Saturday, September 27, 2014

Continuing the Tradition

Today, after buying 500 vines a year in the intervening years, Arnie has 45-50 acres are planted but he lost his vines in 2014. How Arnie Esterer will carry on after that loss is hard to know. Of the various hybrids tried, the only one that remained was Chambourcin, which does not contain diglycerides and is free of phylloxera, the root louse that caused the demise of European vineyards in the late 1800s. Esterer prefers to grow the great wine grapes—Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Cabernet, and Pinot Noir. Ever concerned about quality, he is ardent about Lake Erie’s reputation. He believes that “if the region is known by hybrids, we’ll be known for second-rate wine.” Markko Vineyards has a 2000-case capacity and produces at least 1000 cases annually. The Markko trellising system, which is shown on Markko Vineyard’s website, features the raising of the bi-lateral cordon to 54 inches to help grapes survive severe winters. With four spur-cane fruiting positions on the arms of the trellis, it becomes a no-tie system that allows the fruiting canes to droop as buds break and shoots grow. In a teaching voice, Esterer writes on the website, “The higher cordon adds benefits of a warmer micro-climate spring, fall and winter, better air flow and leaf exposure, more ergonomic canopy management and picking zone, open foliage for better spray penetration, and most importantly requires no tying of fruiting canes. The only spring tying required depends on securing trunks and cordon arms to the trellis wire.” Arnie does not use pesticides on his grapes, to allow natural, organic, bacterial fermentation. He uses only natural yeast. The yeast smoothes out the wine and gets rid of acidity. He reminds winemakers out there that the most important ingredients for preservation are acid and tannins. Long aging allows asage to become longer and the wine gets the benefit of smoothness. The cellar, which mimics Dr. Frank’s, is at 40 degrees for two months every winter, which takes down the acid in the cellar and acts as a cold stabilizer. “The goal,” he says,” is to create a nice balance between acidity and tannins.” Markko purchases oak barrels from a cooperage in C
anton, Ohio, and tries to use one-third new oak each year. The juice ferments in the barrels for three or more years, 6-7 years of fermentation for sparkling wines, to achieve the maximum amount of body to the wine and achieve the “in the mouth” balance of salt, sugar, acidity, astringency, and roundness. “For the right toast,” Esterer advises, “heat the barrels just enough to bend the staves, and by leaving it out in the rain an extra year.” Esterer interferes with the fermentation as little as possible. “Be lazy,” he suggests, “and let the wine go where it wants to go. Allow the wine to express itself.” The buttery chardonnays at Markko Vineyards are created by leaving on the gross lees, and the Chardonnay and Riesling wines keep long in the bottle because of Sur Lees fermentation, which prevents the wine from oxidizing. “Sur Lees is important to aging and oxidation,” Arnie advises. He also suggests that 86-degree temperatures are necessary for fermentation. “As the wine goes dry, we want malolactic in first summer after harvest. It takes nine months for the yeast to rupture,” Esterer says. “Some people force it, but it happens naturally the next summer. It’s bacterial and needs higher temperatures.” Malolactic fermentation converts the malic acid naturally present in the grape must to a softer-tasting lactic acid, which creates a fuller, rounder mouth feel in the resulting wine. The malolactic fermentation allows for as much Sur Lees as possible in three-year air-dried wood. Esterer says sugar can be added to balance the sugar in unripe grapes, but never after fermentation. He filters only if necessary, and he filters with egg whites, a method called “fining,” if the wine has too much tannins, but Esterer is not even sure if that intervention is necessary. Fining clarifies the wine if tannins are too strong and eliminates the need to filter, which takes out the umami, the roundness of the wine. Fining smoothes out the wines. One of the key ingredients of the Markko cellar is black mold. “Mold is essential in the wine cellar,” Esterer says. “The wine needs 75% relative humidity, close to the dew point. Water comes out of the barrel, high temperature topping is reduced, and less air goes into wines. Mold is how the French judge a cellar---it cleans the air and prevents other molds and tells you the humidity.” He went on to say that in Burgundy, water runs all over and they spray to create mold two to three inches thick on the walls. The wine list reflects the predominance of white grapes in the Lake Erie region. Chardonnay dominates the menu, with vintages from 2007 through 2010 that include a Late Harvest ice wine and the Homage (to Dr. Frank) Chardonnay Reserve. Of the 2008 and 2010 Cabernets on the list, the least expensive is the 4-year barrel-aged at $27. The winery also produces Riesling and Pinot Noir and several less expensive Covered Bridge series of wine that are perfect for picnics. In addition, the vineyard produces Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chambourcin, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris. Anyone serious about winemaking should keep an eye on Arnie Esterer at Markko Vineyard. He models the idea of allowing the Earth give back to us, the harvest to provide just what is needed, and the wine to ferment in a way that yields a flavor as varied as the colors of the sunset. “Customers need to see how wines are made,” Esterer advises. “Winemaking is an art because it sells like art.” Customers should like and appreciate the winemaker. At Markko Vineyard, Arnie Esterer’s love of winemaking gladdens the heart.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Wine craftsman Arnie Esterer of Conneaut, Ohio, runs Markko Vineyard, an experimental winery and is a true Midwest wine pioneer who uses spontaneous fermentations, cellar molds, and risky sur lee barrel aging. In Ohio’s Lake Erie appellation, Esterer is the expert to whom everyone turns for advice on growing grapes and making wine at his Conneaut Creek winery. Esterer runs a humble winery where the winemaker is a servant who goes with what the Earth yields. No-frills and heartfelt hospitality reflects Arnie’s feeling that “Wine doesn’t have to be aristocratic.” During Markko’s annual Christmas potluck, Arnie treated everyone to white, pink, and red sparkling wines to celebrate the season. Above the tasting counter, the wooden plaque reads “Gladden the Heart,” a motto that runs through the winery. Born in Germany but raised in Ann Arbor, Esterer graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Economics and an MBA. He served in the US Navy and engineered for Union Carbide for close to 20 years. Living in the Lake Erie region, he was surrounded by grapes and wine-making. “Everyone was a home winemaker in 1967,” he mused on a recent Friday afternoon while we enjoyed his fish soup with Chardonnay. As we talked about those early days, he said “everyone was growing their own grapes and sharing their product with friends and family back then.” Esterer began making his own wine and was so passionate about it that his wife Katie said he should start working in a winery. In the 1960s, he read American Wines and How to Make Them, a book by Philip Wagner who founded Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards. The book discussed how the cross between labrusca and vinifera wines creates vines that can withstand harsh climates and yield European-style wines, and by 1936, Wagner had introduced hybrid grapes to his vineyards. Esterer was intrigued. In his quest to learn more about wine making, he was also conferring with Doug Moorhead of Presque Isle Wine Cellars, who purchased French hybrid vines from Wagner and vinifera vines from Dr. Konstantin Frank in New York. Esterer became intrigued. He wanted to grow vinifera grapes as well. He contacted Dr. Frank, and in October 1967, Arnie pressed wine with Dr. Frank and other experts from Cornell University. It was then that he was inspired to plant a vineyard. He and partner Tim Hubbard who died in 2000, purchased 130 acres of land on scalloped Lake Erie region countryside. Arnie learned that site selection requires a prospective vineyard owner to “choose a place with remnants of wild grapes.” In the Spring of 1968, Esterer and Hubbard asked Dr. Frank to send them 2000 vines; Dr. Frank shipped them 500, probably knowing that’s all they could handle. Working diligently and ever concerned about quality and good methodology, Esterer was rewarded with the AWS Award of Merit in 1997 and was profiled in a 1974 Esquire magazine as one of the four great winemakers in the United States. Anyone who meets him, just loves Arnie. Whenever I see him, his number-one priority is making me happy--whether it's answering my questions, making sure I taste his latest Chardonnay vintage, or checking to see if I need some more cheese. Over and over again, what I hear from his fellow vintners is how much they learned from Arnie. I hope they learned more than how to make wine.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Vermilion Tour

One of the easiest trails from Cleveland is the Vermilion Valley tour. Paper Moon, Vermilion Valley, and Matus Winery are only minutes from each other, and they highlight how every winery provides a unique experience. Paper Moon has a new Old World feel with its high ceilings, large fireplace, and casual patio near the vineyards where music is heard in the summer and a bonfire blazes in the fall. Vermilion Valley makes a statement with its A-line building on a hill overlooking a pond and rows upon rows of vineyards, while inside, the clean lines of the minimalist architecture complement the business of wine tasting. And at Matus, the oldest of the three wineries, the rugged interior invites parties for people who like wine but aren't quite as serious about it. The three winemakers are as different as the wineries, and their
personalities are reflected in the space provided for people to enjoy their wines. You'll find the wines to be better than expected, but that might be because you haven't tried the estate-bottled and handcrafted wines available only at our local wineries.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

And Next -- Ohio's Canal Country Wineries

I launched into deep research for my next book by spending a couple days at Gervasi Vineyards in Canton, an amazing Tuscan village on an old tree farm within city limits. Gervasi is a destination winery, as is Breitenbach, where I met with the impressive owner who showed me his winemaking operations. Paul and I visited wineries in Dover, Atwater, and Coschocton, some that grow their own grapes and others that don't, but all with the same passion I found when I wrote "Ohio's Lake Erie Wineries." More details about the wineries I recently discovered and weekend winetasting trips can be found here, until I create space of its own for the next book.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


I'm looking for fellow wineries explorers to join me on weekends over the coming months.  Our mission:  to learn as much as we can about the Canal Trail wineries of Ohio.  Come along with me as I research my next book.  Any takers?  Send me an

Friday, November 9, 2012

Upcoming Book Signings

Coming up on Winter again, the harvest over, we hope this winter will be kinder to our grapes than last winter was. An early spring followed by a frost hurt last year's crop, but the warm summer created some really great juice for next year's wines.

I'm going to make the most of winter by planning a wineries tour for mid-January. This should stave off the winter blues. Until then, find me and my books (which make great Christmas gifts) at Laurello Vineyards in the Geneva area on November 17 from 12-5PM; at Markko Winery in Conneaut from 11AM-6PM on December 1; and at Quarry Hill in Berlin Heights from 2:30-6:30PM on December 8.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Silver Lining Riesling

Silver Lining Dry Riesling was released at Paper Moon Winery on Thursday, March 8th. Last summer, Adam Cawrse (winemaker), visited Canada to attend a Reisling conference, and he was inspired to try some new techniques. Only 139 cases of their Silver Lining wine was made available, and we were able to try some during the September wine tasting. The Riesling grapes in this wine were hand-picked from Ohio vineyards in the Lake Erie appellation. The grapes were crushed, lightly pressed, and juice was pumped to a tank for cold settling where it fermented for 3-1/2 weeks. The wine is exceptional with pear, melon, and citrus flavors. It is a great wine, and if you get there soon, you can try it! Paper Moon is on Route 60 in Vermilion.