Epiphany: Dry Finish

Call it a midlife crisis before mid-life, but at the age of 29 I was four years out of graduate school and faced with the prospect of working 30 years at a job that I loathed. Don’t get me wrong, geology is a noble profession; studying rocks and learning about things that lived 300 million years ago is great. The only problem with studying rocks in central Ohio is that they’re buried under 50 feet of Canadian-borne dirt. Most geology around these parts concerns dirt, and dirt didn’t really excite me.

I found my calling on a family trip to Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. My wife Cherie, parents, sister, and brother-in-law decided on a trip to a local winery. None of us were particularly big wine drinkers — I could count on one hand the number of bottles of wine I had consumed in my life. Needless to say a winery visit seemed a little foreign to me but I indulged those who wanted to go by taking a pre-harvest hayride around the vineyard.

During the tour, the owner, Doug, described the vineyard site. He spoke about the climate, the cultivars, the geology — what? The geology! Wait a minute, I’m listening. As we continued across the 50-acre expanse, we tasted the hanging grapes and listened to Doug talk about winemaking and the harvest date relating to sugar content, TA, and pH. pH? Chemistry? As a geochemist by training this stuff made sense. I was riveted.

When the tour ended everybody got off the straw blanketed trailer, but I couldn’t. I was in the middle of an epiphany. I was going to start a winery! This was it, the answer to my premature, Gen-X-induced breakdown. It turned out my dad was thinking the same thing. Also a geologist by trade and training, burnout was upon him as well.

First, we looked for land in the central Ohio area and settled on a nice plot of land just north of Columbus. It had a slope, full sun exposure, good drainage — not too shabby.

From here it got serious. We registered the yet-to-be planted vineyard as an LLC with the state. We decided that mom and dad would run vineyard activities while Cherie and I would concentrate on winemaking. We visited dozens of regional wineries for advice — which was often, “you don’t want to do this.”

We volunteered to pick, prune, and bottle at local wineries, attended grape wine seminars, spoke to wine shop owners, worked with Ohio State University grape researchers, and spent hours reading anything grape-related.

I also made gallons of wine from locally grown grapes that we entered in national amateur wine competitions. We’ve medaled with a half-dozen so far.

Today, the vineyard stands at 1,600 vines including five hundred more freshly planted vines this past spring. It has been masterfully designed to include Geneva Double Curtain and Scott-Henry trellising schemes, terms completely unknown to us years back.

We harvested our first crop last fall. Cayuga, Steuben and Seyval all had very good yields. Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin were also decent, though the birds indulged, which reduced yield.

Currently, we’re in the process of getting contractor bids to build our winery facility. We hope to have it built this spring, get permitted this year, and actually open the winery in spring 2008!

Over six years have passed since that fateful and unexpected winery trip, and unbelievably we’re on the brink of turning an idea into reality. If all goes according to plan, in just one more year we’ll be the ones inspiring other career burnouts into realizing crazy vineyard dreams of their own. Check out our progress at www.soinevineyards.com!