With threats of urban sprawl increasingly jeopardizing the livelihood of Ohio's 150-year winegrowing tradition, wine-industry leaders in northeast Ohio have launched a grassroots preservation program for the area's vineyards. The program, called One for the Grape, hopes to leverage the support of tourists by enlisting the help of local wineries, bed and breakfasts and other businesses to collect a voluntary $1 (or more) donation from customers with each purchase. Money raised will support vineyard-protection programs, including subsidizing new vines and leveraging short-term land easements, as well as assist growers with maintenance costs like wind machines and workforce training.
"When I was a kid, we would drive out to my grandfather's farm along Lake Erie, and you'd see acres of grapevines along the way. Now, you're more likely to see condos," said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. "It's too late for the northwest shores of Lake Erie, but we're hoping we can still save vineyards along the eastern coast."
All donations to the One for the Grape program will be put in a trust, with a five-member board made up of local industry professionals controlling the funds. Currently, four winemakers and one winery operations manager occupy the seats, including Nick Ferrante of Ferrante winery (Harpersfield), Sam Fagnilli of the Lakehouse Inn (Geneva-on-the-Lake), Art Pietrzyk of St. Joseph Vineyard (Thompson), Rod Becker of Laurello Vineyards (Geneva) and Cindy Lindberg of Grand River Cellars (Madison).
Ohio ranks eighth among the states in terms of grape tonnage, according to USDA figures. But its small size hasn't shielded Ohio from the same battles fought by bigger regions with a nice view--namely the high cost of maintaining vineyards on valuable land. In the early 1900s, about 32,000 acres of vineyards covered Ohio's farmlands. Today, Ohio vineyards have dwindled to just over 2,000 acres.
"It's tough to be a small farmer here," said Maurine Orndorff, the agricultural programs technician for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District. Size and location are the major reasons why wineries have a difficult time getting state funding, she explained. Seventy-year-old Ferrante winery in Harpersfield Township, for example, has 35 acres of vineyards only 60 miles east of Cleveland and 5 miles south of Lake Erie's eastern shores.
"We have good soil here," said Nick Ferrante, who with his siblings owns Ferrante winery, where they make Riesling, Pinot Grigio and other varietals. "And we're protected by the lake."
Still, the potential success of this program doesn't insulate Ohio winemakers from bigger problems down the road. They hope to avoid problems that have plagued their colleagues in more established regions such as the Santa Cruz Mountains and Long Island's North Fork, where six- and seven-figure land prices make the economics of owning a winery palatable only to those who put stewardship before profit.
"I respect what these growers are trying to achieve," said Marty Mathis, winemaker for Kathryn Kennedy in Saratoga, Calif., noting that his mother, Kathryn, was part of a group with a similar commitment to agriculture during the pre-Silicon Valley days. "But the amount of money it takes to survive in this valley is so far beyond the realm of a project like this. When my mother's land becomes an inheritance issue, the tax liabilities alone will force us to sell."
New York, on the other hand, has been extremely progressive in accumulating preservation funding, but local politics often deter wineries and growers from applying for it, explained Joe Gergela, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. Gergela doesn't rule out that a consumer campaign like Ohio's could help the troubled region down the road. "We need creative ways to get every dollar possible," he said.
Just a few weeks old, Ohio's program is already gaining local support, with a few area businesses adding incentives like free lodging or meals for people who donate $100 or more. Participation is expected to grow even more when the program is publicized at Vintage Ohio, the industry's annual wine festival, held Aug. 3 and 4. In its 13th year, the festival is expected to draw more than 40,000 guests.
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