I’ve always been curious about wine. I love the elegant names and evocative tasting descriptions. Yet, as a novice, the diversity of wine can be intimidating. So, when my friend Erica and I decided to take a trip on a winter weekend to the Grand River Valley Region, Ohio’s Wine Country, I was excited.
My excitement turned to nervousness when Erica suggested that we attend a wine tasting. I’d always assumed that wine tastings were reserved for experts who could identify all the right tasting notes after just one sip.
Yet when we arrived at Grand River Cellars for their Saturday Tastings in the Wine Cave, we were welcomed right away by owner Cindy Lindberg. With an enthusiastic smile, she told us that tastings are actually perfect for new wine drinkers.
“Tastings are a great way to learn,” Lindberg said.
We followed Kathleen Trebets, our tasting event coordinator and the winery’s on-site manager, downstairs to the elegant wine cellar. Large steel casks lined the walls and strings of twinkling lights draped over oak barrels lit the room in a warm glow.
As Trebets passed out our plates, she explained that in a tasting, the first sip of wine cleanses the palate. The second sip is for tasting the wine. Next, you take a bite of food and use the final sips to observe how the flavors interact. She encouraged us to focus on our own experience and only reference the tasting notes on the menu.
“We all have different palates,” Trebets explained as she poured the first round of wine, “The size and number of taste buds you have can affect what you taste!”
I’d been afraid of being unqualified, yet here was a certified expert telling us: There is no wrong way to taste wine.
Our first pairing was a Pinot Grigio, a 2019 vintage that we were among the first customers to taste, “guinea pigs,” as Trebets called us. The wine’s subtle sweetness cut through the spicy bourbon Asian sauce drizzled over cucumbers and a meatball.
Our second sample, a Grand Red wine, was a bit too smoky and dry for my palate. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish the small glass. But once I took a few bites of the crostini topped with fresh ricotta and arugula, the flavor of the wine became more appealing. It’s amazing how much food can change the taste of a wine.
By the third pour, Erica and I felt comfortable discussing our likes, dislikes and observations. I was surprised to learn that the delicate slice of raspberry cheesecake on our plate was not the dessert. The creamy cake melted in our mouths but its pairing, a dry Merlot Reserve, mitigated the sweetness. Instead, our dessert was Vidal Blanc Ice Wine paired with a slice of white cheddar drizzled with local honey, crushed walnuts and cranberries.
After our plates were cleared away, I was left with a feeling of bright curiosity – eager to embrace the diversity of wine and discover more flavors and food pairings.
The friendly and passionate staff at Grand River Cellars were amazing but far from an anomaly. All across the region, we were met with the same hospitality.
We’d kicked off our winery weekend by taking the Wine Shuttle Tour from The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake. The shuttle makes hour-long stops at three of the region’s 32 wineries — a perfect introduction to the area.
At our first stop, Cask 307, we sipped Bourbon Chardonnay while admiring the view of the snow-covered vineyards sparkling in the sun. At Stonegait Winery we cozied up to the beautiful stone fireplace. The Winery at Spring Hill was the perfect final stop, as purchasing a flight earned us our own stemmed glasses to take home.
Later, we checked out South River Vineyards, a beautiful winery in an old church surrounded by evergreens and rolling hills, as beautiful as a postcard. After enjoying a glass – Chardonnay for me, Dry Riesling for Erica – we hiked the snowy path to nearby Red Eagle Distillery. As we walked, we saw two snowmobiles zip by – another idea to add to our itinerary!
At each place we visited, staff and owners engaged us in conversation, answered questions and offered up recommendations. In the winter, wineries are less crowded and there’s more time to connect with owners and staff.
Winter in Ashtabula County isn’t just about wine – there’s endless outdoor adventure, too.
At The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, our room overlooked Lake Erie. Waking up to snow falling on the frozen lake was magical. After dining in the beautiful Horizons Restaurant, we enjoyed strolling the on-site trails and relaxing in the outdoor hot tub.
We’d planned to try out snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or even snow biking, by taking advantage of the free rentals available to The Lodge’s overnight guests, but nearby destinations kept calling our name.
On Saturday, we bundled up and headed to Walnut Beach Park in Ashtabula. I slung my binoculars around my neck in hopes that I might spot a Snow Bunting or common goldeneye.
Huge snow drifts piled up along the waterline, creating an artic landscape. I climbed up on top of one tiny snow mountain to get a better view of the otherworldly beauty. The waves lapped softly against the chunks of ice below my feet, and icicles dripped into the lake.
Suddenly I spotted a shimmering glint of green in the sand, a piece of beach glass! The hunt was on. Forgetting about my binoculars entirely, we kept our eyes glued to the sandy gems. I filled my pockets with rich amber, pale green, deep emerald, and stunning translucent shards, smoothed and lightly clouded from years of tossing and turning in Lake Erie.
Before heading home, we made a few more stops. First – an obligatory photo with the giant blue GOTL (Geneva-on-the-Lake) letters. The neon colors of the nearby summer boardwalk shops created such a fun contrast to the snowy landscape, it almost felt like being on the set of a movie.
Next, we drove further into downtown Ashtabula to grab lattes from Harbor Perk Coffee House & Roasting Co., before heading to our final destination – the 228-ft.-long Harpersfield Covered Bridge. The soft snow and quaint wooden bridge made me feel as if I was inside a snow globe.
Standing beneath the flurrying sky, I reflected on what a peaceful winter escape the weekend had been. I’d return home with a new love for the beauty and products of the Grand River Valley, and resolution to embrace what I’d learned: There is no one wine that fits all. There are lots of things that can impact your experience – like food and even friends – so always be open to trying new things!
About Alexia KemerlingGrowing up Alexia worked as a barista at her family’s coffee shop, Relax, It’s Just Coffee in Mansfield, Ohio. She’s always had a passion for supporting small businesses. She loves exploring the state in all seasons (yes, even winter!) and trying new things.