Sunday, October 27, 2013

Stop Number 13: Presque Isle Wine Cellars

Our next stop was Presque Isle Wine Cellars, also in North East, PA.
As you can see from just the sign alone, there's a lot going on at Presque Isle. There are two main places that visitors will want to see- the Isle House, which is where the tasting room is, and the creekside building that has wine and beermaking supplies for sale. The creekside building is close to a small waterfall where visitors can have a picnic- it's very scenic and very peaceful!

It was really crowded in the tasting room when we were at Presque Isle so we didn't get a chance to talk to our tasting server as much as we would have liked to. Regardless of the crowd, however, our experience here was mediocre. The gift shop has the same items most other wineries have, the decor wasn't anything over-the-top impressive like any of the wineries we visited earlier in the day (Mazza, South Shore, Courtyard), and while our tasting server was nice, she didn't seem to know much about wine. I would have liked to know more about the history of Presque Isle too, but she didn't seem to know much about that either.

The wine itself was so-so. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was decent. It had a hint of licorice and cocoa in the flavor but all around it didn't have the bold flavor a Cab should. The 2010 Syrah was similar in the fact that there wasn't a lot to be excited about. There was a little blackberry in the flavor and cherry cola in the finish but it wasn't full of flavor like you'd expect a Syrah to be. The Noiret was my favorite of the reds we tried since it was smooth and mild a Noiret should be, but there wasn't anything notable or overly exciting about it.

The whites we tried were a little better than the reds. The 2011 Chardonnay had a bright citrus flavor and a smooth finish, which would be good to pair with fish or a fresh salad for a summer dinner. The 2012 Gewurtztraminer had too many floral notes for me. A Gewurtz is supposed to have floral notes, yes, but drinking a glass full of fermented flowers wasn't going down easy. The non-vintage Pennsylvania Viognier was the best of the three. It's oaked for six months before it's bottled and has a light body with clear notes of oak in the finish. It reminded me an oaked Chardonnay with a lighter body. This would be a good wine to pair with heavier winter dinners, such as a lobster bisque or any pasta with a creme-based sauce.  This is the bottle that ended up coming home with us.

For those who like sweet wines and fruit wines, there are plenty of them here that we didn't try, so this may be a good place for you! If you don't bring your own picnic, Presque Isle offers small plates to pair with tastings. Be mindful that the prices here are a little on the high side, at least for the wines we tried. If you can't make it out to visit or want to taste a few wines before your trip to North East, Presque Isle's wines are available for purchase in their online store- check it out to see if they can ship to you! 

Overall, Presque Isle Wine Cellars didn't wow us. Presque Isle's scenic setting is very nice. As I mentioned, there are a lot of sweeter wines and fruit selections here; those are more common given the climate of the area. They aren't for The Bear and me, but for those who like sweet wines and fruit wines, this might be a new favorite. The dry selections weren't bad by any means, but they didn't stand out to us as something unique or special. This is a place that any group of wine drinkers can go and everyone can find something that will be suitable for their tastes. If we lived closer, I could see us meeting our coworkers here on a Friday after work like we do at John Christ Winery in Avon Lake, OH; we go mostly for the atmosphere. It might not be a go-to winery for those of us who like dry wines, but it's a decent place with passable options and nice scenery. I wouldn't say this is a must-go for dry drinkers, but it's worth a shot if you're in the area and you can fit it in. 

Next up, we go back to Ohio and visit Markko Vineyard, which is one winery I've been excited to write about since our trip in August. See you soon, enjoy your grapes responsibly! Cheers!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Stop Number Twelve: Courtyard Wineries

After leaving Mazza's sister winery, South Shore Wine Company, we arrived at Courtyard Wineries in North East, PA.
The Bear and I both have SO many nice things to say about Courtyard. This was truly an enjoyable visit from start to finish. We were wowed by just about everything here, from the people to the wine to anything in between.

Courtyard Wineries opened in 2010 and has two separate brands: La Courette, which has Courtyard's dry to semi-dry wines and Barjo Bons, which is comprised of their sweet selections. While having two different brands from one winery isn't a first, the way they were presented was impressive- each brand has it's own tasting bar. The Barjo Bons bar will definitely be the first thing to catch your eye, and not just because it's close to the entrance. It's mostly glass block and lit by color changing neon lights! I couldn't resist taking a video.

The gentleman that we met while we were tasting at Courtyard was such a pleasure to talk with. He was so knowledgable about the wines he was serving, I almost felt like I was in a wine master class. It was clear that he enjoyed talking to us, he could tell how much we appreciate good wine and the hard work that goes into making it.

We felt welcome and comfortable here, and our host was the kind of person that you can meet for the first time and feel like you've know them for life. He even allowed us into the Barrel Room, which he is building by hand- it is remarkable. The handcrafted wooden wine storage area was still under construction while we were there, but it spans more than a full wall of the room. True to it's name, the Barrel Room has large oak barrels full of wine, and getting to see these up close was a first for me so I was pretty thrilled.
The stunning wine storage display in the Barrel Room
I told The Bear to take good notes because I want something like this in our home. A girl can dream...

Courtyard's wines were some of the more impressive ones we had on our trip. Generally we prefer the dry wines, so we spent our visit at the La Courette tasting bar. Overall, the most outstanding aspect of our tasting was that this was the first time the description of the wines matched the taste. Many times we try a wine and we get some of what the notes say it's supposed to taste like, but Courtyard's were spot on.

The Chardonnay was delicious. It's oaked for fourteen months and has the robust flavor an oaked Chard should have, and has a toasted buttery caramel flavor in the finish. This would be a good wine to pair with bold flavored seafood dishes. The Cabernet Sauvignon was another notable selection. There's a vanilla-cherry burst of taste at first, a smooth body, and a rich, velvety finish. If you're having a hearty meat dish, this is the wine for you.

The Noiret really wowed us, me especially. I haven't had a lot of experience with Noirets, but I'm quickly coming to like them. It's a perfect fit for the climate of North East, PA; I really enjoy tasting wines that are made from grapes the vineyard actually grows themselves rather than imports. Courtyard's has a full-but-subtle body and a slightly peppery finish. It would pair well with just about any meal but could also easily hold its own.

We tried the Chardonel, which is a newer grape and isn't very popular in the Ohio/Pennsylvania area yet. Chardonel is very similar to Chardonnay and is another delicious creation out of Cornell University. It's not oaked but the natural acidity of the grape gives the wine a little bit of a bite. It has a apricot-tangerine flavor and a bright finish. This is a little more versatile for food pairings than the Chardonnay since it's more mild and wouldn't overpower more delicately flavored meals. We ended up taking the Noiret and the Chardonel home with us.

We didn't taste the sweet wines, but it should be noted that the shiny, glowing Barjo Bons bar shares the same whimsical air as the names of the wines it serves. With names like Radiance, Dazzle, and First Kiss, I cannot think of a better stage for presenting these vintages.

If you're looking to visit Courtyard, they're open year-round, seven days a week and offer standard and group tastings as well as a Reserved VIP tasting in the Barrel Room. You can find various upcoming events on their website and Facebook page. Courtyard also can help you host a private event at their location or accommodate a group if you're interested in having a party with some good friends.

If you can't make the trip to North East, Courtyard's wines (and some gifts!) can be ordered online. You may also be able to find some of their wines in a store near you. I was pretty jazzed to see a few La Courettes and Barjo Bons in a Pennsylvania wine and spirits store when we were shopping yesterday (October 19)!

Courtyard was far and away one of the more memorable wineries we visited on our trip. Not only was the wine excellent, but it was nice to be able to have a good conversation with someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic. This is another must-go if you're in the area or looking to try something new on a weekend getaway. We both really liked the fact that they separate the sweet and dry varieties by brand and have completely separate tasting bars. Make a reservation for the Barrel Room for your visit, it's worth it just to see the beautiful craftsmanship. You won't be disappointed at Courtyard Wineries and it is well worth the trip.

Next up, we head over to Presque Isle Wine Cellars, so check back soon for another update. Thank you for visiting and enjoy your wine responsibly!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Stop Number Eleven: South Shore Wine Company

Our next stop was the South Shore Wine Company, one of Mazza's sister wineries.
South Shore is one of the most historic wineries in North East, PA, and was established in 1864. Originally, there was a beautiful French-style wine cavern underground and a barn-like building upstairs. Prohibition in the 1920's took it's toll on the wine production- the cellar remained though wine wasn't produced for years- and the above ground facility had been renovated into a party hall.

I'm not sure when exactly South Shore started to produce wine again. I'll be sure to ask on our return visit.

As you enter, you'll immediately notice the beautiful stone on the walls and ceiling, which is the original architecture from 1864. Being below ground level, the cavern has a naturally cool temperature and is somewhat dark- perfect for storing wine. Through a stone archway in the back is the most stunning tasting room I've seen to-date. The breathtaking stonework continues into the tasting room; it's impossible not to be swept away by the distinct, old-world European ambiance. The tasting bar is poured concrete, which fits in perfectly with the stonework that surrounds it.

It is absolutely incredible. We were in awe throughout our visit. I can't even begin to put into words how impressive the craftsmanship is; it is truly a work of art. This is so unique and so beautiful that it is worth seeing even if you have no interest in wine whatsoever.

Being a sister winery of Mazza, we saw a lot of the same wines at South Shore as we did at our previous stop. However, any overlap on the wine list was completely forgivable as it was overshadowed by the gorgeous stonework and craftsmanship in the wine cavern and the tasting room.

As for the wine itself, we again were not let down. The Traminette was well done. If you're not familiar with it, Traminette is a white wine that's generally pretty sweet and similar to a Gewurtztraminer in style. South Shore's was billed as semi-dry and truly was semi-dry, which was not what I expected. There were some floral notes in the taste, a slightly peachy nose, and a little bit of a spicy kick in the finish- the kind that gives you a warm feeling that radiates from the sternum. This is a very unique Traminette and I would recommend it for someone who is transitioning from sweet to dry wines.

The Noiret was a decent, full-bodied red with some berry in the nose and black pepper in the taste. The black pepper was almost reminiscent of a Zinfandel but the overall body was lighter. This would be another good choice for anyone transitioning to dry wines.

The Lemburger was outstanding- so much so that we both ordered our own tastings. This is another wine that boasts a black pepper taste but also has some blackberry, black cherry, and plum notes. I had never tried a wine like this before. For having so many dark, rich, fruity flavors, it's dry and crisp- very food friendly. The finish was smooth for a wine that is oaked for 23 months.

We had a good laugh with our next wine, which was the Bare Bones Red. The Bear ordered it and made me smell it right away. It smelled like Trail Bologna. Then we tasted it and it tasted like Trail Bologna. If you don't know what Trail Bologna is, it's an all-beef bologna product made by Troyer's in Trail, Ohio, that has a very strong garlic and processed meat odor. The Bear loves it. I find it to be particularly offensive and he knows this, so making me try it and getting my reaction was purely for his enjoyment. I had no idea that the very distinct taste and smell of Trail Bologna could be recreated by anything other than Trail Bologna, let alone grapes. I'll let everyone form their own opinion on this one since I clearly still can't get past my first impression of "OMG it's Trail Bologna."

Though I may not have liked this one, it at least gave us a fond and enjoyable memory.

On a lighter note, the Bare Bones White was another wine that totally exceeded our expectations and ended up stealing the show at South Shore. It's a blend of Vidal Blanc, Cayuga White, Traminette, and Riesling. With a blend like that, I fully expected this to be on a Sno-Cone-syrup level of sweetness. I was shocked when I tasted a true, semi-sweet white blend that leans on the dry side of the semi-sweet spectrum. It's bright and crisp with a fruity nose and a clean finish. Bare Bones White goes down smooth, making it a good wine to take with us on our friend's boat on a warm evening after work. This was the bottle we ended up taking home.
We recently uncorked the Bare Bones White to have with chicken and black bean enchiladas that I made for dinner. I had been craving them for a while but the Bear isn't fond of spicy foods at all. I chose the Bare Bones White in hopes that the slight sweetness from the wine would offset any heat from the flavor so it wouldn't be too much for him, but there would still be enough spice that I would like it, too. It worked wonders, we both really enjoyed it.

There is a cafe in the upstairs barn building that we didn't get a chance to see when we were there. They sell paninis, salads, soups, and other small plates that compliment a wine tasting well. There are also plenty more wines that we didn't try, so if you like fruit wines and sweeter wines, you'll certainly find something you like at South Shore. If you're interested in hosting an event, both the hall and the wine cavern are available for booking.

If you can't make it to North East, PA, South Shore's wines can be shipped within the state of Pennsylvania. If you're outside the state, call 814-725-1585 during normal business hours to place an order and see if they can ship to you. The discount rates are 20% on 12 or more bottles and 10% on 6-11 bottles. Some wines, as indicated on their website, are not discountable.

South Shore Wine Company is another must-go if you'll be in the area. To be completely honest, the unique stone craftsmanship is worth a trip on its own. This is architecture and style that you won't find many other places, at least not in the United States. The wine makes it even more worth your while, but even if you're not a big wine drinker, go just to see the facility- you won't be disappointed. It is truly a unique sight to see. We were both blown away by the beautiful cavern; I can't imagine the hard work that went into creating it. Tons of photos can be viewed on Mazza's official Facebook page and I strongly encourage everyone to check them out. Be sure to "like" them to receive updates on special events.

We will definitely be returning to South Shore and I will take pictures to share next time. Like Mazza, South Shore is a winery with good wine, great people, and a gorgeous establishment. Check back soon for the next winery on our list, Courtyard Vineyards in North East, PA. Enjoy your pours responsibly! Cheers!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Crossing the Border for Stop Number Ten: Mazza Vineyards

After a delicious breakfast at Buccia Vineyard, we traveled east to start day two of our trip at Mazza Vineyards in North East, Pennsylvania.
North East, PA, sounds a lot farther away from Ohio than it really is. It's near the northwest corner of the state by the city of Erie, but it's in the northeast corner of Erie county, which is likely how it got its name. So, it's north, and it's east, but not very far east. Go figure, Pennsylvania.

This was a very scenic drive because we could see the Lake Erie shoreline as we traveled and everywhere we looked, there were grapevines. Everywhere. Anyone who owns land, from a small parcel to acres of farmland, grows grapes in North East. You would think there's a city ordinance that mandates it. Fruit growing was part of the economic foundation of the borough and, as it turns out, it still is since one of the largest employers for those living in North East is Welch's. Seeing grapes for miles made the drive to the winery very enjoyable.

Mazza has a beautiful facility. The exterior has a rustic, coastal Italian feel. Just through the entrance is the gift shop which had a lot of unique items for wine lovers as well as shelves full of wines for sale. The girl at the counter, who also assisted us with our tasting, was a pleasure. She greeted us like we were old friends and she knew her stuff when it came to the wines.

Our experience was a lot of fun here. We got there early in the morning and had the whole place to ourselves, so it was easy to learn about the wines and the winery from our server. The Mazza brothers, Robert and Frank, came to the United States from Italy in 1955- a year after their father, an Italian vintner- and established Mazza Vineyards in 1973. One thing we found interesting was that the winery, built by Italian-born winemakers, makes German-style wine because the climate of the area is more supportive of the Germanic production method.

The tasting room is absolutely stunning. The large, open space is reminiscent of contemporary Tuscan style, with tiled floors and a gorgeous, wrap-around lacquered wood bar. Mazza clearly put a lot of money into developing this room but still managed to foster a comforting, relaxing atmosphere. Bravo, Mazza. The craftsmanship is truly breathtaking.

Mazza offers a six tastings for $3.00 deal, which the Bear and I split. I ordered the Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sparkling Riesling. The Chardonnay was a very crisp, lightly acidic, oaked Chard. There's a little butterscotch in the nose and some apple in the taste. The Pinot Grigio was fruity and dry, with some peach and apple notes and a smooth finish. Both of these would pair well with most foods, especially light pastas and fish.

The Sparkling Riesling had my attention immediately because his is the first winery we've been to that has a sparkling option on their tasting menu. There's usually concern about it going flat before finishing the bottle, so I don't blame other wineries for not offering it since there's a definite potential for waste. I'm not sure if Mazza somehow resealed the bottle to keep it fresh or if business is steady enough that they don't have to worry about it, but whatever they did, it worked. I am SO glad we got to try it because it was excellent. It was crisp and bubbly, with the sweet aroma of the Riesling grape in the nose. The bubbles cut the traditionally sweet Riesling taste perfectly- not too bitter, not too sugary- and made the finish light and effortless.

The Bear ordered the Chambourcin, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese. The Chambourcin was pretty good- the Bear liked it more than I did. I liked the plum and cherry nose but there was a little too much smoke in the taste for me. The Cab was decent, but not exceptional. There were hints of berry in the aroma but the taste and finish were average. The Sangiovese was unique with a little bit of pepper and a little bit of tobacco in the taste. The finish is mild even though it's full of bold flavor. It would pair well with flavorful meat dishes, especially ones with a more gamey taste.

In addition to the wines we tasted, there are ice wines, fruit wines, and sweeter, traditionally domestic options like Concord, Niagara, and Pink Catawba.

We purchased the Sparkling Riesling which didn't even make it home because it turned into the mimosas that we enjoyed with our breakfast the next morning.

Mazza Vineyards is a lot bigger than just the winery we visited, which is the original establishment. They have three sister wineries: South Shore Wine Company, also in North East (our next stop), and two Mazza Chautauqua Cellars locations in New York state. Their wines are available in two retail locations in Erie, PA, one in North East, and will soon be available in a retail shop in Pittsburgh. They also ship wines throughout the state of Pennsylvania and to other states as well, depending on the state laws. Call 814-725-8695 or 1-800-796-WINE to place an order and see if they can to ship to you. Orders are not able to be placed online.

If you're looking to stock up your wine cellar before the winter weather hits, there's a 20% discount on purchases of 12 bottles or more and a 10% discount on purchases of 6-11 bottles. To the best of my knowledge, and likely due to state law restrictions, this is unheard of in the state of Ohio.

We need to cross the border more often.

I highly recommend visiting Mazza. The facility is beautiful, the wine is fantastic, and the girl who helped us (whose name I wish I remembered) was great. It's open year-round and tours are available for anyone interested. You can follow their Facebook page for information on special events. The tasting room alone is worth the drive. The craftsmanship is incredible; any description I could write couldn't possibly do it justice.

Mazza is a must-visit if you are, or ever will be, in the area. We both liked it a lot and we'll hopefully be returning shortly.

Check back soon for a review of our next stop, one of Mazza's sister wineries, South Shore Vineyards. As always, enjoy your grapes responsibly! Cheers!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Our Ninth and Final Stop of the Day: Buccia Vineyard

I was spent after leaving Firehouse, so the Bear and I decided to head out to the winery/bed and breakfast we were staying at, our ninth stop and final stop of the day, Buccia Vineyard in Conneaut, Ohio.
Note the nifty Chick-Fil-A shirt the Bear got me for my birthday!
I'll get straight to the point: this place is AWESOME. I've been looking forward to writing it up since the minute we arrived. Simply stated, this is the kind of place to go to have a good time whether you care about wine or not. 

The Bear had stayed here before but this was my first time, so my expectations for the next two nights were based solely on stories he had told me and a few pictures I saw on their website. I knew that a couple named Fred and Joanna Bucci owned and operated it and they're really good people. 

I also knew that I would have to go up a ladder to get to the bed. A waterbed. Yes, you read that right.

This place was mind-blowing for a number of reasons. Here are the top four:

1. Wine tasting is done completely on the honor system. If you're tasting, there's a table outside with bottles of each of Buccia's wines, measured pourers, a sign with the price per tasting, and a jar where you drop your money. If you're staying, Fred will direct you to where the wine is, tell you to help yourself, and that you'll settle the tab when you check out. 

I had never experienced this at a winery before. Relinquishing control and responsibility to guests sounds daring from a business standpoint but establishing this kind of trust between seller and buyer is a total winner. This is one of the things that now has me hooked as a repeat customer. It's easy and relaxed. There was no obligation to try a set amount of wines like the "3/$1.00"-type rates create, which allowed me to try exactly what I wanted; nothing more, nothing less. No one was hounding us for a credit card to start a tab and no one was vigilantly tallying each individual tasting for us, just in case we recently learned how to count without using our fingers. 

This trust made me feel like Fred thought of us as friends, not just as customers. We certainly appreciated being treated like the honest, hardworking adults that we are. It was easy to give more than our fair share to support a friend. 

2. It immediately feels like a home away from home. At some wineries, I've had the same cold, sterile feeling (and experience) I used to have when I went to model homes with my parents years ago: a nicely dressed person is only interested in talking to you because they want to sell you something and everything is nice to look at but don't you dare touch anything

Buccia is the total opposite in every way. No run-of-the-mill sales pitches, no hurrying to get to the next customer, no need to "look the part" of being at a hoity-toity winery, no pressure at all to do anything besides have a good time. This is a relaxed environment that anyone will feel welcome in and everyone will leave feeling like they have a new friend. The first night we were there, we sat outside in some folding chairs like we were at a friend's house for a picnic and shot the breeze with Fred and some other customers while we tasted wine. Fred is the kind of guy you will feel like you've know for years upon meeting him for the first time and wow, does he have the stories. I could have stayed out there all night just listening to all of the fun, sometimes hilarious experiences he's had. 

3. You might pick your own grapes. Sounds kind of crazy but really cool, right? Right. 

No, you're not picking some grapes off a vine and drinking them as wine the same day; Fred is a pretty spectacular guy but even he can't pull that off. However, one Saturday during the harvesting season, anyone and everyone is welcome at Buccia to help pick the grapes. Known as the harvest picnic, this event is held annually at the end of September, and anyone who attends will be paid handsomely in food and fond memories. If you go back in the next few years, you may be able to taste the fruits of your labor- a unique concept I have yet to find elsewhere. 

4. No other bed and breakfast has rooms like this. That's a pretty strong statement. But, I dare you to find another B&B with a hot tub with a partial privacy fence IN the room, a conversation pit, and a lofted waterbed with a ladder. I wanted to save the best for last. We stayed in room number one (of four) and it is incredible because you will not find anything like it anywhere else.
I can't make this stuff up. 

In addition to having sweet accommodations, breakfast was great each morning. We had mini blueberry muffins, bananas and creme, and orange juice on Friday morning and cinnamon rolls in place of the muffins on Saturday. Another nice feature about the rooms is that each has a private patio that overlooks the vineyard and is covered in grape vines, which is where we ate breakfast. 
Saturday's breakfast
As for the wine, it's okay. It's mostly on the sweet side, but that's to be expected since grapes that produce the sweeter wines generally grow well in the area. Buccia's Chambourcin was good with the traditional bite and a burst of almost Zinfandel-like pepper flavor. The Reflections of Lake Erie ended up impressing us both. It reminds me of a Gewurtztraminer-style Riesling. Buccia's Reflections is a well done blend of white grapes with a slightly sweet taste than a semi-dry Riesling and smooth finish. It is very similar to the Piesporter my mom likes to drink, so we got two bottles to take home.
Buccia is a must-go for anyone, regardless of their taste or interest in wine. In addition to the harvest picnic, they host a lot of different evens through the summer and fall like a steak fry and a pig roast. A bread and cheese basket can be ordered on a daily basis if you get hungry during your visit. They also ship wine within the state of Ohio if you're looking to try something before making the trip, just call (440) 593-5976. If you're looking to stay overnight like we did, book your stay as soon as possible because they fill up quickly. With three of the rooms at $80/night and the honeymoon suite at $120, the price is right. All in all, the wine is decent, the company is great, and there will always be some sort of fun whether there's a formal event or not. 

I won't give any spoilers to Fred's stories. I highly encourage you to go hear them yourself. It will be a memorable visit to say the least.

One final note on Buccia- no matter which winery we went to on our trip, if we had the opportunity to speak to an owner or winemaker, we quickly found out that they all know Fred Bucci and have wonderful things to say about him. The experience alone of meeting Fred is worth the drive- he truly is a good person and a grand lover of life. At the very least, you'll leave Buccia with a new friend, and maybe some wine, too.

Go out of your way to come here, you won't be disappointed. 

Up next, we head to Pennsylvania to test some wineries that were new to both of us, starting with Mazza. Check back soon for an update, and remember to enjoy your grapes responsibly! Cheers!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Number Eight: Old Firehouse Winery

After the first attempt at Old Mill Winery, we moved on to Old Firehouse Winery in Geneva-on-the-Lake, OH.
Sorry for the less than stellar picture of the sign. We'll be back to correct that.
If you're looking for a low-key setting to sip wine and relax, Old Firehouse Winery is the place for you.    Located on a beautiful lot on the Lake Erie shore, Firehouse has a tasting room, shop, restaurant, indoor and outdoor seating, and frequently hosts events and live entertainment.

The Bear had taken me here before in the winter, so it was nice to be able to enjoy more of the lovely scenic view Firehouse offers on a warm, late summer day this time. The outdoor setting is gorgeous. The property overlooks Lake Erie and rests on the former grounds of the Erieview Park amusement park, which are now full of enough tables, tents, benches, and green space to comfortably host the entire town of Geneva, their guests, and their guests' guests.

Immediately upon arriving, guests will notice that one of the most iconic rides from Erieview Park still stands- the ferris wheel. Originally built in 1956, it has been relocated, restored, and is now fully operational for nightly rides. Keeping the ferris wheel is a brilliant way to tie in part of Geneva-on-the-Lake's history with what it has become today; the throwback park ride retains and exudes the charm that characterizes the decade which is arguably America's greatest, the 1950's.

Disclaimer: We visited in the afternoon before it started running and (I'm pretty sure) it was undergoing maintenance at the time, so the picture doesn't do it justice. In fact, in the condition it was in at the time- note the three missing cars- no amount of wine would be enough to get me to ride it. But, it's still really cool that they have one, so check it out, even if you're just admiring from a distance.

At this point in the day, I was so hungry I thought my stomach was going to start eating me from inside, so we came here for a late lunch since we couldn't at our previous stop. We sat outside in the gazebo and had it all to ourselves for the most part. The service was fantastic, too. Our waitress was attentive without being overbearing and very helpful. The Bear ordered the fish tacos which were out of this world, and I had a burger with smoked cheddar and bacon on a pretzel bun.

Even if I wasn't as hungry as I was, that burger would have disappeared just as quickly. It was SO good that I've craved it since then. My waistline is thankful that we don't live closer.

We didn't do a lot of wine tasting this time, but we ordered a bottle of Chardonnay with our meals. It was perfectly chilled and very crisp which allowed it to pair well with our foods, even my burger. It had a pretty strong oaked taste with a buttery nose and finish so I would recommend pairing this with very flavorful foods, like the smoked cheddar on my burger. We couldn't finish it while we were there so we had it recorked.
We should have finished the remainder of the bottle it sooner than we did. We were at Firehouse on a Thursday, dragged it around in the car until we came home on Saturday, and drank it a few days later. The second opening of this bottle didn't resemble the first at all because the wine had gone bad. Another lesson learned.

As a heads up, we tried the Chambourcin the previous time we were at Firehouse and there was some concord grape blended in. It tasted like dry Welch's grape juice. It may be different now since it's been almost a year, but beware if you're a Chambourcin lover that you may get a little surprise.

The building that was once known was Geneva's first fire station houses Firehouse's tasting room and shop which, unlike other businesses in the immediate area, are open year round. The store offers some unique gifts for wine lovers, like Old Firehouse Winery shirts, screw pulls, and coasters, among other things.

The tasting room is simple with a historic feel and is very warm and welcoming- this is not a lavish, extravagant setting like you may find in some of the newer wineries. But, one thing that is really cool about the tasting room is that the beams overhead have TONS of patches from different fire stations all across the country brought there by firemen when they visited. A very original, thematic, and well implemented idea.

I would highly recommend Old Firehouse Winery to anyone who loves wine and wants to take in the beautiful scenery. The wine is good, the food is great, and the people are fantastic. If you're looking for some live entertainment, their website has a list of performers that are scheduled in the upcoming months. There are also special events like clam bakes and a Celtic festival held at Firehouse that are worth looking into. Firehouse also is linked to dinner theater presentations at The Landing in Geneva, which is just a short walk away from the winery!

But, if you can't make the trip (which I hope you can), you can order wine from their online store. Firehouse wines are also available at some retail locations if you're looking to go that route.

Firehouse is a must-go for anyone traveling to Geneva-on-the-Lake. Up next will be our review of the lovely Buccia Vineyard, so check back soon for an update!

Enjoy your pours responsibly! Cheers!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Stop Number Seven: Old Mill Winery

Our seventh stop was Old Mill Winery in Geneva, Ohio.

I really don't want to start a post off negatively, so let's discuss the positives about this visit:
1. Their menu looks good.
2. The interior has an old-time, rustic, homey feel.  Very charming.

Sadly, that's it.  This is a hard one to write about.  In (my short career in) blogging and in life, I always try to focus on the best parts of a situation and downplay the bad to the point where whatever it was that left a sour taste in my mouth, no pun intended, is forgivable and my lasting opinion is, at worst, fair, neutral, or indifferent.

That being said, it will be a very cold day for all those people who went to hell for stealing their wine glasses at South River Vineyard before I go back to Old Mill.

This is the only place where we had to stop twice during our trip.  The first time was nothing short of a total disaster and the second wasn't significantly different.  In fact, the only notable difference between the two was that we actually got to taste wine the second visit.

We planned to stop here for a late lunch on the first day of our vacation.  The Bear had eaten here before and he liked it, and he recommended it to friends of ours who said the food was fantastic, so I wanted in on the excitement.  We learned, or at least were reminded of, a few crucial lessons here:
1. The Geneva area has fairly poor cell coverage for mobile internet access.
2. Always, always, ALWAYS check a winery's website before leaving home.
3. The kitchen at a restaurant/winery combo doesn't always share the same hours as the winery.

The slow web access wasn't totally unexpected since the town is one cornfield short of full-blown rural status and I have been in the area before, but I forgot how slow it really is and ended up giving up on my attempt to check them out on the drive there.  I should have stuck with it so that we knew the food service hours differ from their general business hours.  It's not surprising that the kitchen has shorter hours but normally when this happens, it's because it closes prior to the bar closing, not because it opens after the bar; in this case, it's both more days than not.  This practice isn't unheard of, but it is somewhat uncommon, at least in our area.  Be aware of this if you plan to visit for a meal.

This information is clearly stated on Old Mill's homepage and we didn't think to look before we left home, so this was definitely our faux-pas, not theirs.  We will never make this mistake again.

FYI, the hours of operation are:
Monday-Thursday: 3-9, dinner hours: 4-8
Friday: 3-midnight, dinner hours: 4-10
Saturday: noon-midnight, dinner hours: noon-10
Sunday: noon-9, dinner hours: noon-8

Lesson learned.

This was a bummer because I had saved my hunger for this meal, but it isn't the reason the first go-round was less than satisfactory.  The service is what completely annihilated any chance I had of having a good time.

We walked in about twenty minutes after opening and there were no other patrons.  None.  At all.  We saw a girl behind the bar getting things ready and organized to start her shift so we stood there and waited to be greeted.  And waited.  And waited.  There were also two guys who looked like they needed a shower were cooks buzzing around getting the outdoor grill ready and helping this girl move some boxes.  I know they saw us- they walked right by us- but neither of them paid us any attention.  So finally, we said "hi!" and got the girl's attention.  Okay, fine.  She was busy, maybe she didn't hear us, and it's not a cook's job to be a host or waiter, so I let it go.

In hindsight, I'm baffled as to why this prep work wasn't done before they opened for business. Sure, no one else was there besides us, so I can understand doing a little housekeeping if there aren't any/many customers to attend to, but this was pretty involved work and clearly required enough focus and attention that she was oblivious to the fact that someone came in.  Things like this should be done before customers could arrive but, if that cannot be done and it absolutely cannot wait, employees should be a little more discreet and alert.

Also, even though it's not technically a cook's job to greet customers, I have a hard time believing that any member of a crew who takes pride in their work and is proud of the business they work for would think twice about being hospitable toward guests regardless of their designated function.

But, I digress.  Once we had the waitress' attention, we told her we wanted to split a wine tasting.  She showed us to our table outside, gave us a sheet of paper with Old Mill's wines on it, and told us to mark what we wanted.  I think we annoyed her because we asked for a pen or pencil to mark our selections and asked to look at food menus.  She got us a menu, bluntly told us we could taste now but couldn't order food for another forty minutes while she begrudgingly dug up a pen for us, then promptly disappeared.

Just as we did when we first arrived, we waited.  And waited.  And waited.

A good ten minutes had passed with no sign of our waitress and I was starting to turn into a hungry monster.  I had some pretzel sticks in the car so my Bear went inside to ask if he could grab them to hold me over, probably out of fear that I was about to start gnawing my own arm (or his).  She came back with him to the table and said she couldn't allow that, but she could bring some chips and salsa.  I understand that she has to follow company policy and I appreciate the fact that there's a snack option prior to the kitchen opening.  My dissatisfaction doesn't stem from what she said but rather how she said it.

I declined.

I am almost certain the "I really cannot believe the request we made merited the tone you're using" look I gave her scared her away because that was the last time we saw her.  After waiting another fifteen minutes, she didn't come back, so we said forget it before we could even place our order for tastings and moved on.

I didn't want to give up totally on Old Mill because of one bad apple, so on our way home, we gave it another try.  We sat at the bar this time and were greeted fairly quickly. There was a different girl helping us and she had a much better personality, mainly just because she had one.

Unfortunately, we weren't looking to eat this time so I cannot speak to the quality of the food but the menu does look good.  The wines were so-so.  I tried the Chardonnay and it was satisfactory.  It was dry and crisp with a bright, citrus nose that was contrasted by a hint of oak in the taste which nicely darkened the overall flavor.  The wine stopped there, though- the finish was the same as a glass of water.  The Riesling was overly sweet for me and was more similar to a sweet Piesporter than a Riesling.

The Bear had the Cabernet Sauvignon and it was average.  It had a thin taste, didn't have much going on in the finish, lacked the bold flavor of the grape.  The Chambourcin was a winner, though.  This is another Chambourcin with a delicate cherry flavor and a hint of sweetness in the overall dry body.  It goes down easy so it's definitely a silly wine.  This is the one that came home with us.
Our second visit to Old Mill was clearly much better than the first but, when we were ready to pay our bill and purchase our bottle, we again had to wait.  And wait.  And wait.  It turns out that when you sit at the bar, you apparently have to walk to the corner of the counter to be able to get your check and pay because once you're done with your wine, everyone disappears and you will no longer receive service.

I truly apologize that this hasn't been a ringing endorsement.  If anyone is looking to pair live entertainment with their wine, Old Mill has a schedule online as well as a list of special events.  There is a nice outdoor seating area and the interior has a rustic appeal.  This may attract people who aren't visiting to focus on the wine itself.

I don't think I need to write an overall summary of this experience, it's pretty clear how it went.  I was so disappointed that this is how the Old Mill played out.  My expectations were high because of the impressive buzz from our friends but ultimately, I was let down.  This may sound bizarre, but if you haven't been there and you'll be in the area, try it.  It's important to support local business and I would love to be proven wrong.  In fact, I challenge you to change my mind.  If you have a story about a great time at Old Mill, please share it.  If you haven't been there, go and make your best effort to have a completely opposite experience than ours.

Next up will be The Old Firehouse Winery, which is where we ended up eating that day.  Remember to enjoy what you pour, but enjoy responsibly!  Cheers, all!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Number Six: Deer's Leap Winery

The sixth stop on our trip was Deer's Leap Winery and Restaurant in Geneva, Ohio. 

This is truly one of a kind.  It looks like a large, old warehouse and, as you can see in the second picture, there are large piles of some sort of material outside.  We almost passed it!  We were so thrown by the setting and the fact that we almost drove right by that we forgot the get a picture of the sign the first time around, so we stopped a few weeks later for these pictures.

On the side of the building there is a nice, covered area for outdoor seating, which is more reminiscent of wineries we've seen so far.  We walked inside and immediately the atmosphere shouted blue collar.  There is seating for the restaurant inside and all of the tables and chairs looked like they were temporary, like everything there needs to be easily moved or rearranged.  We sat at the bar and looked at the menu, which was an array of average Americanized dishes.  Above the bar, there is a long shelf with popular, brand name beer bottles from end to end.  Past the bar, there's a room in the back where there are bottles of wine available for purchase, a small display of rhinestone wine shirts that most wineries now sell, and birds.  Big, beautiful, exotic birds.

So...Is this supposed to be a hall that can be cleared and rented for events?  Is this a diner?  Is this a beer bar?  Is this actually a winery?  Animal sanctuary?

Deer's Leap frequently hosts live entertainment so I am assuming that is the reason for the makeshift interior.  The bar area was decent and the girl that helped us was nice but didn't offer a whole lot of information on the wines.  The display of beer bottles threw me off a bit.  They aren't a brewery in addition to being a winery so none of the beers were theirs; it looked like the beer selection at Heinen's.  I was under the impression that we were in a bar that happened to make and sell wine and not a winery.

If you're going to Deer's Leap for a meal, you can comfortably bring the whole family.  There's an appetizer menu that, for the most part, reminded me of the menu board at a bowling alley.  The regular menu is meant to appeal to a true cross-section of the country, offering burgers, a reuben, wraps, chicken parmesan, meatloaf, linguini with marinara and meatballs or alfredo and chicken, and $.75 tacos with the purchase of a beverage on Mexi Mondays.  Deer's Leap also has a senior menu for guests 65+, which is an abbreviated version of the lunch menu.

I didn't particularly care for the fact that there was a kids menu because I don't particularly care for kids, especially at wineries, but this may help bring in business if the restaurant is what keeps the winery afloat so I can't fault them.

There wasn't a signature dish of note and the lunch choices seemed more like a collage of the Stouffer's frozen entree case at your local grocery store.  These options are fine because anyone who visits can find something they'll like, but I would have expected those meals to be in addition to foods that follow the winery theme.  Instead, the menu seemed a little out of place at a winery.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to say the winery is the element that is out of place.

The wine wasn't overwhelmingly good.  The Bear had the Cabernet Sauvignon and we both thought it was a little flat tasting and plain.  It was dry like Cab should be, but that was about it.  I ordered the Chardonnay and that was a little better.  It was dry, crisp, and would pair well with most foods.  It didn't have the robust Chardonnay taste that this wine usually has, but it wasn't too mild either.  We ended up taking a bottle home with us.
We opened this bottle recently and I was shocked because wine tasted nothing like what we had on our visit.  This Chardonnay wasn't good on it's own and needed to be paired with strong cheese and crackers to bring it to life.  We ended up having some smoked cheddar and smoked swiss on sesame crackers with this and the smoked cheeses were this wine's saving grace.  The nose smelled like caramels melting on the stove but it had a very abrasive, astringent taste.

My guess is that it had bottle shock from the car ride and didn't have enough time to return to its normal state before we opened it.

Overall, the jury is still out on Deer's Leap.  The atmosphere was interesting to say the least, and the menu fit in better with the bar aspect of the winery than the winery itself.  For some people, that may actually be a big draw- the food prices are great and the restaurant part of the winery seemed more like a place to bring the family for dinner than a winery.  There's also an online store if you're interested in buying some wines but don't want to make the drive to Geneva.  There were a lot of fruit wines that we didn't try when we were there, so if those sound good but you live far away, give online ordering a shot.

But, don't order online today.  The online store is down as of 9/10/2013 at 9:30 AM.  You can call 440.466.1248 during normal business hours: Sunday-Thursday, 12-8, Friday and Saturday, 12-10.

I don't think our experience was a true representation of the winery and it would be better if we could get more information from the tasting servers.  Deer's Leap's website shows a more formal, cozy tasting room.  It might not have been open when we were there but we had no clue it existed until visiting the website to obtain links for this post.  Even if it was closed, it would have been nice to hear about it.  We will definitely go back for a more complete tasting experience and hopefully we'll be able to access to this portion of the winery.

Deer's Leap is, again, one of a kind.  It is so unique that I cannot simply dismiss it even though our first try was less than spectacular and the wine wasn't that good.  It has the same appeal as your favorite local dive bar- the place you want to go back to but can't quite put your finger on why.  It may not be soon, but check back for a second look at Deer's Leap!

Next up on our list is the Old Mill Winery!  Remember to enjoy your wine safely and responsibly!  Cheers, all!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Stop Number Five: There is NO Communion Wine at South River Vineyard

After leaving M Cellars, the Bear and I decided to stop and go to church at South River Vineyard.

South River Vineyard is housed in an old church on South River Road in Geneva, Ohio. Inside, there are a few rows of wooden pews facing each other and stained glass windows all around. There's a veranda on the side of the building and a separate pavilion for a relaxing, outdoor experience overlooking the vineyard. The setting is absolutely beautiful and very quiet; it is perfect for anyone looking for a scenic venue that can help them diffuse and re-energize. I highly encourage everyone to check out the photos on their website because they are stunning.

This was an interesting experience for me. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and though I don't consider myself to be a deeply religious person now, being at South River was almost surreal. I was in an old church, standing by the hard, wooden pews no butt could ever forget, and I was tasting wine that was definitely not communion wine. I felt like such a rebel.

And of course, there's nothing like some good ol' Catholic guilt to bring the experience full-circle.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Grapes, Amen.
Anyone who visits South River has the option to purchase a cheese and bread plate but patrons are allowed to bring small picnics to enjoy with their wine, too.  South River also allows well-behaved dogs on leashes in the pavilion which may be a draw for some; this is the first winery I've seen that openly permits four-legged friends. They do not allow weddings, private parties, or photography, such as senior pictures or engagement photos, which is unfortunate since South River has such a scenic property.  

Tasting flights of any four wines of your choice are available for $6.  The girl at the tasting bar was nice and did a decent job explaining the wines and dividing her attention between us and other customers, but she wasn't the easy-to-talk-to, "spark plug" personality we've found at some of our other, more memorable winery visits. The wine also didn't stand out. We split our tasting and the Bear ordered the Pinot Noir and the Exodus and I had the Chardonnay and the Riesling.  The Pinot Noir was predictable with a light body and silky taste, and it had a hint of cherry that I liked. The Exodus, a Merlot, didn't have the bitter chocolate taste it was supposed to, and I was looking forward to that so I was a little let down. The Bear was less than satisfied with these as well.

The Chard was a good, dry white, but I wasn't particularly wowed. It had a hint of buttery vanilla and it was oaked, but it was lacking the traditional, bold flavor of an oaked Chardonnay. It was crisp, bright, and mild, which would make it a good summer wine, but it wasn't special. This would be a good wine for someone who is starting to transition from sweet to dry wines.  It is good, but it isn't something I fell in love with.

The Riesling was...special. It tasted like grass. I would buy this if I was expecting the Chick-Fil-A Cow as a dinner guest.

It's possible I had a bad tasting, but unless you moo, I would stick with the Chardonnay.

This was the only winery on our trip from which we did not purchase a bottle. We did get a souvenir logo glass, though!
South River's wine can be shipped by the case throughout the state of Ohio as well as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. If you are interested in ordering a case, call 440.466.6676; they are not available for sale online through their website. South River is the first that I have come across so far to be able to ship across state lines. I will do further research into the state of Ohio's laws to see why some wineries are limited as to where they can ship and some are not.

Overall, our experience at South River was decent but this is a winery we aren't itching to go back to soon. The wine didn't stand out, the people didn't stand out, so we weren't head over heels thrilled. The wines aren't bad by any means (with the exception of the Riesling), they just aren't for us. South River prides itself on being a quiet place to sip wine and it was exactly that- maybe even a little too quiet for me. Undoubtedly, the affect of the church setting subconsciously influences the demeanor of their guests.

My impression is that South River would be a good choice for a gathering where you'll be making your own fun and want a pretty place to go- like a low-key girl's night out or a romantic picnic for dog lovers- and the wine will be supplementary to, rather than the focus of, your visit.

It's always possible that we may have come on a bad day, so if you haven't been to South River and you'll be in the area, stop by- it's certainly worth a try. Or, if you have been to South River and had a better experience than we did, please share it- we would love to hear a story that can make us reconsider a second visit!

As always, remember to imbibe responsibly, regardless of what's in your glass! Check back soon for our next stop, Deer's Leap! Cheers, all!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Our Fourth Stop: M Cellars

After leaving the Virant Family Winery, our next stop was M Cellars in Geneva, OH.
M Cellars' facility is gorgeous.  The last time we were in the Geneva area was in late 2012 when the finishing touches were being applied and I'm glad we were able to see the finished product.

Unfortunately, it was pretty crowded when we were there.  Owners Matt and Tara Meineke were the only two people we saw behind the tasting bar, so we didn't have the opportunity to hear any history behind M Cellars or their wines.  In their defense, one of the tour busses from a Geneva-on-the-Lake resort had pulled up just before we got there and they were suddenly inundated with customers.

Their website provides a little more background and owner/winemaker Matt Meineke gives a brief synopsis on how he got into the wine business.  In short, Mr. Meineke went from making wine in his home to purchasing 12.6 acres land,  patiently preparing the soil, planting 10 acres of grapes, and finally producing and selling wine in the extravagant venue that is M Cellars.

This dream was years in the making for the Meinekes; their first crop of grapes, Pinot Noir and Riesling, were planted in spring 2008- at least a year after acquiring the land and cultivating it for planting.  M Cellars opened in November 2012.

I never realized how long it took to start a vineyard and winery from scratch.  Winemaking is clearly a patient person's art, therefore I will stick to consumption rather than production.

The crowd made it difficult to spend as much time there as we would have liked.  Mrs. Meineke assisted us with our tastings and she was very nice; I wish we could have talked with her more.  We only tried a couple of wines and found the Noiret (pronounced nuh-ray) to be notable.  It has a hint of green and black pepper, full body, and decent finish.  This is a decent dry red and would be easy to pair with a boldly flavored main course.

I hadn't heard much about this type of wine prior to our visit, so I did some research and found that the Noiret grape is fairly new.  It is a hybrid developed by Cornell University researchers and was released in July 2006.  Noiret grows well in New York, which has similar growing conditions to Ohio, so wine drinkers in the area will probably see even more of it in coming years.  We ended up purchasing a bottle and I look forward to revisiting this once we uncork it.
2012 Lake Erie Noiret
M Cellars' wines are available online with a 10% discount on orders of 12 bottles or more (minimum order of 2 bottles) and can only ship within Ohio.  There are non-wine items in their online store that can be shipped outside the state.  If you're interested in making the trip to Geneva, their website also covers their daily menu and promotes events hosted at the winery, including live entertainment, if you're looking for that to be part of your experience.  You will also want to bookmark their Facebook page, as it has even more up to date event information.  M Cellars is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 12-6 and Fridays and Saturdays from 12-8.

Visitors should be aware that M Cellars wines are a slightly pricier than other wineries in the area; bottles start $15.92 each.  Also, if you are hard of hearing or sensitive to loud sounds, I recommend going when they are not very crowded- maybe a weekday and/or shortly after they open for business- because there is very little sound-deadening material in the facility.

I would like to give M Cellars another shot but the Bear was underwhelmed so it may be a while before we return.  The two most memorable things from this visit, aside from the crowd, were the lovely family pictures of the Meinekes on the tasting bar and their women's restroom because it was really, really clean.  Both of those things are great, but I will remain optimistic that the next time we're there, the actual wine experience will stick with me more.

Check back soon for our next stop, South River Vineyard!  As always, enjoy what you pour, but please drink responsibly.  Cheers, all!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Third Stop: Virant Family Winery

Our next stop on our customized tour of the Ohio Vines and Wines trail was the Virant Family Winery in Geneva, OH.  I visited their website on the (very short) drive from Chalet Debonné to check their hours and their homepage proudly states "Come see us soon.  After all, you'll be treated like family!"

That statement couldn't be more spot-on.

Before we arrived, Virant's website had already made the winery stand out above the rest because it is the first site I have seen to promote the use of Be My DD.  Be My DD is a service through which anyone can reserve a driver for safe transportation to and/or from a party, winery, bar, etc.  This speaks volumes as to how much the Virant family cares for their customers.  

I was impressed and we weren't even there yet.

We drove up a narrow road to find a quaint, moderately sized brick building surrounded by row upon row of beautiful, healthy grape vines.  They opened at 2 and we got there a little early, but that didn't seem to matter much as we were welcomed in.  The interior reminded me of an American Legion hall; everything was basic and sufficient.  My immediate impression was that this is a business run by a hardworking, down-to-Earth family who does what they love and loves what they do- the quintessential American Dream.

The Virant Family Winery not only sells wine, they also host private parties, showers, and have a scenic outdoor venue for weddings that overlooks the vineyard.  They have an everyday menu anyone can order from while tasting, which includes a cheese plate, burgers, chicken breasts, fries, and a few other fun, picnic-type items.  We were also invited back on any Friday or Saturday night from 5-9 p.m., year round, for their steak and prime rib dinners.  

Everyone was so warm and welcoming, I felt like we were being invited to a friend's house for a cookout.

All of the individuals we met at Virant were kind, attentive, and very easy to talk to, especially the sweet older gentleman who was decked out in his bib overalls.  The Bear was given the gift of gab and he lights up when he has the opportunity to socialize with our local vintners, which warms my heart.  Watching him enjoy himself so much was my most memorable part of our visit and we could have stayed there all day if we weren't determined to see so many other wineries.

As for the wine, Virant offers quite a few sweet wines and fruit wines with a couple of dry offerings.  I tried the Riesling and the Bear had the Midnight Chambourcin.  The Riesling had a refreshing nose with a bit of an apple taste.  This was well done for a semi-dry wine, the finish was very smooth and crisp.  This is the kind of wine we call a boat wine- one we would take out on our friend's boat after work on a hot summer Friday evening because it's cold and it goes down easy.

The Midnight Chambourcin was an excellent dry red.  There was a hint of plum in the nose and taste, the wine had a full body, and the finish was surprisingly smooth.  The plum notes made this Chambourcin stand out from others we have tried.  This would be a good wine to have with Virant's Friday and Saturday steak and prime rib dinners!  The Chambourcin ended up being the bottle that came home with us.
The majority of Virant's wines were a little sweeter than what we generally prefer but there are drier options available, such as the Chambourcin and the Riesling.  Wines by the bottle and special orders can be placed over the phone at 440.466.6279 and shipped within the state of Ohio.  If you're interested in attending the steak and prime rib dinner or hosting a private party, reservations and arrangements can be made at the same telephone number.  Virant's wines can be purchased online by the case at a 15% discount.  

While online and telephone ordering is convenient, I highly recommend making the trip to Geneva to the Virant Family Winery.  One of the most exciting and interesting aspects of visiting wineries isn't the wine itself, it's getting to know the people who work there.  In our experience, the ability to do this is the biggest difference between wineries that sell entertainment and aesthetics and wineries that sell their passion.  Without question, the Virant Family Winery is an establishment built on passion; the pride they take in their work is reflected in the quality of their wines as well as the quality of their people.  Experiencing the genuine kindness and hospitality of the Virant family is well worth the drive.  They are an absolute joy to spend time with and you will indeed be treated like family.

Thank you for reading!  Next up will be our review of M Cellars and South River Vineyard, so check back soon!  Please remember to consume alcoholic beverages responsibly.  Cheers, all!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Next Stop: Chalet Debonné Vineyard

The next winery on our list was Chalet Debonné Vineyards, just a short drive from our first stop, Grand River Cellars, in Madison, OH.

Like Grand River, Debonné boasts a restaurant, indoor and outdoor seating, live entertainment, a gift shop, and a tasting bar.  Debonné also sells wine for charity; an undisclosed portion of the proceeds from each bottle of Pour Donner sold goes toward People In Need, Inc., of Delaware County, Ohio.

Chalet Debonné is unique in that they make their own beer at Cellar Rats Brewery.  This on-site brewery and beer tasting room adds an interesting dynamic that is perfect for couples comprised of one wine drinker and one beer drinker- everyone wins!  I rarely drink beer anymore and I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen the Bear with a brew since I've known him, so we can't speak to the quality of their beer but, in theory, this is a strategic business move to help broaden Debonné's customer base.

A few other notable things Chalet Debonné has to offer include party rentals of various parts of the winery such as their outdoor pavilion and gazebo, events such as jazz festivals, hot air balloons, classic car shows, and personalized wine labels which are perfect for a special occasion.

If you're a shopper or looking for a present for a wine lover, Debonné's gift shop is also more diverse than other wineries.  One thing I have learned from visiting quite a few places is that many will carry the same kitschy items as the rest, and Debonné has some of that, but they also have a lot of unique items we had not seen before.  For example, that is where I purchased this nifty apron!

As for the actual wine experience, the Bear and I had been here together previously so we had an idea of what to expect.  We knew that this winery is heavily invested in the entertainment aspect of the wine business, which generally means a greater menu of sweeter wines, larger crowds, and less opportunities to talk to the tasting staff about the wines.

This experience was no exception.  But, at least we knew what was coming, which helped soften the blow.

The tasting bar was crowded but we managed to find two seats.  It took a minute to get service, which wasn't surprising, and we ended up splitting a dry tasting tray.  The dry varietals tray consists of á Cab, Chambourcin, a Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, a Pinot Noir/Syrah blend, Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay Reserve, and their standard Chardonnay.  There was no souvenir wine glass included with this one, which was kind of a bummer.

One thing to keep in mind while tasting at Chalet Debonné is that Debonné's owner, Tony Debevc, is also in charge of wine production at Grand River Cellars.  If you go to both, you will notice some of the wines are almost identical, just with different names (and prices).

Starting with the reds, the á Cab is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chambourcin.  It is aged in oak and has some bell pepper in the nose and is a full bodied wine that would require a bold main dish if it were to be paired with food.  The Cab/Cab blend is forgettable. The Cabernet Franc almost diluted the Cabernet Sauvignon, and there is some Syrah in the blend as well.  It is very bright and light tasting for a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon and is relatively disappointing.

The Chambourcin has some black cherry in the taste and it is pretty tasty for a Chambourcin, which is traditionally a wine that will get you silly without even knowing it.  Though it generally has a higher alcohol content, this Chambourcin isn't too dry, and the black cherry isn't too sweet.  This is one I would go back to try again.  The Pinot Noir/Syrah blend is very interesting, with notes of vanilla and coffee in the taste and a remarkable finish for a red.  The typical acidic, dry feeling that reds leave in the mouth is absent, which was refreshing.

Moving on to the whites, the Chardonnay Reserve is an oaked Chard that wasn't quite what we had expected.  I like to be able to taste the oak and the Bear prefers oaked wines that taste like you're drinking the tree itself and neither of us feel this is up to par.  Aging Chardonnay in oak usually gives it a more robust flavor but this is flat tasting and unexciting.  The Pinot Gris has a little of the hazelnut flavor from its description, but I didn't get any apple, floral notes, etc., that it supposedly has.  The Pinot Gris also qualifies as flat, I would even go as far as boring.

The standard Chardonnay is a 2010 that had a bold, crisp apple flavor that popped as we drank it. For being aged in stainless steel, I am impressed.  This is a perfect wine to pair with a mild-flavored meal but also good to enjoy on its own.  The apple flavor is very fall-like and this, like Grand River's Chardonnay, would also be a good autumn wine.  Keep in mind, Grand River's wine production is at the hand of Debonné's owner, which is likely why the stainless steel Chardonnay at each winery tastes nearly identical.

The Pinot Grigio is a 2012 vintage that outshined the rest of the wines we tried here.  It is slightly (very slightly) sweeter than a normal dry Pinot Grigio, but it is smooth from start to finish.  It would be a great wine to pair with any food or to enjoy outside on a warm evening while watching the sunset.  It had a crisp, refreshing apple taste and a little bit of caramel in the nose.

We ended up taking the 2010 Chardonnay and the 2012 Pinot Grigio home.
2010 Stainless Steel Chardonnay

2012 Pinot Grigio
We were both surprised by Debonné's wines this time around.  The 2012 Pinot Grigio and the 2010 Chardonnay are definitely winners, as is the Chambourcin.  There are also plenty of sweet wines that we didn't try, so if you or someone you know is looking for something on the sweeter side, Debonné may be a good choice.  Also, they're reasonably priced which is helpful for any wine drinker on a budget.

Be aware that Debonné will be crowded more often than not, which makes it difficult to get any wine education from the tasting servers.  If you're curious about these wines but don't want to or can't make the trip to Madison, some Debonné wines are available at local grocers, liquor stores, convenient stores, or drugstores.  Debonné's website also has an eShop available and can ship wine anywhere in the state of Ohio, or wine can be ordered by calling 1.800.424.WINE.

Thank you for visiting!  Up next will be our journey to the wineries down South River Road.  As always, enjoy the wine (or other drink of choice), but please do so responsibly.  Cheers!