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. Esterer interferes with the fermentation as little as possible. He filters only if necessary, and he filters with egg whites, a method called “fining,” if the wine has too much tanninsFining smoothes out the wines. The cellar, which mimics Dr. Frank’s on Keuka Lake, is at 40 degrees for two months every winter, which takes down the acid in the cellar and acts as a cold stabilizer. 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. One of the key ingredients of the Markko cellar is black mold. “Mold is essential in the wine cellar,” Esterer says. 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.