America’s Island Appellation

Ohio has been getting a lot of attention of late. As a pivotal swing state in the presidential election, both campaigns and a lot of press have been spending a great deal of time in the Buckeye State. Candidates eat hot dogs at fairs and drink beer at VFW halls. But do you think any of them has been shown drinking Ohio wine?

Ohio’s wine history is remarkably varied and, in one case, unique. Ohio has the only island appellation in North America. It is Isle St. George, another name for the island more commonly known as North Bass Island. One of three Bass Islands, North Bass sits off the northern shore of Ohio just inside the imaginary boundary that divvies up Lake Erie between the United States and Canada. Claudio Salvador, winemaker and partner of Firelands Winery, the only winery that grows grapes on the island, doesn’t know why the appellation isn’t called North Bass, but he is certain about what makes it special.

bass island, ohio

bass island, ohio

“Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, so it heats up the fastest,” Salvador says. “The island retains the heat in the fall, while the mainland cools down faster. That gives us a prolonged growing season and a warmer winter.” The longer growing season is particularly beneficial to red grape varieties, which typically struggle to ripen in cooler climates. Salvador says that his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot normally reach 22 to 23 Brix and have gotten as high as 27 Brix in very warm years such as 1999.

In the spring, the “lake effect” minimizes the chance of a late frost, which is not uncommon on the mainland. “Once the water gets up to 45 to 50 degrees the island is protected, even if the mainland temperature drops below freezing,” says vineyard manager Jim Yelensky, who has seen spring frost damage (and slight damage at that) once in the 29 years he has been on the island.

Dr. Imed Dami , Viticulture Specialist with the Ohio Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, agrees with Salvador and Yelensky about the longer growing season and the absence of spring frosts, adding that later bud breaks also help to avoid frost damage. However, he says that “ in winter, the island does not benefit from lake effect as in the Finger Lakes. So vinifera are fair game in the winter.”

It may be that the temperate conditions in Isle St. George (named for England’s King George) are more hospitable to Vinifera varieties than Dami thinks. Or that global warming has altered the playing field. Or that Firelands has been lucky. Whatever the reason (or combination of reasons) Dami acknowledges that “excellent whites (four of five of which are Vinifera) have been made by Claudio from the island.”

While North Bass Island has its advantages, there are downsides. One is isolation. “It’s hard to live there year round,” says Salvador, who employs four of the 11 people who are permanent island residents. Then there is the cost of hauling everything from fertilizer to just-picked grapes by ferry to and from Sandusky on the mainland, where the Firelands’ winery is located. Salvador figures this increases his grape costs 30 to 35 percent.

Ohio’s winemaking history spans more than two centuries, beginning even before Nicholas Longworth, the father of Ohio wine, planted Catawba grapes in the Ohio Valley in 1803. The sturdiness of Catawba and its popularity in light, semi-sweet wines as well as in America’s first sparkling wine, helped to make Ohio the leading wine-producing state by 1860. However, extremely humid conditions in the Ohio Valley led to widespread crop diseases, such as black rot and mildew. Combined with a lack of manpower after the end of the Civil War, this caused the decline of wine making in southern Ohio.

A number of grape growers and winemakers headed north to the shores of Lake Erie to take advantage of the lake effect. The location also made shipping easier along the Great Lakes. Peter and Simon Fox came from another direction, Pelee Island on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. They found wild grapes thriving on North Bass Island and decided that cultivated Labrusca grapes such as, Catawba, Concord and Delaware, would do even better. Catawba emerged as the dominant Labrusca variety and was later joined by French-American hybrids.

Wine production flourished in Ohio between the late 1880s and the onset of Prohibition in 1920.

There were 30 wineries in Sandusky area alone, seven on North Bass Island. However, the recovery of the wine industry in Ohio and on North Bass Island after Prohibition was long and arduous, largely due to competition from California and New York. Both gave more support to grape growing and agricultural research (even during Prohibition) than Ohio did.

The turning point for the modern winemaking era on North Bass Island came in 1976 when Robert Gottesman, CEO of Cleveland-based Paramount Liquors, purchased Meier’s Wine Cellars, the state’s largest winery and owner of 350 acres of vineyards on North Bass Island. Gottesman firmly believed that Vinifera grapes could grow on the island, despite a consensus of opinion to the contrary. To some degree, his confidence was confirmed when Isle St. George was awarded AVA status on August 20, 1982.

In 1984, Gottesman purchased Mantey Winery in Sandusky and renamed it Firelands Winery after the plots of land in this area given to people from Connecticut whose property was burned to the ground by the British in the Revolutionary War. Gottesman hired Salvador to plant the first Vinifera on North Bass Island.

Salvador became a partner in the winery when John Kronberg, a Florida real estate developer bought Firelands in 2003. A native of Italy’s Veneto, Salvador studied viticulture and enology at the University of Padua, then worked for Zonin, which sent him to its Barboursville Winery in Virginia. At Barboursville, Salvador got his first experience in dealing with the vagaries of the wine industry in the eastern half of the United States by cultivating Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Firelands is one of five Ohio wine labels under the Lonz Wineries Inc. umbrella. With all Vinifera wines except one (French-American hybrid Vidal Blanc is used for ice wine), Firelands is the premium brand. Three others, Dover, Lonz and Mantey primarily produce wines from Labrusca grapes grown on the mainland, which falls under the Lake Erie AVA. The Mon Ami label contains a mix of Vinifera and Labrusca wines.

Though the Isle St. George appellation has 695 acres, Firelands controls only 57, which are planted to Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Vidal Blanc. Salvador is reluctant to plant more vines on the island’s remaining 638 acres because Firelands doesn’t own the land—it is leased from the Ohio State Parks Department—and because he is wary of expansion in this economic climate.

Island vineyards have typically been established on soils where the limestone bedrock is near the surface and soils are silt loam to sandy loam. However, Salvador says his vineyard soil is mostly clay, which must be aerated periodically to prevent vine roots from being choked.

Pinot Grigio is the wine for which Firelands is best known, according to Salvador. Indeed, his version could best quite a few from of Italy, some at twice the price. Unlike many thin and insipid imported ones, Firelands’ Pinot Grigio has richness and body, while retaining the variety’s characteristic acidity. A good deal of the substance and complexity comes from fermenting and maturing on the lees.

Despite its popularity in cool climates, Salvador eschews Cabernet Franc in favor of other Bordeaux varietals. “I’m not fond of Cabernet Franc like the rest of Ohio is,” he says. “I consider it to be the ugly cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon.” Salvador plans to pull up his Cabernet Franc grapes this year in favor of Malbec.

In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, Firelands also produces Merlot, its most expensive wine at $13. “People said Merlot would never grow here but I love it,” says Salvador, who adds some Cabernet Sauvignon to his Merlot to make up for its light color. For fans of high-alcohol California fruit bombs, this Merlot may take some getting used to. It is light in body with bright cherry flavors and a crisp acidity typical of cool climate reds. That acidity makes the Merlot a better food wine than most from the Golden State.

The unique terroir of Isle St. George, as well as the Salvador’s penchant for experimentation, create an ideal climate for new varieties. For example, Salvador plans to put in Mueller Thurgau and Manzoni Bianco. The latter is a cross between Pinot Bianco and Riesling that was developed by one of his professors at the University of Padua.

But there are limits to what Salvador can produce on North Bass Island. “People ask me if I can produce Zinfandel and Sangiovese, but even with the lake effect, it’s not warm enough,” he says. “And though the climate is suited to Barbera, it is already too high in acid.”

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