It’s an exciting time to live in Cincinnati, an observation I share wistfully since I haven’t lived there full-time in almost twenty years. But, I’m back to visit my very large, wonderful family and group of friends so often that I usually clock nearly a month’s worth of time there in a good year, which is often enough to still feel connected, but infrequent enough to realize that a lot can change in between visits. Most of this change has to do with the revitalization of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and what’s interesting about it all is that Cincinnati has found its way forward by going back to its roots. Why it took a predominantly Germanic, historic brewery town so long to catch on to the microbrewery/craft beer craze can only be explained by the famous words of Mark Twain that every Cincinnatian knows by heart: “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati: it takes ten years for anything to get there.” Several sets of my great-great(-great) grandparents were among the German immigrants who put Cincinnati on the map, so I’m happy to see some of their legacy continue on; I’m particularly excited to go on one of the underground brewery tours that are now offered. I’m hoping that there might even be mention of my Great-Great Grandfather, Daniel Pohlar, whose Pohlar Cafe was open on Vine Street from at least the 1920s until 2006 (as far as I can tell)
But I must confess to something, and I hope my German forebears aren’t reading over my shoulder: I like beer, but I don’t love it. I’m giddy about the re-blooming beer culture because I can’t wait to see what it will mean for Cincinnati. For me, the most exciting discovery of recent years has been on the northern end of Hamilton County, in Colerain, where you’ll find the Vinoklet Winery, the only working winery with a vineyard in the Cincinnati area. It’s been in operation for thirty years, so it isn’t part of the recent Cincy renaissance (the Cincissance…has anyone coined that yet? If not, I’m copyrighting it!). Rather, it was there all through my childhood, just hiding, and not simply waiting for me to reach drinking age, but waiting for me to reach 35 before I would ever come across it. And the real kicker is that once I found it (by randomly searching the internet to see if there were such a thing as Cincinnati wine), I shared this excellent news with my family and friends, most of whom had already heard of it but never told me (still upset, I am).
But I’m forgiving, if grudgingly so: the place is really so beautiful, I wish that I’d been making it a regular stop during visits home for years now. It’s so far on the outskirts of Cincinnati that you still pass farms to reach it (including my great-great-great grandparents’ farm-turned-church/cemetery). The winery itself was a dairy farm in a previous life, but now its verdant hills are strung with rows on rows of grapes of all kinds. You’re welcome to order a glass of wine at the restaurant and wander through the vineyard on your own as I did with friends and family on a visit home last summer. I highly suggest that you do, and right at sunset as we did.
The wines themselves are…good. And that is high praise for an Ohio wine. Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible gives exactly zero pages to Ohio wines, despite the decent number of wineries near Lake Erie or on its islands. I’ve had those wines many times over the years, and I understand why they don’t merit her attention (although Pennsylvania gets a brief write-up, and I can’t imagine PA wines are much different than Ohio’s). They often taste like they ought to be spread on bread with some peanut butter. Mind you, the wineries there are beautiful and worth the visit even if the wines themselves are jammy, and even a wine that tastes like fruit juice can be enjoyable on a hot, humid midwestern summer day — they just don’t compete with more sophisticated wines from the rest of the world.
But the wine from Cincinnati…it’s a different story. Now, it’s got a ways to go before it can compete with, say, Oregon — but it can definitely win a fight against any of the New York wines I’ve had (and New York gets 19 pages of coverage in the Wine Bible — just sayin’). Yes, they’re fruity, and yes, they tend to be sweet, but what came to mind as I had a glass of Vinoklet’s Cincinnatus was not another Ohio red from Lake Erie, but a cross between a Beaujolais Nouveau (up front) and a smoky Spanish
tempranillo (on the finish). That’s right: French and Spanish. And their Dreamer reminded me of a good quality New York riesling. They are sweet and fruity, but they’ve got character. They don’t taste like something you’d give to a child so that she could make believe she’s having an adult drink. In other words, they taste like legitimate wines.
Vinoklet also boasts a restaurant with an excellent menu and a light-hearted atmosphere thanks to its display of quirky antiques. Check their website because they host a lot of fun events every month (including grill-your-own steak nights). So if you live in the ‘Nati and you’ve never gone, go! And if you’re passing through town, well, do all the downtowny things if its your first visit — because they really are great, too, and it’s nice to see the city bustling again — but then get in your car and drive north to check out Cincinnati’s wine country. It’s worth the trip.