RIPLEY, OHIO – The leaves and temperatures are falling in mid-October, and red grapes varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon are ripe for the picking.
Sticky-fingered workers sift through this year’s crop, harvesting the perfect grapes and ditching any with imperfections. Bees hover around, waiting to feast on the unwanted fruit. Let them have it, they say at Kinkead Ridge Vineyard — only the best grapes will make it to the bottle.
Strong vines grow up and down the ridges of Kinkead’s humble plot of land in Ripley, Ohio. Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley, proprietors of the vineyard, tend to the vigor of these plants with care and immense knowledge. The fall harvest is a stressful and labor-heavy endeavor. Each vine is rifled through and picked by hand. Year after year a trusty crew helps the former Oregonian vintners gather a crop that produces what many consider to be the best wine in Ohio.
The disastrous drought that battered soy and corn crops across the Midwest didn’t hurt grape growers like Barrett and Bentley. On the contrary, dry conditions are a good thing for grapes.
“The drought was not an issue because grapes like to be stressed,” Bentley says. “The roots are as deep as the vines are tall, usually … so they can find water. The thing with the drought is that you get smaller berries and higher sugar concentration, and less tonnage, that translates to less wine but higher alcohol wines.”
So overall, she says, “It’s good to make grapes suffer.”
But nearby vineyards did not entirely escape the perils of the seasons. A frost in late April caused a fair amount of damage, so much so it’s difficult to predict whether this will be a good year for growers and, ultimately, Ohio wine.
Global statistics and trade reviews attempt to quantify the situation by showing declines in overall yield, but without context, the numbers have little value. The reality on the ground is diverse and largely dependent on location.
“All we know is what our production is; good years and bad years based on many factors,” Bentley says.
“The terroir is what it is.”
Barrett grew grapes in the Oregon’s Willamette River Valley for a decade before moving to southern Ohio 11 years ago for a new challenge. He and Bentley researched areas like Walla Walla, the Finger Lakes region, southern Oregon and Paso Robles before settling here. Those areas are known to be classic viticultural areas, but the region surrounding Cincinnati has a rich wine history, too.
The first grapes were planted in the Ohio River Valley in 1823.
Over the next 40 years the Catawba grape variety became very popular in the valley. During the height of its production, Brown County produced more than 200,000 barrels of wine annually.
Unfortunately, Prohibition and the Catawba’s reputation of being a simple, overly sweet grape led to the end for most of southern Ohio’s viticultural legacy after the 20th century. But a few vineyards carry on.
Kinkead Ridge in Ripley, Ohio, and the rest of their specific region of the Ohio River Valley appellation have a limestone soil that’s covered by well-drained calcareous clay. Clay is what gives the wines of the region their acidity and character. The right amount of rainfall percolates through the clay cover, creating flavorful grapes. Each unique parcel of land and the weather it deals with puts a signature in the bottles of wine produced. The French call this distinctive character “terroir,” meaning “land.”
Too much rain, however, leaches nutrients from the soil and leads to bad wine. On a recent ominous, cloudy day the threat of downpour from the onslaught of Hurricane Isaac was the talk of the vineyard. Fortunately, the rain did minimal damage. But the effect of too much rain or too little rain is one of the fine lines that Kinkead’s crops teeter upon year after year.
“The problem with rain, especially close to harvest, is that it will plump up the fruit and it will lose its complexity,” Bentley says. “It kicks off multiple fungal diseases. They’re more fungal diseases than I can describe here.”
Steve Pierce, a former electrical engineer who’s been growing wine in the Ohio River Valley for more than six years, first attempted to grow his grapes organically. It was tough. After trying every organically certified fertilizer and pest control method possible, he couldn't overcome the black rot that pervades the region. He fell back on commercial synthetic fungicides.
“It’s quite an investment,” Pierce says. “It’s not something you lightly get into. Red grapes take five years to mature.”
Although this year’s drought was a huge problem for many farmers, grape growers were more concerned with the April frost. Such a frost is typically a death knell for budding grapes. Even those who take precautionary measures cannot avoid a calamity.
Kinkead grows a diverse variety of grapes, which helps defend against an entire harvest being decimated.
Bentley, speaking about Kinkead Vineyard’s trials this spring, commented, “The red’s take longer to bud out. The whites were out a few inches when we got the frost. We didn’t have as [as much fruit] as we would have liked — in the whites particularly. If the shoots get damaged, you’ll lose the primary crop.”
Surprisingly, the April frost didn't affect Pierce’s crops.
“My vineyard is on a 33 percent grade,” he says. “What happens is, the frost hits and the cold air flows downhill and it doesn't affect me.
"It’s so subject to the weather … Mother Nature,” he says.
For those whose vineyards that aren’t in such a fortunate location, Bentley had little advice, other than to wait out the weather.
“The only way to deal with frost is to cross your fingers…” she says. “[With the frost ] the grapes shut down, the canopy wilts, and the grapes stop ripening.”
Output can fare for the better, even with the adverse effects of seasonal weather patterns.
“The terroir is what it is. Every place deals with the dirt God gave it,” says Linda Outterson of Woodstone Creek, a winery and distillery in Cincinnati. “With so many variables, any wine can be as unique as the character that made it.”
Woodstone sources its grapes from multiple growers in Ohio. They had no problem with yields.
“Our growers had some frost damage this year, but the yields were actually better than usual and the quality was very good. We will make enough to fill our projected needs,” Outterson says.
The winery plans to create a few new wines for the market, including a moscato and a new range of house wines.
With more wine being made and a demand for quality in the region, this diversification is necessary, and beginning growers like Kelly Harvey of Signature Wines in Columbus, Ohio, come down on the vineyard to observe the quality of work and techniques employed in Ripley. It is an evolving industry.
Life is good
Kinkead Ridge has worked tirelessly over the past decade to change the reputation of Ohio’s wine. Many have heard the news. The crews come to pick the crop and learn from Barrett.
“I come ever year, when he needs it,” says Pierce, who’s been picking grapes and learning from Barrett since 2006. “The best way to learn is from the master, who’s Ron Barrett. That guy makes good wine; (he) grows great grapes.”
As the workers slowly move from row to row at Kinkead’s vineyard, the quiet is only interrupted with light snipping sounds and the plopping of fruit into baskets. They talk and laugh, telling jokes and sharing stories of experience filled with grape-picker jargon.
In contrast with Kinkead’s commercial operation, Pierce grows his grapes for himself, and wouldn't have it any other way. As he picks the grapes, only a little bit of sunlight makes it past his hat and unto his face. His gnarled and experienced hands do the work quickly, but with great skill. Gently handling the clusters of fruit while puffing on a well-lit pipe, he sums up why growers in the region come to the task, year after year.
“It’s actually pleasurable to do this,” he says. “Some would even say therapeutic.”
This story was produced by the University of Cincinnati's New Media Bureau.