Wine Country: Ohio Valley-Style

Wine Country: Ohio Valley-Style

photography by Sarah Parisi

Spend a pleasant afternoon enjoying good tastes and good times along Ohio Route 127.

A high sun and empty blue skies with a soft haze of warmth resting just above the horizon.  Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” dancing out of the radio. An open road straight ahead, veering only a little to track around a plain red barn and a small pen of dusty colored goats, one of them standing watchful on top of the three-sided mini-shed in the middle. We look at each other as I cruise by.

State Route 127 in Preble and Darke counties is rural and unfettered. Although it’s a main north-south artery for the nearby inhabitants, it spans across two counties without a town of more than 15,000 people. However, this stretch of two-lane highway is home to a handful of wineries that bring a range of flavors and experiences to this sparsely populated landscape. By chance or design I cannot say (but with gratitude from this traveler), OH 127 is your route to our very own Ohio Valley wine country. From Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, make your way to Dayton and then west on I-70 to Route 127. We’ll map our route from south to north, beginning in Eaton, OH. Just pick a weekend—you have an excursion waiting.

Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery
The southernmost stop of the day might be the most surprising. Just outside of Eaton (a bit south of I-70 on OH 127), Preble County’s only winery infuses historical charm with a dedicated approach to creating elegant wines.

Set back from a bend in the road, an old brick building, once a schoolhouse and later a seed store, sits adjacent to a rolling pasture-turned-vineyard—a Midwestern version of Under the Tuscan Sun. Like the renovation renaissance that is occurring throughout historic pockets of cities and along many main streets in small Rustbelt towns, this winery’s architectural reinvention and repurposing rivals anything from Over-the-Rhine to Dayton’s Oregon District. An open tasting room with richly refurbished woodwork and cathedral ceilings welcomes you; expansive windows offer sweeping views of the vineyard and the endless farms and patches of forest beyond.

It’s a scene that co-owner Mark Zbodinski drove by every day on this way to work, and it was on these drives past the worn-down, vacant building and adjacent, overgrown field that Mr. Z (his winemaking moniker) envisioned possibility. “When it eventually went up for sale, every time I drove past the building, I hoped that the for sale sign would still be up,” says Zbodinski, “and every time it was.” So together with his business partner, Jim Meeks, and their wives, they purchased the 8-acre plot of land, rolled up their sleeves, rebuilt the former one-room schoolhouse into a winery, and turned the pasture next door into a 1,000-grapevine vineyard.

While the physical charm might initially draw you in, don’t underestimate the fruits of Mr. Z’s artful labors. A connoisseur and amateur winemaker long before conjuring up this venture, Mr. Z has been tasting, analyzing, creating, and tweaking wines of endless varietals for decades. (If you take a tour, request to see his laboratory, as it’s evident a brilliant bacchanalian scientist is at play.) “I’ve always tried to bring out the most essential flavors the grapes have to offer,” says Zbodinski, “and I’m always trying to perfect my process.”

In 2015, Zbodinski was acknowledged for his dedication to craft at the Indy International Wine Competition, where his 2014 Valvin Muscat won out over 383 entries as “Amateur Wine of the Year.”

Whether you’re visiting these wineries individually or making a day with all of them, set out for Olde Schoolhouse when the sun is high and warm, for it’s hard to find something more intrinsically refreshing and pleasantly sweet than a glass of Mr. Z’s Muscat.

A.R. Winery
Of all the wineries on this trip, A.R. is farthest off the beaten path, and I’m not just talking about distance. Northeast of the quaint town of Arcanum, OH, with its brick-lined streets, historic downtown, and modern eatery The Old Arcana (worth a trip in its own right), lies an old farmhouse serving a new take on fruit-centric wines.

The newly built tasting room nestled between the owners’ home and rustic red barn will invite you to slow down and leave your pretensions in the car. Decorations of wagon wheels, a longhorn, pictures of the resident border collie, Fuel, and what one might call “frontier utensils” make for a scenic belly-up to the hand-crafted wood bar. And as soon as you walk in the door, owners Russell and Angie Rex welcome you like an old friend.

Yet for all of its pastoral aura, a trait all of these wineries could equally claim to possess, the wine here is distinctive, made from 100% juice from fruit like blueberries, apples, and limes, plus grape varieties including Concord and Fredonia. A.R. Winery guides the fermentation process to create flavors beyond the traditional range of sweet to semi-dry to dry, producing wines that taste of caramel apple; berry blend; blueberry (chocolate pairing encouraged); peach; pineapple, mango, and papaya (different fruit flavor with each sip, trust me); and margarita (yes, salt packets are provided with this glass).

What started as an interest in making wine for family and friends evolved into a DIY experiment and a challenge to capture as many nontraditional wine flavors into each bottle as possible. Before Rex began working full time at the winery, he commuted nearly an hour both ways to work. (Car trips seem to be laboratories of thought for wishful winemakers.) Rather than gorging on audiobooks or podcasts, he spent those long rides on country roads thinking outside of the box—putting ideas into an early fermentation process, you might say. “On one trip, I thought, ‘Why couldn’t you have a wine that tastes like margaritas? It’s hard to beat that taste in the summer,’” he says. “So when I got home, I started experimenting, testing different flavor combinations, thinking about the different ways to make that taste possible when it finished fermenting.” This brought the El Loco Lime into the world. Other wines at A.R. share a similar origin story.

The goal here is flavor recognition, not cultural education, offering a new take on tastes we all enjoy. “I want customers to take a sip and tell me what they taste: ‘Oh that does taste like a caramel apple,’ or ‘Wow, that’s like a margarita on the beach,’” Rex says. It’s a flavor journey in the quiet farmlands you won’t soon forget.

The Winery at Versailles
The final stop along this wine adventure is a haven of relaxation and wine for every palate.  
Though it’s known for the Poultry Days festival, elegant inn and accompanying gourmet restaurant, and tree-lined, boutique-dotted downtown streets, the village of Versailles has a long history of welcoming visitors with pleasure. Just outside the village limits, nestled among corn and soybean fields, the Winery at Versailles has been among the town’s delights for more than a decade.  

The first thing you should know is that Mike Williams, owner and president, is an experienced winery owner. This isn’t his first rodeo (remember that term and how to pronounce it). Williams opened his first winery in Wilcox, PA, in 1994. The near-instant success of providing good wines and a relaxed atmosphere in a rural area where wine wasn’t part of the fabric of small-town living allowed Williams to expand—first to tasting rooms in more populated areas, then to Ohio, and more recently to another rural location north of Harrisburg, PA, on the banks of the Susquehanna River. “I try to enrich people’s experiences by offering them something that they may not have tasted before,” says Williams, “and often what they previously thought they would never like at all.”

For the atmosphere here, there’s nothing not to like. The late-1800s tobacco barn welcomes you with rustic charm (it’s quaintly historic, not delicately antique), and a large chandelier adds a hint of classical style. This juxtaposition is the kind of familiar-new pairing Williams likes to offer his customers. The add-on building in the back offers bucolic views of the vineyards, horses in a pasture, and rows of crops and open fields stretching to the horizon. Though it’s just off the road, I heard only laughter and the clink of glasses during my visit.

The second thing you should know is that Williams is an experienced winemaker. The wines available at any given season range in sweetness and varietal as much as you might expect from any well-established winery. From refreshing and citrusy Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay to smooth and well-finishing Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, there is ample good wine for those with a more traditional palate.

However, his all-time best-seller, what he calls his “celebration of country life,” is the Rodeo Red (pronounced in the yee-haw fashion, rather than with the Aaron Copeland intonation, as I quickly learned). Yes, it’s a sweet table wine. Yes, it’s a simple two-grape and heavy sugar recipe. And, yes, it’s a delightfully relaxing, uncomplicated glass of Midwestern red. Not too sweet. Not too fruity. Every bit enjoyable. “People have always liked the Rodeo Red because it doesn’t take much effort to like it from the very first sip,” says Williams. “It’s a lot like what we try to offer here: a good taste and a good time.” 

Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery
152 State Rt. 726, Eaton, OH
Thu 5–9pm, Fri 3–9pm, Sat 1–10pm

A.R. Winery
3564 Gordon Landis Rd. Arcanum, OH
Thu 4–8pm, Fri 5–9pm, Sat 2–10pm
They also serve delicious pizzas from their brick oven on the open-air patio

The Winery at Versailles
6572 State Rt. 47, Versailles, OH
Mon–Wed 10am–6pm,
Thu 10am–8pm, Fri–Sat 10am–9pm

Brennan started eating better when he met his wife. He also started writing more. And he recently realized that working at his grandparents’ greenhouse as a child plays a big part in what he values today. He writes fiction and poetry, too.