When you think of the history of Cincinnati drinking, what comes to mind? Beer, of course, with names like Moerlein, Hudepohl, and Weidemann brewing up heady pours for the Greater Cincinnati since the 1800s. And maybe bourbon, with the city’s close proximity to the downriver distilleries in central Kentucky. But Cincinnati wine? Nah, that’s a West Coast thing, right?
“We really are responsible for there being a California wine industry,” Dann Woellert says. “We passed the torch to Lake Erie and to Missouri, and then Missouri passed the torch to California. But if it wasn’t for all of the sort-of wine barons in Cincinnati before the Civil War, there probably wouldn’t be a California wine industry.”
It’s a bold claim, to be sure, but in his book, Cincinnati Wine: An Effervescent History (Arcadia Publishing/The History Press), the author dives deep into the Queen City’s surprising wine legacy. The book hits retailers on October 4.
For Woellert, who’s claimed the title food etymologist, looking into the history of Cincinnati wines was a personal matter, fueled by family connections to a name central to discussions of local libations: Nicholas Longworth, founder of the local Longworth line, banker, and, as it turns out, passionate winemaker. Longworth’s still and sparkling Catawba wines, made with grapes grown on the Mount Adams hillside, were so well-regarded, in fact, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to write a poem, Ode to Catawba Wine, about the winemaker.
“I’ve always had an interest in wine, and my interest in food history and food etymology went hand in hand with that,” says Woellert, who can trace a line in his own lineage back to Longworth. “The way that I approach food history is kind of the same way that I approach genealogy. Every food has kind of a family tree—it’s got ancestors from the region it came from. So I trace food in the way that I would trace an ancestor’s family tree.”
It was more than just a broad history, though, that inspired him to dig into Queen City vintners in his book. “My parents went to Lake Erie and we always had Catawba wine around,” he explains. “I’ve always heard about this history, and wanted to dig into it and present it.”
In order to learn more about our area’s wine history, Woellert went to the ones carrying the winemaking tradition into Cincinnati’s rich present, including Henke Winery on the west side, Meranda-Nixon near New Richmond, Vinoklet in Colerain Township, and Skeleton Root and Revel in Over-the-Rhine as well as some vineyards in Northern Kentucky. He also mentions a visit to The Guest House at Monte Cassino Vineyard in Covington as particularly informative as owner Mark Schmidt shared his discovery that the property was once home to the Monte Cassino vineyard run by the Benedictine Monks of Covington. (A museum focused on northern Kentucky wines is slated to open on the property next year.)
Woellert learned a lot from local winemakers, though that isn’t to say they’re all chasing after the Longworth product in their wines.
“Some of these wineries, like Skeleton Root and Henke and Vinoklet, do respect that history and make wines with some of those native grapes,” he says. “They all know about the Catawba grape, which we had pretty much what I call the ‘Catawba crash.’ At the time they didn’t know about some of the microscopic mites that affected the grape and were still learning how to best prune and maintain the vineyard in this weird river valley weather area. Grapes have come a long way since the Civil War, so the majority of the grapes are … not the native grapes like Catawba, Concord, Ives and Delaware and so forth.”
For his part, Woellert doesn’t pine for a Catawba comeback either. He’s more a fan of the Norton varietal.
“Some of the grapes that were originally cultivated in Cincinnati are still being grown 150 years later—the Norton, for example,” he says. “I’m a huge Norton evangelist, and I love to promote those local wineries that make wine with the Norton because I think it’s the most unique red native grape that we have in America. It changes as it ages, and it’s just got some really interesting flavors to it that you can’t get from a Cabernet Sauvignon or a typical European red grape. It’s something that we should be proud of.”
In fact, a desire to see Cincinnati take more pride in its wine history was one reason he decided to research, then write, Cincinnati Wine. “I did want to promote our local and native wines and, really, our importance,” he adds.
The other reason? A mission to change the way Cincinnatians drink, summed up in his three-part request: “Drink Norton. Drink local. Drink more wine.”