You’re looking through a bottle of wine produced at Slate Run Vineyard in 2008. (Photographed and animated by Tony Mirones)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The rise, fall, and growing of vineyards in Ohio is a story that flows along rivers and the weather. Most recently in 2014, the “Polar Vortex” destroyed a lot of vineyards across the state. The perseverance of the industry pushed through the damage to see more growth, just like it had in the past.

Wine production in the United States began along the mighty Ohio River in the 1800s by the “Father of the American Wine Industry,” Nicholas Longworth. Besides being a lawyer and a banker, he was a leading horticulturist of his time.

Nicholas Longworth (photo provided by Ohio History Central)

Getting Ohio on the winery map

In 1813, Longworth began planting Catawba grapevines between Cincinnati and Ripley. When he became more serious about agriculture, he planted more than 3,000 acres of vineyards in that area. From the 1830s through the 1850s, his wine was distributed throughout the United States and Europe.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even published a poem dedicated to Longworth entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine.

A lot of that ended during the 1860s because the Civil War depleted workers, and disease ravaged the grapevines and the industry. During the prohibition period of the 1900s, the wine industry practically became extinct in Ohio.

Fast forward to 1981 when Ohio established the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, eventually leading to more than 2,000 acres of vineyards across the Buckeye State today.

Since 2016, the growth of wineries has been about 39 percent, growing from 256 to 373. While today’s industry is dwarfed by the beginnings of Longworth, Ohio has crested the top ten states producing wine in the United States. That growth has come from agribusiness professionals like Keith Pritchard in Canal Winchester.

Just the numbers, no sentiment

Agribusiness farmer, Keith Pritchard, leans on his only original grapevine. He planted the Geisenheim Riesling GM318 vine in 1984. The root has survived all kinds of weather elements, including the 2014 polar vortex that destroyed most of the vines in the state of Ohio. (Photo by Tony Mirones)

“I used to be frustrated, but I’ve been growing grapes since ’85, so I’m kind of used to it,” said Pritchard, who owns and operates Slate Run Vineyard. “I just do what I need to do to keep things going.”

Pritchard stood next to one of the original vines he planted more than 30 years ago. Despite the hardships Mother Nature roared over his vineyard, this original vine has continually fought back to produce grapes. He won’t give it a nickname, or refer to it other than the variety it is.

“It’s a Geisenheim Riesling GM 318 (GRGM318),” he said. “It’s a cross between Johannisberg Riesling and Chancellor. It’s a complex French hybrid.”

The vine has battled, grown, and produced since 1985. From the photo above, the vine looks like a twisted tree branch that has seen its fair share of weathering.

Slate Run Vineyard owner Keith Pritchard jams his pointer finger inside of his oldest grapevine to show that it is rotting. He planted the Geisenheim Riesling GM 318 in 1985. The vine has survived drought, polar vortex, and other weather-related issues. (photo by Tony Mirones)

The vine’s current growth is after the 2014 winter, according to Pritchard. The vine is about ready to be trimmed back as rot sets in. Pritchard used his right pointer finger and was able to penetrate the vine a couple of inches.

GRGM318 is one of the thousands of vines that span across four acres of Pritchard’s seven-acre property. He estimates the vines yield 2,400 gallons of wine a year. Typically, an acre nets about 600 gallons.

Looking back, he has enjoyed his wine-making through the years.

“I’m getting rather old and starting to break down a little bit,” he said. “There are aspects of it that I don’t care for too much, but I try to go with the flow.”

His advice for anyone wanting to start a vineyard is not as positive as one would think.

“You might want to think long and hard,” he said with a grin and an uncomfortable chuckle. “I was burning the candle at both ends.

He was working a full-time job and growing the vineyard during his free time.

“If you’re going to start a vineyard and winery, you don’t have much choice unless you hire people,” he said.

Slate Run Vineyard dormant vine (photo by Tony Mirones)

The business for Pritchard is anything but sentimental. He won’t name his vines.

“My special memories mostly have to do with bad winters,” he said with a loud laugh, “and things that affect the vineyard.”

Operating a vineyard is a 24/7/365 job. It costs $10,000 to $20,000 to plant an acre of grapes, plus the cost of the land.

“It’s expensive to grow grapes, very hard work to grow grapes and land value is increasing across the state of Ohio,” said Executive Director of Ohio Grape Industries (OGI) Christy Eckstein. “We’ve had polar vortexes, so we have winter and Mother Nature to deal with, the unknown. That took out some of our vineyards.”

Eckstein’s role is to help expand and strengthen grape growing in Ohio. OGI was created under a state statute in 1981 to provide marketing and research services to Ohio’s grape producers.

“I think a lot of our wineries have been able to open and be successful because they have that story,” Eckstein said. “They are first-, second-, third-generation agribusinesses who are all very diverse in what they are doing.”

Slate Run Vineyard looking eastward from the northern part of the vineyard. There are four acres of vines in total. (photo by Tony Mirones)

The OGI has grants available to vineyards on a competitive basis. The program is called the Vineyard Expansion Assistance Program (VEAP). Basically, the OGI will pay for new grapevine plants through VEAP by reimbursement only. The program was created in 2008 as an opportunity through a specialty crop block grant fund from the federal government.

The work, cost, and commitment to growing grapes for wine have not deterred growers from getting involved. There are 39% more vineyards in 2022 compared to 2016.

Eckstein attributes the growth to each vineyard being able to offer a different experience for the customers.

“I think a lot of our wineries have been able to open and be successful because they have that story,” said Eckstein. “So when you visit a winery, whether it be in central Ohio or across the entire state, there are none that are exactly alike.”

Ohio has a lot to brag about when it comes to winemaking. The industry began here during the 1800s and is currently the sixth-largest wine producer in the country. By comparison, California is the largest winemaker and accounts for 99% of all wine produced in the United States.

Wine industry in Ohio

The popularity of wineries and vineyards is bustling as there are more than 373 of them around the state, including many in central Ohio. The week of Feb. 27, NBC4i.com will post a series of reports on the industry: