If you’ve seen the movie Bottle Shock, you’re familiar with the Judgment of Paris. In 1976, French judges blind-tasted both California and French chardonnays and cabernets, assuming the French would win. But it was California that won, causing the international community to start taking American wines seriously and Americans to begin flocking to California’s wine country.
There are some vintners in Ripley, an hour east of Cincinnati, that imagine another instance of Bottle Shock. This one is an Ohio version, where California faces off against our humble state and a Monte Rosso cabernet is compared to a Meranda-Nixon cabernet, a Bien Nacido syrah to a Kinkead Ridge syrah.
Meranda-Nixon? Kinkead Ridge? Most people outside of Cincinnati — and many people in Cincinnati — haven’t even heard of them. But they’re two rapidly-growing vineyards in Ripley, an hour east of Cincinnati, that are producing some of the most refined, complex and sophisticated bottles you’ll find anywhere in the country.
Ask Seth Meranda, co-owner of Meranda-Nixon Winery, if he sees a day when California and Ohio wines will go head-to-head in a Last Judgment of Paris moment, and he says, “Yes, but I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime. If you know how to grow grapes here, you can make unique wine, like California in the ’60s. But it’s going to take more investment in the area and more growers. Right now, we’re revitalizing the area one bottle at a time. Wines have been grown here for centuries and hopefully we’ll keep doing it.“
Meranda’s optimism about Ohio as a premium wine state has a historical basis. It was only 150 years ago that Ohio was the center of the country’s wine production. And of the 570,000 gallons of wine produced by Ohio each year, 200,000 came from Ripley and Brown County.
Most of this can be credited to Nicholas Longworth, widely considered the father of American wine-making, who grew vines stretching from Cincinnati to Ripley in the 1840s and became famous for the sparkling Catawba that he happened upon in 1842. It was famous that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow actually wrote an ode to it with “Ode to Catawba Wine” (“For richest and best/ Is the wine of the West/ That grows by the Beautiful River/ Whose sweet perfume/ Fills all the room/ With a benison on the giver…”)
If you take an hour drive along US 52 east from Cincinnati to Ripley, you’ll still find wine with sweet perfume growing by the river, but you’ll also find plenty of dry, complex varietals. Pull up to the Meranda-Nixon vineyard, and the first thing you’ll see is a modest ranch house. Knocking on the door will feel like knocking on the door of someone’s kitchen, but owner Tina Meranda-Nixon, Seth’s wife, will yell for you to come on in. Once inside, you’ll find a tasting room with murals and communal tables evoking Tuscany and the warm vibe of friends, neighbors and wine lovers who’ve stopped in to say hi and taste the new wine all the locals are talking about — the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve.
I tried it, along with seven others, including a 2008 Estate Catawba (Longworth would have been proud). My reaction? Bottle shock (the good kind). Aged sur-lees style in new American oak barrels, with hints of blackberry jam, hazelnut and butterscotch, the 2007 Cabernet had a richness and depth that rivaled the best California cabs. At $35 a bottle, we thought it was a steal and stole away with a few more, including the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s the Traminette, with its simple tropical flavors and hints of pear and nutmeg, that Tina says is the most popular locally.
Many of these wines had the complexity of California wines — they didn’t fit the “sweet, fruity and superficial” stereotypes that have been pinned on Ohio. Meranda, who comes from a family of tobacco farmers and has a food science degree from Ohio State University, says it’s because Ohio soils are “top of the class and right between glaciated and non-glaciated; they’re diverse.” He says it’s the glaciated factor that gives wine like the 2007 Cabernet its richness and complexity, but it’s also the most difficult to grow here.
“We have to protect the vines in the winter and hill up dirt around the vines. It got to 11 or 12 below last year,” he says.
As I left Meranda-Nixon, somewhat reluctantly, people were filing in for their Saturday dinner — dinner for two for $50, including a $12 bottle of wine, two vegetable sides, a salad and either filet mignon or salmon that you grill yourself. Dinner is served Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Winery hours are 12:30-7 p.m Thursdays, 12:30-8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays. Call 937-392-4654.
Also open on Saturdays during the summer is Kinkead Ridge, a 125-acre farm spilling over with vines, which makes a great first stop on your Ripley wine tour. Tours, a spacious wine room and in-depth conversation about winemaking with owners Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley, who left Oregon to grow wine in Ohio, make it worth a visit.
Not to mention the quality of the wine. Carried by many local Cincinnati restaurants, from Lavomatic to Iron Horse Inn, Kinkead has an excellent local and increasingly national reputation. Its 2005 Syrah was rated one of the Most Exciting and Unusual Finds by Wine Report 2009, and Tom Stevenson, British editor of the New Sothebys Wine Encyclopedia, has written that Kinkead “shows what promise there is in Ohio.”
Kinkead tasting room is open on Saturdays from 11 a.m.to 5 p.m. Call 937-392-6077.
Drinking good wine, or any wine for that matter, makes you hungry. If you’re ready for lunch or dinner, there’s no better place than Ripley’s historic Front Street, once the front line of The Underground Railroad.
Take in the Victorian and Federal-style homes and intimate riverwalk, and stop by for dinner at Ripley’s 20-year-old Cohearts Riverhouse. Here, you can bring your own bottle from the vineyards — there’s no corking fee — and enjoy rustic, homecooked meals like Salmon basted with soy, honey and herbs and Broiled Chicken Breast smothered with onions, mushrooms and cheese. There are also local favorites, like the Zip burger, named for Ripley’s beloved Donald Zipperian.
There’s no place you’ll find a warmer crowd and a better end to a day of Ripley vineyard tripping. Call 937-392-4819.