Thanks to several farmers’ markets and a plethora of restaurants and food producers that use locally-sourced ingredients, it’s not a challenge to eat local in Central Ohio. It’s also increasingly easy to drink local, as evidenced by the number of wineries, distilleries, and microbreweries that have cropped up in the region over the last five years.
In this three-part Trendspotting series, we will focus on those wine, spirit, and beer makers, as well as a few industry veterans− particularly the challenges they face, future product releases, and what they should consider as they look to grow and expand in the months ahead.
When most people think of domestic wines, it’s doubtful Ohio comes to mind. Perhaps it should, though.
Here in the heart of the Buckeye State, wineries are thriving.
“There are two sides to wine production in Central Ohio,” says Andrew Hall, organizer of Ohio vs. Michigan Wine Clash, an annual wine competition.
“First, there are vineyards scattered around the outside of Columbus– Powell, Plain City, Canal Winchester, Utica,” he continues. “There is also a sparkling wine producer, Ravenhurst, up in Mount Victory that was one of two Ohio wineries featured in a global wine book, Opus Vino.
“Most of these have virtually no retail or restaurant presence and rely on direct sales, as well as a vibrant tasting room social scene. It is not easy to grow grapes in the Columbus area. The traditional grape varieties consumers know, like Chardonnay or Cabernet, do not do well in our moist climate and the frost damage typically takes out 10 percent or so of the vines every year. These producers rely on hybrid grapes, which are much more cold hearty.
“The booming wine scene is in what are known as ‘urban wineries.’ This is a trend occurring across the country. These grow no grapes and most often don’t rely on Ohio grapes. They bring in unfermented juice from places like California. They ferment the juice, place in barrels for aging, blend, and bottle. Often they specialize in custom labels for weddings or businesses.
“Signature Wines, which has restaurant placements at some of Liz Lessner’s places, is an example. At some of them, like Camelot Cellars in the Short North, customers can take an active role in fermenting, aging, and blending the wines to make their custom wine. Others like Via Vecchia Winery bring in whole clusters of grapes and make wine from start to finish. Wyandotte Winery in Westerville also has some vineyards, as well as blending. They and Via Vecchia have retail presence, but most of these also rely on direct sales and a tasting room social scene.”
Similarly, Donnie Austin, owner and general manager of House Wine in Worthington, says Central Ohio isn’t a prime grape-growing region, so many local producers source grapes or juice concentrate from better-known wine regions and make and bottle the wine here.
“I believe it takes on a different identity than the wines that local merchants carry, but they’re getting a following of their own,” he adds. “If the consumer enjoys the wine, that’s what matters in the end.”
In fact, those followings present local producers with one of their biggest challenges: keeping up with demand.
Officials at both Brothers Drake Meadery, which produces mead or “honey wine,” and Via Vecchia cite that as their top concern, especially for the latter, which employs a natural filtration process that relies on sedimentation and the moon.
Another challenge is regulation.
Beginning to produce alcohol in Ohio has been very taxing, especially the permitting process, says Brothers Drake Founder Woody Drake.
“Regulation is always a hard thing to deal with,” says Robin Coolidge, winemaker at Wyandotte Winery. “But that is not just Columbus, that is state and countrywide.”
However, the customers seem to make it all worthwhile.
“We enjoy connecting with the community around local food and drink,” Drake says. “Most people don’t know what mead is or perhaps they’ve heard of it, but not tried it. Bringing mead to the people has been a gourmet adventure and delicious educational mission.”
The best part of owning a winery is the people you meet, Coolidge says.
“We make new friends nearly every day,” he adds.
Witnessing customers with allergic reactions to sulfites, who think they can never drink wine again, trying Via Vecchia wines is incredibly rewarding, says Michael Elmer, the winery’s co-founder.
In the new year, all the producers we spoke with are exploring or releasing new wines and meads.
Via Vecchia might experiment with a white wine, Elmer says.
Brothers Drake will release three meads soon: Honey Oak, a semi-dry traditional mead aged with American Oak; Hopped Traditional, a semi-dry mead with Cascade hops; and Ohio Wildflower, a semi-sweet traditional mead made with wildflower honey.
Wyandotte Winery will release a cherry wine around Valentine’s Day and an oaked blueberry wine, a Riesling, a Chardonnay, a Seyval Blanc, a Vidal Blanc, and its Ice House Gewürztraminer are all in the works.
Experts Hall and Austin, as well as Chris Dillman, sommelier and wine steward for Giant Eagle Market District, all have advice for local producers.
Dillman says price point is an important consideration, as “expense is on everyone’s mind.”
Remaining competitive by making a product with value and telling consumers what makes their product worthwhile is key, Austin says.
“There are about 100 wineries in Ohio to compete against, on top of all the other wines on local merchants’ shelves,” he adds. “The education part will help consumers understand why your wine might be a comparable or better value than a wine from California, et cetera.”
Meanwhile, Hall says he’d like to see local wineries do more to play up their location.
“We certainly are at a competitive disadvantage to wine regions in Europe, which have had centuries to understand what it means for their wines to express their place of origin,” he continues. “But we should be going through the same process to figure out what is special about Central Ohio in terms of wine and allowing that to shine through in the bottle.”
To learn more about Brothers Drake Meadery, which will move this winter to 26 E. Fifth Ave. in Columbus’s Weinland Park neighborhood, visit BrothersDrake.com.
To learn more about Via Vecchia Winery, located at 485 S. Front St. in Columbus’s Brewery District, visit ViaVecchiaWinery.com.
To learn more about Wyandotte Winery, located at 4640 Wyandotte Dr. in Columbus near Easton Town Center, visit WyandotteWinery.com.