I used to drink pop, now I drink coffee. I used to love chocolate, now I prefer a good steak.
As we mature, our tastes inevitably change, often starting with a preference towards sweet and shifting towards more refined foods. That, at least, is the general trend with wines, as more seasoned wine drinkers generally prefer dry wines.
Most Ohio winery owners will tell you that their sweeter Catawba, Niagara and Riesling wines are among the most popular sellers because that is what less experienced wine drinkers tend to prefer. Plus, Ohio has a long history of sweet grape and wine production, particularly along the Ohio River and Lake Erie. The trouble in terms of wine is the sweet grapes that readily grow in Ohio do not produce the fine dry wines revered by mature wine drinkers around the world.
That is changing, however, as Ohio’s wineries have made great strides in recent years in vinifera grape production. The grapes are growing and the wines are improving, but changing Ohio’s long-standing reputation as a sweet wine state may take a while.
“Ohio still has a stigma for only having sweet wines,” said Bob Guilliams, owner of Raven’s Glenn Winery in Coshocton County. “People are reasonably open to the product once they try it and Ohio’s wine quality is improving every year, but the bar is set pretty high with Europe and California. We are facing this international standard and nothing happens fast with wine.”
As viticulturalists in Ohio have improved the production techniques and grape varieties that can make fine wine and perform in Ohio’s conditions over the last several decades, Ohio’s wines started to come of age. It was not until more recent years, however, that the wine world began to take notice. Ohio wines have started picking up international awards in the last several years.
At the same time, Ohio’s wine drinkers have taken notice of the state’s flourishing wine industry. Per capita wine consumption in Ohio (and around the country) has been steadily increasing for many years. And, while sweet wines are still very popular, interest in the drier wines has picked up as well, particularly with the younger crowd.
“Around 60% of our customers at the winery are female, there are a lot of couples and they are getting younger, in their mid 20s. And we’re finding that our younger wine drinkers tend to be more sophisticated than some of our older customers,” Guilliams said. “Now young people can enjoy the explosion of great wines we are seeing from Ohio and around the world.”
What once was just a handful of mainstream mass marketing wine makers has grown much more in terms of local flavor and expertise in Ohio as the number of wineries around Ohio has exploded like an uncorked bottle of Champagne. As an example, when Lee Wyse and his wife started their Coshocton County Rainbow Hills winery 23 years ago, they were the 36th licensed winery in the state and the first one in the region. Since then, the number of Ohio wineries has grown dramatically. By 2008, there were 124 wineries in Ohio and in 2010, there are more than 140. Ohio wine production now contributes more than $580 million to the state economy and creates 4,000 jobs with a payroll of $124 million.
The growth in Ohio wine production has followed the growing appeal as wine is finding its way into a broader cross section of society.
“We are building a generation of wine drinkers in this county,” Wyse said. “Thirty or 40 years ago, it was only the very rich or the winos that drank wine. In the last 20 years, more people have started drinking wine and Ohio has been able to move into the wine industry very well.”
For Wyse, like many others, the sweet wines still reign supreme in terms of sales, though he prefers to drink the dry wines. Wyse has enjoyed watching Ohio wine drinkers mature along with the industry in the state. And he knows that for wine connoisseurs of all tastes, today’s Ohio wine industry offers a sweet surprise, especially for those who like it dry.