Ohio Wine Industry Focuses On In-state Tourism

The Ohio wine industry is an $85 to $95 million dollar a year business. Since the early 1990s, the wine industry in the state has experienced a boon. And smaller wineries are using a focused marketing plan to increase their business.

Grapes of Mirth has most of its Ohio wines on display at the front of its shop in the North Market. The store has about 600 different kinds of wine at any given time. Up to six percent of them come from Ohio wineries. Dave Bihn, who owns Grapes of Mirth, said he gets a lot of out-of-towners looking for Ohio wines. But Bihn said some of the regulars have yet to discover the home grown labels.

“Regular customers will look for brands they know from elsewhere, and kind of chuckle at the fact that we have a prominent sign for Ohio wines. And not realizing where Ohio wines have come in the last 10 or 15 years,” Bihn said.

14 years ago there were 37 wineries in Ohio. Today there are almost 100. Donniella Winchell is the executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. Winchell attributes the 90s stock market boom for part of the growth. She said more people with an interest in wine had disposable incomes and started their own wineries. And she said Ohio’s the perfect place to grow grapes.

“Ohio has the very good fortune to have been crossed in pieces and parts several hundred thousand years ago by glaciers, which provided us with a number of different soil types, and a number of many, many microclimates with rolling hills and topography that allow us to grow grapes, small parcels of grapes in small regions,” Winchell said.

Ohio vineyards grow a surprisingly wide variety of grapes. Concord and Catawba grapes are considered native to Ohio. But Winchell said Ohio wineries are winning awards for their Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs.

“I called the wine maker and I said what are you doing entering California fruit into the Ohio wine competition? He said Donni, I’m growing those grapes here. We are able to grow things in these microclimates that were thought virtually impossible even as few as ten years ago,” Winchell said.

Workers at Slate Run Vineyard weigh some of the Niagara grapes that will be used to make sweet or slightly-sweet wines. Keith Pritchard owns the vineyard, and said he grows 58 grape varieties to make 14 kinds of wine. Pritchard sells most of his wine in the vineyard’s tasting room. He sells some of it to local wine stores and even a pit stop in Lancaster.

“I do get some tourism but obviously not as heavy as some of the other wineries, so. But I am just 19 miles from downtown Columbus, so I do have a fairly large metropolitan area here where people do visit me and buy some of the wines. So, it’s not all bad,” Prichard said.

To earn additional income, Pritchard rents his vineyard’s new 2,400 square foot Weinhaus for various events like weddings, reunions and dinners. It’s this type of marketing that Winchell said the Ohio wine industry has placed its focus. She said the smaller wineries concentrate on what she calls experiential or destination marketing.

“They are creating experiences. They are encouraging people to come out and help them pick in the fall. They are looking for wine-maker for a day type experiences so through the winter people get to come to the cellars. They are doing food and wine pairing events. So the wineries themselves become a destination,” Winchell said.

One reason smaller wineries focus on tourism and selling to their local region is because of the cost of distribution. Most small Ohio wineries do not sell to other states. And it’s not likely its labels will be seen on the shelves in large chain stores. Here’s why. A winery can sell a bottle of its wine for $12. But if the winery goes through a distributor to get the wine in stores, it will only make $6 for that same bottle of wine. And if it sells that bottle of wine directly to the retailer, it’ll make $8. But then the winery pays the cost of delivery. Again, Donniella Winchell.

“You need to be 50-, 60-, 70-, 100,000 gallons to get a good return on your investment. The small family wineries, however, when they focus on this experiential kind of destination marketing, and someone walks into their door, will sell that bottle of wine for $12. So conceivably they need to sell 20, 30 or even 50 percent less volume and get the same dollar gross,” Winchell said.

Winchell said when it comes to the most profitable agricultural business, vineyards are second only to tobacco farms. But don’t let that fool you. Pritchard, who’s vineyard will celebrate its tenth anniversary in February, said turning a profit didn’t come as fast as he thought.

“I knew it’d be slow to breaking even on sales and the cash flow and everything. But it was a little slower than I thought even. But that’s kind of the way things go, so. But I’m somewhat starting to generate a little positive cash flow now, so. Hopefully it’ll be a little smoother sailing from here on out,” Prichard.

There are 96 wineries in Ohio, with about 15 more in various stages of development. While the wine industry tripled in less than 15 years, Winchell said she does not expect that same trend to continue.

“I will continue to see significant growth, perhaps not in 15 years a doubling, but certainly a 25 or 30 percent increase because wine making is the dream of a lot of folks,” Winchell said.

Winchell said some will dream their children will take over their wine business one day. Others will dream big – for a nationally known wine. But for most, they’ll just dream about making a really good bottle.