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aerial of Debonne Vineyards in Madison Ohio

Wineries with Deep Roots

Ohio offers a variety of vintage destinations.

Debonné Vineyards in Madison

Wineries with Deep Roots

By Damaine Vonada

Posted On: Jun 7, 2022

New wineries seem to open every year in Ohio, but the state's thriving wine industry has been decades in the making. And it owes much of its success to pioneering families who planted and tended vines, pursued the art of making wine, and invited people to savor the fruits of their labor. Generations later, these legacy wineries are still operated by the same families and have bloomed into popular destinations. 

old photo of Gustav Heineman and family of Heineman Winery at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Ohio
Photo courtesy of  Heineman's Winery

In 1888, Heineman's Winery founder Gustav Heineman started a winery on South Bass Island because good soil and a long growing season make Ohio's Lake Erie islands ideal for growing grapes. Today, family photos – including a vintage one of Gustav, his wife Fanny, and their children – displayed in the tasting room reveal that he founded a dynasty as well as a winery. The Heinemans have been cultivating native grapes and turning them into wine for five generations.

"We're the oldest family-owned and operated winery in Ohio and one of the oldest in the nation," says business manager Dustin Heineman. His father, head winemaker Ed Heineman, is especially proud of the platinum medal his Sauterne won at the Great American International Wine Competition.  "Sauterne was my dad Louie's favorite wine," says Ed, "so its label shows him in our old wine cellar."

rows of wine bottles from Heinemans Winery in Put in Bay Ohio

While the Heinemans have produced their best-selling Pink Catawba wine for 50 years, they also offer unfermented grape juice that families often enjoy in the winery's tree-shaded Wine Garden.  In fact, selling grape juice and giving tours of the winery's famous Crystal Cave helped Heineman's survive Prohibition. Gustav discovered Crystal Cave while digging a well in 1897, and now this natural wonder – it's the world’s largest geode! – is a quintessential South Bass Island visitor experience.    

Breitenbach Wine Cellars in Ohio

Tucked among the gentle hills of Ohio's Amish Country, Breitenbach Wine Cellars dates to 1980, when Duke Bixler and his wife Cynthia opened a country store near Dover. The Bixlers initially specialized in Amish-made meats and cheese, but soon branched into making fruit wines that they labeled Breitenbach – a German word for "bright stream" – because of their property's pretty creek. 

Breitenbach VPs Anita Davis (L) and Jennifer Kohler ( R) with Jennifer’s dog Bruno
Breitenbach VPs Anita Davis (L) and Jennifer Kohler ( R) with Jennifer's dog Bruno

Their daughters, Anita Davis and Jennifer Kohler, grew up working alongside their parents. Nowadays, they run the winery with help from husbands and children who do everything from making wine to cooking chicken and ribs during BBQs on the winery's patio. "We've won international awards for our wines and produce about 200,000 gallons per year," notes Anita, "yet we still sell most of our wine from our store in the country."

Accented by gargoyles and painted vivid purple and salmon, Breitenbach's European-inspired buildings include a café and tasting room for sampling its 40+ different wines. The selection ranges from Merlot to Blackberry, but Breitenbach's signature wine is Dandelion. Made from young dandelion flowers, it perfectly complements the dandelion delicacies – think sausage, bread, and even ice cream – available during the winery's popular Dandelion May Festival.

Lee Klingshirn of Klingshirn Wine in Ohio
Winemaker Lee Klingshirn

Klingshirn Winery in Avon Lake boasts Concord vines planted in 1920, but Albert Klingshirn didn't start making wine in the basement of his farmhouse until Prohibition had ended. Albert soon built a small winery beside his home, and in the 1970s, his son Allan expanded both the winery and its product line. Then Allan's son Lee, who earned a viticulture and enology degree from The Ohio State University in 1986, became the vintner. He currently operates the winery with his wife Nancy.

Since Lee has preserved the winery's original farmstead character, there's no tasting room. "We just have a little stand-up bar where people sample our wines," says Lee, "but everyone's welcome to bring their own food and picnic under the big trees my grandparents planted."

three bottles of wine from Klingshirn winery in ohio

Using grapes that he grows or sources locally, Lee produces varietals – including Riesling and Vidal Blanc – as well as blended wines such as Home Run Red, a unique combination of Cabernet Franc, Marquette, and Corot Noir grapes. "Home Run Red," he explains, "is a dry wine with a complex flavor profile that I crafted over five years."   

Nick Ferrante winemaker for Ferrante winery in Ohio

For Nick Ferrante of Ferrante Winery & Ristorante near Geneva, the pandemic closures were an opportunity to develop new wines like Mom's Cherry Pie and Mom's Apple Pie Riesling. "I blended four different cherry flavors to create the Cherry Pie wine. And for the Apple Pie wine, I accented Riesling's natural apple flavor with cinnamon and caramel," says Nick. 

The Ferrante family's winemaking heritage originated in 1937, when Nick's Italian immigrant grandparents opened a small winery in Cleveland. His parents, Peter and Josephine Ferrante, later moved the winery to the family's 50-acre vineyard in Ashtabula County's Grand River Valley, where Nick and four of his siblings – Anthony, Carmel, Mary Jo, and Lisa – now oversee one of Ohio's foremost estate wineries and its full-service Italian restaurant

Flanked by picture-perfect rows of vinifera grapes, their winery houses ultramodern equipment, yet has the traditional look and appeal of an Italian villa. In the tasting room, guests gather by the fireplace to sip Nick's award-winning Golden Bunches Riesling, Pinot Grigio, or Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, and in the Ristorante, they feast on meatballs, spaghetti, and lasagna made from Mama Josephine's recipes. "When you come here," declares Nick, "we want you to feel like family."

sign for Markko Vineyard and Winery in Ohio

In a wooded setting near the lakeside town of Conneaut, Markko Vineyard and Winery reflects the late Arnie Esterer's commitment to cultivating European vinifera grapes in northeast Ohio. Something of a Renaissance man, Esterer was an industrial engineer and avid opera singer whose passion for producing fine wine put him at the avant-garde of growing Pinot and Riesling grapes in the late 1960s. "My father," says Paul Esterer, "was both a scientist and an artist, and that's what it takes to be a great winemaker."

Markko Winery co-owner Paul Esterer
Co-owner Paul Esterer

Paul's sibling David and his wife Lisa operate the estate winery where they were raised with help from siblings Andy and Katherine as well. They goal is to maintain its legendary reputation by serving Markko classics such as oak barrel-aged Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Riesling, but enhance the visitor experience with food trucks, live entertainment, a new outdoor tasting deck, and specialty foods like Markko Wine Gouda - a farmstead cheese made with skins from the winery's Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. "All of our wines," notes Paul, "are Old World-style and meant to be enjoyed with food."

A Slovenian flag hanging in the tasting room at Debonné Vineyards is a subtle salute to Anton Debevc, a teenager who fled war-ravaged Europe in 1914 and managed to purchase a fruit farm near Madison. Here, his grapes and homemade wine laid the foundation for what is now Ohio's biggest estate winery. "We have more than 170 acres of grapes," says Anton's grandson, Tony Debevc, "and are not only the state's largest grape grower, but also its largest vinifera grape grower."

owners Tony and Beth Debevc of debonne winery in ohio
Owners Tony and Beth Debevc

Tony and his parents – Tony, Sr., and Rose – built Debonné's first winemaking facility and opened a chalet-like tasting room in 1972. And after Tony's 1992 Grand River Riesling won Best White Wine in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, their vinifera wines exploded in popularity. Today, Tony and his wife Beth supervise the bustling winery, while their son Anthony runs its onsite microbrewery, Double Wing Brewing Co. Tony's repertoire of wines ranges from an Un-oaked Chardonnay to a bourbon-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, but in homage to his father, he still makes the fruity Niagara wine – Chairman's White – that Tony. Sr. liked to drink. 

The deep roots of Ohio's wineries are filled with notes of legacy in each - and every - glass. 

For more Ohio wineries and ways to explore the Inviting Region of Wine Country, check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org.

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