California Wines, Cincinnati Style

Ohio may not be the first place you think of when it comes to making wine, but a vintner in Cincinnati is turning out respectable lines of vino from a Cincinnati garage. His secret: grapes frozen and trucked in from California's Sonoma and Mendocino valleys.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is the weekend of the Cincinnati International Wine Festival, billed as one of the Midwest's largest annual wine events. Over the years a hometown label, Burnett Ridge, has collected 15 medals at the festival. Yes, that's right, a hometown label. Naomi Lewin of Cincinnati Public Radio was intrigued and sent us this report.

NAOMI LEWIN reporting:

At Daveed's in Cincinnati's toney Mount Adams district, sommelier Todd Bergeler(ph) gets a kick out of springing Burnett Ridge on unsuspecting diners.

Mr. TODD BERGELER (Sommelier, Daveed's Restaurant, Mount Adams, Cincinnati, Ohio): I always love to take people a glass of wine and I don't tell 'em what it is and people are shocked again and again that that is actually from Ohio, that it's actually made in someone's garage.

(Soundbite of garage door opening)

LEWIN: Behind a red brick ranch house on a winding tree-lined street in a northern Cincinnati neighborhood is what looks like a typical garage, until you step inside and the intoxicating smell smacks you in the nostrils. In the middle of the floor sit three large plastic tubs of fermenting grapes, all waiting for attention from the tall, slim, gray-bearded man who is Burnett Ridge, Chip Emerick.

Mr. CHIP EMERICK (Owner, Burnett Ridge Winery): This is an open-cap fermentation, and this is the way it was done way back. There's nothing hi-tech going on here.

LEWIN: Maybe not hi-tech, but not so old fashioned that Chip stomps the grapes with his feet. Instead he grabs a six foot stainless steel pole with a metal disk on the end for what he calls punching down.

Mr. EMERICK: You do this twice a day when you're fermenting your grapes. Yeast need oxygen, so you need to come in and introduce some oxygen into the vat so that you can maintain an even smooth fermentation.

LEWIN: Chip grew up just across the Ohio River in Fort Thomas, Kentucky on Burnett Ridge Avenue. After college he headed to California and that's where he fell in love with wine, picking grapes for pennies so that he could hang out with people in the business.

By the time Chip returned to Cincinnati he'd been seriously bitten by the wine bug, but he realized that long, hot, sticky Ohio Valley summers would never produce grapes good enough for the wine he had in mind. Instead of going back to the mountains, or in this case the vineyard, he decided to have the vineyard come to him.

Mr. EMERICK: This was picked in Dry Creek, which is the grape growing area of Sonoma County. As you can see we've got everything here but the stem.

LEWIN: Every year Chip buys tons of grapes from Sonoma and Mendocino counties, freezes them and has them hauled cross-country. They stay frozen until they're turned into wine, batch by batch. In addition to fermenting grapes, at any given moment, Chip's garage also harbors a hundred or so oak barrels of aging wine. Head down to the basement of his house and you'll find another 50 barrels.

Mr. EMERICK: You're selling a vintage, you're aging a vintage and you're buying and making a vintage. So you have three vintages in-house at all times.

(Soundbite of slamming door)

Mr. EMERICK: So this is all the new kids; this is the newborn nursery.

LEWIN: Since there's no place to store thousands of cases of wine, about once a month Chip ropes a dozen or so friends into bottling Burnett Ridge. There's no automation, just well choreographed, high-spirited human labor.

Mr. EMERICK: The wine flows down through this food-grade hose. It goes into the filling machine. So, Jerry's going to take the bottles that have not been used yet, he's going to sparge 'em with water and then Lynn's going to take them and put them and put 'em on the sewing machine. Then she'll hand 'em to Dan who'll cork immediately. Then we're going to take and spin the cap on it. By the end of today we should have finished 288, cases which is roughly 3,400 bottles.

LEWIN: So how does the stuff stack up? A patron at Daveed's Restaurant who would only give his name as Dennis was offered some Burnett Ridge Zinfandel. He swirled it around in his glass, took a sip and...

DENNIS (Patron, Daveed's Restaurant): Very nice, very dry, very rich, very strong, very bold, very good!

LEWIN: From Cincinnati wine country, for NPR News I'm Naomi Lewin.

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