Wine Me, Dine Me

With a two-day pass, a fast car and a little help from local pro Arnie Esterer, weekends at Geneva-on-the-lake are quickly coming the best way to put a little romance back in your life.

Work schedules just aren't set up with spouses in mind.

Try as we might, my 8-to-5 office job doesn't jibe well with my wife Molly's coffee-shop-manager hours. We're often looking for an opportunity to reconnect, something relatively inexpensive and easy to squeeze into a rare weekend off for both of us.

A friend recommended The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva State Park, just more than an hour outside Cleveland, and its Wine Maker Weekends.

During weekend getaways now through May, the Lodge features area winemakers in an evening of wine tasting and discussion, followed by a five-course, white-glove dinner with appropriate wine pairings. I vaguely knew Ohio wine had grown beyond its Catawba and Concord grape origins, but an evening of new tastes and dinner ' with my wife ' excited me to the point that the drive took a bit less time than it probably should have.

The weekends begin with an informal wine tasting, with attire ranging from jacket and tie to turtleneck and jeans. Molly and I were comfortably in the middle. She seemed to be looking forward to the wine ' the prospect brought back a smile that my driving may have frightened away.

Patricia Latimer, whose book 'Ohio Wine Country Excursions' lays out the history of 65 Ohio wineries, opened the tasting with a passage from her book. Her vivid description of cresting a hill at sunset and gazing out over a field of grape vines mentally prepared us for the main attraction of the evening: Arnie Esterer, head grape-grower at Markko Vineyard.

Each Wine Maker Weekend features a Northeast Ohio winery and its top experts. We were lucky. Esterer is more than an expert; he's an Ohio Wine Country legend.

Based in Conneaut, Esterer has 30 years of experience nurturing fragile, warm-climate-loving grapes in Northeast Ohio's fickle and sometimes harsh weather. Wearing an apron over casual attire, Esterer seemed as comfortable in front of us as I imagine him among his grapes: tilling the conversation by asking questions and giving opinions.

Many of the tasters in the group, like myself, arrived with a limited (read: nonexistent) vocabulary for talking about wine, but Esterer ran the evening in a friendly, easygoing manner that dovetailed with his unassuming tone and generous smile; according to Molly, he was cute enough to take home.

Soon we were peppering him with inquiries:
'How do you grow grapes that don't like cold weather?'
'What's the difference between using a cork and screw-top cap?'
'How long can you keep an open bottle of wine in the refrigerator?'
'Why don't you make Merlot?'

'That's a good question,' Esterer said each time (even in response to the Merlot question), talking at a level even I could understand. The informality was a pleasant surprise. The agenda was incredibly flexible (though he would deftly maneuver us from one topic to the next) and the group was soon acting like long-lost friends.

Throughout the event (it lasted about an hour and a half, plenty of time before dinner), Esterer stressed that Northeast Ohio is a viable wine region. His chest swelled when describing the current day as the 'golden age' of wine in Northeast Ohio.

With a bit of free time on our hands and somewhat giddy from our tasting experience, we toured the Lodge. The pool, in a lavish octagonal room, looks out across the Lake Erie coastline through large windows in each of the walls. As we dodged the spray of splashing children, Molly slyly nodded toward the somewhat secluded hot tub that had caught her eye. The weekend was quickly replacing the routine of work, watch TV, sleep with the best things in life: good wine, sparkling conversation, and now, a hot tub just aching to be used.

We made our way back to the Lodge's formal dining room for the white-gloved dinner that would integrate our tasting experience with some real-life food pairings. We were seated at an immaculate table, each setting pristine almost to the point of intimidation, with the Lodge's general manager, a pair of Merlot-loving sisters and a husband-and-wife very familiar with Markko Vineyard. One server would bring our wine, showing the bottle to the entire table before pouring. After a few moments to taste the wine on its own, seven members of the staff served the seven of us simultaneously.

The Lodge's chef spared no effort in creating our menu, from the rich carrot bisque paired with a light dry Riesling to the even richer white chocolate mousse and fruity, full-bodied Cabernet. The dinners are designed to match local wines with local foods, and both parties made impeccable showings highlighted by pork tenderloin with mushroom and macadamia nut stuffing paired perfectly with a smooth, nutty Pinot Noir.

After dinner, my wife and I looked for a more intimate setting to continue our evening. Although we debated on heading to the pool or to the lounge for a nightcap, we decided our two-room suite was the perfect way to spend the evening. While the skies grayed with an approaching storm, we were snuggled up, succumbing to a little late-night TV and enjoying each other's company. By the time the storm's first drops began landing on our balcony, the comfortable clutches of our bed had dragged us down into sleep.

With the arrival of the morning sun and a good night's sleep behind us, we headed for the expansive buffet breakfast, discovering a potpourri of eggs, potatoes, waffles and breakfast meats complete with a chef ready to create the perfect omelet.

Our wine-tasting schedule completed, we permitted ourselves one more indulgence: an impromptu walk along the Lake Erie shore to nowhere in particular. During breakfast, we'd noticed a path along the lake, so (ignoring the sluggishness from our trips to the buffet) we bundled up and, hand in hand, spent one last hour relishing the fleeting satisfaction of having nowhere to go and nothing to do.

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