Many of us dream about turning a passion into our life’s work, though few of us act upon it. But those people—the ones with the audacious entrepreneurial spirit— are out there. Undaunted by uncertainty, they go from wanting and aspiring, to doing. This is where the story of M Cellars begins.
Matt and Tara Meineke were longtime wine enthusiasts who traveled regularly to the popular cool-climate wine destination of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. They did not have any prior wine-making experience—unless you count the wine they made in their garage. They transitioned their hobby into their life’s work. “We literally left our old life behind and started something new that we knew nothing about, except that we liked wine,” Matt says.
Matt’s father provided the initial financial support to purchase the first parcel of land—a premium site with ideal elevation and exposure—and a family business was born. “I knew what was possible,” Matt says, speaking about the Grand River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). The terroir—the characteristics of the environment—has similarities to other cool-climate wine-producing regions. The proximity of Lake Erie and Grand River, combined with the clay soil of the region, imparts notable characteristics to the grapes. Great wine, he explains, always starts in the vineyard.
Matt consults with Greg Johns, a viticulture and enology expert who ran the Ohio State University’s Ashtabula Agricultural Research Center for many years. “Greg knows pretty much everything there is to know about Ohio’s terroir,” he says. “I credit him for starting us and keeping us on the right foot with practical advice.”
With a great deal research, trial, and error, Matt taught himself the science of winemaking, particularly how he needed to farm. His experience as an auto mechanic turned out to be valuable. “I did not appreciate how those skills would help me when it came to maintaining our equipment,” Matt says. “I’m able to fix most things myself.”
Matt planted five acres with Riesling and Pinot Noir in 2008. Five more acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay followed. There’s not a Catawba or a Concord grape—native varieties that used to dominate the Grand River Valley—to be found on any of Matt’s vineyards. His interest is in the Bordeaux varietals, which, when blended and balanced, make complex, interesting wines, he says.
There was also a lot of tasting and analyzing—trying to find the faults and identify what could be done better. “We tasted a lot and developed our palates,” he says. “We drank wines from places similar to this region. We identified flavor profiles and then looked at how and what and why it was working.”
M Cellars now produces 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year. they’re the only licensed Meritage producer in Ohio—an oak-aged estate blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Matt is also the only Ohio-based commercial grower of Rkatsiteli, a hardy, cold climate grape with ancient origins from the Republic of Georgia, from which he produced an estate white wine with characteristics similar to a Sauvignon Blanc.
A Very Good Year
Ohio winemakers are having a fantastic year thanks to 2016’s exceptional growing season. The warm, dry summer and a subsequent mild, frost-free winter had a positive effect on both red and white grape varieties. Long stretches of hot, dry weather resulted in juicy grapes that make sumptuous, full-bodied wines.
The Ohio Grape Industries Committee reports that Ohio’s 268 wineries bring in a yearly estimated $97 million in wine-related tourism. In gallons, that’s roughly 1.1 million gallons of wine, making Ohio the eighth-largest wine producing state.
M Cellars is one of many destination wineries that dapple the landscape in the Grand River Valley—the most optimal region in Ohio for grape-growing and the largest of Ohio’s five American Viticultural Areas. This geographical classification also includes the grape-growing regions of the Ohio River Valley, Lake Erie, Isle St. George (on North Bass Island) and Loramie Creek in southwest Ohio. For a wine to name an appellation, or place of origin, on its label, 85% of the grapes in that wine must come from the appellation.
Most of M Cellars’ wines are estate-grown, which means Matt and his team have shepherded the winemaking process from planting to production, entirely on their property. A few of his wines are made with grapes grown in the adjacent Lake Erie appellation.
It’s not easy work. Things like soil and climate are out of Matt’s control, and there are limits to what he can do to mitigate the effects of weather, like burying vines or installing frost fans. The past two winters were on the milder side, unlike those of 2014 and 2015 that resulted in serious losses for many Ohio grape growers.
Boutique winemakers by nature are patient and flexible, knowing the impact of each season will vary the characteristics of their wines from year to year—a marked difference from the approach of large-scale wine operations with familiar names and big advertising budgets that aim for a certain consistency to maintain mass-market appeal.
“Wines are a natural, live product. They are a snapshot of the previous growing season,” says Matt, whose wines have nabbed silver and bronze medals from various wine contests such as the 2015 Finger Lakes and 2016 San Francisco international competitions. This is why the taste of your favorite Pinot Noir will vary in subtle ways from year to year, particularly from small-batch producers. Matt says he likes to let the season speak for itself. “It makes you humble, knowing that replication is close to impossible,” he says.
Matt hopes to see locavores become more open-minded about Ohio wine. “We’re making world-class wines that will compete anywhere in the world. I want people to realize, they’re different from what they think,” he says. Though his wines are found in a growing number of restaurants including Toast, Flying Fig, Dante, Molinari’s and Beach Club Bistro, Matt would like to see more people ordering local wine when dining out.
This November marks M Cellars’ fifth anniversary. Matt’s dad still manages the financial side of things, allowing Matt to focus on his vines and wines. Tara handles M Cellars’ growing portfolio of retail accounts, marketing, and special events.
Matt recently acquired an additional 16 acres that he’s hoping to plant next spring with more of the red varietals. He’s also making a sparkling Riesling he’s named for daughter Madelyn and will introduce two more made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this fall. For those who prefer the sweet wines, he’ll generally direct them to Amelia, a sweet blush wine named after his eldest daughter, or his Vin Doux, a ruby red Port style made from Noiret grapes.
“We’re really excited about the 2016 vintage—the Pinot Gris, the Chardonnay, and the Pinot Noir in particular,” Matt says. “I think these will blow people away. They taste like they could be from anywhere in the world.”