Cincinnati Used to Be Wine Country and The Skeleton Root Wants to Bring It Back

Nicholas Longworth turned Cincinnati hillsides into vineyards and created a thriving local wine industry. Today, winemaker Kate MacDonald looks to Longworth’s methods for inspiration.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

In the early 1820s, two Cincinnati winemakers made a bet. Nicholas Longworth had been advocating the virtues of the native Catawba grape, while John Dufour favored European varieties, thinking that wine made from this American grape would spoil in a year or two. Longworth sent him three bottles. Dufour drank one at six months and another at a year—the wine passed the test both times. He buried the third bottle in his vineyard.

In 1827, lying on his deathbed, Dufour asked his doctor if he could taste some of the last, buried bottle. Dufour held it to the light, took a few sips, and smiled. “Ah doctor,” his last words were said to be, “Longworth was right. Catawba will keep. It is a good wine—a very good wine.”

Longworth was right about many things. Along with being a shrewd land speculator and having a fine eye for budding artistic talent, he was a plant enthusiast whose gardens and vineyards stretched from behind his Pike Street estate into what is now Mt. Adams, Walnut Hills, and Columbia-Tusculum.

In many ways, Cincinnati is steeped in Longworth’s legacy. His former home is now the Taft Museum of Art, and the artists he helped support—Robert Duncanson and Hiram Powers, to name only two—fill local galleries. If you’ve ever enjoyed a ripe strawberry or black raspberry, you’re tasting a bit of his achievement, because Longworth was instrumental in bringing the plants into widespread cultivation.

Most of us, though, know almost nothing about the project to which Longworth devoted much of his life: the creation of a wine industry in Cincinnati. He was successful enough to launch the first commercially viable wine business in North America. His products, mostly made from the Catawba grape, gained favor as the first American wines to not only stand with their European counterparts but also offer a unique expression of our own soil and climate. They once moved poets to raptures (“dulcet, delicious, and dreamy,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; “as radiant as sunlight / as soft as the dew,” crooned Charles Mackay), and bottles of Longworth’s wine sold for between $1 and $1.50 (more than $45 in today’s money).

By the 1870s, though, after years of poor vine health, labor shortages caused by the Civil War, and Longworth’s death, grape-growing and winemaking largely ceased to be part of the story of our region, unlike beer brewing and pork packing.

Longworth left behind treasure troves of information on his viticultural methods, his winemaking processes, his successes, and his many failures, from diseased vines to thousands of bottles of sparkling Catawba exploding in his cellars. For over a century, the seeds he left behind have sat dormant. One local winemaker, though, is trying to see if they might still thrive—and, in the process, resurrect Longworth’s vision of a unique winemaking identity for our region.

Kate MacDonald graduated from Colerain High School, trained as an engineer, and first developed an interest in wine while living near the Finger Lakes region of New York. Eventually following her passion out to California, she began to seriously dedicate herself to the craft. While studying the history of American winemaking, she was amazed to discover that the industry was actually born in her hometown.

Looking at an old etching of Longworth’s vineyards, she says she was completely captivated by the vision of a Cincinnati that “once looked like this.” Steep hillsides tumbling down to the Ohio River were covered with neatly terraced vines, swelling with grapes and worked by hundreds of workers, mostly German immigrants, who earned Cincinnati a nickname as “the Rhineland of America.”

As MacDonald began to do more research, she learned about the center of the Cincinnati wine world and the eccentric Longworth, whose restless experiments in viticulture were eventually rewarded with enormous success. And she wondered why the experiments stopped.

There was, MacDonald decided, no reason not to keep walking the road Longworth had pioneered, and no reason that Cincinnati couldn’t start making its own distinctive wines again. And so, in 2016, MacDonald and her partner, Josh Jackson, returned to Cincinnati and founded The Skeleton Root winery in Over-the-Rhine. The name is a playful reminder of a largely forgotten history and the possibility that these vines might bear fruit again.

Grape growing began in Cincinnati in the late 18th century, shortly after its founding, when a Frenchman named Francis Menissier planted a few European varieties at the corner of what is now Third and Main and claimed to have had some success. A few years later, a young man from New Jersey crossed over the Alleghenies, hopped on a flatboat, and arrived in Cincinnati with little more than a suitcase and some experience, it’s said, as a shoemaker. Nicholas Longworth studied law with Judge Jacob Burnet in 1803, and within a few years had a thriving law practice and a knack for scooping up land around the area at bargain-basement prices, sometimes accepting plots in lieu of payment for his legal services.

As the city expanded and land became more valuable, Longworth became wealthy. Throughout his life, he had an eye for the undervalued, whether an impoverished African-American artist like Duncanson or a sloping stretch of rocky land. Useless for agriculture and difficult to build on, such plots were perfect for grapes, whose roots grow deep into hillsides and stabilize them. Longworth was always out in his gardens, in his usual ragged dress and, in the words of one contemporary, “looking more like a beggar than a millionaire.”

One famous anecdote involves Abraham Lincoln, then a lawyer on a patent case, visiting the estate in 1857. Lincoln initially thought Longworth was a gardener. Longworth played along and offered to give him a tour of the gardens and a taste of the famous wine. When Lincoln eventually recognized him, Longworth joked that it was a shame he’d found him out so soon, because he sometimes got “as much as a quarter” for showing visitors around the grounds. “In fact,” Longworth said with a twinkle in his eye, “I might say that it’s the only really honest money I ever made, having been by profession a lawyer.”

Longworth’s extensive holdings were filled with trials of thousands of different grape varieties. He planted both European grapes—generally known as vinifera, including such familiar names as chardonnay, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon—and American varieties. If you have ever eaten a Concord grape, the deep purple kind traditionally used for jelly, you’ve had an American variety. With their intense aromas and lower tannins, most American grapes were considered—and still are by some—unsuitable for making fine dry wines in the European style.

There are also innumerable hybrids and rootstock pairings across varieties, so the divisions aren’t firm. Horticulture isn’t about purity, and Longworth was no ideologue about native plants—he was just trying to see what would work in our climate. In 1825, when a Maryland botanist, Major John Adlum, sent him samples of Catawba grapes, Longworth was convinced he’d finally found the variety he was looking for.

As MacDonald walks me through her Clarksville, Ohio, vineyard in Clinton County, not far from Wilmington, she discusses Cincinnati’s inconsistent weather. Spring and summer can bring endless weeks of rain, triggering massive spore releases of fungal diseases like black rot and powdery mildew. A damp grapevine that won’t dry off is likely to become a sick one.

After MacDonald moved back here, she remembers observing a local vineyard and finding only American grapes surviving. Suddenly she had a similar realization to Longworth’s back in the day: Why not grow what wants to be here?

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

American grape varieties are unique in a number of ways. European grapes, perhaps from their longer relationship with humans, are somewhat better behaved, and with proper training bear their bunches neatly on the lower rungs of a trellis. American grapes have what MacDonald describes as an “insane vigor,” with a tendency to climb supports and then cascade down, hogging the sunlight with their much larger leaves.

The berries of cultivated American grapes also tend to be much bigger than vinifera,leading to a higher ratio of juice to skin. This leads to lower tannin levels—tannins are the astringent, mouth-puckering quality prominent in red wines, mainly found in the skins and pips. Also, grapes like Catawba require a long growing season to develop their sugars, and they generally never get as sweet as vinifera grapes growing in a Mediterranean or California climate. Wines made from these American grapes, then, tend to have a lower alcohol content (you need sugars to ferment into alcohol) and a more acidic flavor. These aren’t flaws, in MacDonald’s view—they’re just part of the distinctive quality of our region’s wines.

Even in Longworth’s day, though, this wine was a hard sell at home. Americans liked their wines sweet and boozy—sometimes, he said, up to 80 proof!—and often adulterated with spirits. Longworth considered making a pure wine part of his contribution to temperance.

Longworth soon managed to find a population that not only liked his wines but would work his vineyards. Immigrants from the Rhineland region began flooding into Cincinnati in the 1840s, and many of them, as he said, had been “bred from their infancy to the cultivation of the vine.” Longworth would sometimes house these German workers and have them care for his vineyards, but generally he’d give them a few acres to cultivate, press the grapes, and then split the profits with them.

Longworth said his workers recognized in his wine “a close likeness to the drinks of their native Rhine valley,” only much cheaper than the imports, and consumed it enthusiastically. Homegrown Americans, unfortunately, had a different reaction. “Our own people…did not take to it very kindly,” read one account from 1857. “To their palates, it seemed a trifle too much like sour cider to realize their idea of pleasant drink.”

An accidental breakthrough began to change some of these perceptions. One time, a pressing of Catawba was bottled with enough sugar left to undergo a second fermentation in the bottle. The result? Bubbles! Sensing he was on to something, Longworth tried to duplicate the success and eventually, with the help of an experienced fabricante from the Champagne region of France, got his process down, albeit with some hiccups. Bottles couldn’t always stand the pressure of the second fermentation and would burst in large numbers. In one year, 42,000 out of 50,000 bottles were lost, so many that Longworth installed grates in the cellar to collect the spilled juice and cook it down into something he called Catawba brandy.

When the bottles didn’t explode, though, they were a sensation. “From the first,” reads an article from the time, “demand has far outrun the possibility of supplying it. The sparkling Catawba is known all over the country, and commands the same price as Moet and Heidsick champaign.”

Longworth insisted on the name Sparkling Catawba rather than champagne or any of the other terms from Europe. “I shall not attempt to imitate any of the sparkling wines of Europe,” he wrote in 1849. He wanted to produce “a pure article having the peculiar flavor of our native grape.”

As Longworth’s wines began to achieve a reputation both in America and abroad, people paid him the ultimate compliment of creating cheap knockoffs. To respond to the flood of imitators and as a way to share and improve their viticultural practices, Cincinnati winemakers founded the American Wine Growers Association in 1851. Inspired by Longworth’s successes, several other growers had entered the wine market, including wealthy local merchants like Robert Buchanan and Thomas Carneal.

The acreage devoted to grapes increased rapidly. As described in John F. von Daacke’s bulletin, Grape-Growing and Wine-Making in Cincinnati, there were 114 acres under cultivation in 1845. Just five years later, there were an astonishing 300 vineyards within a 20-mile radius of the city, covering 900 acres, with half of those in active production. In 1853, the peak year for Cincinnati’s wine industry, 320,000 gallons of wine were pressed from 800 acres of grapes, and bottles with names like Longworth’s Sparkling Catawba and Golden Eagle were known all over the world.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

As MacDonald worked on developing her wines, she spent hours in the Cincinnati Historical Society library reading old articles from Harper’s and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and reviewing Longworth’s own notes. In books like The Culture of the Grape and Wine-Making by Robert Buchanan (with an appendix by Longworth on strawberry cultivation), which had already gone through five editions by 1856, it’s apparent that the men of the era were much more interested in disseminating knowledge than in guarding trade secrets.

The amazing thing, MacDonald notes, is that except for a few of the largest producers, the basic procedure—especially for making sparkling wine—hasn’t changed since Longworth’s time. Sure, there are now temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and, thankfully, much sturdier bottles; but otherwise it’s the same hydrometer to measure dissolved sugars in the liquid and the same painstaking process of twisting the bottles to gather the spent yeast sediment at the top, known as riddling, and disgorging it by freezing that chunk to pop it out.

I ask David Schildknecht, a prominent critic specializing in wines of Germany and Austria who happens to live in Cincinnati, to come taste the results of MacDonald’s years of research and labor. One evening, out to the table comes an effervescent wine, delicately pink from a brief period of time resting on its skins and eagerly waiting to emerge in a rush of bubbles—the closest thing to a Longworth Sparkling Catawba in over a century. On the bottle is a phoenix “paying homage to the rebirth” of Nicholas Longworth’s happy accident. It’s rustic, simple, refreshing, and a perfect reflection of the fruit—our own local rosé, with its own unique character.

MacDonald’s proudest achievement with Catawba, though, is her still wine. Longworth knew then that any acidic wine needs aging, and he always let his Catawba sit for years in barrels. Long contact with oak allows a second fermentation, when harsher malic acid (the tart quality of green apples) mellows into lactic acid (the softer tartness of yogurt) while also creating new texture and flavor complexities. MacDonald uses old European oak barrels, which contribute less of the oak flavor while still allowing the wine to mellow; like Longworth, she wants the distinctive flavor of the fruit, rather than the wood, to do most of the talking.

Schildknecht is particularly impressed with the still Catawba, which MacDonald had barrel-aged for four years. He mentions the sharp qualities of rhubarb combined with cool, crunchy “greenness” of cucumber and fermentative “twang,” and senses what MacDonald describes as her style, as it was Longworth’s, to intervene as little as possible in the wine’s character. It doesn’t hide its acidity and is a suitable accompaniment to food, especially creamy dishes or marbled meats that need something sharp to stand up to them.

Schildknecht hesitates to characterize the particular pungency of the Catawba grape that might have put off other winemakers. The word used about American grapes since Longworth’s time—and that MacDonald clearly finds a bit annoying—is “foxy,” which mainly serves to confuse, since most people can’t immediately call up the musky smell of a fox or decide whether or not this aroma would be a good thing in a glass of wine. The best idea might just be to taste without prejudice or preconceptions.

The Skeleton Root handmakes all of its wine in an old manufacturing building on McMicken Avenue in Over-the-Rhine, and sells 8 to 10 varieties at any one time in its tasting room. Wine can also be shipped to most states.

The production of wine around Cincinnati began to decline after 1853, not for lack of demand but from the increased prevalence of fungal diseases, for which there was no real treatment at the time. On his deathbed in 1863, Longworth was still talking about a vine that might resist powdery mildew and black rot, his two great nemeses. Soon, the local acreage devoted to grapes shrank to almost nothing, until all that remained of the Rhineland of America was Longworth’s estate, some wild vines reported to still haunt Columbia-Tusculum and Eden Park, and a nickname (“the Queen City”) derived from Longfellow’s famous poem about Catawba wine.

A few local businesses—including Vinoklet in Colerain Township and Meier in Silverton—have kept the winemaking tradition alive here, though Vinoklet generally uses vinifera grapes and Meier, which does use Catawba and other American varieties, produces much sweeter wines.

In some ways, Longworth’s viticultural legacy didn’t really die—it simply migrated north to the Lake Erie region, where disease pressures were less intense. Grape growing continues there to this day, including many acres of American grape varieties like Catawba, Norton, and Isabella. When MacDonald began looking to make these historically inspired wines, in fact, she sourced her grapes from the Lake Erie area. She wondered whether our slightly longer growing season, with the grape concentrating a few more sugars in the fruit, would make a better wine.

She’s finally ready to test out this theory on the ground. In the culmination of a dream, MacDonald and Jackson have found nearby land on which to grow their own grapes. One site is the existing vineyard in Clarksville, where she plans to continue to grow the vinifera varieties that thrive in our climate, and she plans to use a new site in Indiana to grow Catawba and the American varieties.

In 1850, Robert Buchanan wrote that “We have much to learn yet in the art of making wines,” and MacDonald agrees. Since Longworth’s pioneering experiments were cut short, we just don’t know very much about these grapes and the conversation they might have with our current soil and climate.

We have powerful tools today that Longworth might have envied, like chemical fungicides and herbicides. MacDonald uses them when necessary but is also wary of them. The more you spray, she says, the less you have an expression of the land in your glass. The soil becomes a sterile medium and you lose the subtle concept the French call terroir, the unique expression of a particular area.

Longworth spent a long time listening to the land around Cincinnati. After more than a century of silence, MacDonald is restarting the conversation and pressing the results into something delicious. Soon, maybe, Longfellow’s words will be true again: “Richest and best / is the wine of the West / that grows by the Beautiful River.”

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