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.

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