Great Wine in the Heartland

It seems to me that people along the Heartland Wine & Ale Trail work entirely too hard:

  • Mark Zdobinski, winemaker at the Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery in Eaton, Ohio, renovated and rebuilt a falling-down school by himself, brick by brick, into a showcase for his award-winning wines.
  • Adam Melton, former owner of Melton Renzulli Wines in Richmond, Indiana, now owns The Cordial Cork wine bar and is about to start producing wine again in partnership with Wesler Orchard in New Paris, Ohio. (At Melton Renzulli he crafted up to 24 different wines singlehandedly.)
  • Jared Ward, founder of Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room, offers 16 beers, more than 50 coffee and tea drinks, half a dozen wines, plus a full breakfast and lunch menu–in two locations.

Roscoes

[“Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room–Depot District” by Visit Richmond Indiana/Flickr]

Business owners along the Heartland Trail aren’t fooling around. They take their work seriously, and they’ll do what it takes to pull in visitors and show them quality.

The trail straddles the Indiana-Ohio border. Richmond is the hub, and it’s bisected by I-70 and U.S. Route 40, the National Road. This area isn’t exactly Napa, and it might be the last place where you would expect to find excellent wines and brews, but I found some gems:

  • Norris English Pub is the real deal, genuine pub food and beers produced with local products. Their honey brown ale is made with local honey, creamy raspberry wheat beer from locally grown raspberries, and cranberry-colored beet beer (my favorite) with beets sourced from surrounding farms–eight taps in all. Their food is fresh–“We don’t even own a microwave,” says owner Wayne Norris. If you love a fish-and-chips indulgence, this is your place.
  • Coffee and beer sound like a strange marriage, but Jared Ward opened Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room because Richmond needed “a place where everyone could come,” he says. The exposed-brick space is a former union meeting place for steelworkers, whose names are written on the wall in charcoal. Downstairs was once a cobbler’s shop: “My basement’s full of little black shoes,” Ward says. Roscoe’s selections include a mead and sour beer on tap, and he sees the business as “an educational facility. People bring dates in here and drink beer like they drink wine, in sips rather than gulps. You should take an hour to drink a glass, to appreciate its complexity. By the end of that date, you’d be in love.”
  • I’m not sure anyone enjoys their job more than Adam Melton, founder of Melton Renzulli Wines and owner of The Cordial Cork wine bar. He even makes a game of naming his wines–take his rhubarb-peach porch sipper, “Rude Barb.” He named it after a woman in his neighborhood who’s a crabby sort, and her name is Barb…well, you get the picture. Melton credits the quality of his wines to the fact that he loves drinking and sources the finest grapes from around the country. “If you plant grapes in Indiana, you’re not going to produce a California Cab,” he says, “so I buy grapes from there and give our customers what they want.”
  • Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery is housed in a circa-1894 brick schoolhouse that later became a seed company until the 1960s–in fact, the centerpiece of the winery’s tasting room is an old grain elevator. When winemaker Mark Zdobinski took over the building, it had been vacant for some 40 years. He took a year and a half to restore and renovate the building, and has been winning awards with his wines from the start. “When you start with good grapes, you’re two steps ahead,” says Zdobinski, who, like Melton, sources many of his grapes from other areas. “What’s very important to me is balance.”

Firehouse

[Mural, “Firehouse BBQ & Blue Model T,” by Visit Richmond Indiana/Flickr]

The Heartland Wine & Ale Trail is a work in progress, promoting up to 11 drink destinations, and they’re enough of a draw if you’re looking for a weekend getaway in the Midwest–but I discovered they’re just a slice of what Richmond offers:

  • More than 900 dealers peddle their wares along Antique Alley, which follows U.S. Route 40 and State Route 38.
  • The Tiffany Stained Glass Window Trail is a national treasure, with four sites in a 5-block area featuring Louis Comfort Tiffany windows.
  • More than 70 outdoor murals, including the one pictured above, mark the self-guided, award-winning Murals Trail that winds throughout Wayne County.
  • A chocolate trail, pottery studios, hiking and walking paths, the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad, and for jazz buffs, old recording studios where legends Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and others recorded their music, give visitors a surprising (and surprisingly diverse) menu for filling their few days here.

I went to Richmond to explore the Heartland Trail and came away thinking I’d discovered a very cool town. I’m heading back there soon, and I’ll plan extra days to check out the rest of it.

Wine Lingo: Estate wine = wine made with grapes owned (or managed) by the winery, and produced on winery property. This is the opposite of what many Midwestern winemakers practice if they want to make wine from grapes that don’t grow well in their region. In the U.S., in order to specify a vineyard on the label, 95 percent of the grapes used in that wine must be from that vineyard.

679 medium

Vino ‘View: Since Adam Melton temporarily stopped making his wines, you might have to wait a few months to get your hands on a bottle of Melton Renzulli Wines 679 (15 percent alcohol; $17)but I promise it will be worth the wait. This Zinfandel-Shiraz blend is inky-dark, big, full of black berries and leather. I got some spice as well–a slight taste of toasted cinnamon. And we know how I feel about high-alcohol wines; at 15 percent this one warms you all the way down. Melton is a creative winemaker, and his label is pure genius: 679 is the number of days of government red tape he had to endure before his operation was legal. 

Cheers!

Mary

Dessert Wine? Sure, But Let’s Skip the Dessert

You’ve heard the so-called cardinal rule about dessert wine: “The wine should be sweeter than the dessert.”

That’s fine, but do we always have to pair sweet wine with sweet food?

Cheese plate

No way, say a growing number of dessert-wine producers–who, by the way, have convinced me that a plate of lip-smackin’ salty cheeses and cured meats can be a terrific light dinner, especially paired with a fine Sauternes from the Graves region of Bordeaux.

So, the question for wine lovers is, do we want our pairings to match or contrast? For eons, it seems, dessert wines have been served with dessert so they could match the food. But the new thinking is, if we plan our wine pairing to contrast with the food, the wine can fill in and enhance flavors we can’t taste in the dish. Instead of pairing our chocolate mousse with Madeira, let’s try some spicy salami with Sauternes.

I did just that, and was surprised at how the meat tamed the sweetness of the wine, and the Sauternes gave the salami a depth and richness it didn’t have otherwise. So I conducted further research (i.e., eating savory foods and drinking dessert wines, guided by the experts at Snooth.com) and came up with five sweet-and-savory points for your next dinner party:

  • “Dessert wines are not meant to be paired with desserts,” one expert wrote on Wine-logic.com. “They are meant to be desserts all on their own.” On my palate, sweet anything goes down better after the meal is finished and the dishes have been cleared away. I like to serve dessert wine after dinner, with a cheese course.
  • Unlike most fortified wines (think Port or Sherry), white dessert wines, such as Sauternes, are relatively low-alcohol. Still, their intense flavors and aromas might surprise you. Serve them in small glasses and take small sips.
  • Experiment before you serve dessert wines to your guests, because they won’t expect the savory pairing. Order some spicy takeout, maybe Thai or curry, and try a few dessert wines with the food. Go creamy, briny, fried, salty, hot, sour. Try any savory cheeses, deli meats or even spiced nuts that you think might work. If you don’t like it, don’t serve it.
  • Salty foods can make a sweet wine taste sweeter, but they might clash with high-alcohol fortified wine, giving it a bitter taste. But don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself. The taste might appeal to you.
  • If you choose a Sauternes, which is my favorite dessert wine, try pairing it with foie gras. The wine will taste less sweet and the foie gras will seem less fatty.

If “dessert wine” to you means Port, here’s a tip for pairing it with cheeses: Port is actually a “fortified” wine. Brandy is added during fermentation to boost its alcohol level, and styles of Port can range from slightly sweet to cloying. Keep that in mind for serving it with a cheese course, and try the various styles–ruby, LBV, Vintage, tawny–with different cheeses. The Ports won’t all taste the same, just as some of the cheeses will taste smokier, saltier, or richer than others.

The only rule is, don’t be intimidated by pairing dessert wines with savory foods. There’s no wrong way to do it! Have fun, take some notes, and surprise your guests with a new taste adventure!

Wine Lingo:  Botrytis (“bot-try-tis”) cinerea, or “noble rot” = what happens to grapes when morning mists are followed by warm, dry afternoons. These are perfect conditions for a fungus to flourish, but then the vines dry out in the afternoon, preventing the fruit from totally rotting. Over the summer, the grapes dry even more, reducing their water content as the sugars and flavors become concentrated in the shriveled-up grape. The grapes look spoiled, but in fact they are golden for producers of quality dessert wines; that’s how the wines get their intense flavors and sweetness.

Sauternes med

Vino ‘View:  Castelnau du Suduiraut Sauternes 2006, 375ml/half bottle (14 percent alcohol, $20). I tasted this wine with several friends, and one declared before the glass reached her nose, “Wow–the apple aroma knocks you over!” This light-bodied Sauternes is as fruit-forward as wine gets, with strong banana and apricot aromas, followed by cantaloupe, pears and peach brandy tastes and medium acidity. As the wine sat on my tongue, I also detected green tea, cinnamon, white grapes and a hint of licorice. This is really a delightfully complex sipper, not terribly sweet, a great way to end a meal. Sauternes, by the way, is usually a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscatel.

Cheers!

Mary