Markko Vineyard

Ashtabula winemaker Arnie Esterer expands the possibilities of Ohio wine

Coming from Kingsville to the west, South Ridge Road crosses Conneaut Creek before climbing onto a glacial moraine. Passing farms and woodlots, the road is transformed into the perfect country lane, dropping your car from the quiet monotony of asphalt onto the exhilarating rumble and clatter of gravel and dirt—the roads of wagons and Model-Ts. Soon, on the left is an easy-to-overlook wooded drive marked with a simple concrete pillar. It bears the sign “Markko Vineyard 1968,” that tells you you’ve arrived at the origin of Northeast Ohio’s European wine production.

Your wine merchant’s shelves are filled with bottles from far-flung places. There are bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from Italy and southeastern Australia; Chardonnay from France and Chile; Pinot Noir from California and South Africa; and Riesling from southern Germany and Oregon. Despite the array of exotic names, all of these wines—and most of the nearly 32 billion bottles of wine consumed in 2010—are varietals of one species of European domesticated grape: Vitis vinifera.

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Although wine-producing regions might seem like disparate places, they tend to occupy predictable locations on earth. Grab a globe and let your finger circumnavigate, and you’ll discover that most of the wine we drink was produced on west coasts between about 35 and 45 degrees north or south latitude. Heavily influenced by westerly winds off cool ocean water, these temperate places have similar climates: mild summers with warm, sunny days, cool nights, and low humidity. Indeed, they often have no rain during their summer months. Winters are cool—but not too cold—and rainy. This so-called “Mediterranean climate” is where wild Vitis vinifera evolved and was first cultivated more than 8,000 years ago.

And this is decidedly not the climate of Northeast Ohio.

Yet Arnulf “Arnie” Esterer, Markko Vineyard’s vintner and cofounder (his partner Tim Hubbard died in 2000), has been producing these same varietals of vinifera grape wines in Ashtabula County for more than 40 years.

Markko was the destination for my family one sunny, cool fall Saturday. When we arrive, we’re greeted by Arnie. He’s in his early 80s, slight of build, with white hair and beard highlighting blue eyes. I’m impressed with his energy, sustained by continual fascination for what he does.

“We’re trying to figure out which way to go, how to do it,” he says of his nearly half-century of viticulture. “We have so much to learn.”

A moment later he and my girls are playing with a litter of wiry-haired puppies and their mother. I ask him what breed of dogs they are.

“These are Markko puppies,” he tells me with a straight face.

I ask a naively earnest follow-up: “Oh, you named the winery after this breed of dog?”

It’s my first experience with Arnie’s subtle sense of humor, and I fall for it. With a playful smile he invites me on a tour.

I lived for a decade in California’s Bay Area, making my rounds of its wineries, some of which take themselves a bit too seriously They feature either ultra-modern architecture with acute angles, curvy glass, and obscured doorways or imperial gardens of sculptured hedges, naked statues, squirting fountains, surrounding a tasting room with all the quaintness of the Pantheon.

By contrast, Markko’s humble forest home is where I’d expect the production of moonshine rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is pressed, aged, tasted, sold, and shipped from this unassuming facility where no grape vines are visible.

Markko’s public entrance features a rustic front step of rough log and stone. This opens to a small, homey tasting room with a short bar and a large communal table. An adjoining outdoor deck is suspended in dense forest foliage. Here one gets a sense of Markko’s—and Arnie’s—history and personality: decades of photographs, kitschy knickknacks (“Age Improves with Wine”), parched wine bottles, straw-wrapped jugs, dusty glasses, and a cowbell occupy the room’s shelves.

Linda, who’s been working for Arnie for most of Markko’s existence, is pouring my wine samples. Behind her hangs a wooden sign with a simple message, “Wine is Good Food.” In a sense, this little sign is a succinct expression of Arnie’s philosophy and business model.

Many think of “wine versus beer” as a mutually exclusive choice. But Arnie sees wine as the beverage choice among many. His vision is a Northeast Ohio where people drink inexpensive, lower-alcohol, un-aged vinifera wines at ball games, fast-food joints, every post-breakfast meal. “If this industry doesn’t promote it as a food, but promotes it as entertainment [we winemakers are] in trouble,” says Arnie.

He rattles off per capita annual consumption rates for several European countries that are in the tens of gallons, arguing that a broad base of everyday wine drinkers supports a region’s wine industry so “great wine” can be produced at quantities that result in prices affordable for everyday drinking. Wine “shouldn’t be just the rich people’s food or a snobby, aristocratic thing,” he tells me. This leads me to ask Arnie why he established a European winery an hour drive from Cleveland during its culinary preenlightenment. I use the word “quality” in reference to wine; this irritates Arnie, setting him off on a half-hour discourse, pitting cheap wine against expensive bottle. The wine at the top of the price pyramid might have unique “artistic value,” he says, but if the inexpensive wine displays “true varietal character” while revealing the “personality” and “beauty” of the region and the vintner, who is to say which wine is of higher quality?

Markko specializes in growing the world’s five great wine grapes, as Arnie calls them: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Gris, all selected from the European grape species Vitis vinifera. I liked Arnie’s wine. But what is my reference point?

An obvious point of comparison is the wines that have been the basis of Ohio’s wine industry for much of its history, wines made from American grapes of the species Vitis labrusca. The most widely grown grape in the U.S., the Concord, is one variety of this species. There are also the wines made of vinifera X American grape hybrids, as grape geneticists think Catawba likely is. For those with a wine education based solely on vinifera curriculum, these wines can be an unpleasant surprise on first tasting. If not outright sweet, these wines are off-dry at their driest. The term “foxy” is also often used to describe musky aspects of their flavor. Methyl anthranilate is the predominant molecular component of Concord grape flavor, which has been the stand-in “grape” flavor of Kool-Aid and lollipops—not exactly a flavor of subtle complexity.

Other local wineries produce some vinifera wines, but Markko specializes in only producing vinifera wines.

“So you were one of the first wineries in the area to make wine from vinifera grapes?” I casually ask Arnie.

The first,” he gently corrects.

My tour continues past a small, cluttered “chemistry lab” where a developing wine’s characteristics can be measured, through Markko’s modest warehouse, which opens to a shipping dock. Outside is the circa 1950s German grape press, which looks like a cylinder of metal grate caging a deflated inner tube. I watch grapes loaded in, pushed around the inner tube. Once full, the cage door is closed and the inner tube is inflated, pushing the grapes against the metal grate. The muddy juice that’s extruded is captured in a trough below the press that empties, by a hose running through the floor, to a settling tank in the cellar below.

Arnie grew up in Ann Arbor. His mother and German expatriate father were both research biochemists. He went to the University of Michigan for mechanical engineering and wound up working for Union Carbide in Ashtabula. Winemaking became his hobby in the mid-1960s. When he was laid off from Union Carbide in 1972 (“I was gonna quit the next year”), winemaking became his primary occupation.

He tells me about a pivotal meeting with the man who would become his mentor. Dr. Konstantin Frank, the man who shaped the development of winemaking in the Finger Lakes region of New York, was Ukrainian, born in 1899. He had studied agricultural science at the Polytechnic Institute in Odessa where he later became a professor. His research focused on growing vinifera grapes outside of their native environment.

In the early 1950s, Frank immigrated to the United States. Not wanting to give up his career in viticulture, but unable to speak English, Frank got a menial job at New York’s agricultural research station near Geneva. There he coaxed a local winemaker, Charles Fournier of Gold Seal winery, to plant vinifera vines and make European wine. In the early 1960s, he bought his own land on Lake Keuka. Soon he released his first vintage under the appropriately named label Vinifera Wine Cellars. He quickly became the guru of eastern U.S. vinifera wine-making and, in a 1967 pilgrimage, Arnie wound up on Frank’s doorstep.

Directed by his wife to the vintner’s workshop, Frank greeted Arnie:

“Who are you? A somebody or a nobody?”

Arnie responded: “A nobody.”

“Good, follow me.”

One night while pressing grapes together, Frank gave Arnie his mission. “He told me I should buy 100 acres, so I went and bought 100 acres.” Arnie returned to Ohio to apply what he’d learned in the Finger Lakes.

As the sun descends, Arnie leads a small flock of visitors down the dirt road to his vineyards. I take advantage of the walk to learn more. How Mediterranean grapes can survive and produce here is largely a matter of air circulation, Arnie explains. Site selection for his 100 acres was the most important factor in his eventual success. On hot summer days, as air heats and rises off Markko’s ridge-top vineyards, relatively cool air is pulled up the ridge from Lake Erie, cooling the grapes and approximating summer temperatures experienced by vinifera grapes in their native climate.

As winter approaches, winds coming off the lake are warm relative to the chilly uplands, helping to lessen the severity of late fall cold snaps and early winter deep freeze. Once the lake freezes, the cold air moving inland keeps Arnie’s grapes dormant into spring, preventing an early flowering that might be fine in a Mediterranean climate but would be in danger of a March or April freeze here.

The sun is getting low, and there’s a chill in the air as we walk back down the dirt road to the winery. Arnie continues the education for those listening, but I am distracted by what looks like a trail heading into the woods of Markko. I slip off for a quick look.

The gorge I come upon is impressive, but something else quickly catches my eye. A thick tangle of grape vines common in northeast Ohio, Vitis riparia, emerges from the ground like trees with indecisive trunks branching out in different directions. They extend dozens of feet into the canopy, weaving together many trees into one shared fate.

It was easy to imagine this scene, a few hundred feet from Arnie’s vineyards, as a secret gathering of angry natives plotting their attack on the European invaders. But that fantasy ignores a more complicated reality, a forced relationship between European and American Vitis imposed by vintners and wild American nature. All of Arnie’s vinifera grapes are grafted on to rootstock of this American species. A parasitic insect native to the New World happily destroys European grapes at the root; any successful vinifera planting depends on the perseverance of American rootstock in the face of this challenge. If I wanted truth in metaphor, I’d have to do better than “angry grapes.”

I return to find Arnie. From his crusted shoes to his deeply soiled cap, his clothes are the embodiment of Markko’s terroir, animated by the passion of its dedicated keeper. “We’re a demonstration,” he patiently explains. “The point is to demonstrate some of the ways you can make wine in this region, drawing back to some of the very basics. These grapes haven’t been grown here before. We have roughly 40 years’ experience. That’s nothing in the wine business.”

But in Northeast Ohio, it’s proven to be a delicious start.

Visit Markko Vineyard for yourself for a tour and tasting. For more information, call 440.593.3197 or visit Markko.com.