies of water provide, there are concentrations of wineries along locations such as Lake Erie.

The last two winters were “horrific,” Winchell concurs, and describes spring as a “nervous time” because of frosts.

“Spring frost can be significantly damaging,” Winchell says, noting clouds and a full moon lessened the impact of a mid-May frost, so wineries in the region experienced “not nearly what some of our friends around the country experienced.”

And following this year’s relatively milder winter, Ohio wineries look forward to a much better 2016.

“In my history of 27 years, I’ve never seen two winters like that,” says Old Firehouse Winery’s Don Woodward. The successive harsh winters were “pretty brutal” on the crops.

“It really stressed out the vines,” the winemaker at the Geneva-on-the-Lake winery continues. “I feel bad for some of these new wineries that planted vines two years in a row and lost them.”

To produce its 20 varieties of wine, Old Firehouse buys its grapes from vineyards in the Grand River Valley region, south of the winery. “Luckily, I have some long-term growers, and they have a tendency to be able to weather some of the dips and valleys in supply,” he notes. “A couple of them had juice in tanks.

“We try to have something for everybody,” Woodward says. “We’re most proud of our dry whites” but sweeter wines end up paying most of the bills, he adds.

Debonne Vineyards in Madison enjoyed a “bumper crop” in 2013, “so we had a lot of inventory that helped carry us through,” reports owner Tony Debevc.

This year marks the centennial of his family farming on the property. The winery was founded in 1972.

“We’re off to a good start. The grapes seem to be doing well,” Debevc says. “We’ve had our best year so far in the last three. … We’ve had a really tough couple of years.”

Debonne, which has a 175-acre vineyard, supplies 20 area wineries, and the lower supply resulting from the vine losses cost Debonne business the past two years. “We’re hoping that they will come back instead of buying from sources out of state,” Debevc says.

Debonne’s riesling, which has been around 35 years, is the “signature wine” among the 24 the winery offers, Debevc says. “That is has given the Grand River Valley in northeastern Ohio a huge national reputation.”

Ferrante Winery in Harpersfield Township grows most its own grapes, especially for its chardonnay and rieslings, reports marketing director Alyssa Sekerak-Ollis.

“The last two years have been a challenge. We did lose crops and we had to bring in juice,” she says.

The picture is brighter this year. “So far everything looks great. The crops look promising,” she says. “We’re hoping for a hot, dry summer.”

Ferrante’s riesling and vidal blanc are among the most popular of the winery’s 20 selections, she says. The riesling grapes aren’t very challenging to grow because they “thrive in this kind of climate,” she says.

The winery has begun receiving visitors. “This is the cusp of the tourism season but we are starting to get a lot of bachelorette groups and other groups celebrating,” she says.

Mastropietro Winery in Berlin Center is also continuing to replace the plants it lost, says Daniel Mastropietro, co-owner and winemaker. The winery has three acres of vineyards, accounting for 15% to 20% of its production.

“We should be OK with what we have growing,” he says.

Mastropietro’s sweet red is its biggest seller, followed by its sweet white, he says. Combined, they represent as much as 20% of sales.

The number of visitors should pick up as people begin camping at nearby Lake Milton, he says.

Pictured: The 175-acre Debonne Vineyards supplies 20 other wineries in northeastern Ohio. Shortened supply from harsh winters has taken a toll on the business.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.