News & Feature Articles Written About People & Places in Lake County, Ohio            

An award-winning pinot noir wine is made at St. Joseph Vineyard in Northeast Ohio

Local winery
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Debbi Snook

Plain Dealer Reporter

It was winemaking as usual on a recent sun-polished morning in rural Lake County. Grapes finally go sweet during this fleeting time of fall, so the volunteers harvesting at St. Joseph Vineyard were in full swing.

Oh, and a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle stopped by for some of Ohio's best pinot noir.

Californians? Here for the wine?

Yes. If you haven't gotten the word yet, Ohio wineries have been breaking out of their sweet stereotype for several years now. They've been corking up chardonnay, pinot gris (the relative of pino grigio) and cabernet sauvignon, making dry-wine drinkers happy, too.

And sometimes astonishing them.

St. Joseph, a 35-acre vineyard with plantings both in Madison (Lake County) and Thompson Township (Geauga County), is a little handcrafted, 10-year-old operation that bottles no more than 10,000 gallons of wine a year. Yet it has begun staking a national name for itself.

The winery produces several varieties, including riesling, shiraz, merlot, pinot gris and the syrupy, late-harvest ice wine that is more akin to the fruitier and sweeter wines long popular here.

But its calling card is pinot noir, the grape made instantly popular in the 2004 movie, "Sideways." In large part because of the movie, wine lovers across the country discovered the soft, dry, medium-bodied red varietal. Sales zoomed. The wine's versatility, changeability and cherry notes pleased both red-and-white wine drinkers.

Other Ohio wineries make pinot noir, but St. Joseph is creating the biggest ripples with it.

"They are winning medals like no other winery in the region," says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Geneva-based Ohio Wine Producers Association.

St. Joseph pinot noir has taken gold medals in more than one California competition. It is Ohio's only pinot noir in John Winthrop Haeger's compendium, "North American Pinot Noir" (University of California Press, 2004) and it scored well in Leslie Sbrocco's more recent "Simple and Savvy Wine Guide," (HarperCollins, 2006). Wine writers from USA Today, the Detroit News and several prominent blogs have singled it out.

Sbrocco characterized St. Joseph Pinot Noir Reserve, as "medium bodied," with "supple tannins," and "vibrant" notes.

It was, she wrote, "an impressive showing from a small, family-run operation."

Make that a family operation in all its forms.

Automation engineer Art Pietrzyk (PEE-trik) and his wife, Doreen, an accountant, run the vineyard without the ease of automated picking machines or a paid migrant labor force. Their 16-year-old son, Joe, works with them when he can, and they pay Ed Schier, a Warren fire fighter, to manage the vineyard on a part-time basis.

After that, the pruning, vine training, picking, crushing and bottling is made possible by a thriving network of volunteer friends, relatives and fans.

"The vine brings people together," says Art. Especially when it makes a good wine.

There was a time, Art likes to say, when viticulture experts told him that pinot noir would never grow well in Ohio.

"That's the worst thing you can do is tell an engineer it can't be done," says Art's friend, Scott Shepler of Painesville, a fellow engineer and grape grower.

"That's because we gotta find out why," adds Art.

Art had several things in his favor. His roots were in agriculture. He grew grapes since childhood in South Russell and worked his teen summers at his aunt and uncle's vegetable farm in Jefferson.

His sister, Luci Pietrzyk, remembers the jolt it gave Art when their mother got him a $5 winemaking kit for Christmas. Luci also remembers when their dad got ill and felt guilty that he couldn't help groom Art's vines. Once recovered, he harvested it all to surprise his son. But he made the mistake of putting all the different red grapes in the same bin.

Art made wine anyway, in part an offering to St. Joseph. It won best of show in an amateur competition.

Art and Doreen, now in their 50s, met at work. One of the biggest thrills of their life as a young couple, says Art, was discovering pinot noir. He remembers tastings at the home of former Plain Dealer food writer Jane Moulton, and later at a $250 dinner at Le Cave du Vin in Cleveland Heights, featuring some of the finest pinot noirs, including the legendary Romanee-Conti, produced by a two-acre vineyard in France.

He knew he liked pinot noir a lot, but it was Doreen who put the attraction into words.

"She's got the finest palate of anyone I've come across," he says of his tall, willowy wife.

In later years, Doreen said they had to bribe their son, Joe, to pick, telling him he could earn money for a video game. Joe says he now takes pride in a variety of vineyard duties.

"And he wants to study chemistry," Art and Doreen say with delight, in separate conversations.

After a morning of picking, Art and Joe process grapes through a crusher next to their backyard tasting room in Thompson. The crude-sounding but novel machine uses stainless steel paddles to pull the bunches toward two closely positioned stainless rollers. Stems come out underneath into one bucket; skins, seeds and juice into another. Yellow jackets circle constantly.

Joe loads 4-gallon crates into the top of the crusher and pushes them toward the blades. "Don't put your hands in there," Art barks. "Use your pop bottle." Joe complies, and keeps up the pace.

Even if Art does his best to ferment, filter, bottle and age his wine, he believes 75 percent of his success is in the vineyard. He keeps a book handy for visitors, showing why the ridges above Lake Erie are hospitable for grape-growing. It may freeze hard here, he says, but our latitude is similar to the famed Bordeaux wine region of France. And this corner of Ohio may not be the hottest in the state, but it has a longer growing season. The warmth of the lake in late summer gives us as many as 200 growing days, about 10 to 30 more than anywhere else in Ohio.

Pinot noir requires fewer days to ripen than cabernet sauvignon grapes, but more than chardonnay, making it among the more vulnerable varieties here.

Greg Johns, manager of Ohio State University's grape branch in Kingsville, says pinot noir can survive here, but it is prone to over-cropping, which means it produces too many clusters with weak flavor. The vines suffer winter damage from temperatures below minus 10 degrees, and because clusters form tightly, they rot more easily in a wet season.

St. Joseph is successful, says Johns, because of extra work in the vineyard. More than half of the early clusters are pruned to fortify the flavor and tannins in those that remain. Also, the winery carefully hand-sorts grapes for quality.

Add in cellar techniques and "that's truly the way a winery ends up with a reserve level wine," Johns says. Accordingly, the regular pinot noir at St. Joseph sells for $25 a bottle, the reserve for $35.

How much more can they make? The Pietrzyks own another 30 plantable acres, but volunteers don't grow on vines and the couple doesn't want to sacrifice quality. They need a bigger cellar and tasting room, but they don't want to establish a restaurant or get into the entertainment business.

Could be that making the best wine they can is entertainment enough.

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