Raise a Glass

A toast to the passionate, if unlikely, vintners found west of I-75.
When people think of drinking on the west side, their first thought is beer. And not esoteric imports or microbrews, just your basic, American stuff—Bud, Miller, PBR. Like most stereotypes, that one contains only a kernel of truth and has hung around long past its freshness date. Truth is, west-siders have quite a fondness for the grape. In fact, with two great wineries and a bunch of folks who love to make the stuff, the west side, it could be claimed, is Cincinnati’s Wine Country. OK, I doubt that Napa Valley is shaking in its Birkenstocks, but we’ve got some special places on this side of the highway.

First stop: Henke Winery, in the heart of Westwood. When Joe and Joan Henke opened for business in Winton Place back in 1996, theirs was the first winery within the city limits. They outgrew that facility and in 2001 they moved to their current location at the intersection of Harrison and Epworth avenues. It’s one of the great undiscovered gems of the west side.

Henke Winery, as quaint as a small-town church, is located no more than 50 feet from Westwood Town Hall. East-siders, take heed: You can enjoy a great dinner accompanied by a world-class bottle of wine at a surprising price and then jump back on the highway without getting the Soylent Green on you. When you get here, you’ll see grapes growing in the parking lot, and no, I’m not kidding. Fifty vines in four varieties—chardonnay, pinot grigio, cabernet franc, seyval. Right in the middle of downtown Westwood. “It’s very good for growing grapes,” Joe says, of his urban micro-vineyard. “It has the blacktop, which reflects the heat, so they get an early start.”

The parking-lot vines, of course, are an aesthetic touch, an interesting novelty, not the source of the award-winning Henke wines. Though the grapes are sometimes harvested and bottled, the wine made from them is used for cooking and for special tastings. This year Joe simply surrendered the grapes to the birds.

Henke wines are made from approximately 70 percent Ohio grapes, plus grapes brought in from California and New York. Which brings up another stereotype we’ll bust right now. You can’t produce good wines in Ohio because, well, you just can’t—and anyway American wines are supposed to come from California, everybody knows that. Not so. According to wineamerica.org, Ohio is among the top 10 wine-producing states in the country, and Ohio wines have been winning national competitions since the early 1990s.

“Ohio has had such a bad rap of making ‘mama’s sweet wine,’” Joe says. “And that’s not true. For a long time, farmers were growing Catawbas and Concords, local grapes, and those wines were only pleasant with some sweetness. Try to make them dry, and the palate really doesn’t like it too well.”

Then in the 1960s, things began to change. Ohioans started growing vinifera grapes—mostly chardonnays, cabernets, and reislings—and since then the quality has continued to improve. Turns out Ohio wines can stand up against any in the world. “When you go to large conventions, they understand they’re in competition with people who can produce some world-class wine,” Joe says. “We’re no longer shunned or treated as a stepchild.”

Joe speaks softly but with passion and a uniquely muted intensity that seems, at times, both breathless and languorous—an ideal host. He’s as mellow as a good pinot noir, and his mission is to make his customers feel the same way. “When people come in, they’re not just here for 45 minutes,” he says. “They sit around and enjoy themselves, have a glass of wine, sit back, and let time stand still.”

Joan is more outgoing, the talker of the two, bustling around the restaurant. Like Joe, she has an engaging bohemian quality, though you immediately sense her energy, along with her competence at running a business. Married for 37 years, the Henkes, who live in Westwood, spend most of their time at the winery. Joe says their day usually starts at eight or nine in the morning and ends after the restaurant closes at night. It’s the type of rigorous grind you might think would sap, so to speak, his enthusiasm for making wines.

“People think you sit in the cellar and sip wine,” Joe says, shaking his head. “It’s a lot of hard work. It can be tedious. A lot of long, back-breaking days. But the passion is still there. I still love it.”

Is it his dream job?

“Some days,” he says, a wistful tone to his voice. “Actually, I dreamed about it a lot. So yes.”

For several years he and Joan ran their budding winery while working full-time jobs. Joan eventually quit her job to focus on the business. In 2001, they found their current spot, occupied since 1937 by the Window Garden restaurant, a west side landmark. The day before they signed the papers, Joe, a programmer and machinist for 27 years at Cincinnati Milacron, was laid off. “He was scared to death,” Joan recalls, “but two weeks later he said he didn’t know how we did this part-time.”

Before completing this stage of the trip, let’s head to the wine cellar beneath the restaurant. The rooms live up to the name cellar—stone walls, low ceiling, a certain snugness. More than 20 white oak barrels, some French and some American, line the back wall in two rows. Big, stainless steel tanks fill most of the remaining space. Joe proves to be a patient tour guide, answering questions, explaining the process in easy steps. He points to a group of beakers on the testing table, to the hydrometer, the corker, and all the various equipment he uses to produce 25,000 bottles per year in 15 varieties.

His wines have won many awards, even catching the attention of USA Today, which early this year ran a feature on the Henkes. In June, they won the Director’s Choice award for the best red wine in the state of Ohio, given by the Ohio Quality Wine Program of the Ohio Grape Industries Council, which is part of the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Their 2006 Norton won the award in 2007, and at this year’s competition, the vidal blanc won a gold medal and was a runner up for the state’s best white wine. Their chardonnay and Vin de Rouge also won silver medals. And their awards aren’t limited to Ohio. At this year’s Indianapolis International Competition, the third-largest wine competition in the country, all six Henke entries won a medal.

You really can’t get a bad glass of wine here, though my favorite is the Vendange A Trois, a dry red made from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. Mostly, however, I like the atmosphere of the place—a mix of hip and homey. The menu has expanded since chef Scott Guynup came on board in 2007. He runs a scratch kitchen, with everything made on premise, even the dressings. Joe and Joan credit Scott with taking the restaurant to a new level of excellence.

Though Joe, Joan, and Scott offer the laid-back hospitality that makes it easy to linger, it’s time for us to move on—farther west, a lot farther, all the way to Bevis, to the beautiful vineyard at the Vinoklet Winery.

IT’S NOT THE type of place you expect to find in western Cincinnati. Or Ohio. Or even the Midwest. But its owner and wine master, Kreso Mikulic, started growing grapes here in 1980, opening the restaurant in 1991.

Vinoklet (pronounce the “t”; Mikulic is Croatian, not French) occupies 30 acres of rolling hills. While strolling the rows of vines on those hills, you quickly forget you’re less than five minutes from the retail hell of Colerain Avenue and I-275. The place looks—and feels—like it should be in California. It’s so laid-back it could fall over. Grapes hang from the arched entryway and on the arbors and trellises along the exterior paths that meander around the restaurant. The terrace where we eat offers a deceivingly Sonoma-esque view of the vineyard that includes a small manmade lake with a fountain.

The meal begins with a tasting of the seven wines produced from the five varieties of grapes grown in the vineyard—Catawba, Concord, vidal, chambourcin, and traminette. In general, Vinoklet’s wines are sweeter than those made by Henke. They’re sold in 24 area stores (including Kroger, bigg’s, and IGA) as well as at the restaurant. According to Jackie Goins, who managed the operation for nine years before going part-time, the best-seller is La Dolce Vita, a sweet red dessert wine. “We can’t keep it on the shelves,” she says.

Having no real sense of what’s good or bad, I listen as I’m told that La Dolce Vita recently won a Gold Medal at the same Ohio competition the Henke’s had mentioned. The Traminette, the newest wine on the list, won “double gold” at this year’s Indy International competition, very rare in a wine’s first year. It seems that every wine Kreso makes has won its share of hardware, so it’s tough to go wrong. I choose the Cincinnatus, a dry red.

After the tasting, which is fun and informative, we’re off to the next course, which we have to make ourselves. One of Vinoklet’s most popular features is the grill-your-own Friday or Saturday night dinner. Before our visit, a handful of people had recommended the place for a romantic evening, each noting, “And you get to cook your own meat.” I get to cook it? You mean I don’t have to just sit at my table and relax and let someone else—someone who knows what they’re doing—cook it for me? Gee, what a treat! Though apparently in the minority, I gotta say I’m not a big fan of the grill-it-yourself thing. At Vinoklet, you go for the wine and for the beautiful surroundings. “We have a unique concept and we get good word of mouth,” Goins says. “The festival also draws a lot of people, and they come back.” (That’s Vinoklet’s annual Art and Wine Festival, held the second weekend in September.)

With bellies full, heads buzzing, and the bonfire blazing, it’s tough to leave, but we have one more stop on our tour.

NOT AS CHARMING as Henke Winery or as lovely as Vinoklet, the basement of Jim “Giacomo” Pfirrman of Covedale nonetheless provides a festive boil of activity on the weekend when he and his family—fellow Pfirrmans as well as the Iacobucci clan related to his wife Linda—make their annual batch of wine. Pfirrman is one of many west-siders who make their own wine for the joy of the experience. They have no interest in selling it.

Pfirrman looks forward to this weekend every year, a time when family and friends gather to crush, press, and ferment grapes into a delicious red wine they call “Giaconucci.” He enjoys it so much that this year he’s missing his brother Bob’s wedding to do it. “I told him not to schedule it on this weekend,” Pfirrman explains in a matter-of-fact way. “When you order the grapes, you need to get them. There’s a small window when the grapes can be delivered.”

Born and raised in Delhi, Pfirrman, now 51, has been making wine since 1983. He calls the Giaconucci a “dago red,” and given the number of Italians who gather to make it, the description seems appropriate. He says he learned the craft from the “old paisans,” including his father-in-law and “Uncle” Joe Martinelli.

The Giaconucci (pronounced “jock-a-nootchy,” the way you’d imagine Joe Pesci saying it) is usually a blend of muscatel and zinfindel grapes, a rich table wine that’s not as sweet as you might expect. It’s hearty and surprisingly smooth. “That was our staple for the first 18 or 20 years,” Pfirrman says. “Then we switched around. Some years we’ve done some merlot-cabs. We always do a mix.”

On the week of winemaking, he grinds the grapes on Tuesday and begins making small batches on Friday to test the product and make any adjustments for the major operation that lasts all day Saturday—the mixing, bottling, and corking of 130 gallons. Most years he’ll have 15 or more helpers. “It’s a lot of work, but when you’ve got all these people and you’re joking around, people sharing it, it melts all that stuff away,” he says. “The togetherness that it brings to the family is fantastic.”

And that togetherness is a main reason why Pfirrman enjoys the process. He enjoys the big day so much he admits to feeling sad when it’s over.

But his spirits raise when the wine tasting begins. “When the old paisans would make it in the old days, they’d break into it on the feast of St. Martin [November 11],” he says. “So we carry on that tradition. We have a big lunch. We say, ‘Let’s try the stuff out.’”

The wine is still very young at that point, and after the traditional lunch it is stored away. By summer, it’s ready. Pfirrman brings bottles to west side gatherings, where he and his wine are very popular. “People ask ‘What’s your best product?’ I say, ‘What we make next year.’”

And that might sum up part of wine’s appeal, whether making it or drinking it. There’s a certain hopefulness involved. Wine gets better with age, and we all like to believe that we do too. We like to think that tomorrow will be better than today. Given the state of things these days—from the Reds to the economy—that’s a good thought to keep in mind. Whether life really does get better or not, a good glass of wine will make it seem much, much better.

Illustration by Ryan Snook
Originally published in the November 2008 issue

Facebook Comments