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Inside the Ohio River Valley AVA, One of America’s Oldest Growing Regions

Inside the Ohio River Valley AVA, One of America’s Oldest Growing Regions

At one time the largest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the country, the Ohio River Valley spans parts of Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana, covering nearly 25,000 square miles. Like many AVAs in middle America, the Ohio River Valley is among the oldest growing regions in the United States. Over the past two centuries, wine production here has experienced disruptions and major setbacks caused by the Civil War, Prohibition and issues with powdery mildew, but it has recovered in recent years.

Though established in 1983, the AVA’s boundaries were redrawn in 2013 as other adjacent AVAs were established: The Upper Mississippi Valley AVA (established in 2009) ultimately replaced the Ohio River Valley as the largest AVA in the U.S., making it the second largest.

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Its vast size makes for a great diversity of soils and unique mix of climates, from humid subtropical influences to cooler continental areas, allowing for a wide range of grapes to be grown within its borders. Both hybrids and common vinifera varieties are grown: Prominent hybrid varieties include Marechal Foch, Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc and Vidal; vinifera that thrive well include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Wines are produced in a range of styles, and the region is particularly known for high quality late harvest and ice wines.

Mark Zdobinski is one of the owners, as well as the winemaker and production manager, at Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery in Eaton, Ohio, which produces a staggering 35 different wines, utilizing grapes from its estate vineyard as well as fruit purchased from both the East and West Coasts. He champions the diversity on offer for his customers. Sweet wines are very popular, he says; however, Zdobinski also produces 13 dry wines and a number of semisweet expressions. His portfolio also includes contrasting Cabernet Francs—one made with Washington State fruit and one with Ohio fruit, so customers can experience the difference in terroir in side-by-side tastings.

Donna Clark, co-owner of Old Mason Winery & Vineyard Inc., in West Milton, Ohio, echoes this focus on diversity. “We have approximately nine acres of vineyard planted,” Clark says. “We try to produce wine that will please all palates.” Old Mason’s vineyards are planted with cold-hardy grape varieties, including La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Cayuga and Petite Pearl.

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The Ohio River Valley is not without its viticultural challenges. The spotted lantern fly has come to the region from Pennsylvania. The invasive pest is known for devastating vineyards by spreading vine maladies such as Pierce’s Disease. Furthermore, many vineyards are adjacent to large, conventionally farmed agricultural businesses (often for corn or beans), and chemical overspray can be an issue. The state’s Department of Agriculture, as well as various industry organizations, have struggled to come up with possible solutions.

Despite these challenges, this is a wine region that is growing. Clark and her team have plans to expand the Old Mason vineyard, and there are many pending new wineries. Zdobinski emphasizes the local industry’s commitment to enhancing the region’s reputation, commenting, “I want to put a new benchmark in Ohio [and] show people that Ohio can make good wine. We stand for quality here.”

Quick Facts

  • Date AVA Established: September 7, 1983; further amended in 1987 and 2013
  • Total Size: 24,900 square miles (15.9 million acres)
  • Most Planted Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Vidal, Zinfandel
  • Climate: Warm, humid-subtropical in southern regions; cool continental in northern regions
  • Number of Wineries: 13
  • Fun Fact: The Ohio River Valley AVA is often considered the birthplace of American viticulture, with Nicholas Longworth planting grapes in the early 1800s

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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