This program helps Ohio wineries grow

When you think of wine country in the United States, you probably imagine lush fields of vine arbors in California, Oregon and Washington. You should also think about the place that put American viticulture on the international map: Ohio.

Yes, Ohio. Politician, banker and winemaker Nicholas Longworth is considered the father of the American wine industry. Longworth’s sparkling wine – made from Catawba grapes that delighted in the rich soil of the Cincinnati hills along the Ohio River – was hugely popular across the country and in Europe in the early to mid-1800s.

While California eventually became the leader in wine production in the United States, Ohio remains the sixth largest wine producer in the country. Some 400 winemakers produce 1.2 million gallons – or 500,000 cases – of wine each year. Additionally, the Ohio Grape Industries Committee notes that Ohio wineries support more than 8,000 full-time jobs, generate more than $1.3 billion in economic impact, and attract 1.2 million tourists per year. year.

These wineries have until Friday, November 4 to apply for a state bonus round Aid program for the expansion of vineyards.

Expansion or sustainability?

About an hour up the road from where Longworth grew his wine fortune, Eddie McDonald gazes out over a small field of Marquette vines that greet guests on their way. McDonald and his wife, Beth, opened Hanover Winery in their backyard in Hanover Township between Oxford and Hamilton 14 years ago.

“What it is is black rot,” he says, pointing to shriveled black clumps of dead grapes on vines that are rapidly turning yellow. “We had a really good harvest for Marquette, but it also brought a lot of rain (and) the rain brings black rot, downy mold, powdery mildew and other things that we have to fight in Ohio with grapes. What you see still hanging is what we didn’t pick because the amount of black rot on it just destroyed the product.”

As daunting as it sounds, the real problem is on the vines out back.

“We have been hit four years in a row by a chemical called dicamba farmers around us. It practically wiped out six and a half acres of vineyard,” says McDonald.

A young vine planting at Hanover Winery.

The winery’s vineyard is largely surrounded by farmland. Neighboring farmers hire agricultural companies to spray their crops and sometimes these herbicides drift past the crops, becoming overspray that kills the vines. Wineries can log their locations on a database so spray companies know to be careful, but that only does a lot, and it’s not like grape growers can cover or expand acres of vines even if they don’t. they knew when a company was planning to spray.

Last year, Hanover Winery applied for and received funding under the Vineyard Expansion Assistance Program to purchase new vines. They are applying again this year as well.

“Some of the vines that we thought we could save from overspray didn’t survive another year, so we’re filling ours in. We’re not really expanding our vineyard,” McDonald clarifies. “We’re actually filling in all the areas where we don’t have any growing product.”

How the program works

The Vineyard Expansion Assistance Program is an incentive project created by the Ohio Grape Industries Committee (OGIC). It helps wineries establish or expand their business with start-up funds to purchase new vines.

“We have 400 licensed winemakers in the state, but only about 1,200 acres of grapes are grown,” says executive director Christy Eckstein. “There is a demand for more grapes to grow to help produce more Ohio wines from ground to glass.”

Wineries apply for funding and, if accepted, they will be reimbursed. Eckstein explains that it’s a two-part process: wineries undergo a pre-planting assessment and a post-planting assessment by a state viticulture team.

“A person comes out and talks to the candidate about the location, his plans for the grapes, examines the soil, the climate of that area, what kinds of grapes will be suitable for growing there, and also talks to tell them about the equipment and their long-term plans to find out if they plan to grow grapes and sell to other wineries or if they later plan to establish their own winery,” she says. , “have a good idea of ​​what their business plans are for the future”.

The problem with vines is that it takes time to get a usable harvest. Sure, the vines can produce fruit the first year, but they won’t be considered ready for winemaking for three to five years.

According to Eckstein, the program dates back to 2008 when it used a block grant for specialty crops from the USDA. When those funds ran out, the organization petitioned the State of Ohio to allow OGIC to help wineries with their production expenses. The program was reinstated in 2020. The grant process typically opens in June and funds are awarded in August. Eckstein says there were additional funds left this year, so OGIC opened an additional round.

Last year, the program was expanded to allow growers to apply for funding to replace damaged vines through no fault of their own — acts of nature, chemical sprays, and more.

“Primarily, we were seeing and getting questions from our growers as they started harvesting. In September and October, they were kind of seeing what some of those losses might be. And we felt the need to say, hey, we’re going to take those existing funds; reopened the program, allowed them to apply to replace and/or expand their vineyards.”

Eckstein reports that the Vineyard Expansion Assistance Program has distributed more than $111,000 since 2020, with another $82,500 in the pipeline.

Ryan H. Bowman