Westwood’s Henke Winery, now at the corner of Epworth and Harrison, has been going strong for a quarter of a century. Winemaker Joe Henke, celebrating 25 years in the business, explains how his hobby got “out of control” and led to one of Cincinnati’s original urban wineries.
How did you get interested in making wine?
In 1973, it started as a hobby. My sister’s family lived in Erie, Pennsylvania–a grape growing and winemaking area–and they sent me a batch of Grenache to try as a home project. It turned out to be a hobby that got out of control. For the next 23 years, I worked with many great winemakers who fanned my passion. In 1996, we opened the first urban winery in Winton Place (now Spring Grove Village). An urban winery is one that contracts grapes from all over and brings them to the winery for production. We would crush, press, ferment and bottle the wines at the Winton place winery location. Just like Mondavi, except we did not grow the grapes. It was something new to the industry.
What’s your favorite wine and why?
The one you like. There are so many different grapes and styles to make it. They are like children. One day one shines and the next day someone else takes the spotlight, so the best wine in the world is the one you like.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
We closed inside dining for eight months. We had carryout and, in the summer, a few tables outside. It was a challenge to stay afloat but we had many wonderful patrons that bought curbside pickup and kept us going. We would not be here without them.
Did people buy more wine last year?
People did buy a lot more wine.
How did the restaurant portion of your business come into play? Did you always want to have a restaurant to go along with the winery?
As an urban winery, we had to offer pizzas and snacks for our patrons. After a couple years, people wanted more so we started the weekly special. It just got out of control. In 2001, we moved the winery to Westwood (our neighborhood). We purchased the old Window Garden restaurant. Now we were able to seat over 100. That meant that we would need chefs, cooks, dishwashers, and servers. Not the direction I wanted but what people wanted. The guests love coming into a Cheers-like atmosphere and enjoy award-winning wines, great food, and outstanding service.
What have you learned from being in business for 25 years?
That you will experience joy, tears, and a lot more work than you can imagine. Every time you think you saw or heard it all, you will find that you are mistaken.
What’s the best part about running your business?
The interaction with our guests. Seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, and making the guests feel special for that time they are with us. It’s very gratifying and it makes you feel good inside and puts a smile on your face.
Why did you choose to go into business on the west side?
I grew up on the west side. Live on the west side and believe it’s the best side. (Sorry, east side.)
Is there any advice you’d give to young vintners just getting started in the wine business?
Find a winery and volunteer. You will learn a lot by cleaning a man’s barrel. Talk to as many vintners as you can. Get their approach on making different wines. You will find them very open to sharing their knowledge with you. Lastly, decide what path is best for you. And go for your dream!
Henke Winery, 3077 Harrison Ave., Westwood, (513) 662-9463