Economic Development

Working Together Bears Fruit for Ohio Wine Industry

GENEVA, Ohio — Two French oak casks stand out from the rest of the barrels in the cellar of Ferrante Winery and Ristorante here. Compared to the typical wine barrel, they’re larger and quite beautiful: The smooth lines and natural wood grain reflect high-quality craftsmanship and the spotless steel hardware provides a pleasant contrast to the wood.

A fitting vessel for what rests inside – an exclusive red blend that can be bought only at the winery based in Geneva. What the wine represents makes it all the more singular.

The blend is the contribution by Ferrante to a series of specialty casked wines produced by five area wineries: Ferrante and Laurello Vineyards in Geneva and St. Joseph Vineyard, Debonné Vineyards and Grand River Cellars Winery and Restaurant in Madison. Each winery has its own varietal and cask, but the production is the same – a third of the harvest each year is reserved in the cask and added to the next year, creating a unique vintage annually.

“So, this has got seven years of vintages in it,” says the operations manager at Ferrante, Carmel Ferrante. “Every year we feel it gets better.”

The five wineries formed The Winegrowers of the Grand River Valley, a consortium that works to promote the entire Grand River Valley region, says Danielle DiDonato, general manager at Laurello. Each winery pays dues, which helps the group fund special projects such as the cask series, she says. In September, the group holds a tasting where customers can visit the five wineries to sample the cask wines.

“It’s just like the Ice Wine Festival, but it’s for the dry red lovers,” DiDonato says. “It’s another collaboration and a way to keep us connected.”

Working together this way is at the heart of efforts to brand and promote the Grand River Valley region. And it’s paying off in big ways. Last year, a study published by Frank, Rimerman + Co. of California found that in 2016, Ohio wineries increased 51% to 265, up from 175 in 2012. The industry contributes more than $1.3 billion to the food and agriculture industry in the state.

Tourists visiting the wineries increased as well at 1.38 million, up 16% over 2012, according to the report. Those increases are a boon to other nearby businesses and are driving development along Interstate 90, including two multi-million-dollar hotels.

In August 2017, Holiday Inn Express and Suites broke ground on an 81-room hotel projected to cost $10.2 million at 181 Water Tower Drive in the village of Madison. There are 20 wineries within 10 miles of the hotel that Madison Real Estate Partners is developing.

Another four-story hotel with 26 rooms is being developed at the corner of Bridge and Franklin streets in the older portion of Ashtabula. When completed, the $2 million project will feature an on-site restaurant and will overlook the Ashtabula River and its lift bridge, says City Manager James Timonere. Last year, the city spent $1 million on improving infrastructure along Bridge Street, including storefront facades, he says.

“Our historic Bridge Street has really boomed,” Timonere says. “We have some of the finest restaurants, I believe, between here and Erie. We have some great people, local young entrepreneurs who are making Bridge Street happen.”

On June 4, Stihl Inc., a Germany-based manufacturer of outdoor power equipment, announced Bridge Street as the winner of America’s Main Streets contest this year through its Independent We Stand initiative.

Ashtabula beat 25 quarter-finalists for the $25,000 grand prize that will help fund additional improvements, the city manager says. The Lift Bridge Community Association has nominated Bridge Street in the competition for the last two years.

As more people take notice of the Grand River Valley region, Cindy Lindberg, owner of Grand River Cellars, expects the development to continue. The challenge, she says, will be to maintain “the country feel” to the area.

“I foresee more bed-and-breakfasts coming along, more boutique shops … things that really match with the climate of this community,” she says. “We don’t want to be ‘big city.’ That’s never our vision.”

Tourism groups such as the Lake County Visitors Bureau look to other wine-focused regions as a template, such as Napa Valley in California and the Finger Lakes region in New York. The goal is to generate national recognition for the region as a year-round tourism destination, says Scott Dockus, executive director of the Lake County Visitors Bureau (pictured above).

“We look at this as an opportunity to promote the region, not simply Lake County or Ashtabula County,” Dockus says. “Because when tourists come, they don’t care what county they’re in. They see the wineries. They see distilleries. They see the lake. They see the river.”

To help brand the area, Dockus is working to establish and nurture collaborations with the wine producers, nurseries, economic developers and elected officials to achieve tangible projects that promote the area.

The first project began late last summer – refurbishing and branding a 90-year-old water tower and surrounding green space at the intersection of state Route 528 and Interstate 90 in Madison. It’s part of developing a “destination identity,” and the wineries understand the importance of working together.

“As we start to brand it and expand that brand beyond the two counties,” Dockus says, “it creates that sense of place. This is what could be the draw. This could be the destination.”

Eric Frantz, general manager of The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva-on-the-Lake, credits a “growing credibility” among the wine industry for increased business at the lakeside resort. Its wine shuttle business has significantly increased since it was launched, he reports. From 2009 to 2011, the Lodge “could hardly give away seats” for the tours, averaging a few hundred riders annually.

Eric Frantz is general manager of The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva-on-the-Lake.

“This year we’ll do about 12,000 riders,” he says. “The credibility is in part simply because the story has gotten out. Everybody really recognizes how good our product is.”

The lodge is in a “growth stage” and is nearing completion of its $2.5 million renovation project, Frantz says. Its 109 rooms, lobby and other public spaces have been renovated, and upgrades to the ballroom and meeting room spaces will be completed this winter.

In 2016, the lodge spent $5 million in expansion projects such as building 25 cottages on its property, each accommodating up to six people. The investment upgraded guest activities, including the new Lake Erie Canopy tours zipline and adventure courses. The Lodge also upgraded its two-mile bike and hike trail along the lake and is adding row boat and paddle boat rentals this summer. The improvement projects are partially funded with a nightly property resort fee of $11.

“All of it has caused our guests to notice and they appreciate how we’re changing over the years,” Frantz says.

Meanwhile, the wine educator at The Lodge, Lauren Fiala, is working with wineries to develop educational and exclusive back-of-house winery experiences this fall “to let people touch and feel wine in a new and different way,” Frantz says.

Fiala is a certified wine specialist and sommelier with the United States Sommelier Association. She is also an adjunct professor with the Ashtabula campus of Kent State University’s Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance, or Vesta, program. Such partnerships have helped to promote the region.

Frantz works closely with the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the Lodge, but says the county line doesn’t stop him from promoting the neighboring Lake and Geauga counties.

“Our guests don’t know there’s a county line there, so we don’t acknowledge it either,” Frantz says. “Some terrific wineries in our region are across that line. And we celebrate them and promote them and send our guests there just as easily as if it was on this side of the county line.”

Watch Our Ohio Wineries Video Series!
Blazing a Wine Trail Through the Grand River Valley
Wine Grows into Big Business with Camaraderie
Cold Winters, Flavorful Wines
‘3 Minutes With’ Arnulf Esterer, Markko Vineyard in Conneaut
‘3 Minutes With’ Danielle Didonato, Laurello Vineyard in Geneva
‘3 Minutes With’ Cindy Lindberg, Grand River Cellars

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.