To learn more about the state of Ohio and its wine, turned to Donniella Winchell to tell us a little about herself and how her role in Ohio Wine Country has evolved.
Spirited: How long have you been executive director of the Ohio Winegrowers? What got you involved?
DW: I took the job, very part time—about 3 hours per month—in 1978. I became full time in 1984.
When I graduated from high school in 1963, my career choices were pretty much limited to being a nurse, teacher, or “executive secretary.” I chose the teacher route with the expectation of becoming the first female superintendent of the school system that hired me as a fifth grade teacher. This job [with Ohio Winegrowers] came to be because, after teaching a number of years, I became very unexpectedly pregnant with a third child and my daycare situation was far from ideal.
My brother owned a winery and invited me to attend a meeting of a then fledgling trade association, just 13 members and an annual budget of $750, because I could type and take notes. The day was amazing. We tasted five wines from the same vineyard, of the same variety, all Seyval Blanc, but all very different. I found it amazing, fascinating. They hired me as executive secretary for $3 per hour.
After a year or so, Robert Gottesman, who had purchased Meier’s and then Mantey Vineyards [now Firelands and Lonz] came to the board. I nagged him incessantly until he wrote a $16,000 check and told me to go away until we could accomplish something. (Ed. Note: Gottesman purchased Paramount Distilling in 1957, which has become the largest grower and producer of wines and juices in the state of Ohio. He is known as the “fairy godmother” of Ohio wines, having been a founding member of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, later drafting legislation that created the Ohio Grape Industries Committee.)
Late in 1979, Ohio Winegrowers instituted a sliding dues schedule. At that time, Mr. Gottesman created a state tax funded marketing and research program, which provided Ohio wineries an exemption from a portion of the tax. The then two-dozen wineries agreed to commit a portion of their tax savings to support the industry. By 1982, our budget was about $35,000.
How many wineries are now producing in Ohio? When were the AVAs established?
DW: On the state books, there are 327 wineries. However, about 40 of those are really breweries that wanted to add a wine component to their lists.
We have two very large AVAs, Ohio River Valley and Lake Erie. Within the Lake Erie AVA, there are two subappellations: Isle St. George and Grand River Valley. There is a fifth, Loramie Creek, that no longer has any vineyards. All AVAs were written in 1983 except Loramie, which was written I think in 1984, by a fellow who later abandoned his winery; those grapes were pulled in the late 1980s.
What do you think are Ohio’s relative strengths in winemaking? Varieties? Styles?
DW: It sounds trite, but our strength is our diversity. We grow some very well regarded vinifera in the Grand River Valley (GRV), like cabernet franc, pinot noir, pinot blanc, gruner, gewürztraminer, certainly chardonnay and riesling, with smatterings of sauvignon blanc and malbec—even dolcetto. There are lots of national medals supporting that reality. We grow some exceptional ice wines, especially in the GRV.
We also grow lots of traditional hybrids, like vidal, seyval, chambourci, traminette, and so forth, around the state. Where traditional hybrids cannot grow, a number of wineries have small plantings of Minnesota cold hardy varieties.
Ohioans—like, frankly, most of the general public—love sweet wines. Given the traditional nature of many of our residents, there continues to be a strong demand for the natives, mainly catawba and concord blends, all of which are in strong demand when the wineries choose to offer them. We launch the palates of thousands of folks—and, as I often share with my California friends, while some stay static, eventually some of them move on to appreciate different styles.
Which wineries are consistently entering competitions and winning?
DW: Nationally, Ferrante (in Geneva) and Debonne (in Madison)—both in the GRV—are the most consistent. Many of our premium producers, including those two, sell out regularly, so they don’t see the need—nor do they want—to invest the dollars in getting medals when they already sell out quickly.
Those two are looking to the future to build some national street cred. However, almost without exception, the wineries, large and small, enter the Ohio Wine Competition, which is open to all wines manufactured in the state, regardless of the source of the fruit, and/or the Ohio Quality Wine Competition, which is restricted to Ohio-grown fruit.
Who are the winemakers that have had the most significant influence on the way Ohio wineries make wine?
DW: Nick Ferrante is probably the most significant leader. Also, now retired, Claudio Salvador of Firelands in Sandusky, helped dozens. While no longer the winemaker for his operation, Tony Debevc of Debonne has also been a leader. Historically, Arnie Esterer, also now retired, was the first to seriously produce vinifera in the 1970s and ’80s. Wes Gerlosky of Harpersfield Vineyard is still active, plus Greg Polman of Valley Vineyards, as winemaker, not owner.
Emerging quickly, though, is a new generation of mostly under 40 talents: Matt Meineke of M Cellars, Joe Juniper of Vermillion Valley Vineyards, Tony Kosicek of Kosicek Vineyards, and Andy Codispoti of Gervasi Vineyards. Although Andy is older than 40, he’s has been in the business only about a dozen years.
Who are the movers and shakers when it comes to vineyard plantings?
DW: Debonne’s vineyard manager and owner of his own winery, South River, is Gene Sigel. For sure, he’s the primary vineyard person in the state. (Ed note: Debonné Vineyards is currently the largest vineyard, with 175 acres planted.) Then Nick Ferrante (with 65 planted acres) followed by Joe Juniper of Vermillion Valley and his partners, who are making a huge commitment to planting and will soon have the second largest vineyard in the state. They plan to have 110 acres installed by 2025.
Tell me about Vintage Ohio and how it’s become a model for other states.
DW: Even with the increased dues noted above, by the mid 1990s, Mr. Gottesman realized we would need more money to build a serious industry. So when I returned from a national wine meeting, learning about the Vintage Virginia event, he supported our effort to explore the possibilities. Our conundrum: Our annual budget was then $40,000 with myself and one part-time employee.
The Barksdale-Ballard agency ran Vintage Virginia. They had an amazing team and I subsequently signed a cost-sharing contract with them. Their fee was $40,000 per year with a 3-year commitment. Mr. G loaned me $6,000 and five other wineries $1,000 each for the down payment. We went to work and raised sponsorship to meet monthly commitments.
We convinced the investors it could work—but if it did not pay back the loan in 3 years, they agreed to write it off as a marketing expense. In those days, we were pretty much unknown, and except for Markko Vineyards—which was the first serious attempt to succeed with vinifiera—we were only producing hybrids. Barksdale helped us design a plan, based on using the event as a marketing tool as opposed to an onsite money making event.
The strategic plan we co-developed with Barksdale-Ballard included:
- Let the world know we existed and were producing more than sweet Concord;
- Drive year round traffic to tasting rooms;
- Build relationships with media and sponsors to create year round opportunities;
- Teach wineries how to replicate the event marketing idea in their own communities;
- Wineries were to break even by year 3;
- Wineries were to make money by year 4; and
- Association was to make money by year 4 and invest that in building an industry.
It worked. We paid them off after year one (1995), and we have made a profit every year—at least so far. It funded our trail program, multiple smaller events, salary for myself and two full-timers, plus a couple of summer interns. Last year, there were more then 90 Ohio wine events (using the special legislation we had to create because the first year we did it with the wrong permit! Ugh!)
This has become quite a successful model for other regions as well, right?
DW: Yes. I have been giving talks about how to use events to generate revenue and build awareness for a long time. Actually, when Mark Chandler was at the Lodi Grape Commission, he brought me out to help craft ideas for the Lodi Zinfest. I have given talks in Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, Washington (Lake Chelan), Colorado, New York, Indiana, and more. I’ve also shared general info with a number of other regions, as well as all across Ohio. Most of the Ohio events have used the models we have shared, and I have distributed PowerPoint presentations and strategic planning ideas to lots of others.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, how are Ohio wineries adjusting their business models?
DW: Once the governor ended tasting room opportunities, the wineries have been active in social media marketing, direct to consumer shipping, hand delivery, and curbside pickup. The larger wineries have been seeing fairly significant upticks in grocery store sales. The association is now working with wineries to support their social media efforts and is compiling some suggestions to prepare for the various phases as the state begins to open up for more business activity.
What can consumers do to support Ohio wineries?
DW: Visit the wineries and taste, when that becomes possible again. For now, order online.
Despite your successes, what are your ongoing challenges?
DW: One of our conundrums is that, while we have really good presence at grocery stores and at festivals, so many of the wines chosen by consumers are sweet…and because our best vinifera are sometimes in short supply, the award winners are most often just poured at the wineries themselves.
The association needs to do a better job of talking about the grapes we grow and the wines we can make from them. We plan to launch a ‘Sense of Place’ project this year that will feature food and wine dinners, behind the scenes cellar tastings, podcasts, etc., all featuring our Ohio grown award-winning vinifera—not so much geared to the folks looking for sweet wines and fun on a pretty afternoon, but for those looking for vinifera wines that can stand up to similar wines, at similar price points, in similar styles to those produced anywhere.
Thanks to Donnie Winchell for their sharing her thoughts on the impact of Ohio wines. Please visit the Ohio Wine Producers website, ohiowines.org, where you can read about people like Nicholas Longworth, Robert Gottesman, Nicholas Ferrante, Tony Debevc, and Donnie Winchell, among many others.