What does having our own federally designated growing district mean to our “street cred” with the connoisseur class? All of the great wine districts in the world are known because of the fruit they grow and then transform into wine. It is often referred to as “A Sense of Place.” The phrase was part of a not-so-long-ago campaign by our own county Civic Development Corporation.
The Grand River gives us the opportunity to begin to tap into the group of wine lovers, typically only 15-25 percent of all wine consumers, who are the “influencers,” wine press, bloggers and authors of all things wine.
One of the most majestic waterways in the state flows into Lake Erie and is known as the Grand River. Native Indian tribes called it “Sheaugua” or “Geauga” (a word which translates as raccoon) but was named Grand by early white settlers.
Visitors from other parts of the country sometimes question why the word Grand is applicable as it is not as wide or long or carries as much water as the Susquehanna, the Chesapeake, the Potomac, the Mississippi, the Missouri and at least at is upper reaches, the Colorado. However, its gorges are deep and its influence significant for our industry.
Along parts of its path, the river is designated by the state of Ohio as “‘scenic” and along other portions, it is considered “wild.” The headwaters begin in West Farmington and the river flows directly north until it veers abruptly west in Austinburg Township along Tote Road.
The river is dotted with several covered bridges. Its path is beautiful and winding. It attracts thousands of campers, fisherman and canoeists annually. However, most of the economic benefits the river presents are not recreational in nature. The river provides ideal conditions where great wine grapes can be grown. Just about 2 miles beyond the big bend, the prime section of the Grand River Viticultural region begins. Several small, privately managed vineyards are planted at the river’s source near West Farmington, but commercial operations dominate the river’s banks in northern Ashtabula and eastern Lake counties.
Within the designated AVA (American Viticultural Area) Grand River Region, over 70 percent of all the wine grapes in Ohio are grown. The Valley and its watershed is home to the bulk of the region’s award winning wineries and at least another half dozen entrepreneurs planning more commercial vineyards and tasting rooms in the next few years. When the annual medal count for wines entered in national competitions is announced, the majority of Ohio awards are usually taken by Grand River fruit.
Increasingly, the valley is regarded as a unique and special growing district. It might not yet as well known as Napa Valley, or its flow as impressive as the Mississippi, but some of its wine-growing families realize viticultural greatness does and will continue to grow, despite temporary setbacks from the prior two winters.
According to the official AVA application made in the spring of 1983, the entire area contains about 125,000 acres – all the land adjacent to the river, from West Farmington to where it flows into the lake near the community of Grand River, Ohio. However, most of the viable vineyards, with about 1,200 acres now under cultivation, are planted in the east-west section, which contains about 46,000 total acres.
Based on evidence also submitted in the original petition, while Lake Erie establishes the general climactic conditions needed to grow wine grapes, it is the air and water drainage naturally provided by the river valley that makes the river district so amenable to viticulture. During the 30-plus years since the approval of the Grand River AVA, regional wine growers have noted additional soil and fruit characteristics unique to the region. Wineries, which then numbered four, have grown to a critical mass of almost 30.
Cool climate varietals from the Grand River region, especially the Rieslings, Pinot Grigios. Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Francs and newer to our region varietials like Melbec, Gewurztraminer, Greuner Veltliner and Dolcetto along with nationally acclaimed and ice wines, are turning heads everywhere.
All of this means jobs for our communities in tourism, in the vineyards, in the wineries and in ancillary, support industries.
The Grand River is a gift of Mother Nature. Now it is up to all of us to help reach its full potential.
DONNIELLA WINCHELL is the executive director of the Ohio Wine Association. She can be reached at dwinchell@OhioWines.org.