I heard a story the other day that even in our national parks there’s so much human-made noise pollution, the animals are having trouble hearing, which puts them in danger. Nearby Ashtabula County, only an hour east of Cleveland, has paved roads that become dirt paths, farmland that stretches half a mile between homes, 19 covered bridges, wide rocky rivers, cozy bed and breakfasts, and . . . lots of great wineries that serve wines ranging from deep and luscious Cabernet Sauvignon to tickly-sweet Vidal ice wine.
I love it because it’s an escape. The first time I wrote about escaping to wine country for CoolCleveland I hadn’t even conceived the idea of writing Ohio’s Lake Erie Wineries, which was published in 2011.
Here’s the thing about going to Ashtabula County when the temperatures are a little cool — it’s quiet. The wineries are open but they’re not filled with partyers. Geneva-on-the-Lake is a ghost town, but you can still walk down the causeway past the waterslide and the arcade and find a couple wineries (historic Old Firehouse and the Lakehouse) and a brewery — GOTL. Visit and shop in quaint Ashtabula Harbor or downtown Geneva where time seems to have stopped, but the Victorian buildings belie hip coffee and retail shops. Bird migration from the south to Canada is at its peak in May and the birdsong is amazing against the sound of the waves crashing into the shoreline. Hiking in Geneva State Park or biking along the Greenway are true escapes.
We like to stay at the Lakehouse at Geneva-on-the-Lake. It’s close to the state park and boasts a beautiful view of the lake, some of the best food in Ashtabula county, estate-bottled wines and a serene spa. The basics are covered too — a hearty breakfast, comfortable beds, cozy rooms, decent coffee and a common area with comfortable seating and large windows overlooking the lake. Imagine enjoying the sunrise and sunset, a walk along the lakeshore, a self-guided tour of wineries and covered bridges, a massage and pedicure, and a meal that makes you happy and sleepy. That’s what you’ll get if you stay at the Lakehouse.
Twenty wineries are at your disposal. People always ask me for recommendations. If I were going to the Geneva area for the first time, the list would include Markko, Harpersfield, Debonne, Kosicek Vineyards, South River and Laurentia Vineyards. These are not necessarily my favorite wineries, but this group will give you a good feel for the scope of what’s available. Go to a few each day and get to know them. You may want to also want to check out Red Eagle Distillery. Don’t forget to look for the covered bridge signs.
Markko, out in Conneaut near the Pennsylvania border, is the place to start on Saturday. Arnie Esterer studied with Dr. Konstantin Frank at Keuka Lake in the 1960s and started his experimental winery in 1968. His vineyards include chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and his wines are world- class. Don’t let the rustic setting send you away and stop by the Smolen-Gulf Bridge on your way to Debonne.
This winery was opened by the Debevc family in 1976 and serves some of the best hybrid wines in the area, my favorite being the Chambourcin. For lunch, you can get fig and walnut brie and other appetizers and a caprese panini or a burger — the menu has been expanded in the last few years. Finish up Saturday at Harpersfield, whose vineyards include Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, and where you can sit outside at a picnic table, and if you wish, eat flatbread pizzas. Stay long enough, and the music will begin and you may just spend the entire evening.
On Sunday, check out Kosicek Vineyards, which Tony Kosicek opened after two generations of growing grapes for winemakers and is set in a place with good views of the area from the outside deck. Tony will tell you all about the wines and is a great host.
At nearby Red Eagle Distillery, housed in a standout red barn that has become a unique venue for Ashtabula county libations, they handcraft bourbon, rye and vodka with an emphasis on bourbon. This distillery is owned and operated by the owners of South River Vineyards across the vineyards, which is worth visiting so you can sit on a church pew and sip wine.
Finally, you should go to Laurentia, which is on the scale of California wineries and is set amongst the vineyards in a gorgeous large log cabin and serves great flatbread pizzas; the fireplace takes away the late-spring chill. You’ll probably spot historic Harpersfield Bridge on your ramblings — take time to walk along the outside of this 1868 bridge and gaze down at the Grand River.
If you haven’t experienced dinner at the Crosswinds Grille on Geneva-on-the-Lake’s lakefront, you’re missing a great culinary experience enhanced by the happiness that goes along with spending a day on the wine trail. Chef Nate Fagnilli is committed to local food sourcing, and a meal at the Crosswinds Grille will be at least 90% local. When he couldn’t find decent pork cuts, Nate begged a local farmer to sell him a pig, and he now makes his own bacon, charcuterie and salume at Na*Kyrsie Meats. At a recent dinner there, we enjoyed a beautiful desert of 7 Brothers whiskey with maple syrup in a glass over which pure maple sugar custard ice cream slowly clouded the liqueur, an adult ice cream float.
On a quiet but exciting weekend in Ashtabula County, you’ll make like-minded friends on your travels, hear the birds on sunrise, witness the sunset over Lake Erie, taste the local bounty, and sleep comfortably. You’ll want to repeat it again and again.
Cool Cleveland contributor Claudia Taller is author of Ohio’s Lake Erie Wineries and Ohio’s Canal Country Wineries and is available for private tours. Contact her at claudiajtaller.com.