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5 exceptional wine-tasting rooms in Ohio’s Grand River Valley

South River Vineyard relocated an abandoned 19th-century church to serve as its tasting room, retaining the original pews, wainscotting, flooring, and some of the stained-glass windows.Visitors to South River Vineyard are invited to sip their wine while wandering the beautiful grounds. South River Vineyard relocated an abandoned 19th-century church to serve as its tasting room, retaining the original pews, wainscotting, flooring, and some of the stained-glass windows. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Sun glints off my glass, illuminating the deep garnet liquid as it’s poured from the bottle. Through the tasting room’s huge windows, I spy endless rows of lush vines, all of them heavy with fruit, stretching across the landscape.

Although the spectacular scenery and luscious wine make me feel as though I’ve landed in Tuscany—or Bordeaux, or Sonoma—I’m actually about 45 miles northeast of Cleveland in a burgeoning wine region called the Grand River Valley.

The Grand River Valley viticulture area in Ohio is what it is because of Lake Erie. The cool breezes off the lake prevent an early bud break in the spring, and warm breezes in the fall extend the growing season.

“This particular vintage is mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot,” says Candace DiGirolamo, vineyard and operations manager at Laurentia Winery. I watched her give the wine, a rich red blend called Craton, a swirl and bring the glass to her nose. I followed her lead, inhaling the heady aroma of plums and blackberries.

The Buckeye State can trace its wine roots back to 1825 and Nicholas Longworth, a Cincinnati attorney and land investor who planted a vineyard in the Ohio River Valley with a newly discovered hybrid called Catawba. Longworth’s grapes eventually produced a sparkling, rosy libation that became all the rage, and by 1859 Ohio led the nation in wine production. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Ode to Catawba Wine pays tribute to Longworth’s much-loved grape.

Experimenting with European varietals

After Prohibition ended, winemaking in Ohio moved northward to the shores of Lake Erie. There, Catawba and sweet natives like Niagara and Concord dominated the market until the early 1990s when local growers and winemakers began experimenting with European vinifera. Today, after plenty of research and decades of trial and error, the Grand River Valley is producing some pretty amazing wines.

“We can grow cool-climate whites spectacularly,” said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “We can make some of the best Rieslings, some of the best grüners, gewürztraminers, pinot gris—anywhere.”

With 31 vineyards, the Grand River Valley area is now home to more wineries per square mile than any other part of the state. While most still produce a selection of sweet and semi-sweet wines reminiscent of the region’s heritage, many area winemakers have had great success turning out varietals like chardonnay, cabernet franc, malbec, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon.

Subsequently, more discerning oenophiles visiting the region will have no trouble finding wines that will please their palates. Here are five spots you won’t want to miss.

1. Cask 307

Chic and inviting, Cask 307 makes an excellent first stop on a tour of the Grand River Valley. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Chic and inviting, Cask 307 makes an excellent first stop on a tour of the Grand River Valley. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Opened in June 2019, this boutique winery serves as the unofficial gateway to the Grand River Valley. Owned by local wine pioneer Tony Debevc of Debonné Vineyards, the area’s largest estate winery, Cask 307 offers wine aficionados delicious, complex wines in a sophisticated setting.

“Tony wanted to create an upscale tasting room where people could learn not only about our wines but about the whole area,” says tasting room manager Donna List. “He envisioned us being people’s first stop. Sort of like a visitors center.”

Invitingly chic, Cask 307 is bright and breezy with huge airplane-hangar doors that retract to create a welcoming, indoor-outdoor gathering space. Guests can sample individual wines by the bottle, glass, or in flights of four. Be sure to try Cask’s Fumé Blanc—a rarity for the region—made from estate-grown sauvignon blanc and aged in French oak for nine months.

Cask also serves beers on tap from Double Wing Brewing Company—owned by Debevc’s son Tony “Junior” Debevc—and a menu of savory snacks including house-made flatbreads.

2. South River Vineyard

Visitors to South River Vineyard are invited to sip their wine while wandering the beautiful grounds. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Visitors to South River Vineyard are invited to sip their wine while wandering the beautiful grounds. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

South River Vineyard owner Gene Sigel is known throughout the valley for his endless knowledge and unwavering work ethic. When a hard freeze in 1990 destroyed most of the Grand River’s earliest vinifera crop, Sigel walked the vineyards to search for any surviving vines.

In addition to being South River’s winemaker, he manages all 175 acres of the Debonné vineyards and runs his newest project, Red Eagle Distillery, which transforms Ohio grains and Grand River grapes into spirits.

Locals know South River as “the church winery” because of the beautiful, 19th-century church that Sigel had dismantled and reconstructed on-site that now serves as the tasting room, complete with colorful stained-glass windows and a gleaming wood interior.

Outside, vines and rolling hills stretch in every direction and visitors are invited to sip their wine—South River’s Dry Riesling is especially delicious—while wandering the beautiful grounds.

“We just happen to be blessed with an ideal growing location,” says Sigel. “For whatever reason, the grapes up on this high knob here above the lake ripen a week or two before other vineyards in the area and have excellent sugar.”

3. M Cellars

Winemaker Matt Meineke handcrafts superb estate wines at M Cellars, the lovely winery he owns with his wife, Tara. | Photo courtesy M Cellars

Winemaker Matt Meineke handcrafts superb estate wines at M Cellars, the lovely winery he owns with his wife, Tara. | Photo courtesy M Cellars

Right across the road from South River you’ll find M Cellars, owned by husband-and-wife team Matt and Tara Meineke. With their passion for cultivating vinifera and creating handcrafted, estate wines—including a superb sparkling brut rosé—the Meinekes have introduced a sophisticated, next-generation operation to the Grand River Valley.

The Meinekes are also committed to sustainability, implementing environmentally friendly growing practices like integrated pest management, composting, and cover-cropping in the vineyard.

Inside the tasting room, new and loyal patrons linger around the warm wooden bar to learn about and sample M Cellars’ offerings—don’t miss standouts like the gewürztraminer and the Meritage Reserve, a Bordeaux blend. Outside, a big deck overlooks a lush swath of vines and folks chat and sip while relaxing in comfortable chairs.

Looking to go behind-the-scenes? Winery tours are offered twice each Saturday and include a visit to the vineyards and production areas and a guided tasting.

4. Laurentia Vineyard and Winery

One of the dreamiest spots in the Grand River Valley, Laurentia Vineyard and Winery turns out some exceptional full-bodied reds. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

One of the dreamiest spots in the Grand River Valley, Laurentia Vineyard and Winery turns out some exceptional full-bodied reds. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Stately and beautiful with a gorgeous, lodge-inspired tasting room, a farm-to-table restaurant, sprawling vineyards, and delicious wines, Laurentia Vineyard and Winery may just be the dreamiest spot in the Grand River Valley to while away a few hours.

In 2010, brothers Gary and Leonard Blackie came up with the idea to build a winery during their annual hunting trip. When they returned, the native Ohioans purchased land in Geneva and began the arduous tasks of establishing a vineyard and constructing the winery building and production facilities.

Today, Laurentia has 45-acres of land planted exclusively with vinifera and produces around 5,000 cases of estate-grown wines each year.

“People have this preconceived notion about Ohio as sweet Catawba country,” says DiGirolamo, the vineyard and operations manager. “We focus on the dry side of things. When we first got going, there were people that said, ‘Why are you putting so many reds in the ground?’ And I said, ‘Because we can.’ I firmly believe that I can grow any grape here.”

That confidence has paid off. In 2018, Laurentia’s 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. “It was grown right here, and that was huge for us,” DiGirolamo says.

5. Hundley Cellars

At Hundley Cellars, winemaker Tracy Hundley’s European-style wines each have a distinct story to tell. | Photo by Tracy Hundley-Pringle

At Hundley Cellars, winemaker Tracy Hundley’s European-style wines each have a distinct story to tell. | Photo by Tracy Hundley-Pringle

Owned and operated by mother-daughter duo Gerri Hundley and Tracy Hundley-Pringle, Hundley Cellars feels like visiting a good friend’s house—a good friend who happens to love wine.

Building on a background in the biological sciences, Hundley-Pringle received her certificate in winemaking, viticulture, and enology from the prestigious program at the University of California, Davis, and she puts her heart and soul into her wines.

“I favor the European style of winemaking because it’s all about the grapes,” she says. Her mother, Gerri, is the winery’s friendly face, greeting loyal clientele and new visitors alike with a warm hospitality that keeps folks returning again and again.

Each wine Hundley Cellars produces tells a story. One of those belongs to The Baron, a robust, Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet franc and pinot noir.

“It’s the most complex wine we’ve ever produced,” Hundley-Pringle says. “There’s so much going on. For me, it starts with rose garden in the nose. Then I get some spiced citrus. And tobacco. Baron always has to have some tobacco—the Baron likes his cigars.”

Where to stay in the Grand River Valley

Gorgeous Lake Erie views and a terrific wine list make The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake an excellent home base. | Photo courtesy The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake

Gorgeous Lake Erie views and a terrific wine list make The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake an excellent home base. | Photo courtesy The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake

For lakeside digs, you can’t beat the AAA Three Diamond The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake (rates start at $144), which offers traditional rooms as well as cottages, some by the lake.

Vineyard Woods has cottages and villas set among the woods and vineyards. I Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Vineyard Woods has cottages and villas set among the woods and vineyards. I Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Or stay among the vines at Vineyard Woods (440-624-3054; rates start at $219). Choose one of the three spacious suites—Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir—in the Vineyard Villa for lovely vineyard views.

How to get around

Hop on The Lodge’s Wine Shuttle for an expert-led tour through the Grand River Valley. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Hop on The Lodge’s Wine Shuttle for an expert-led tour through the Grand River Valley. | Photo by Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

If you visit the wineries on your own, be sure to designate a driver. Or join Certified Wine Specialist Lauren Fiala for a Signature Immersion Tour on board The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake’s wine shuttle. The tour ($95 per person) includes a gift bag and occurs at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. Deluxe Tours ($45 per person) run multiple times daily and stop at three wineries.

For a customized experience, Sunset Taxi offers private tours of Geneva’s wine country. Rates begin at $50 per hour for a six-passenger minivan.

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