It was the perfect introductory course: cool instructors, no tests and drinking in class. That's how I remember my first real taste of Ohio wines.
I was covering the 1999 Ohio Wine Weekend Getaway, which meant my wife and I got to spend a few days at Salt Fork State Park with about 100 others, learning about wine (and drinking), eating good food (and drinking) and meeting the vintners from 15 Ohio wineries (and drinking). Let's just say, I was a pretty good study.
That weekend I was also introduced to Arnie Esterer, the owner of Markko Vineyard in Conneaut. The godfather of Ohio's modern wine industry, he pioneered vitis vinifera varieties in Ohio back when others didn't think it possible to grow European-style wine grapes in our cool climate.
Ohio's reputation for sweet Concord, Niagara and Catawba grapes was built on its pre-Prohibition might as a wine producer. At its peak, the state had 32,000 acres producing grapes, mostly semisweet Catawba. But Esterer's skill with chardonnay, riesling, cabernet, pinot franc and pinot gris in the 1970s inspired others to till their own path. In addition to those varietals, Ohio's winemakers are now producing semillon and dolcetto grapes as well. It also makes Esterer the perfect person to explain our popular grapes and how they grow in this climate for our guide to Northeast Ohio's wineries.
Much has changed, certainly, on our wine landscape since then. Only 15 years ago, there were just more than 40 licensed wineries in the state. Today, that number tops 160, and Ohio ranks among the country's top 10 wine-producing states.
These days, my Ohio wine weekends usually begin at the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, where there's a pool for the kids, bikes to rent for an afternoon ride and a shuttle for a tour of the nearby wineries. The resort is even hosting a kids Grape Camp this month and again in August, where you and your future sommelier can take a cooking class, go on a nature hike and see how grapes are grown and processed at a local winery.
But two lessons have stuck with me since that first Ohio wine experience: Don't be afraid to experiment, and drink what you like. So while I still love just about anything from Esterer's Markko Vineyard, I'm also happy to discover that a glass of Old Firehouse Winery's Frosty Peach pairs nicely with a 90-degree summer afternoon listening to live music while overlooking the lake.