Buckeyed about wine

June 19th, 2008

Aesculus glabra - the Ohio Buckeye Horse Chestnut


A few days ago, Mark Fisher wrote in his blog, Uncorked, about Ohio’s new Quality Wine Program.

This program, sponsored by the Ohio Grape Industries Committee and the Ohio State University Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Viticulture and Enology Program, is intended to elevate the status of Ohio’s wines made from Ohio grapes. There is also more detail here.

Part of this includes creating a “rating system based on industry standards to identify the best estate-grown wines in Ohio”. A mark would be applied to those wines meeting or exceeding the criteria set forth by the program. While I commonly support standardization and certification endeavors, my purpose here is not to defend the practice.

The program requires that wines be made from at least 90% grapes grown in Ohio in order to be considered for the OQW seal program. Since many Ohio producers buy bulk juice from California, this is step in the right direction for achieving regional identity – if not distinction. Additionally, though, these Ohio grapes must be either Vitis vinifera or “select hybrid varieties” to be elligible (see list of grapes grown in Ohio). No labrusca permitted.

Now, here I begin to have a philosophical problem. I spent a couple of years in Columbus, but as a Neurology resident at OSU I hardly had time to venture out into the state’s wine country. So I cannot speak from experience about the quality or character of Ohio-grown Vitis vinifera or V. labrusca wines. They may be laudable or they may be laughable (despite good winemaking in the case of the latter). The question begs asking though: if the Ohio Wine Producers Association wants to distinguish its wines on the global wine scene, would that not be better achieved with labrusca wines?

I recognize that labrusca wines can be less than interesting and indistinct, but then how interesting and distinct are most California Cabernets, Merlots, Syrahs or Chardonnays pumped into millions of cases to be sold at $15 to $20 a bottle? If the story of the wine carries as much (if not more) marketing momentum, then Ohio wine producers should be finding ways to produce and market wines from grape species native to their region. Talk about brand equity you can take to the bank!

Time will tell if the OWPA is slavishly following the pack (or dancing to the tune of one or two pipers). But they are not alone in their amelioration pursuits. Alder Yarrow of Vinography wrote last night about an effort on the part of the South African wine industry to identify and eliminate certain “undesirable” elements in their red wines in the hopes of increasing global appeal (and subsequent sales).

Nobody knows right now how Ohio Pinot noir or Cabernet franc will taste. Let’s presume for a moment that someone, somewhere finds a consistent “undesirable” trait in Ohio wines. Will the Ohioans find themselves in the South African’s shoes in a decade or two? Will they bee seeking to ameliorate their wines through cellar intervention? Will the resulting wines be more appealing globally? Will they be any more pleasing or distinct than the wines made from indigenous varieties? Is the Fingerlakes region shifting towards vinifera species because they are truly superior grapes or because the local producers were just unable to find the right expression or style for their indigenous grapes? Or is it that vinifera species are more popular and the public will pay more for the pedigree?

The South Africans are attempting to tease out terroir from controllable factors. The Ohioans are just now searching for their terroir. But much of terroir is a factor of the grape. So I guess you have to chose the right grape for the site. Sometimes, though, nature has already done that for you.


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4 Responses to “Buckeyed about wine”

  1. EnoGuy Says:

    I imagine by getting this seal they’re thinking that their wines are getting a kind of “Seal of Seriosness” and will be better accepted by the public. With 2,200 acres of vines in the whole state I doubt they’re really looking for global or even national respect, but probably just trying to convice the good people of Ohio that they’re making some palatable wine there. I’m guessing that there are many people in Cleveland and Cincinnati who turn their noses up at Ohio wine because of some sweet labrusca wine they tried in college, and these are the folks they’re targeting.

    I know from personal experience that this is the case with the Finger Lakes. Despite having Rieslings that consistently score highly in wine magazines and are often featured in UK -based Decanter magazine, it’s difficult to sell Finger Lakes wines in Manhattan, mostly because of the “plonky” image Taylor wine or Cold Duck promoted in the 60′s and 70′s. Though, this, forturnately seems like it’s beginning to change.

  2. Arthur Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts, EnoGuy.

    I think I read somewhere in one of those linked articles that the idea is to legitimize Ohio wines in the global market.

    I’d have to re-read those pieces to be 100% certain.

  3. Linda Outterson Says:

    Arthur, I need to make a correction to your article. You have confused the Ohio Wine Producer’s Association (OWPA) with the Ohio Grape Industries Program (OGIP). OWPA is a private professional organization of dues paying members. OGIP is a division of the Ohio Department of Agriculture which is a state sponsored marketing organization. OGIP is most responsible for the effort to quantify quality by disregarding native grapes. As an arm of state government and a representative of Ohio agriculture, it is most disturbing they are legislating product quality based on non-native species. – Linda Outterson, Woodstone Creek Winery & Distillery

  4. Arthur Says:


    You are correct. Thank you.